Lodestar of liberty
Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
One of the 10 least developed countries of the world,
Myanmar is a land where atrocity has found its consummation.
Since a coup d'etat in 1962, a military dictatorship has
been brutalizing ethnic minorities and the majority Burman
community. In this ghastly dystopia, the figure of Aung San
Suu Kyi shines as a savior. Historian Justin Wintle's
rounded biography of the best-known prisoner of conscience
alive is her story encased in that of the Burmese people at
Harmony among Myanmar's ethnic components has never lasted
very long. For anyone wanting to control the whole of
Myanmar (or Burma as it was known before the current junta
changed its name in 1989), the fiercely independent
minorities present an enduring challenge. The montagnards
bear a historic grudge against their Burman counterparts
who often rode roughshod over them.
Suu Kyi's father, the arch-patriot Aung San, could not
persuade all the minorities to come unambiguously under one
umbrella. Keenly aware of Burma's fragmentation, he
championed inclusiveness and promised cultural autonomy to
After World War II, he initiated covert discussions with
minority leaders for an independent country in which all
nationalities would enjoy equal rights. Suu Kyi's mother,
Khin Kyi, accompanied Aung San on his upcountry trips and
helped in some of these dealings. Ultimately, Aung San
failed to persuade the Karenni and a section of the Karen to
join the Union of Burma. The Shan, Chin and Kachin agreed
Aung San's shock assassination in 1947 by a political rival
removed "the one man capable of knocking sense into
antagonistic, warring heads" (p 149). Apart from his moral
inspiration, Suu Kyi's character was also molded by Khin
Kyi's 20-year career in public service after becoming a
widow. Her mother furnished Suu Kyi with a model of
Wintle sketches the young Suu Kyi as an above-average,
bookish, "diminutive, impeccably turned-out word-guzzler" (p
156) who did well at private school. Thanks to her elite
pedigree, she learned as a child to comport herself before
Myanmar's who's who, including representatives of the
increasingly threatened minorities.
In 1960, 15-year-old Suu Kyi went to India, where her mother
had been appointed Burmese ambassador. While studying at
Lady Shri Ram College, the politics and philosophy of
Mahatma Gandhi "became embedded in her slowly evolving
mindset" (p 165). Under the influence of Buddhist mentors,
contemplation and a knack for remaining unperturbed by the
severest setbacks entered her mental armory.
In 1964, Suu Kyi moved to Oxford's St Hugh's College,
impressing peers with grace and purity but securing only a
third division (class) in examinations. On finishing in
1967, with the Ne Win autocracy at the helm in Burma, she
had no reason to go home. In 1969, she joined the staff of
the United Nations in New York, counting U Thant, the
Burmese secretary general, as one of her "uncles". The Ne
Win regime tried to sound out her long-term intentions and
intimidate her at this time, but she held her ground with
In 1972, Suu Kyi married English Tibetologist Michael Aris,
an act denounced by Ne Win's xenophobic mouthpieces as the
ultimate apostasy for a Buddhist. Early on, Suu Kyi sought
from Aris an understanding that if duty called her to Burma,
"he would not stand in her way" (p 208). For the first 15
years of married life, she kept house, bore children, and
avoided contact with Burmese dissidents living as emigres.
She even soft-pedaled any condemnation of Ne Win and gave no
hint of getting directly involved in Burmese politics.
Accepted into a PhD program in Burmese literature in London,
Suu Kyi appeared trapped in the cobwebs of academia until a
thunderbolt struck in 1988. When she went to attend to her
ailing mother in Rangoon (now Yangon), it suddenly dawned
that "Aung San's ghost had to be appeased" (p 221).
Incessant military rule had produced nothing but
insurgencies, refugee exoduses, slave labor, opium booms,
and poverty. The government had failed to bind together even
the kernel ethnic-Burman population.
Suu Kyi's arrival coincided with grave unrest across the
country and terrifying massacres of students. These were
"the ugliest assaults yet experienced on her core
sensibility" (p 247). Among the victims, activists, and
retired senior military men who met her during the turmoil,
few doubted that she was a "people person" with intrinsic
strengths. The pressure on her to take a stand and lead the
democracy movement was unrelenting.
On the eve of her first major public address,
notwithstanding regime-planted rumors of her assassination,
"she was characteristically debonair about any threat to her
well-being" (p 263). The audience was surprised at her
maturity, thinking it reminiscent of Aung San. "Father and
daughter were cut from the same cloth" (p 264).
Sensitive to charges that she was an "outsider" who had
recently entered the fray, Suu Kyi still hesitated to adopt
a more active role. While finding her way politically, she
dealt with the press impressively and handled any question
with "the right balance between self-assurance and humility"
Hour by hour, she metamorphosed into Myanmar's principal
opposition symbol and potential enemy of the state. When
soldiers surrounded her compound in September 1988, she was
adamant that no violence should be offered even in
self-defense. Wintle comments that "it was Burma's historic
culture of violence that she wished to dismantle" (p283).
When the deluded junta led by General Saw Maung announced
elections, it did not reckon with the tenacity of Suu Kyi,
who helped to found the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The new party was open to Burmans as well as all the
minorities. The NLD's manifesto vowed to grant minorities
"self-determination in accordance with the law".
On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi related quickly and
compellingly to virtually everyone, emphasizing continuity
between democracy and Buddhism and wearing appropriate
ethnic dress in front of minority voters.
Suu Kyi's younger associates recalled that whenever emotions
started getting the better of her, she would take time out
to play Mozart or Bach on the piano to restore her
sangfroid and self-discipline. A tense standoff with the
Burmese army at Danubyu in April 1989 "opened her eyes to
the depths of her own fortitude and courage" (p 315).
Partly because of Suu Kyi's protestations against endemic
torture and disappearances, Burma became a fixture on the
international human-rights circuit. The army's bullying
tactics turned the NLD's election canvassing into a major
civil-rights movement. The propaganda hacks of the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) stooped to dirty
depths to discredit Suu Kyi, all to no avail.
In July 1989, she was placed under house arrest for a
"minimum of one year". Promptly, she embarked on a hunger
strike to demand that she be taken to prison, where her NLD
colleagues languished. It was broken after 12 days when the
cagey junta vowed it would treat political prisoners "more
When the NLD captured more than 80% of the seats in the 1990
polls, SLORC responded as though there had been no election
and jailed NLD members of Parliament (MPs) with a vengeance.
Isolated, Suu Kyi had to learn about these events from the
British Broadcasting Corp. In tightly restricted indefinite
confinement, Buddhism was both a solace and a way of
enriching her intellect. She practiced metta (loving
kindness) toward her captor guards, much to the disquiet of
their officers. "The men had to be replaced, and then
replaced again" (p 349).
In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom
of Thought and the Nobel Peace Prize. Scores more accolades
followed, elevating her to global iconic status. Wintle
quips that "in the perennial search for the ultimate
embodiment of human goodness, she has been seized upon" (p
Whenever the junta dangled conditional freedom to Suu Kyi,
she insisted that there was no question of her leaving
Myanmar. In 1995, reportedly under Japanese pressure, SLORC
terminated her arbitrarily prolonged term of sentence.
However, the junta decreed that she was not free to travel
anywhere she pleased. Cornered, Suu Kyi came up with a new
extraordinary weekly fixture of "gate-side" rallies to
crowds swelling outside her residence in Yangon. By this
stage, she took on the mantle of the nation's teacher,
having "found the common touch and thriving upon it" (p
Nothing the junta did - harassment, physical attack or
cutting communication links with minority leaders - dented
Suu Kyi's resolution. In 1999, the newfangled State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC) denied Aris, who was dying of
cancer, a visa to pay Suu Kyi a final visit. Wintle proffers
a correction to Suu Kyi's image as a self-serving politician
who sacrificed family on the altar of ambition. She was
actually in "considerable distress" over Aris's illness and
decided not to go to England to be with him after weighing
the agonizing costs of exiting Myanmar.
In widowhood, Suu Kyi gave her all to the cause with
unwavering constancy. Explicit threats to life only goaded
her into greater action in the war of endurance against the
SPDC. In late 2000, spurning a chorus of international
disapproval, General Than Shwe put her again under house
arrest. Barred from seeing her sons, she endured the second
spell of detention with the same gallantry as the first.
In 2002, Suu Kyi was discharged again through the
intervention of the UN's special envoy. Though the SPDC's
door for talks remained shut, "defeat remained a stranger to
her vocabulary" (p 406). At 58, she "seemed to have twice
the energy of supporters half her age" (p 409).
Regime-orchestrated ugly episodes did not deter her from
entering the minority heartlands and attracting tens of
thousands of people.
A savage nightly ambush by 2,000 SPDC ruffians on her convoy
at Depayin nearly killed her, but for the alertness of her
NLD minders. Her whereabouts were alarmingly unknown for the
next 10 days until it was confirmed that she was lodged in
the infamous Insein jail.
Thrown back into house arrest in September 2003, Suu Kyi
remains there in fading health. By maintaining the
tantalizing prospect of her possible release, the junta
shrewdly bargains with the outside world. Myanmar is sinking
deeper and deeper into the mire, with many NLD MPs either
quitting politics or defecting to the regime's side. Non-Burmans
stay ever wary that if Suu Kyi died, the NLD could "Burmanize"
and impose its own brand of majoritarianism.
Aung San Suu Kyi has not mended all Myanmar's woes and may
not be able to if she ever comes to power. The significance
of her tragic but exemplary life lies in the more eternal
motto, "Never give up."
Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin
Wintle. Hutchinson, London, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-091-79651-8.
Price: US$18, 450 pages.
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