“As a child I would stand on the veranda of the house where I was born and watch the sky darken and listen to the grownups wax sentimental over smoky banks of massed rain clouds… When bathing in the rain was no longer one of the great pleasures of my existence, I knew I had left my childhood behind.”- Aung San Suu Kyi
Peter Popham’s recent biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock, touches briefly upon this childhood. Daw Suu lost her father, the venerable Burmese General, Aung San, in 1947 when she was only two years old, “too young to remember him.” Some of what she does remember, she no longer trusts as her own memories. “I think this may be a memory that was reinforced by people repeating it all the time. In other words, I was not allowed to forget.” As she would be constantly reminded in the many decades that came after, she was her father’s daughter, but it would not be until her mother’s death in 1988 , that she would come to realize the duty and responsibility of this role.
Popham captures the young Suu, searching for purpose in her early years in exile, first in school in Delhi, where her mother was appointed as Ambassador to Burma by the ruling leader Ne Win (presumably to get Aung San’s widow out of his way) and later at college in Oxford and working for the UN in New York. Popam notes that it was on a visit to Algiers while still at Oxford that Suu got her first exposure to struggle:
“Here was the politics of liberation, being enacted before her eyes in all its passion and difficulty. For the first time in her life her sympathies and energies were fully engaged, however briefly, as a participant in the sort of struggle that she was to find waiting for her in Burma twenty three years later.”
Before marrying Tibetan scholar Michael Aris in 1972, she warned him that one day she may need to serve her country.
“I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.”
It would not be for many years that she would come to realize that need. Reflecting on her domestic life in England prior to her return to Burma in 1988, Suu said:
“We called someone vicious in a review for the Times Literary Supplement. We didn’t know what vicious was.”
When Suu returned to Burma at the age of forty-two to the bedside of her dying mother, she witnessed her homeland in the midst of a revolution. Some of the most engaging parts of Popham’s narrative are from what comes after: Suu’s beginning days in politics on the campaign trail with the newly formed National League of Democracy. Aris was unable to join his wife on this journey as he left for England to take care of their two sons, but encouraged Suu’s companion and assistant Ma Thanegi to keep a diary to keep him in the loop. Popham included large excerpts from these diaries, and they are filled with charm. Thanegi kept a record of the details of daily life, what they ate, where there was a proper bathroom (Suu told Thanegi she should write a book about the loos of Burma), and the silliness that emerged when two people spent a long time together in close quarters on the road. Thanegi observed subtle moments of Suu remembering the family she left to serve her country. We witness both Thanegi’s and Suu’s refreshing honesty and sense of humor in these pages.
The journey ends with both of these women arrested. Thanegi taken to prison, and Suu detained in her home. Thanegi recounted the moments before their arrests. “Ma Suu and I first dabbing on some perfume…We said to each other that we refused to be arrested without French perfume.” Suu went on to grab lavender soap, a tube of toothpaste and a pair of sandals to give to Thanegi to take with her to prison.
“I told her I doubted if I would be walking anywhere but she insisted. We hugged and told each other to take care. Neither of us had a look of sadness, despair, or fear on our faces.”
Popham traced the end of this friendship. The issue that later divided them was their differing views on the role of sanctions and tourism boycotts. Thanegi recalled:
“When she [Suu] began telling foreign investors to stay away, I told her that it would hurt the people, who need jobs. She replied, ‘People will just have to tighten their belts.’ I said. ‘There are no more notches.’ I insisted on this issue but she said, ‘It’s not true.’ And there the discussion ended.”
Thanegi went on to talk to foreign media about her differing point of view, and some suspected that when Thanegi was interrogated in prison, she may have made a deal with junta. Popham notes, “The point of no return came when Indian Writer Amitav Ghosh quoted the “no more notches” line in a piece about Burma published by the New Yorker in August 1996. After that communication between the two woman ceased.”
Suu and the NLD have recently reversed their previous stance against tourism and welcome visitors who want to see the reality of Burma today. In recent months there have been promising changes in Burma—the release of some political prisoners, suspension of a controversial Chinese dam project across the Irrawaddy, and some increased freedoms in protest and speech. The country, though, has not yet achieved “Freedom from Fear.” Suu wrote in her seminal essay:
“Fear of losing power corrupst those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it… Fear destroys all sense of right and wrong.”
Inspired by Gandhi, Suu has been unwavering about the use of nonviolence as a tactic, which some of her critics argued was futile. Thant Myint-U, wrote:
“But she wasn’t facing the Raj of the 1930s…These were tough men who played a very different game…Unlike the British, Burma’s generals were never ready to quit Burma.”
Popham closes the book discussing the significance of Suu’s nonviolence. He discusses the collaboration of U.S. Military Colonel Helvey and nonviolent struggle expert Gene Sharp. The two went to the jungle in Manerplaw in 1988 to share with the Karen guerillas the merits of strategic nonviolence. (They were more receptive to the term political defiance than nonviolence, but ultimately continued an armed struggle).
Helvey argued that nonviolent struggle “is a form of warfare. And you’ve got to think of it in terms of a war.” But commitment to nonviolence is key, as “violence is a contaminant to a nonviolent struggle…the greatest contaminant…you are going to lose the high moral ground…you are meeting your opponent where he is strongest…Why would you invite the enemy to fight you on his terms?”
Sharp went on to write a guide From Dictatorship to Democracy—a Conceptual Framework for Liberation, which inspired other nonviolent struggles around the world, providing political strategy to accompany a moral stance.
What is the future of the nonviolent struggle in Burma and what will Aung San Suu Kyi’s role be?
The symbol of her party, the National League of Democracy, is a golden peacock with wings in full display. The “fighting peacock” has been a symbol of previous Burmese struggles, from the armies of Kongbaung Dynasty in the 1700s to the student protests of Aung San and his colleagues in the 1930s.
Over the past couple decades, those in power have tried to humiliate, denigrate, and even assassinate Suu, but ultimately they underestimated her. “I was always aware of the fact that others had sacrificed more than me,” she noted. She gained her strength from the poetry of Tagore (“Walk Alone”) and the meditation teachings of Sayadaw U Pandita. With grace and compassion, she has managed to stand her ground. Aung San Suu Kyi represents not the fighting peacock, but her preferred name for the NLD’s symbol, “the dancing peacock.”