The rise of Myanmar's 'Lady' Aung San Suu Kyi

America Abroad
Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi has a devout following in Myanmar and throughout the world. She’s not only the daughter of Aung San, a beloved figure who secured her independence for her country, then known as Burma, from the United Kingdom before being assassinated in 1947. She’s also an icon in her own right, having emerged from a wave of student protests in 1988 as the leader of a growing opposition movement, the National League for Democracy.

Though condemned to house arrest, by 1991 her efforts earned her a Nobel Peace Prize. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Burmese government released her, and in 2012, they gave her a seat in parliament. But despite this good news, some of her biggest supporters are worried that she’ll forget about them as she becomes entrenched in the system.

Peter Popham, a former South Asia correspondent for the Independent and the author of a biography of Suu Kyi called The Lady and the Peacock, discusses her past and political future.

Madeleine Brand: Let's talk about The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a recognizable figure across the globe — a Nobel Peace Prize winner and famous political prisoner who spent many years under house arrest. Tell us about her rise to political prominence.

Peter Popham: She lived in England for many years. She was married to an Oxford professor and bringing up her two sons in a perfectly normal, respectable, middle-class way. She went back to Burma in 1988 because her mother, who was a former ambassador and an important person in her own right, had a very serious stroke. The medical services in Burma were and still are terrible. As the only available child, Aung San Suu Kyi realized that her duty was to be at her mum's side, so she went back to nurse her.

This was the time when, by coincidence, there was a major uprising against the military government, which presided over one economic catastrophe after another. After a period of months, she found herself besieged by people involved in the uprising asking her to get involved, mainly because her dad was a symbol of Burmese independence as the founder of the Burmese army. She was regarded as a potentially good figurehead for the popular uprising, very unwillingly at first, and with great doubts because she was a mother and a working woman and her life was in England. Finally, she was persuaded to speak. She galvanized an enormous crowd with her very strong, very brave speech and, really, that was the beginning of the story.

MB: What made her decide to accept the offer to become the symbol of the opposition and to become political in Burma?

PP: You cannot overestimate the importance of Aung San, her father, in her life. She's often talked about him. He died when she was a small child. He always had a sort of George Washington or Jefferson-like presence in the Burmese national story as the founder of the army, the guy who had stood up to both the Japanese and then to the British, and who then got assassinated. It's a classic martyr story.

In her early years, when she was working at the UN in New York, she wrote about how, in some vague way, she saw that she would have a role of some sort in Burma, but she couldn't see what it was. It never came into focus, but it was there as something which she told her husband about before they married.

MB: She accepts her destiny in 1988. Then, a year later, she's placed under house arrest.

PP: She had this extraordinary six months of storming around the country, holding mass meetings with tens and hundreds of thousands of people hanging on her words and joining her party. The group climbed to three million members within about six months. The government took serious fright, and in July 1989 she and the rest of the people who were the founders of the party were locked up. She was locked up in her home. The rest of them were locked up in prison.

They kept her in detention until 1995, when a lot of outside pressure persuaded them to let her out, but that didn't last long. They again took fright because she was still so popular, and they locked her up again. This was repeated three or four times until 2010 when the whole situation had changed and she was released for good.

MB: Meanwhile, what happened to her marriage and her family?

PP: It's a very cruel part of the story. The regime really wanted her to go back to England. They thought the best way to convince her do this would be to prevent the family from seeing her, to prevent her from spending time with her children or her husband. They were forbidden from getting visas for years and years and years. There was this war of wills between her determination to hang on and the regime’s determination to make her solitary confinement away from her family as painful as possible. It was very cruel, but quite typical of the behavior of the junta in those years.

Her husband, Michael Aris, became her great ambassador in the outside world. Although he was still working as a professor in England and sometimes in the US, he was also traveling a lot, talking about Burma and spreading the word about her and her writings and her plight. Then, at quite a young age, he got prostate cancer [and died in 1999]. The regime refused to give him a visa, again, with this cruel expectation that she would run to England and could be kept out of Burma from then on.

MB: I wonder if you could explain her appeal. She's called a demigod by some people and is a hero to the opposition. What is it about her that commands so much respect and admiration?

PP: I think it's a combination of things. One thing, as I said, is the way she is bearing the torch for her father. She looks a lot like him, so she reminds Burmese people of him in a very direct way. She's also extremely beautiful and gracious, which is not to be underestimated as a source of appeal for a lot of people. She is a very devout Buddhist, and that rings bells with the Burmese, most of whom are also extremely devout Buddhists.

Then there is the simple fact that she galvanized resistance to a regime that almost everybody hated. She stood with her colleagues for election in 1990. She won a massive majority of the votes, and the regime simply ignored the result and pretended the whole thing hadn't happened. She's been regarded by a large majority of Burmese people as their legitimate ruler for a long time, and the fact that she hasn't been in power is because that has been prevented by the illegitimate rulers, who are the generals.

The fact that she also suffered the loss of her family and 15 years of seclusion just reinforces the fact that she has sacrificed a comfortable life and really devoted herself to her country's future. I think that's the sort of sacrifice which evokes massive gratitude and emotion in the people.

MB: While she was under house arrest, her power grew. She won a Nobel Prize and her reputation only got stronger. That must have infuriated the government.

PP: I think it was maddening for them. They were sexist and assumed that she was a weak woman who would crumble and give up. She was a foreigner because she had spent so much time abroad. They were trying to persuade themselves that she wouldn't matter for very long; that she would be easily quelled. To the contrary, she stood up to them. She survived at least two attempts to kill her, one of them quite serious and deliberate. Under the general, who is now the ex-general president of the country, Thein Sein, who is more intelligent than his predecessors, the regime finally realized that as they couldn't beat her, they would have to co-opt her in some way or another. That's the process that has been underway since 2010.

MB: We heard some criticism that since she became a member of parliament she's not been vocal enough in supporting minorities such as the Rohingya, the Muslim minority, and that some of her supporters have been actively persecuting or protesting the Rohingya. Is there something to that criticism?

PP: Oh, very much so. This is a big cloud that's appeared in the sky since her release. Because she is a synonym for human rights and the courage for resistance to persecution, they were expecting her to stand up and speak out for the Rohingya and for the Muslims in general when they were persecuted.

This she really has failed to do. She's been asked the question many times, and she's given many answers, but none of them really amount to a ringing declaration of support or ringing condemnation of the attacks on the Muslim community. For example, she said, "Bangladesh also bears some responsibility for this." (Bangladesh is Burma’s neighbor, and a 99 percent-plus Muslim country.) She also says things like, "Muslim power is a problem." She's avoided taking what her supporters in the West regard as the obvious line on this matter.

I don't want to try and exculpate her or be her spokesperson on this, but I understand part of the rationale, which is that she is regarded by the military and by her non-supporters in Burma as semi-foreign, having spent many, many years outside Burma, first in India, then in Britain, and having married an Englishman and produced foreign national children. Burma is quite a xenophobic country, and it's very easy for them to align her alleged foreignness with the alleged foreignness of the Muslims who claim to have come across across the border illegally from Bangladesh.

Her enemies are always trying to lump her together with foreign elements of one sort or another. I think she probably sees this as a trap that she absolutely must not fall into because there is a lot of anti-Muslim feeling among ordinary Burmese. If she were to identify herself with the Muslim minority, I suspect she fears that she would lose a lot of her mainstream Buddhist support. This is not to excuse her silence, but it helps to explain why as somebody who is determined to survive politically she has been very timid on this matter.

MB: What do you see happening in the November elections? Let's say she does gain a significant role or power in those elections.

PP: She turned 70 in August. She is still very youthful and very energetic, has no known ailments, and her personal assistant is also her personal doctor. No one is doubting her energy or her commitment. Once the election is over, if she gets a good result, then it's a whole new story and we'll watch with fascination to see what she does with power once she's got it. Aside from the points I made earlier about her broad policy decisions, it's hard to know how brilliantly or otherwise she will govern, but one can be sure that she will do it with all of her energy.

MB: Can you be sure that the existing government will allow her to assume power if she does, indeed, win it?

PP: That's the million-dollar question. This is why she's had such a ticklish game to play over the last three years since becoming a member of parliament. While remaining “The Lady,” a courageous emblem of democracy for the masses, she's also had to show the generals who hold power that she is sensible and careful, and that she won't put them all on trial and expropriate their money. It's been a balancing act. I think for a person who has had no political involvement before 1988, my own judgment is that she's carried it off pretty well.

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