The situation in Burma hasn’t looked so hopeful since the revolutionary statesman General Aung San won the country’s independence from the British in 1948. Promising shifts are taking place at a dizzying pace: Two hundred high-profile political prisoners have recently been released from jail, which has led Burmese people, normally their regime’s staunchest critics, to praise President Thein Sein. The historic release triggered various nations around the world to publicly announce that they will consider easing sanctions against the pariah junta. A few days before that, General Aung San’s world-famous daughter, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, recently announced her candidacy for parliament. Miraculous, considering she has spent much of the past two decades under house arrest, and was released from her last stint of isolation only in November, 2010. A euphoric, adoring crowd welcomed her into her new freedom, proving that her star has never waned in the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Burmese people.
The complex reasons for their faith in her, and in democracy and rule of law itself, are compellingly detailed in Peter Popham’s exhaustive new biography of The Lady, a moniker people used for her often out of fear of uttering her actual name. Aung San Suu Kyi’s name could not be published in magazines or newspapers except those controlled by the junta, where they regularly slandered her and debased her image. Perhaps Popham’s finest achievement in this book is the precise and curiously patient way he unravels, layer by layer, the many ways in which Suu Kyi learned to weather the junta’s crudest and most subtle forms of attack, be they through propaganda, through emotional cruelty (as when her dying husband, British Tibetologist Michael Aris, was denied a visa to visit her one last time), through imprisonment, or through direct violence. The account of the attempt on her life at Depayin, in 2003, when 70 of her closest supporters were beaten to death as they rallied around her, is harrowing and finely written.
Popham also does an excellent job of elucidating this stalwart woman’s early life, from her childhood in Burma and India, where she was much influenced by the legacy of her assassinated father and her controlling diplomat mother, through her academic life at Oxford, and into the domestic world of an Oxford housewife and mother of two young sons. Her return home in 1988 to care for her ailing mother coincided with the biggest anti-dictatorship protests the country had ever seen, and she could not, “as her father’s daughter,” ignore all that was happening. She has been a key figure in the Burmese landscape ever since.
This biography dwarves any of the other treatments of Suu Kyi’s history that have come before it. None of the other accounts of her involvement in Burma’s complex and violent political evolution have had nearly the scope, the page count, or the spirited defence that Popham repeatedly raises whenever he happens to glance upon more critical opinions of her. That is precisely where this important book falters. It lacks the appraising eye, attuned to shadow, that allows biography to reveal the deepest human truths about its subject. Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous stubbornness, her intransigence, her early and understandable lack of political ability, her continued disadvantage as a political tactician – all of these are brushed aside with explanations and critiques of her critics instead of genuine engagement with their ideas.
He also has a fan’s crush on her, which may be what led him to commit two errors that mar this work.
One error is small but maddening. In her heyday, Aung San Suu Kyi was a great beauty. In her mid-60s, she remains beautiful. But I was impatient to read, repeatedly, how like a flower she is: “as radiant as a lily” (upon her recent release from house arrest) or “blossom[ing]like a lotus flower” (upon her arrival in London from a girls’ college in India). Or how, addressing her first political audience in her mid-40s, she looked like a 17-year-old girl. Saccharine accounts of a woman’s beauty tend to obscure that beauty rather than accurately describe it. Encountered in the work of a white British man describing an Asian woman born in a former colony, these clichés become more than distasteful.
My other criticism is more serious. In the early part of the book, Popham quotes the wonderful diaries of Ma Thanegi, a woman who was Aung San Suu Kyi’s close friend and companion during her gruelling election-campaign tour of 1989. These journal entries are pithy, humorous, touching and enormously informative. He quotes from them extensively, page after page. They give us the most intimate and human portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi that exists. Popham also tells the story of the two women’s friendship and of the rift that ended it. Ma Thanegi became vocally critical of Aung San Suu Kyi’s and her party’s anti-investment and anti-tourism stance. The falling-out made Ma Thanegi vulnerable to accusations that she had “gone over” to the regime’s side and betrayed her former friend. Popham, once again unable to credit any criticisms of his heroine, tends to agree with Ma Thanegi’s accusers, though no proof for their claims is cited.
Near the end of his book, Popham takes a shocking turn by identifying Ma Thanegi as his own betrayer. He describes his sixth trip to Burma posing as a tourist but doing none of the things tourists do. No surprise, then, that the military got wind of him and kicked him out. In Burma, intelligence agents and paid informers are a well-documented reality. If you talk to political people, visit political offices and run around in cabs, as all journalists do, you eventually get flagged, especially after half a dozen trips during politically explosive times. It is therefore shocking to read Popham’s assertion that one day, months after he was expelled from the country, he woke up thinking it had to be Ma Thanegi who told the military intelligence agents he was there, working undercover on a book about Aung San Suu Kyi. Not only does he groundlessly betray this generous source in the last pages of his book, but he becomes entangled in the web of fear and paranoia that Aung San Suu Kyi has resisted from the very beginning of her country’s famous “revolution of the spirit.”
More on Myanmar
Freedom from Fear
By Aung San Suu Kyi and various
The quintessential compendium of Suu Kyi’s political thinking early in her involvement in Burma’s democracy movement, as well as reminiscences about her early life by her husband and various friends.
The Voice of Hope
Aung San Suu Kyi in conversation with Alan Clements
An excellent elucidation of how Theravadan Buddhist thought and practice coincides with Suu Kyi’s commitment to democracy and human rights, in long interviews by Buddhist thinker and activist Alan Clements.
Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, by Bertil Lintner
A vivid, meticulously researched account of the extraordinary nationwide protests and strikes of 1988, the brutal military crackdowns and Suu Kyi’s rise to popularity. Also an introduction to the country’s history and to its ethnic peoples’ struggles for autonomy.
In the Land of Green Ghosts
By Pascal Khoo Thwe
Padaung tribesman Pascal Khoo Thwe recounts the story of his politicization as a student in Mandalay, and the chance encounter with an Oxford don which was to change his life when, years later, he became a guerrilla fighting against the Burmese military dictatorship.
The Lizard Cage
By Karen Connelly
At the risk of self-promoting, I include my 2005 novel for its exploration of a quintessential reality in Burma, that of long, brutal imprisonment. Seven years into his 20-year sentence, Teza is sustained by the warder and the child labourer who befriend him. But their friendship has harrowing consequences for each of them.
Karen Connelly’s last book is Burmese Lessons: A Love Story , a memoir of her education, political and otherwise, in Burma and on the Thai-Burmese border.