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Aung San Suu Kyi poses for a photograph after receiving her honorary degree at Oxford University on June 20, 2012. (ANDREW WINNING/Andrew Winning/Reuters)
Aung San Suu Kyi poses for a photograph after receiving her honorary degree at Oxford University on June 20, 2012. (ANDREW WINNING/Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Timothy Garton Ash

So begins the fourth life of Aung San Suu Kyi Add to ...

For the past two days, the corner of Oxford where I live and work has been touched by magic. The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been staying just across the road, at St. Hugh’s College, where she studied as an undergraduate almost half a century ago. On Tuesday, her 67th birthday, there was a joyful, informal party of family and friends; Wednesday was the university’s annual honorary degree ceremony.

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This five-country visit to Europe marks the turning point between what might be called the third and fourth lives of Ms. Suu Kyi. In her first life, she grew up as the child of Burmese independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated when she was 2. She was raised in Burma and then India, with an education combining the Eastern, especially Buddhism, and the Western, especially English-language traditions. Her second life spanned 24 years as student, part-time academic, full-time mother, homemaker and beloved wife of scholar Michael Aris, a colleague and friend of mine at St. Antony’s College.

Her third life began in early 1988 with a return to Rangoon to care for her sick mother. It was transformed when she accepted her compatriots’ call to head that summer’s rising. This life consisted, for large stretches, of simply holding out alone under house arrest, reading, listening to the BBC World Service, keeping the body fit and the mind mindful.

Somewhere between her release from house arrest in 2010 and this triumphal progress across Europe, a fourth life has begun. Because President Thein Sein has – credit where credit is due – made a political opening that Ms. Suu Kyi finds credible, she has taken the gamble of engaging in parliamentary politics on terms still largely set by the regime. In the years leading up to a general election scheduled for 2015, this will be a very difficult transition. Here is a country ruined by a half-century of misrule, with an entrenched military, an ethnic patchwork that makes Yugoslavia look simple and ethno-religious tensions that have just erupted into violence in the state of Rakhine. The fragile network of her National League for Democracy must be built up in record time. The country’s mightiest neighbour, authoritarian China, cannot be ignored.

So there will inevitably be compromises and disappointments. In Max Weber’s famous distinction, the intellectual’s “ethics of conscience” will, at the very least, be commingled with the politician’s “ethics of responsibility.” Like Nelson Mandela emerging from prison, like dissident Vaclav Havel catapulted to Prague Castle, Daw Suu now faces a life sentence of politics, whether as opposition leader, president or elder stateswoman. Time, an almost unlimited resource under house arrest, is now sliced and diced into 30-minute meetings and 30-second segments of face time.

So there will be years enough ahead to assess and, if need be, fairly criticize this fourth life. At this sunlit turning point, let us pause to honour the third. To understand what has earned her a place in the history books, I would highlight three things.

First, so much of it comes to us in her own words, penned under house arrest and, more recently, spoken. The finest of her texts – the classic early 1990s essay on freedom from fear, her BBC Reith lectures delivered by video link last year, Saturday’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo – stand comparison with Mr. Havel’s best. They convey a sensibility that is as much spiritual and literary as political. Although she has argued that political freedom can build on inner, spiritual freedom, the balance between the spiritual, literary and political will inevitably shift in her fourth life.

Second, there is her courage. That courage, without which there is no freedom, is a virtue rare, precious and hard. It was, by all accounts, particularly hard in the first years of house arrest, torn from her young children, isolated, not yet inwardly liberated by Buddhist meditation. But, as she herself puts it, with almost Victorian English understatement, “I have a stubborn streak.”

That brings me to the third and less noticed characteristic of her life and work: the blending of East and West. The Nobel lecture, for example, has many old-fashioned, literary English, almost Anglican turns of phrase – “other reaches of the Earth,” “some of our warriors fell at their post,” “perfect peace is not of this Earth.” Yet, in the next breath, she reflects deeply on the six great dukha (loosely: sufferings) identified by Buddhism and their implications for both private life and politics. This is not just a side-by-side of these two traditions, it is a genuine synthesis in one person.

In an address delivered in Latin, the historic language of the West, Oxford University’s public orator presented her for her honorary doctorate as an Eastern star ( praesento stellam orientalem). But in her own personal and moving response, she said that universities, at their best, teach “respect for the best in human civilization, which comes from all parts of the world.”

As a relatively declining West must learn to live with a powerfully renascent East, this has particular significance. Rudyard Kipling, one of Ms. Suu Kyi’s favourite authors, famously wrote, “But there is neither East nor West … when two strong men stand face to face.” In the case of the Lady, we must adapt this to read: “And there is both East and West, when one strong woman faces the generals and the world.”

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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