Book Reviews

The One They Were Looking For

The first serious biography of Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at perhaps the most serious point of her public life.

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Tagged Aung San Suu KyiMyanmar

The Lady and the Peacock By Peter Popham • The Experiment • 2012 • 448 pages • $27.50

For much of the past decade, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese democracy movement, global icon, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, had virtually vanished from all media in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation ruled by brutal military regimes since 1962. Despite the endless international press, Suu Kyi’s name almost never appeared in the state-dominated media, and if it did, it was only to raise often disgusting questions about her—to accuse her of being a foreign lackey, or even a whore, for having married a British professor, Michael Aris; or to launch absurd charges that she and members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were terrorists. Of course, in the face of such “danger,” the military had no choice but to remain in charge to protect “stability.”

Yet over the past two years, her face and name suddenly have been everywhere in Myanmar. The state media, as well as the newly freed private media, feature stories about her and her party every day; editorials refer to her as one of the country’s “leaders,” a far cry from their previous portrayal of her. She gives interviews to foreign and local reporters, and on the streets of the capital Yangon, where in the recent past having pictures of her could get you detained, hawkers walking in between the rows of cars stop in the potholed, muddy streets to sell photos and posters of her and other NLD leaders. At Suu Kyi’s house, where visitors were barred for years, reporters, diplomats, Burmese officials, and NLD members stream in and out.

The shift in her local profile from invisible to omnipresent is symbolic of the dramatic changes that have occurred over the past two years in Myanmar. After appointing a new president, Thein Sein, the Burmese military officially ended its rule in 2011, handing power to a civilian parliament, though the parliament is dominated by former military men who have taken off their uniforms. Thein Sein then inaugurated rapid reforms. He freed many of the country’s political prisoners, signed permanent deals to end many long-running insurgencies led by ethnic minority armies, launched reforms to open the economy and make it easier for both foreign and domestic investors to start businesses, oversaw a freeing of the media, and publicly called for exiles to return and rebuild the country—a tacit admission that years of military rule had impoverished what was once a promising economy. Then, this past April, with Suu Kyi now freed from years of house arrest, her party contested and won a handful of parliamentary seats in a by-election, the first time the NLD competed since 1990. Suu Kyi herself won a parliamentary seat.

Though there were many factors behind the sudden shift in Myanmar politics, her years of opposition leadership, which kept the country in the global headlines and served as a rallying point for the battered, jailed, and long-repressed NLD, helped ensure that Myanmar reached this day. Yet despite the fact that she is one of the most famous women in the world—very few leaders can claim to be the subject of pop songs like U2’s “Walk On”—Suu Kyi has never been well captured in a biography. The few previous books on her tended to be either outright hagiographies or political tracts. The one decent biography, by British writer Justin Wintle, did not include interviews with her. Unwilling to speak at all about her marriage and two sons, who remained in England as she entered Burmese politics, and held under house arrest for most of the two decades since the late 1980s Burmese uprisings, she was hard for any writers to interview. Meanwhile, her status as the country’s beloved democracy icon, known to many Burmese as “Auntie Suu” or “Ma Suu,” made it tough to find anyone to provide balanced and critical assessments of her.

In The Lady and the Peacock, Peter Popham, a longtime foreign correspondent for the UK Independent and frequent traveler to Myanmar, comes closest to writing such a biography. Because Suu Kyi was released from nearly a decade of house arrest in 2010 and is now more open about her life, politics, and family, Popham had the opportunity to speak to her at length. He also seems to have gained the trust of many of her close friends and family members, and even got a glimpse at some of her personal letters. The result is a book that shows a more complex character than the icon we have come to know. Popham paints a portrait of a woman dedicated to her homeland, raised to serve, and yet who also spent much of her early life outside of Burma. Despite all her formal training and diplomatic background, Suu Kyi comes across as having a sometimes earthy and light sense of humor, and as someone who clearly is more personable when speaking in Burmese than when talking in the Oxbridge English for which she is known. Popham is the first biographer to delve deeply into her marriage and reveals the complex trade-offs she has made in her life; forced to stay home for fear that the military regime wouldn’t let her return if she exited the country, Suu Kyi didn’t see her sons for years and was reunited with them only recently.

Popham’s biography arrives at probably the most critical point in Suu Kyi’s career and in modern Burmese history. With reforms underway, the country that once was the most repressive on earth save North Korea seems poised to move toward democracy, potentially putting her in the position of a Mandela-like transformation from political prisoner to prime minister in the 2015 national elections. Yet the reformist president still faces a core of hard-line former military men, who may be determined to take back power, and no one really knows whether the former junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has retired from politics for good. Meanwhile, in June a new wave of brutal ethnic conflict broke out in western Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims.

Perhaps most important, even though Suu Kyi enjoys widespread popularity and moral authority in Myanmar, she has no experience governing, and since she took up a seat in parliament, she has struggled to make the transformation from opposition leader to policy-maker. Yet Popham’s book does show a more politically astute and flexible player than once imagined, as seen in her willingness to forgive the regime its crimes against her and her allies. Her challenge will be to continue that shift from symbol to politician without alienating the powerful ex-military men, Myanmar’s neighbors, or her own committed democracy allies, who see her as a savior—one who should not be making deals with criminals and rights abusers.

Whether she liked it or not, Suu Kyi was born famous. Her father, Aung San, had been the leader of a group of young Burmese who fought British colonial rule (Burma was ruled largely as an annex of India) and ultimately helped found an independent state after World War II. Among the independence leaders, Aung San quickly stood out as the most respected—and feared—fighter and probably the only one who could unite Burma’s more than 130 ethnic groups.

Suu Kyi’s childhood was a time of promise for the country. Rich in natural resources and possessed of a well-educated middle class and a highly literate population, it was viewed by the World Bank and many Burmese as one of the most promising economies in Asia. “Before the [1962] coup Burma was the one country in Southeast Asia with a really good economy,” one older educated Burmese told Popham. And Popham notes, “The culture of the West flowed into it without impediment: From the English classics…to the raucous new music born in the USA.”

After Aung San’s death, both mother and daughter became potent symbols; when the military took power, ending a short-lived democratic experiment, Suu Kyi’s mother landed a posting as Burmese ambassador to India, a face-saving way to leave the country. Suu Kyi would eventually go to Oxford in 1964. Her friends there remembered her as warm and caring, but also prim and almost virginal compared to other Oxford students.

In 1970, she became engaged to Aris, a British professor of Tibetan studies. Though she clearly loved Aris, Popham hints at struggles in her marriage, as she took a back seat, which was not easy for her. “[It] was the common lot of the modern mother who, despite her qualifications and professional experience, finds herself laboring away at menial tasks while her husband is absorbed in the—painfully slow—construction of his glorious career,” Popham writes.

For years, she supported Aris in his career, raising two sons as he traveled around the world and essentially settling into the role of a traditional British university housewife. But Popham reveals that before they were married, she had written Aris letters warning that a time might come when her country would need her, and she might have to return to Burma to fulfill her father’s legacy. “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them,” she wrote in one of the 187 letters she sent him while he was in Bhutan. “Would you mind very much should a situation ever arise? How probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is there.”

That moment came in 1988. By then, Burma had regressed to least-developed-nation status, its currency nearly worthless. Suu Kyi returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother. Her return coincided with the eruption of massive anti-government protests. Despite her long absence, she retained almost godlike status as Aung San’s only daughter. After initially keeping her distance from the spiraling protests, she felt compelled to become involved, egged on by many Burmese reformers. She made her first speech in 1988 at the Shwedegon Pagoda, an enormous, glittering gold structure that dominates Yangon’s skyline, drawing hundreds of thousands of emboldened Burmese. “This was the one we [Burmese people] were looking for! She was the true leader!” a Burmese who worked at the British embassy said of the speech, according to Popham.

In the late summer and fall of 1988, the military crushed the demonstrations, machine-gunning civilians and killing at least 3,000 people and probably many more. Many Burmese fled to Thailand and beyond. A “new” junta, not so different from the old one, came to power. Confident its favored parties would win, the army allowed national elections in 1990, and on Election Day did little to try to fudge the vote. Suu Kyi formed the NLD with several other reformers and toured the country. When the NLD swept the vote, winning an overwhelming majority of seats, the military refused to recognize the result and jailed thousands of NLD members and their supporters.

Over the next two decades, the army, led by dictator Than Shwe, moved the country away from former leader Ne Win’s socialism to a kind of crony capitalism, fueled by growing petroleum exports and aid and trade with China and other Asian countries, which (other than Japan) did not impose sanctions. The regime changed the name of the country and its capital city. The families and favored allies of Than Shwe and other top military men became extraordinarily rich; a leaked video of the wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter, in 2006, shows a young woman draped in strings of diamonds. Meanwhile, beginning in the mid-1990s, the United States, which during the Cold War had tried to maintain some relationship with Burma, imposed harsh sanctions on the junta. Congress progressively tightened the sanctions, which were reinforced by those imposed by many other democracies, including Canada, the EU, Australia, and Japan. By the end of the 2000s, the United States had cut off virtually all aid to the government and did not even have an ambassador in the country; new U.S. business with Myanmar was banned.

Despite this, Myanmar’s economy actually grew strongly in the 2000s, but most of the gains went to a small circle linked to the military. Development indicators such as infant mortality fell to levels comparable to poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a result of the military’s mismanagement as well as Myanmar’s isolation from Western markets, aid, and investment. The military continued to repress all dissent, and the regime held at least 2,000 political prisoners in jails. Even when thousands of Buddhist monks, the most revered figures in a devout society, traveled to Yangon in 2007 to protest, the military had little compunction about beating and even shooting the holy men. Suu Kyi herself spent long years alone in her home, with almost no visitors and little connection to the outside world, herself a kind of monk. The early years of detention were the hardest, she told one reporter: “Sometimes I didn’t have enough money to eat. I became so weak from malnourishment…. But they never got me up here,” she said, pointing to her head.

And then, beginning in 2010, everything seemed to change. In November, the military held a national election for the supposedly civilian parliament. The new leaders of parliament, themselves former senior military men, including many involved in past atrocities, shockingly pushed to make the legislature a center for debate, discussion, and real policy-making. The head of the national censorship board suddenly, and with little warning, announced that censorship should end and Myanmar should launch a new era of press freedom. Then came the April 2012 by-elections. On Election Day, supporters of “The Lady” gathered near her house, dancing and crying ecstatically.

Thein Sein welcomed Suu Kyi’s participation in public life even before the by-elections, and allies of the democracy leader said that, in private, she had come to trust Thein Sein and believe that he was at heart a true reformer. In fact, she has so fully embraced him that some in the democracy movement worry that she has gone too far in legitimizing the new government. Others in the government remain wary of the democracy icon. At the same time as she built a close relationship with Thein Sein, she is still an opposition parliament member, and her actions anger the government, and apparently the president, as well: While Thein Sein and his advisors have eagerly stumped for foreign investment as Western countries have lifted sanctions over the past year, she warns foreign investors about coming to Myanmar. In a speech to the World Economic Forum, she cautioned them about moving into Myanmar too quickly and bringing in investment that did not help the public—a valid point, but one that angered Thein Sein.

Why did Myanmar’s junta allow these reforms when it seemed to be unthreatened? Why does it now appear to be seeking a much closer relationship with the United States? (The United States currently has suspended but not completely lifted sanctions, unlike some other Western nations. Washington has also sent a new ambassador and boosted aid.) Several Burmese officials and analysts have suggested that the generals realized that by working with Suu Kyi now and overseeing a managed transition in which many of their allies like Thein Sein held the reins they could keep the vast wealth they had amassed illegally. She seems to be reciprocating their trust. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in November last year, she downplayed the idea of severe punishment for the military rulers’ past abuses and called for forgiveness of past crimes, including those perpetrated against her personally.

Popham notes that with such moves, Suu Kyi actually has proven an astute and pragmatic politician, and suggests that in her 60s, with some significant health problems, she may realize that this is her last chance for real change in her country. (Without her, it is certainly hard to imagine average Burmese just forgetting the past and moving on.) Even within her own party, she has shown pragmatism by welcoming into it former military leaders turned democrats; now, too, she must conciliate younger NLD members who want to move more quickly with reforms and may not realize how much power the army still has.

This pragmatism will serve her well now: Despite its by-elections victory and enormous popularity among average Burmese, the NLD still holds a tiny minority of seats in parliament, and it has no guns at all. And, as some longtime Burma watchers like journalist Bertil Lintner have noted, the NLD missed an opportunity, back in 1990, to use its massive electoral victory to force the army to make compromises and to launch a transition. This time, Suu Kyi may take a different tack. The ethnic minority groups that have agreed to cease-fires with Thein Sein generally respect her, but she is still a member of the ethnic majority Burman group (like most military leaders) and so remains distrusted by some who worry that she too will ignore their demands for greater autonomy. And though Than Shwe and other senior military men may remain happy in retirement so long as any future government does not prosecute them or come after their assets, what about middle-ranking officers who never had the chance to enrich themselves and now face the prospect of saluting to a civilian government led by former political prisoners?

Compared to withstanding 15 years in house arrest virtually alone, watching her husband die in another country while she remained in detention, being separated from her sons, and seeing her allies tortured and murdered, today’s compromises might seem easy. But with those other hardships, Suu Kyi herself was little to blame—the decisions were being made for her, and her courage was in standing up to them. Now, her courage will have to be revealed in the deals and compromises she makes—the type of legacy that does not lead to Nobel Peace Prizes, but might well leave Myanmar a real future.

Read more about Aung San Suu KyiMyanmar

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Support for this research was provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

Also by this author

The Malawi Model

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus