In appraising a new book on the life and work of Aung San Suu Kyi, David Watts discovers some surprising facets to this much admired political figure.
The Lady of Rangoon—Aung San Suu Kyi—has remained up till now mysterious, remote, unknowable. But in this brilliant follow-up to The Lady and the Peacock, Peter Popham has unveiled a strikingly ordinary person who finds herself on the verge of achieving perhaps the most extraordinary political transformation of the current era, quite by chance.
She seems unlikely to achieve her goal of the Burmese presidency at the first attempt, though from Popham’s account, no-one can be in any doubt that she will attain it over the long term. But in the unexpected personality revealed here, one wonders how she has managed to navigate Nyawpidaw’s political waters so far.
The public perception of the slow-burning political firebrand determined to emulate her father from her early days could hardly be further from the truth, if Popham’s sources are to be believed.
Her family life in north Oxford was carefully regulated, children’s birthday parties organised to the nth agree, no deviation from the rules permitted, just as her prim appearance and demeanour might suggest.
Yet at a time when one might have expected her to be building a powerful political consciousness and making, at the least, a literary career around her father’s life, she was doing neither. She took no part in university political or social life to any great extent.
From a poor third in PPE at St Hugh’s, Oxford—after failing to switch to English, because she was more interested in theatre and learning to punt—she seems to have had a notable political ‘tin ear’, to the point that she thought the women of Greenham Common should be at home tending to their husbands’ needs instead of confronting the spread of nuclear weapons. Her first full-blown literary effort, a children’s book called Let’s Visit Burma, was not completed until 1985, when she was 40. Hardly the stuff of which Third World champions are made.
It was the bloody events of 1988 that changed things. After weeks of watching the protests that eventually resulted in 8,000 deaths, she agreed to speak out and made a historic speech in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda on August 26, which transformed her life and the course of Burmese history.
So far, so historic, but one of the great strengths of Popham’s work is in his revelations of Suu Kyi’s personality.
Here is a woman who cares nothing for social niceties and does not shrink from telling everyone to their faces what she thinks of them—if they ever get to see her—be they presidents, prime ministers, paupers or billionaires.
The prime minister of Japan is given short shrift, though he has just written off nearly $2 billion in Burmese debt; George Soros is treated little better and the president of Mongolia is told to send in his CV.
Her party, the NLD, is run in similar fashion, with some 8,000 potential candidates for parliament sent packing.
And yet this is the woman who must build alliances and political friendships if she wants to lead the country. It appears miraculous that she has got thus far with the generals.
But a flavour of her attitude to the constitutional obstacle to her becoming president emerged when she said in a television interview: ‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to overcome minor obstacles like the constitution… I don’t know if you can call a constitution “silly” but this is a very silly constitution.’
It is very unlikely that Popham’s account can be eclipsed—it will be fascinating to see how this master historian relates the next stage in this tumultuous tale.
The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom
by Peter Popham, Penguin Random House, £20