Out of action
Aung San Suu Kyi’s peaceful methods have paid few dividends, writes Sian Powell Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi By Justin Wintle Hutchinson, 450pp, $ 34.95
AUNG San Suu Kyi inspires intense admiration among leaders across the world, as well as among ordinary people struggling under one of the world’s ugliest regimes. The Nobel Peace Prize- winning daughter of Burma has voluntarily immured herself in that benighted nation, enduring years of house arrest, separation from her husband and sons, and the privations and indignities endlessly visited on her by the ruling junta. The regime has now added another year to her incarceration, which was scheduled to expire last weekend. World leaders protested, but Burma has not flinched.
Suu Kyi has spent 11 of the past 17 years locked up while Burma sinks slowly into a morass of the junta’s making.
Some of the faces of the monsters who rule Burma have changed, Suu Kyi’s children have become adults and her husband has died of cancer, and thousands of her followers in the National League for Democracy have been slaughtered, imprisoned or harried into exile. Yet still she remains under arrest in her father’s house in Rangoon’s University Avenue.
Some Burma observers wonder whether Suu Kyi’s adamant adherence to pacifism has been a mistake, whether it would have been better in the long run to permit an armed surge to seize government after the election- losing junta refused to hand over power in 1990. The NLD had won the election by a landslide and the nation was ripe for change. Suu Kyi’s softlysoftly approach has achieved almost nothing.
Now Suu Kyi has reportedly had a serious operation ( possibly a hysterectomy), she is getting older, her followers are defecting and the Western world is weary of Burma’s unending turmoil. Regardless of US sanctions, nations such as Russia and China prop up the regime: China recently announced a pipeline deal that will earn Burma billions.
ASEAN has never officially censured the Burmese regime, despite anguished debate before each of the group’s conferences.
Justin Wintle, an Oxford- educated historian, has written a biography of Suu Kyi that provides a vast array of fascinating details about her life but also prompts some unanswered questions.
It is apparently unauthorised: Suu Kyi is notoriously protective of her privacy and it seems unlikely Wintle has interviewed her; she has been more or less completely isolated since May 2003, when she was rearrested after government militias attacked her convoy in Depayin, upper Burma, and beat more than 100 of her supporters to death.
At least one of Suu Kyi’s closest Western friends refused to speak to Wintle for this book and Suu Kyi’s husband, noted Oxford academic Michael Aris, died in 1999, long before the biography was even mooted.
The book isn’t footnoted and although Wintle acknowledges some of his research sources, he says many, Burmese and non- Burmese, could not be named.
So there is lingering suspicion regarding the depth of his research and the possibility that the book is based largely on archival material and interviews with marginal players.
Yet whatever its shortcomings, the book tells a compelling story. Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy in Burma followed her near obsession with her freedom- fighter father, Aung San, the hero of Burma’s independence, who was assassinated when she was two.
She had obliquely warned Aris she might one day have to leave him for Burma. ‘‘ I ask only one thing,’’ she wrote to him before they were married. ‘‘ That should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them.’’
Her duty took precedence over her family late in 1988, and from that moment her sons, then 11 and 15, and her husband lived largely without her. They were in Oxford, she was in Rangoon, and sometimes she didn’t see them for years on end. When Aris was diagnosed with cancer, Burma’s Orwellian State Peace and Development Council refused to allow him into Burma and even cut off his telephone calls. Suu Kyi could leave Burma, but she knew that if she did she would never be permitted to return. So she stayed, and many Westerners wondered at her choice: declining to farewell her dying husband in favour of the rocky fortunes of Burma. However, according to Robin Christopher, a British diplomat and a friend of Suu Kyi, the couple jointly decided she had to stay for the sake of Burma and her followers, who would endure even more savage oppression if she left.
Suu Kyi, like most Burmese, is a Buddhist, and Buddhism values self- sacrifice for the greater good. However, after this enormous sacrifice, where is Suu Kyi? Still under house arrest, still isolated from the world. Burma is still writhing under the military junta.
Wintle says of these recent, desolate years: ‘‘ Aung San Suu Kyi’s heroic opposition to the regime looked in tatters.’’
Burma observers believe Wintle’s analysis is fairly accurate. The NLD was previously centred on Suu Kyi, but since her incarceration a number of old military hands have taken the reins, discouraging new recruits who might have a more flexible, creative and pragmatic approach to the junta. With the passage of time the unmistakable odour of stagnation has set in.
It has been impossible for Suu Kyi to meet her colleagues or rally her followers, brief the international community and hearten the people of Burma. Were she to be released, she would almost certainly be able to revive the NLD. That’s exactly why she remains a prisoner. Sian Powell is a senior journalist and former Jakarta correspondent for The Australian.
Futile protest: Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest has been extended by Burma’s military junta, has been locked up for 11 of the past 17 years