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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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