Asia’s moral voice
a biographer gains special insight into the life of one of asia’s foremost proponents of democracy.
WITH the United States and Myanmar exchanging ambassadors for the first time since they downgraded ties in 1990, and with the current political thaw in South-east Asia’s most closed-off state, this book has arrived at a timely juncture. And it relates a complex historical narrative.
We’ve been here before, though. In 1988 – auspicious for the numerology-obsessed peoples of Myanmar, as much as for the Chinese – the hitherto closed nation appeared to be on the cusp of democracy and opening up the world. It was a heady time, akin to Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring of 20 years previously.
But, as with the Prague Spring, the promised liberalisation that was set to follow Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory was a threat the existing totalitarian order could not tolerate. A bloody military crackdown followed, as well as Suu Kyi’s house-arrest imprisonment, under which she has been for 15 of the past 21 years.
“The Generals”, the most commonly used term for the ruling junta, have been in control ever since.
Flagrant human rights abuses have earned Myanmar’s Government international opprobrium. Meanwhile, periodic official assurances of “reform” led to nothing until very recently.
Nevertheless, Suu Kyi has remained steadfast in her defiance, and her commitment to a free Myanmar. And is today deservedly revered as one of unimpeachable moral voices in Asia. Nobody was greatly surprised when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
To do justice to such an iconic individual in a biography calls for a remarkable writer. And Milanbased Peter Popham is the scribe for the job. A clearly gifted writer, the intrepid foreign correspondent has toured Myanmar “undercover” several times since 1991.
It is all the more an extraordinary book for the manner in which it was researched. Popham recently explained that “My book on Suu Kyi was different from (others) in that for the entire period of research she was incommunicado, under house arrest.
“I had interviewed her years before (for the British daily, The Independent), but now I had no way of letting her know what I was up to, let alone interviewing her again.
“When she was finally released (in November 2010), I went back to Burma intending to tell her about the project, but was expelled before I could do so.”
National leadership is literally in Suu Kyi’s DNA. Her father, Aung San, was the independence hero of Burma, but was assassinated in 1947, when Suu Kyi was only two. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi has remained loyal to his memory and ideals.
Popham breezes through the history of Suu Kyi as the daughter of a national hero, but does not whitewash the realpolitik of Aung San’s wartime alliance with the Japanese. That said, Britain’s colonial record in Burma was marked by cruelty, callousness, and indifference, so Tokyo’s empty promises of an egalitarian pan-asian bloc must have been initially quite seductive.
Ever since Suu Kyi left England’s Oxford in her 40s, leaving behind her loving husband, the late academic Michael Aris, and sons in order to pursue her political goals in her homeland, we have wanted to understand her priorities. And Popham goes a long way towards explaining these.
Popham, the biographer who goes the extra 10 miles, gets a scoop of sorts when he manages to secure the diaries of Ma Thanegi. She was a close friend of Suu Kyi’s in the late 1980s, until a bitter falling-out. And extracts from these diaries appear here, providing revealing – and sometimes surprising – insights into the early years of Suu Kyi’s prodemocracy struggle.
Covering the whole of the subject’s life until the ill-fated Saffron Revolution of 2007 and beyond, The Lady And The Peacock is a comprehensive and lucidly written Part 1 of the Aung San Suu Kyi story, and it’s a volume that leaves the reader hoping for an eventual Part II. This sequel, one hopes, would be a sunnier narrative of a leader who has amazed the world with her grace and fortitude. Today, Suu Kyi’s future looks more promising than at any time since the bloody events of 1988, and the courageous lady’s subsequent imprisonment.