Asia’s moral voice

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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.

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