The One They Were Looking For
The first serious biography of Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at perhaps the most serious point of her public life.
For much of the past decade, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese democracy movement, global icon, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, had virtually vanished from all media in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation ruled by brutal military regimes since 1962. Despite the endless international press, Suu Kyi’s name almost never appeared in the state-dominated media, and if it did, it was only to raise often disgusting questions about her—to accuse her of being a foreign lackey, or even a whore, for having married a British professor, Michael Aris; or to launch absurd charges that she and members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were terrorists. Of course, in the face of such “danger,” the military had no choice but to remain in charge to protect “stability.”
Yet over the past two years, her face and name suddenly have been everywhere in Myanmar. The state media, as well as the newly freed private media, feature stories about her and her party every day; editorials refer to her as one of the country’s “leaders,” a far cry from their previous portrayal of her. She gives interviews to foreign and local reporters, and on the streets of the capital Yangon, where in the recent past having pictures of her could get you detained, hawkers walking in between the rows of cars stop in the potholed, muddy streets to sell photos and posters of her and other NLD leaders. At Suu Kyi’s house, where visitors were barred for years, reporters, diplomats, Burmese officials, and NLD members stream in and out.
The shift in her local profile from invisible to omnipresent is symbolic of the dramatic changes that have occurred over the past two years in Myanmar. After appointing a new president, Thein Sein, the Burmese military officially ended its rule in 2011, handing power to a civilian parliament, though the parliament is dominated by former military men who have taken off their uniforms. Thein Sein then inaugurated rapid reforms. He freed many of the country’s political prisoners, signed permanent deals to end many long-running insurgencies led by ethnic minority armies, launched reforms to open the economy and make it easier for both foreign and domestic investors to start businesses, oversaw a freeing of the media, and publicly called for exiles to return and rebuild the country—a tacit admission that years of military rule had impoverished what was once a promising economy. Then, this past April, with Suu Kyi now freed from years of house arrest, her party contested and won a handful of parliamentary seats in a by-election, the first time the NLD competed since 1990. Suu Kyi herself won a parliamentary seat.
Though there were many factors behind the sudden shift in Myanmar politics, her years of opposition leadership, which kept the country in the global headlines and served as a rallying point for the battered, jailed, and long-repressed NLD, helped ensure that Myanmar reached this day. Yet despite the fact that she is one of the most famous women in the world—very few leaders can claim to be the subject of pop songs like U2’s “Walk On”—Suu Kyi has never been well captured in a biography. The few previous books on her tended to be either outright hagiographies or political tracts. The one decent biography, by British writer Justin Wintle, did not include interviews with her. Unwilling to speak at all about her marriage and two sons, who remained in England as she entered Burmese politics, and held under house arrest for most of the two decades since the late 1980s Burmese uprisings, she was hard for any writers to interview. Meanwhile, her status as the country’s beloved democracy icon, known to many Burmese as “Auntie Suu” or “Ma Suu,” made it tough to find anyone to provide balanced and critical assessments of her.
In The Lady and the Peacock, Peter Popham, a longtime foreign correspondent for the UK Independent and frequent traveler to Myanmar, comes closest to writing such a biography. Because Suu Kyi was released from nearly a decade of house arrest in 2010 and is now more open about her life, politics, and family, Popham had the opportunity to speak to her at length. He also seems to have gained the trust of many of her close friends and family members, and even got a glimpse at some of her personal letters. The result is a book that shows a more complex character than the icon we have come to know. Popham paints a portrait of a woman dedicated to her homeland, raised to serve, and yet who also spent much of her early life outside of Burma. Despite all her formal training and diplomatic background, Suu Kyi comes across as having a sometimes earthy and light sense of humor, and as someone who clearly is more personable when speaking in Burmese than when talking in the Oxbridge English for which she is known. Popham is the first biographer to delve deeply into her marriage and reveals the complex trade-offs she has made in her life; forced to stay home for fear that the military regime wouldn’t let her return if she exited the country, Suu Kyi didn’t see her sons for years and was reunited with them only recently.
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