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.
Popham’s biography arrives at probably the most critical point in Suu Kyi’s career and in modern Burmese history. With reforms underway, the country that once was the most repressive on earth save North Korea seems poised to move toward democracy, potentially putting her in the position of a Mandela-like transformation from political prisoner to prime minister in the 2015 national elections. Yet the reformist president still faces a core of hard-line former military men, who may be determined to take back power, and no one really knows whether the former junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has retired from politics for good. Meanwhile, in June a new wave of brutal ethnic conflict broke out in western Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims.
Perhaps most important, even though Suu Kyi enjoys widespread popularity and moral authority in Myanmar, she has no experience governing, and since she took up a seat in parliament, she has struggled to make the transformation from opposition leader to policy-maker. Yet Popham’s book does show a more politically astute and flexible player than once imagined, as seen in her willingness to forgive the regime its crimes against her and her allies. Her challenge will be to continue that shift from symbol to politician without alienating the powerful ex-military men, Myanmar’s neighbors, or her own committed democracy allies, who see her as a savior—one who should not be making deals with criminals and rights abusers.
Whether she liked it or not, Suu Kyi was born famous. Her father, Aung San, had been the leader of a group of young Burmese who fought British colonial rule (Burma was ruled largely as an annex of India) and ultimately helped found an independent state after World War II. Among the independence leaders, Aung San quickly stood out as the most respected—and feared—fighter and probably the only one who could unite Burma’s more than 130 ethnic groups.
Suu Kyi’s childhood was a time of promise for the country. Rich in natural resources and possessed of a well-educated middle class and a highly literate population, it was viewed by the World Bank and many Burmese as one of the most promising economies in Asia. “Before the  coup Burma was the one country in Southeast Asia with a really good economy,” one older educated Burmese told Popham. And Popham notes, “The culture of the West flowed into it without impediment: From the English classics…to the raucous new music born in the USA.”
After Aung San’s death, both mother and daughter became potent symbols; when the military took power, ending a short-lived democratic experiment, Suu Kyi’s mother landed a posting as Burmese ambassador to India, a face-saving way to leave the country. Suu Kyi would eventually go to Oxford in 1964. Her friends there remembered her as warm and caring, but also prim and almost virginal compared to other Oxford students.
In 1970, she became engaged to Aris, a British professor of Tibetan studies. Though she clearly loved Aris, Popham hints at struggles in her marriage, as she took a back seat, which was not easy for her. “[It] was the common lot of the modern mother who, despite her qualifications and professional experience, finds herself laboring away at menial tasks while her husband is absorbed in the—painfully slow—construction of his glorious career,” Popham writes.
For years, she supported Aris in his career, raising two sons as he traveled around the world and essentially settling into the role of a traditional British university housewife. But Popham reveals that before they were married, she had written Aris letters warning that a time might come when her country would need her, and she might have to return to Burma to fulfill her father’s legacy. “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them,” she wrote in one of the 187 letters she sent him while he was in Bhutan. “Would you mind very much should a situation ever arise? How probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is there.”
That moment came in 1988. By then, Burma had regressed to least-developed-nation status, its currency nearly worthless. Suu Kyi returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother. Her return coincided with the eruption of massive anti-government protests. Despite her long absence, she retained almost godlike status as Aung San’s only daughter. After initially keeping her distance from the spiraling protests, she felt compelled to become involved, egged on by many Burmese reformers. She made her first speech in 1988 at the Shwedegon Pagoda, an enormous, glittering gold structure that dominates Yangon’s skyline, drawing hundreds of thousands of emboldened Burmese. “This was the one we [Burmese people] were looking for! She was the true leader!” a Burmese who worked at the British embassy said of the speech, according to Popham.
In the late summer and fall of 1988, the military crushed the demonstrations, machine-gunning civilians and killing at least 3,000 people and probably many more. Many Burmese fled to Thailand and beyond. A “new” junta, not so different from the old one, came to power. Confident its favored parties would win, the army allowed national elections in 1990, and on Election Day did little to try to fudge the vote. Suu Kyi formed the NLD with several other reformers and toured the country. When the NLD swept the vote, winning an overwhelming majority of seats, the military refused to recognize the result and jailed thousands of NLD members and their supporters.
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