BOOK REVIEW Lodestar of liberty Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
One of the 10 least developed countries of the world, Myanmar is a land where
atrocity has found its consummation. Since a coup d'etat in 1962, a military
dictatorship has been brutalizing ethnic minorities and the majority Burman
community. In this ghastly dystopia, the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi shines as a
savior. Historian Justin Wintle's rounded biography of the best-known
prisoner of conscience alive is her story encased in that of the Burmese people
Harmony among Myanmar's ethnic components has never lasted very long. For
anyone wanting to control the whole of Myanmar (or Burma as it was known before
the current junta changed its name in 1989), the fiercely independent
minorities present an enduring challenge. The montagnards bear a
historic grudge against their Burman counterparts who often rode roughshod over
Suu Kyi's father, the arch-patriot Aung San, could not persuade all the
minorities to come unambiguously under one umbrella. Keenly aware of Burma's
fragmentation, he championed inclusiveness and promised cultural autonomy to
After World War II, he initiated covert discussions with minority leaders for
an independent country in which all nationalities would enjoy equal rights. Suu
Kyi's mother, Khin Kyi, accompanied Aung San on his upcountry trips and helped
in some of these dealings. Ultimately, Aung San failed to persuade the Karenni
and a section of the Karen to join the Union of Burma. The Shan, Chin and
Kachin agreed only conditionally.
Aung San's shock assassination in 1947 by a political rival removed "the one
man capable of knocking sense into antagonistic, warring heads" (p 149). Apart
from his moral inspiration, Suu Kyi's character was also molded by Khin Kyi's
20-year career in public service after becoming a widow. Her mother furnished
Suu Kyi with a model of selflessness.
Wintle sketches the young Suu Kyi as an above-average, bookish, "diminutive,
impeccably turned-out word-guzzler" (p 156) who did well at private school.
Thanks to her elite pedigree, she learned as a child to comport herself before
Myanmar's who's who, including representatives of the increasingly threatened
In 1960, 15-year-old Suu Kyi went to India, where her mother had been appointed
Burmese ambassador. While studying at Lady Shri Ram College, the politics and
philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi "became embedded in her slowly evolving mindset"
(p 165). Under the influence of Buddhist mentors, contemplation and a knack for
remaining unperturbed by the severest setbacks entered her mental armory.
In 1964, Suu Kyi moved to Oxford's St Hugh's College, impressing peers with
grace and purity but securing only a third division (class) in examinations. On
finishing in 1967, with the Ne Win autocracy at the helm in Burma, she had no
reason to go home. In 1969, she joined the staff of the United Nations in New
York, counting U Thant, the Burmese secretary general, as one of her "uncles".
The Ne Win regime tried to sound out her long-term intentions and intimidate
her at this time, but she held her ground with firmness.
In 1972, Suu Kyi married English Tibetologist Michael Aris, an act denounced by
Ne Win's xenophobic mouthpieces as the ultimate apostasy for a Buddhist. Early
on, Suu Kyi sought from Aris an understanding that if duty called her to Burma,
"he would not stand in her way" (p 208). For the first 15 years of married
life, she kept house, bore children, and avoided contact with Burmese
dissidents living as emigres. She even soft-pedaled any condemnation of Ne Win
and gave no hint of getting directly involved in Burmese politics.
Accepted into a PhD program in Burmese literature in London, Suu Kyi appeared
trapped in the cobwebs of academia until a thunderbolt struck in 1988. When she
went to attend to her ailing mother in Rangoon (now Yangon), it suddenly dawned
that "Aung San's ghost had to be appeased" (p 221). Incessant military rule had
produced nothing but insurgencies, refugee exoduses, slave labor, opium booms,
and poverty. The government had failed to bind together even the kernel
Suu Kyi's arrival coincided with grave unrest across the country and terrifying
massacres of students. These were "the ugliest assaults yet experienced on her
core sensibility" (p 247). Among the victims, activists, and retired senior
military men who met her during the turmoil, few doubted that she was a "people
person" with intrinsic strengths. The pressure on her to take a stand and lead
the democracy movement was unrelenting.
On the eve of her first major public address, notwithstanding regime-planted
rumors of her assassination, "she was characteristically debonair about any
threat to her well-being" (p 263). The audience was surprised at her maturity,
thinking it reminiscent of Aung San. "Father and daughter were cut from the
same cloth" (p 264).
Sensitive to charges that she was an "outsider" who had recently entered the
fray, Suu Kyi still hesitated to adopt a more active role. While finding her
way politically, she dealt with the press impressively and handled any question
with "the right balance between self-assurance and humility" (p 278).
Hour by hour, she metamorphosed into Myanmar's principal opposition symbol and
potential enemy of the state. When soldiers surrounded her compound in
September 1988, she was adamant that no violence should be offered even in
self-defense. Wintle comments that "it was Burma's historic culture of violence
that she wished to dismantle" (p283).
When the deluded junta led by General Saw Maung announced elections, it did not
reckon with the tenacity of Suu Kyi, who helped to found the National League
for Democracy (NLD). The new party was open to Burmans as well as all the
minorities. The NLD's manifesto vowed to grant minorities "self-determination
in accordance with the law".
On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi related quickly and compellingly to virtually
everyone, emphasizing continuity between democracy and Buddhism and wearing
appropriate ethnic dress in front of minority voters.
Suu Kyi's younger associates recalled that whenever emotions started getting
the better of her, she would take time out to play Mozart or Bach on the piano
to restore her sangfroid and self-discipline. A tense standoff with the
Burmese army at Danubyu in April 1989 "opened her eyes to the depths of her own
fortitude and courage" (p 315).
Partly because of Suu Kyi's protestations against endemic torture and
disappearances, Burma became a fixture on the international human-rights
circuit. The army's bullying tactics turned the NLD's election canvassing into
a major civil-rights movement. The propaganda hacks of the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC) stooped to dirty depths to discredit Suu Kyi, all
to no avail.
In July 1989, she was placed under house arrest for a "minimum of one year".
Promptly, she embarked on a hunger strike to demand that she be taken to
prison, where her NLD colleagues languished. It was broken after 12 days when
the cagey junta vowed it would treat political prisoners "more leniently".
When the NLD captured more than 80% of the seats in the 1990 polls, SLORC
responded as though there had been no election and jailed NLD members of
Parliament (MPs) with a vengeance. Isolated, Suu Kyi had to learn about these
events from the British Broadcasting Corp. In tightly restricted indefinite
confinement, Buddhism was both a solace and a way of enriching her intellect.
She practiced metta (lovingkindness) toward her captor guards, much to
the disquiet of their officers. "The men had to be replaced, and then replaced
again" (p 349).
In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the
Nobel Peace Prize. Scores more accolades followed, elevating her to global
iconic status. Wintle quips that "in the perennial search for the ultimate
embodiment of human goodness, she has been seized upon" (p 355).
Whenever the junta dangled conditional freedom to Suu Kyi, she insisted that
there was no question of her leaving Myanmar. In 1995, reportedly under
Japanese pressure, SLORC terminated her arbitrarily prolonged term of sentence.
However, the junta decreed that she was not free to travel anywhere she
pleased. Cornered, Suu Kyi came up with a new extraordinary weekly fixture of
"gate-side" rallies to crowds swelling outside her residence in Yangon. By this
stage, she took on the mantle of the nation's teacher, having "found the common
touch and thriving upon it" (p 372).
Nothing the junta did - harassment, physical attack or cutting communication
links with minority leaders - dented Suu Kyi's resolution. In 1999, the
newfangled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) denied Aris, who was
dying of cancer, a visa to pay Suu Kyi a final visit. Wintle proffers a
correction to Suu Kyi's image as a self-serving politician who sacrificed
family on the altar of ambition. She was actually in "considerable distress"
over Aris's illness and decided not to go to England to be with him after
weighing the agonizing costs of exiting Myanmar.
In widowhood, Suu Kyi gave her all to the cause with unwavering constancy.
Explicit threats to life only goaded her into greater action in the war of
endurance against the SPDC. In late 2000, spurning a chorus of international
disapproval, General Than Shwe put her again under house arrest. Barred from
seeing her sons, she endured the second spell of detention with the same
gallantry as the first.
In 2002, Suu Kyi was discharged again through the intervention of the UN's
special envoy. Though the SPDC's door for talks remained shut, "defeat remained
a stranger to her vocabulary" (p 406). At 58, she "seemed to have twice the
energy of supporters half her age" (p 409). Regime-orchestrated ugly episodes
did not deter her from entering the minority heartlands and attracting tens of
thousands of people.
A savage nightly ambush by 2,000 SPDC ruffians on her convoy at Depayin nearly
killed her, but for the alertness of her NLD minders. Her whereabouts were
alarmingly unknown for the next 10 days until it was confirmed that she was
lodged in the infamous Insein jail.
Thrown back into house arrest in September 2003, Suu Kyi remains there in
fading health. By maintaining the tantalizing prospect of her possible release,
the junta shrewdly bargains with the outside world. Myanmar is sinking deeper
and deeper into the mire, with many NLD MPs either quitting politics or
defecting to the regime's side. Non-Burmans stay ever wary that if Suu Kyi
died, the NLD could "Burmanize" and impose its own brand of majoritarianism.
Aung San Suu Kyi has not mended all Myanmar's woes and may not be able to if
she ever comes to power. The significance of her tragic but exemplary life lies
in the more eternal motto, "Never give up."
Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle.
Hutchinson, London, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-091-79651-8. Price: US$18, 450 pages.