Burma's pacific Maud Gonne

Freedom from Fear and Other Writings
December 22, 1995

This book first appeared in late 1991, when its author had been under house arrest in Rangoon since July 1989; it was edited outside Burma by the author's husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris. The new edition contains all that was in the previous edition minus one personal letter to the editor and with the addition of three speeches delivered by others on behalf of the author (one of them being her acceptance speech for the Nobel peace prize), the text of an interview she was permitted to give in 1994 by Burma's ruling junta, and a short statement, "The spirit of reconciliation", made upon her release after nearly six years' detention on July 11 this year. There is also a short preface by Archbishop Tutu, who comments: "Aung San Suu Kyi is free. How wonderful - quite unbelievable. It is so very like when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on that February day in 1990, and strode with so much dignity into freedom. And the world was thrilled at the sight."

As of now she remains free and at the head of the party, the National League for Democracy, that she helped to form in 1988, on return from living abroad. Thousands of people flock to her weekly meetings. Officially the junta does not recognise her status, however, and the omens for a return to democracy to Burma, after more than three decades of military rule, are not hopeful: in November, the NLD pulled out of the national convention organised by the military government, which now seems set to draft a constitution giving a "leading role" to the armed forces and barring any Burmese married to a foreigner from holding high political office. While undoubtedly it is true, as Suu Kyi stated on July 11, that "There is more in common between the authorities and we of the democratic forces in Burma than existed between the black and white peoples of South Africa" - there is as yet no sign of a leader to match De Klerk among the mediocre generals of the Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council).

V clav Havel, in his preface to the first edition, described Suu Kyi as "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless". Her writings and her public behaviour reveal a rare degree of courage and self-reliance. This is one source of her power. But there is also her family background to consider, as the daughter of the revered General Aung San, who won political independence for Burma. In one of the four absorbing "Appreciations" of her, published at the end of the book, a Burmese official at the UN is quoted as having once teased the young Suu: "You not only have the courage of your convictions, you have the courage of your connections".

As a girl, following the assassination of her father in 1947 by a political rival, Suu Kyi was cared for by soldiers. This fact has given her a kind of power over the military as well as a kind of sympathy for them. In August 1988, in the midst of rioting and government repression, in her first major speech (printed in the book in full), she told a vast crowd assembled at the Shwedagon pagoda, the symbolic heart of Rangoon: "The present armed forces of Burma were created and nurtured by my father I There are papers written in my father's own hand I Let me read you one of them: 'The armed forces are meant for this nation and this people, and it should be such a force having the honour and respect of the people. If instead the armed forces should come to be hated by the people, then the aims with which this army has been built up would have been in vain' I May I appeal to the armed forces to become a force in which the people can place their trust and reliance". Since 1988, Suu Kyi has consistently maintained this nonconfrontational attitude.

Aung San was, however, willing to use violence to attain independence from the British, whereas his daughter is firmly committed to nonviolence. This stems from her Buddhist beliefs and from her study of Gandhi. As a teenager she spent a formative period in India in the 1960s, when her mother was Burmese ambassador there; and later she returned to India for a period of academic study. Her 1990 essay, "Intellectual life in Burma and India under colonialism", first published in India, is a unique contribution to understanding why India developed a mature nationalist movement and giant leaders like Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru, and an enduring democracy - while Burma did not; and thus why it is that today's Burma "remains a society waiting for its true potential to be realised". One of the most significant reasons, pinpointed by Suu Kyi, was the gulf between Mandalay, the cultural capital of Burma, and Rangoon, the commercial and political capital developed by the British after the final annexation of Burma in 1885. In Rangoon, a city of large immigrant communities (Indian and Chinese) without a true Burmese elite and with a British official class dismissive of traditional Burmese learning, "the climate in which a synthesis of modern education and classical Burmese scholarship could be fostered did not emerge" - in striking contrast to Calcutta, which was both the political and cultural hub of colonial India.

Suu Kyi's intellectual and emotional fascination with Burma's history and culture - amply shown by an essay such as "Literature and nationalism in Burma" (first published in Japan, where Suu Kyi was a visiting researcher in the mid-1980s) - gives depth to her vision of Burma's political future. She is a Burmese first, but a world citizen to an extent that few contemporary political figures can lay claim to be. One is reminded of Tagore, an artist and leader Suu Kyi admires, about whom she offers the acute observation: "Although Tagore was accepted as a national institution, he was not always viewed as a nationalist".

The present Burmese government, the Slorc, naturally finds this combination threatening, especially in a woman. The generals have done their best to tar Suu Kyi with the accusation that she is not a true Burmese, having married a foreigner and lived in the West for two decades. In 1994, she responded to the charge in the interview with some foreign visitors: "My loyalties are to Burma, but I I'm not going to abuse the international community in order to prove my patriotism". She prefers not to attribute the regime's attitude to "personal vindictiveness - but, if it isn't, then what it reflects is a misunderstanding of the notion of democracy and an underestimation of the Burmese people".

Freedom from Fear is a many-sided, highly intelligent, forthright, moving book. Travelling in Burma in 1993, I found my copy much in (clandestine) demand. I met many Burmese of courage and ability, who would make democracy work in Burma if they had the chance. But Suu Kyi, whether she wishes it or not, strikes one as unique. Her student friend at Oxford, now an academic there, Ann Pasternak Slater, seems to me absolutely right when she is reminded of Yeats's poem about another political reformer, Maud Gonne - beautiful too but unlike Aung San Suu Kyi an advocate of armed struggle for Irish independence: "How many loved your moments of glad grace,/ And loved your beauty with love false and true. /But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you."

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

Freedom from Fear and Other Writings

Author - Aung San Suu Kyi
ISBN - 0 14 025317 3
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £7.99
Pages - 374

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