Passionate & Dedicated – Aung San Suu Kyi ‘The Lady’

It seems appropriate in the year that three women won the Nobel Peace prize, that we remember ‘The Lady’, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won this prize twenty years ago in 1991, nominated by the admired leader and humanitarian, former Czech president Václav Havel, who died this month.

It is debatable whether most know Aung San Suu Kyi for her steadfast dedication in promoting the ideals of democracy and metta (a Buddhist term meaning loving kindness) to the people of Burma, or for the longevity of her term as a prisoner of conscience, held under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until her release in November 2010.

Winning the Noble peace prize increased her prominence and brought her cause and the plight of suffering Burmese and hill tribe people to the attention of the international community.  Just this year she was visited with open arms by Hilary Clinton, not long after announcing she would run for election in upcoming byelections.

I picked up Justin Wintle’s book ‘Perfect Hostage’ Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals, believing it a biography, mislead perhaps by the striking portrait which graces the cover and select testimonials describing it as so. In fact, I would call it a historic treatise of Burma and while of significant interest in itself, I did find it frustrating that it took close to 200 pages to encounter Aung San Suu Kyi within its covers. Though there is depth in the historical account, I found the reverse to be true in terms of the author’s evocation of Aung San Suu Kyi, in fact I found many of his comments patronising and uncomfortable:

Had SLORC not placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, it is improbable that she would have been given the Nobel Prize…‘ and on a tribute she wrote about her father ‘ This, the notion of St Aung San, may have been over-egging the cake’ and ‘When I saw that Aung San Suu Kyi had got a third class degree I let out an involuntary chuckle.

I am certain that the author interviewed many people, that is clear, but as to coming to some understanding and appreciation of Aung San Suu Kyi and her perspective or her personality, the text remains curiously detached.  Dare I say, I detected a hint of what could almost be compared to a colonial attitude, as referred to in George Orwell’s novel ‘Burmese Days’ (himself born in India with unacknowledged Burmese relatives in the family). That would be going too far I am sure, but it frustrated me enormously and made me yearn to read something actually written by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, something this book is remarkably short on.

However, letting go of the expectation of an exquisite biography and seen as the historical treatise that it is, I find a thorough and detailed account of a remarkable country and ethnic melting pot of people who have long been subject to tyrannical rule. Sitting between India in the west and China in the east with borders that touch so many countries, Tibet, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, it is not surprising that it comprises so many ethnic groupings and hill tribes and has encountered so much conflict.  It has a unique history of rising to great prominence and descending into chaos, as each successive victor sought to impose their will.

It provides an interesting introduction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, his haphazard entrance into politics and the fraught relationship with Japan, set up to assist in the removal of the British, only to find they had replaced one empire seeking power with another.

‘I went to Japan to save my people who were struggling like bullocks under the British. But now we are treated like dogs. We are far from our hope of reaching the human stage, and even to get back to the bullock stage we need to struggle more.’ Aung San, at Maymyo, June 1942

With independence secured, the future looked positive in many respects. Democratic elections in April 1947 elevated Aung San to leadership, until he was betrayed and assassinated by one of his fellow countrymen. The country struggled to take advantage of its newfound independence and while the coup in 1962 was seen by many at the time as a hopeful resolution, it signalled the beginning of torturous dictatorships that have cost many lives, exiled others and kept Burma’s icon for free, democratic choice under arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a reluctant hero; married with two children to the Oxford academic Michael Aris, a leading Western authority on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture, she returned to Burma to nurse her mother after a stroke and found herself sharing the hospital ward with many student victims of the atrocities occurring under the regime.  Astounded, she absorbed the horror of their stories and they listened to her reflections urging her to become actively involved in the struggle.

Just as Buddha gave himself up for the betterment of sentient beings, so Aung San Suu Kyi by offering herself to the people of Burma, was put in such circumstances she had little choice but to leave her family behind, a test the regime continued to dangle in front of her, in their hope she would leave and the people forget her. Her persistence in staying kept the candle of hope burning for millions and perhaps we may now see the fruit of that hope manifesting in their upcoming elections.

9 thoughts on “Passionate & Dedicated – Aung San Suu Kyi ‘The Lady’

  1. She is remarkable. I’m not sure this author did her justice. Thanks for giving attention to this book that I hadn’t even heard of.


  2. Aung San Suu Kyi sounds like an amazing person deeply involved in a struggle I know too little about. Your post makes me want to learn more – but maybe not from that particular book. The quotes you quoted from the author do seem a bit condescending and it does not sound like this woman deserves condescention. Anyway, thank you Claire for opening a new door to learning for me in 2012! I think the first thing on the subject I want to read is the George Orwell book you mentioned! I believe I have read parts of that but not the whole thing.


    • Yes, having read the entire book, it definitely left me wanting for more and I am certain that if there isn’t something more already out there, it will come, because she is a voice with a message that is crying out to be heard, not just for Burma, but for this day and age universally.


  3. Yes. Inciteful look at the book and Aung San Suu Kyi. I shake my head reading of Justin’s remarks, too often the judgement of a man writing on achievements of women. While it may or may not be the case here, I have my suspicions (and a tweaked pet peeve.) She has done so much, well deserved the Nobel, and who knows what else she will achieve before she retires from public life.


    • Yes, it’s unfortunate that either he has this attitude or was unable to see the slant those kind of comments put on his work, because each one had a cumulative effect on me that I was unable to dismiss. I did wonder how either a woman or someone with a more intimate experience of Buddhist culture and philosophy might have treated a biography. I came to the conclusion this was a historical account dressed up to look like a biography.

      It is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi is a private person and her public work is for the good for the people, being such an inspiration, I do hope we will see something more published by her in the future.


  4. I haven’t read that particular book, but it doesn’t sound like the author did Aung San Suu Kyi any favours.
    I hope that she will publish her own biography so we can learn more about her not only as a woman, but as a woman trying to help her people, although as you say, she is a very private person and may never do that. It would be a shame, because there are a lot of people who would love to read about her life, penned by her.
    Thank you for bringing this book to our attention Claire.


    • Yes, I too hope that she will write something contemporary though it may not be for a few years yet, my first wish is that she will find success in the political realm, after this long wait since she was resoundingly voted into power 20 years ago and never allowed to exercise that right to lead. If she is able to reflect on achieving some kind of gain in bringing democracy and an improvement in human rights, I think she may be more willing to share her thoughts with the rest of the world.


  5. Claire, Deborah is a great “connector” of people. I’m glad she pointed me to your blog and you to mine.

    I enjoyed your review of Perfect Hostage–even though the author’s point of view leaves me disappointed.

    Thank you for shining a light on this remarkable woman though, and bringing Burma to forefront of people’s consciousness once again.


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