This biography may not have anticipated Aung San Suu Kyi’s reincarnation as a politician, but it certainly is timely, says Shyam Saran
PETER POPHAM’s biography of the charismatic and much admired leader of Myanmar’s democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has made a timely appearance. In his detailed account of her life and work, in particular over the past couple of decades and more, he has succeeded in making a legend come compellingly alive. And yet, it is a reflection of Myanmar’s rapid and unprecendented transformation in the past few months, in which Suu Kyi is playing a decisive role, that Popham’s book failed to anticipate his hero’s own extraordinary transformation from an unbending idealist to a nimble politician. Nevertheless, his biography provides a valuable template for interpreting and assessing the latest developments in Myanmar.
Popham has woven into his narrative, and often using Suu Kyi’s own words, the political, philosophical and spiritual beliefs that drive her extraordinary commitment to her country and her people. This is interspersed with very moving glimpses of her personal suffering and sacrifice and the immense patience, courage and fortitude with which she bore them. Popham brings a certain immediacy and poignancy to the profound sense of loss and isolation she experienced. Our admiration and respect for this extraordinary human being becomes even more intense.
Suu Kyi has just won a seat in Parliament in the by-elections held during the weekend. It is likely that her party, the National League for Democracy, will win a majority of the 45 seats up for elections. She and her party members will take their place in a Parliament they had earlier denounced as illegitimate and which derives from a Constitution they had described as illegal and undemocratic. Popham did not anticipate the transformation of Suu Kyi into a consummate politician, willing to make compromises, ready to risk a calculated gamble. Her goals have not changed. She still aspires to establish in her country a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and plural democracy but she is now willing to play with the cards dealt to her. In his biography, Popham refers to, and appears to share, a familiar criticism of Suu Kyi by some of her friends and admirers that while, like Mahatma Gandhi, she has an unwavering faith in non-violence, unlike Gandhi she was never a political strategist.
Popham has provided interesting details of the formative influences in Suu Kyi’s life. Her father was the legendary General Aung San, founder of the Burmese Army and father of the nation. He was assassinated soon after Burma became independent so Suu Kyi has little recollection of him. However, there is no doubt that his persona, loomed very large for her and certainly played a part in shaping her sense of destiny as the leader of her people. It is equally clear that Suu Kyi was greatly influenced by her seven-year sojourn in a free-wheeling, democratic and intellectually vibrant India, while her mother served as her country’s ambassador in Delhi. She expected a great deal from India, in many aspects her political mentor in the ways of democracy, and felt deeply disappointed when this country made its peace with the very army generals who tormented her. Popham’s biography deals only cursorily with the very rich dimensions of her engagement with India. As India’s ambassador in Yangon from 1997 to 2001, I was deeply and acutely, and sometimes guiltily, conscious of India not measuring up to her expectations and perhaps more importantly, to her patently unambiguous affection for this country.
While I enjoyed Popham’s book, I found it somewhat disjointed and confusing in its presentation. Instead of a chronological approach, Popham has employed a thematic structure, which reads like a collection of essays rather than as flowing narrative. Nevertheless, the author’s admiration for his remarkable subject comes through loud and clear. One cannot but share his view that whatever the denouement of the current winds of change in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has already etched a deep and lasting impact on the lives and destinies of her people.
Saran is a former foreign secretary. He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research