Peter Popham is commendably quick off the blocks with this excellent account of the run-up to last November’s Burmese general election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept the board. At the time of writing this review, Suu is taking four ministries, including foreign affairs. So she will do what she did during her years of house arrest — offer a beautiful human face to the outside world of a country still under the heel of the generals.
Popham seems to enjoy Burma and to understand it as much as any westerner can. Notwithstanding recent liberalisation, Burma is perhaps the second weirdest state on earth after North Korea, with impossibly complicated ethnic and religious fault lines that are cannily exploited by the army.
Popham wants to admire Suu, but she emerges from his account as a strangely chilly and ambiguous figure. Though she is a practising Buddhist, who meditates assiduously, she is at root secular and western.
Heroic leaders of freedom struggles tend to be more loved by the Nobel Peace Prize committee than they are by their inner circles. Martin Luther King was a sex pest who spread pain all around his family; Nelson Mandela was an aloof and occasionally abusive husband, who left behind ex-wives and children emotionally crippled by his indifference.
Suu was born into the Burmese upper class in 1945 and has never quite shed the hauteur of her upbringing. She was the daughter of Aung San, leader of the independence movement, who was assassinated shortly before Britain formally lowered the flag in 1948.
Suu later went on to read PPE at Oxford, where she met and married the Tibet scholar Michael Aris, ‘with his head in the Himalayan clouds’, before settling into happy domestic life with their two sons. She stumbled into Burmese politics almost casually in 1988, during a visit back to her homeland to see her ailing mother. It was a time of political turmoil, and because she was her father’s daughter, she was asked to address a political rally demanding an end to military rule.
She found she had a taste for it and stayed on, fearing, no doubt rightly, that if she returned to her family in Oxford she would never be let back in. The following year she was placed under house arrest and remained so, with some breaks, until 2010 when the regime wanted to show the world it was changing.
Perhaps she is being very honest, or simply does not wish to plead for public sympathy, but she is oddly dispassionate in reflecting on the personal consequences of her political activities, which meant she went for years without seeing her family. In a speech which one rather hopes her two sons did not read, she asserted that she chose the route she
wanted to follow and I walked that path out of my own free will. There was no sacrifice involved…. If you follow the path of your own choice you are not giving up anything for anyone else.
Reading this book, you cannot escape the view that Suu has been ‘played’ by the generals, who got international sanctions lifted in return for co-opting her into a supposedly democratic settlement, but one that is still controlled behind the scenes by the army through patronage and guaranteed seats in parliament.
There has been no revolution in Burma, and human rights are still trampled upon in the name of stability. ‘Only free men can negotiate,’ Nelson Mandela replied when the white Nationalists in Pretoria offered him conditional release from prison in the 1980s, and then his incarceration became their problem.
Suu can take on the role as public spokesperson for Burma abroad as foreign minister, but she cannot be president because a law, specifically passed to stymie her wider ambitions, states that those with foreign relatives are barred from the highest office.
She has shown great fortitude in her determination to suffer the consequences of her political activism, but Popham notes she is disorganised and can be plain rude to foreign visitors and Burmese allies alike. She is a poor delegator, and at the age of 70 remains wary of anyone who might seek eventually to replace her as the symbol of Burmese democracy.
The Burmese can be touchy about international scrutiny of the shocking treatment of their minority groups, especially the Rohingya Muslims, who live in wretched camps. The BBC’s Mishal Husain — who is of posh Pakistani descent — unexpectedly tore into Suu during a 2013 television interview, demanding to know why this human rights icon was downplaying this treatment. Suu, affronted by Husain’s impertinence, was overheard to mutter furiously: ‘No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’ Somehow it is hard to imagine that sort of retort coming out of the mouth of Nelson Mandela.