Stephen Robinson

The halo slips

Having regained her freedom, the Nobel peace prize-winner seems to have lost interest in human rights, according to Peter Popham

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.

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