Aung San Suu Kyi Struggles, With Grace, For Myanmar
Simon Marcus Gower
Aung San Suu Kyi is a remarkable figure; remarkable in the difficult history of her country and how she presents herself to the world. Her demeanor is that of someone of great humility and concern for people other than herself. Her presentation is always impeccable — wearing a silk blouse, a Burmese sarong, known as a longyi , and a flower in her hair, she carries herself with an elegance and grace that belies her age (now 67) and the struggles and sacrifices she has made in her life.
In “The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi,” author and journalist Peter Popham presents a thoroughly researched portrayal of the democratic icon that at times borders on embarrassingly glowing admiration.
He writes that “the whole world wants to be a part of Suu, wants to warn her, award her, co-opt her, write about her, possess her, exploit her, empathize with her, love her, and be loved by her.” There are no doubt those who would want all of those things and maybe more, but it may be stretching it a bit to say “the whole world” feels these things.
Certainly, Suu Kyi is hugely admired and rightly so. Her commitment to nonviolent opposition in the face of extreme oppression and often brutality is every bit as admirable as that of predecessors like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The way she presents herself and makes her statements in crystal clear English tend to cover the personal suffering she has been put through by Myanmar’s undemocratic rulers.
Popham’s book effectively tells her tale and so too that difficult history of Myanmar. He shows how Suu Kyi could very easily have settled for a life of comfort, living in Oxford as the wife of a university academic and mother of two boys, but instead sacrificed it all to become an iconic figure of resistance.
The early years are here, covering her childhood in Rangoon, now known as Yangon, the move to India with her mother who was sent there as an ambassador, the schooling in Delhi, and on to becoming a student at Oxford where she met her husband, Michael Aris, and started a family. But it was almost by accident that Suu Kyi came to be a leader of opposition in her home country.
In 1988 she returned to Myanmar to help take care of her aging mother, by coincidence at the same time that demonstrations were taking place against the military government. The demonstrators were in need of a leader, and thanks to her name Suu Kyi became the prime candidate. Her father, Aung San, had led the nationalist movement to gain independence from Britain in the post-World War II period.
The student-led demonstrations against the military rulers were violently put down in 1988 but Suu Kyi had arrived on the political scene of Myanmar. Two years later her National League for Democracy — whose symbol, the peacock, gives the book its title — achieved a landslide victory in elections but Suu Kyi was already under house arrest. Her husband and sons were able to visit her intermittently, but family life was a fleeting luxury.
In 1999, her husband was dying of cancer but authorities in Myanmar would not let him enter, though they allowed Suu Kyi to leave the country to see him. Instead, she stayed in Myanmar, knowing that if she left she would not be allowed to return.
These sacrifices, along with the incidents in which she stood up to violence and death threats, show how Suu Kyi forfeited her own well-being for the democratic struggle in Myanmar. This is a full and highly appreciative examination of her life.
Popham guides the reader through Myanmar’s history and has strong words for those Suu Kyi opposes. He writes that they have forced poverty “on the inhabitants of a naturally rich land by [their] idiocy,” applying “criminal economic and social policies.”
It remains to be seen if Suu Kyi and her supporters can reverse decades of such “idiocy.”
The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi
By Peter Popham
Published by The Experiment