Friday, August 24, 2012

The Life of Burma's First Citizen

Peter Popham, The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi

It’s amazing, sometimes, how we can admire individuals in the public eye, yet know so little about them. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s democratic resistance movement, has drawn international acclaim, celebrity support, and the Nobel Peace Prize; yet her actual identity remains an enigma outside her home country. British journalist Peter Popham tries to explain her life, her work, and her context in this new biography.

Known as Daw Suu to her adherents (literally “Aunt Suu”), the daughter of General Aung San stands as heir to her country’s name and reputation. General Aung San fought the British until he squeezed independence from them, but was assassinated before seeing the free Burmese flag flying. To keep the general’s family under control, the new state gave his widow a diplomatic posting to India, and young Suu grew up mostly abroad.

Like most post-colonial nations, three forces have torn at Burma’s history. The military wants to rule with colonial impunity, as in Pakistan; the intelligentsia wants Western-style democracy, as in India; and people groups that never enjoyed colonial privilege want to restore ancestral identity, as in Biafra. From her adoptive home in England, Suu watched the military, the University of Rangoon, and the Buddhist monks feud for control of the nation.

It’s impossible to detail Suu’s life without investigating the history of her homeland, and Popham doesn’t even try. He minutely examines the forces that led Burma’s nascent democracy into a military dictatorship, and one of Asia’s most developed nations into the pits of extreme poverty. (These passages run to the prolix. Some of Popham’s best passages are also his most technical and difficult; be prepared to soldier through some dense prose.)

For a woman so innately tied, in world narrative, with her country, it may come as a surprise, as it did for me, that she scarcely lived in Burma until her early forties. She attended graduate school in England, married a white man, and had two sons. But she remained in touch with Burma, visiting often, and putting her sons through Buddhist rites of adulthood. She also made a career writing about Burma for Westerners.

Only in 1988, when the increasingly doddery military strongman who ruled her homeland appeared on the brink of collapse, did she return. Even then, she intended it to be a brief stop, lending her father’s name to the burgeoning democracy movement. She had no way of knowing that she would step into a situation where her every action would be freighted with import, her face would energize masses, and she would be unable to leave for twenty-four years.

Popham explains how Suu’s outsider perspective had a profound transformative effect on Burma. In a country where power has always been a zero-sum game (you flourish only at my expense), her spirit of cooperation took the military rulers by surprise. She made inroads against the regime by simply speaking politely. And no matter what, she refused to hit back. Popham acknowledges Suu’s debt, in this, to Gandhi.

This positions her perfectly to communicate her nation’s plight to the outside world. She speaks unaccented Burmese and practices the Buddhism of her deeply religious homeland, but she has a Western education and can speak to Euro-American understanding. As an outsider in both worlds, she has the ability to recognize deeply ingrained prejudices, and subvert them without appearing confrontational.

Some of Popham’s biography is already outdated. It was published in Britain in 2011 before swimming to America this year, and recent changes don’t come up. For instance, Popham makes repeated reference to the fact that Suu has not left the country since 1988, not even to be at her dying husband’s bedside. Not so anymore: earlier this summer, the flagging government let her visit Europe to collect her Nobel Prize.

And despite his best efforts, Popham sometimes comes across as patronizing. He keeps commenting on Suu’s appearance. She’s a beautiful woman, certainly, even now in her late sixties. But nobody would extol young Gandhi’s brooding good looks, surely. Besides, it’s hard for a white European to comment on post-colonial Asia without relying on tropes that would make the late Edward Said pale.

But despite its shortcomings, Popham has crafted a smart, engaging biography of a nation, and its most prominent citizen. He helps white onlookers like me understand not only who Suu is, but why her ongoing campaign matters. And he gives us a model for how the fight for global justice will persevere despite fleeting adversity. Well done.

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