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Ascent of a woman

No matter how often one reviews Suu Kyi’s political life, her perseverance against what is easily one of the most brutal regimes on the planet is jaw-droppingly remarkable, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

books Updated: May 25, 2012 13:58 IST

The Lady And The Peacock: The Life Of Aung San Suu Kyi

Peter Popham

Random House Rs.599 n pp 446

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Biography

Jesper Bengtsson

Amaryllis Rs. 495 n pp 260

Myanmar’s spasmodic attempts to open its political system inevitably propel Aung San Suu Kyi to the forefront. This past year has, once again, seen the military regime suddenly throwing open the political shutters and leave Suu Kyi standing in the frame. This is accompanied by claims that her time is past, obituaries unnoticed by common Myanmarese who cast their ballots almost solely for her National League for Democracy (NLD).

No matter how often one reviews Suu Kyi’s political life, her perseverance against what is easily one of the most brutal regimes on the planet is jaw-droppingly remarkable. Arguably, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Nelson Mandela faced regimes so blatantly unconcerned about mass murder. Nor did they face opponents who were so whimsical — more than one Burmese junta leader had to be removed for losing his marbles.

Suu Kyi has had more reason than most to weary of her struggle to bring democracy to Myanmar. For some 30 years, political reform in the country seems to be an endless narrative of defeat. The 1988 demonstrations that inspired Suu Kyi to join politics, the 1990 elections in which the NLD won 81% of the seats and the 2007 protests by the Buddhist monks followed a similar script. The military junta, in each case, simply imprisoned or shot their opponents, ignored the international outcry that followed and put Suu Kyi back under house arrest.

As Peter Popham writes, Suu Kyi’s political story is of “the sudden challenge, the mass acclaim, the tireless campaigning, the nationwide crescendo of support — then nothing: the nothing of outright defeat.”

There is a hope the general elections of 2010 and the almost progressive statements of the new generalissimo, Thien Sien, mark a new era. While the past lends itself to scepticism, what no one doubts is that Suu Kyi will remain as unbending as ever.

After what she has already gone through, another false promise of change is almost nothing. This includes her years of separation from family, and the loss of more companions and friends to torture, imprisonment and execution than can be listed.

Popham tries to get a sense of what makes Suu Kyi tick, how her genteel, elite life metamorphosed into that of the world’s most famous political prisoner. Being the daughter of the father of independent Burma, Aung San, is only partly the reason that her sense of responsibility to her nation and people became so overwhelming. For all her years in India and Britain, she remained Burmese to the core.

Then there was an unbending morality. As one Oxford friend noted, “She had a high sense of moral rigour... She would not do anything that she considered was wrong...” Suu Kyi’s iron discipline is the other side of this coin, inherited from her mother, a woman who wouldn’t let her children’s backs touch their dining chairs and who, after hearing her son had drowned, finished her work in office before heading home.

Where this discipline merges into courage is difficult to say. Both authors detail the Danubyu incident that inspired the bodhisattva mystique that Suu Kyi retains to this day. In front of hundreds, she calmly walked through a line of rifles pointed at her and an army officer threatening to give the order to shoot.  She said later, “I was quite cool-headed. I thought: what does one do? Does one turn back or keep going? My thought was, one doesn’t turn back in a situation like that.”

Nonviolence was adopted because it was the practical way to take on such a brutal military. A devout Buddhist, Suu Kyi knew that violent revolution would taint her country more. Force of arms, she believed, “would leave in the minds of the people the idea that whoever has greater armed might wins in the end. That will not help democracy.”

Popham’s is the far more detailed biography. He is especially good in exploring the ideological and philosophical mooring of Suu Kyi — a pier in which Indian names like Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and even Rammohun Roy have a prominent place. Jesper Bengstoon’s book is half the size. He tends to be shallower but does a better job in explaining the international context in which Myanmarese politics plays out.

There are a few differences between the two. When the then military ruler Than Shwe tried to murder Suu Kyi by attacking her convoy in Dala, Popham says she survived because her assassins went after the wrong vehicles while Bengstoon thinks that a more pragmatic military faction intervened and spirited her away. Neither, however, makes any attempt to argue that Suu Kyi is anything but extraordinary. As Bengtsoon writes, that “after the life she has led Suu kyi doesn’t owe anybody anything.”