I can’t remember the first time I met her. It was sometime in 1960. I was five years old and it’s probably lost in the mists of forgotten memory. Her mother was the Burmese Ambassador in India. My father was the Army Chief. But I can vividly recall my last meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. It happened 28 years later in London, by when she was a close friend. The families had stayed in touch for three decades. We knew each other well.
“Guess what?” Suu sounded excited. I had just returned from a holiday in Delhi and was responding to a message on the answering machine. “There’s someone here who hasn’t seen you for nearly twenty five years.” It was her mother. I dashed across to meet Madame Aung San. When I was a child, she used to feed me black rice pudding. I ate it by the bowlful. Consequently, she remembered a fat little boy, ever hungry and never silent. “See how he’s changed”, Suu laughed as I walked in. “These days he’s permanently on a diet and won’t eat a thing!”
She was visibly happy, even exuberant. Suu was accompanying her mother back to Rangoon. She intended to return in weeks. Her husband Michael and their boys, Alexander and Kim, would wait impatiently in Oxford.
But Suu never came back. Madame Aung San’s health deteriorated and weeks later she died. Suu, who stayed on to look after her, found herself irresistibly drawn into politics. As Aung San’s daughter — and herself a staunch patriot — this was perhaps inevitable. The Ne Win regime was crumbling and in 1990, her National League for Democracy won a three-fourths majority. Suu should have become Prime Minister. Instead she ended up a prisoner. The ruling military junta — then called SLORC — annulled the elections and arrested and imprisoned her.
Sometime during those tempestuous days, I managed to telephone Suu’s Inya Lake home in Rangoon and get through to her. She was under house arrest and phone calls were not allowed. I don’t know how mine slipped through.
Suu was flabbergasted. We chatted breathlessly for a few minutes before she interrupted my verbosity. “Have you simply rung for a chat?” At the time I wrote leaders for The (London) Times and developments in Burma were a hot topic. Consequently, to have got through to Aung San Suu Kyi was a scoop. Actually, unbelievable. We had to make the most of it before the telephone line snapped.
The interview that followed is possibly one of the last she has given. In 1991, it was included as a chapter in her book Freedom from Fear. Because no one can predict the future, it was full of hope and expectation. Suu may have been under house arrest but no one could have foretold that’s how she would stay for virtually the next sixteen years.
Today I cannot think of anyone, other than Nelson Mandela, who has made a greater personal sacrifice for the cause of democracy and liberty. Nehru and Gandhi pale in comparison. In the years since 1990, her husband Michael has died of cancer. Alexander and Kim have grown up, married and have children of their own — but Suu hasn’t seen them. May be not for close to a decade.
On several occasions hope has dawned only to prove illusory. Incarcerated in her own home, they say she reads. Perhaps she plays the piano. I’m confident there’s always a fresh flower in her hair. And Suu won’t be bitter. She won’t have lost her beguiling smile. The Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 or the Nehru Award, a year later, are recognition of her unbroken spirit but I’m sure the struggle remains more important for her.
Sadly, this is a lady our government has turned its back upon. She studied in India. She often called Delhi her second home. Yet the exigencies of politics and national security require the government to maintain a silence about Suu’s plight in return for the Burmese Junta’s support in containing ULFA, NSCN and other rebels. It’s a Faustian pact I find hard to accept. Suu embodies a greater principle — the struggle for liberty and dignity — which we lose sight of at our own cost. In forgetting her, we have also forsaken the best in ourselves.
As we enter the 60th year of our independence, I’d like to see the Government reclaim the values August 15th symbolises. Can there be a better way than standing up for Suu?