First Lady: Aung San Suu Kyi
One year ago, the world’s best-known democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma, where she had spent 15 of the last 21 years. As she starts making trips outside Rangoon and meeting government officials, Ed Caesar secretly meets with her, and asks if this brutal regime has really taken steps on the road to freedom
Freedom means something different to Aung San Suu Kyi than it might to you or me. Imagine you had been placed under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years – would you consider yourself free? How about if, since being released in November last year, you had been placed under constant surveillance, and had your travel restricted by the ruling military government – the same government you had watched plunder your country’s natural resources for political gain, imprison political enemies, and ethnically cleanse troublesome minorities while you were powerless to influence events? How about if your English husband had died without you by his side because he was refused a visa, and you knew that if you left the country to be with him you might never have been able to return? Would you feel at liberty? Your answer, almost certainly, would be no
Aung San Suu Kyi would politely disagree. “After I was released, people used to keep asking me, ‘What is it like to be free?’” she tells me, in her forthright, plummy English. “And it was very difficult for me to answer – I always felt free. As far as my state of mind was concerned, I didn’t feel any different... People ask me about what sacrifices I’ve made and I always answer that I’ve made no sacrifices – I’ve made choices. I don’t get angry. I wasn’t sacrificing myself for anybody. Really, it was a choice I made in accordance with what I believed.”
To most people, this might seem like inhuman stoicism. Aung San Suu Kyi, plainly, is not most people.
Our interview takes place in Rangoon in late July, in the tumbledown two-storey headquarters of the National League For Democracy, the political party Aung San Suu Kyi co-founded in 1988. Downstairs, a group of activists are listening to a lecture on political science. Upstairs, in a cool, clean office, The Lady – as she is known to her supporters – receives guests. Aung San Suu Kyi is a striking woman. Small and delicate as a sparrow, she is still, at 66, arrestingly beautiful. When we meet, she is wearing a grey, long-sleeved top with a floral print, a black skirt and no shoes. Her mahogany hair is tied back with green and white flowers. And, apart from her wide, dancing, chestnut eyes, she possesses a stillness that proves quite disarming.
This ability to project serenity is, as I would discover, a large part of her appeal. On the last day of my stay in Rangoon, I asked a young man who I knew to be a NLD supporter why he admired Aung San Suu Kyi so much. He said that when he saw her face, he felt “relaxed”.
Meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, however, is in no way a relaxing process. Burma – or the Republic of Myanmar as it was re-named by the military junta in 1989, without recognition from the US or Britain – has no love of journalists. In 2010, it was ranked 174th out of 178 countries on the world Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (trailed only by Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Turkmenistan), and media visas are seldom issued. Independent reporters who choose to work in the country are frequently arrested, deported or given long jail sentences.
So, in order to conduct an interview with the country’s most famous daughter, we were forced to break some rules. I arrived in Rangoon on a tourist visa. When it was time for the interview, I was bundled out of a moving taxi and into the NLD offices fast enough – I hoped – for the plain-clothes intelligence officers stationed across the road not to have noticed me. This plan was, perhaps, optimistic. Even in a baseball cap, a 6’5” man with blond hair stands out in Burma. In the hours following the interview, I was tailed by a white Toyota. The next morning, I would be interrogated by five or six military officers at the airport. While I gave them my cover story (a teacher, sightseeing), my bags were searched. I was saved only by my decision to hide my voice recorders in two pairs of smelly, rolled-up socks, which these goons, understandably, did not inspect too closely.
The Burmese people have lived in fear of this intrusive and repressive state apparatus for nearly 50 years. What’s more, they have done so in abject poverty. Despite its wealth of offshore gas and oil, its multi-billion-dollar trade deals with Thailand and China, and – it is reported – a vast illicit heroin trade run by the generals, life for the average citizen is hardscrabble. An estimated 90 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Many rural areas are not connected to electricity; even in Rangoon, the power supply fails often. Moreover, if you are unlucky enough to belong to one of the ethnic minorities currently at war with the government, your racial profile is enough to make you a target for rape and murder.
While their country has gone to the dogs, the ruling military elite has squandered billions. In 2004, for instance, they started work on a new capital, Naypyidaw, which they are still carving out of the jungle five hours north of Rangoon. No one knows how much they have spent on this Xanadu, but one Western diplomat recently told the New Yorker, “You can’t imagine what a diversion of resources it represents, and it’s still growing.” It is thought that a shortfall in funds from building Naypyidaw was one reason for the government’s radical hike in gas prices in 2007, which led directly to the protests that sparked the Saffron Revolution, in which monks and civilians took to the streets to protest – only to be crushed, with many arrested and an unknown number killed. I ask Aung San Suu Kyi to summarise how ordinary Burmese feel about the government’s litany of criminal and venal behaviour. She replies with trademark, devastating understatement. “The people,” she says, “are not happy with the present condition of the country.”
How did Burma find itself in this fix? The country gained its independence from Britain in 1948, in large part due to the efforts of General Aung San – Aung San Suu Kyi’s father – who negotiated favourable terms with the British before being assassinated in 1947. General Aung San is still widely revered in Burma, and his reputation reinforces his daughter’s political standing.
In 1962, after years of drift and in-fighting between ethnic groups, there was a coup by the army, who re-designated Burma as a socialist republic. Under this arrangement, Burma continued to flounder economically and became increasingly isolated on the international stage. In 1988, after General Ne Win stepped down as leader, thousands campaigned on the streets for democracy in a watershed moment for Burma known as the “8888” uprising. Around 6,000 people are thought to have been killed in clashes with the government.
That year, Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Burma from Britain, where she had studied political science and was married to an English historian named Michael Aris – with whom she has two sons, Kim and Alexander. Aung San Suu Kyi, then 43 years old, had come to Burma to care for her mother, who was ill. But, as protests rocked the government, she found her voice, and began to speak out for the rights of ordinary Burmese.
Was there a catalytic moment in her political awakening? “It was really when the people started getting killed,” she says. “I felt like everybody had a duty to do something. In that situation, you can’t just sit back and let people be killed on the streets in the capital of the country.”
Aung San Suu Kyi did more than something. Quickly, because of her natural skills as an orator, and her political heritage, she became a leader. On August 26 1988, she addressed half a million people in front of Rangoon’s magnificent Shweygadon pagoda, and called for democracy. The next month, another military coup wrested power back for the generals. At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi helped found the NLD with herself as General Secretary.
She was placed under house arrest for the first time in July 1989, having refused an offer of a free pass out of the country. In 1990, elections took place, in which the NLD took 82 per cent of the seats in parliament. The results were annulled, the military clung to power, and The Lady continued to languish in her lakeside villa. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her sons picked up the award in her absence, and Aung San Suu Kyi gave the $1.3million to a health project in Burma.
Was it lonely to live under house arrest for so long? She only had the company of two female assistants, with occasional visits from a doctor or lawyer. “I have to confess that it was not that hard for me,” she replies. “It may have something to do with one’s temperament. I did worry about my family and my colleagues, which is quite normal. But I can’t say it played on my mind, because I couldn’t do anything about it. So perhaps that’s part of my temperament where I don’t agonise over things I can do nothing about.”
Instead of worrying, she marked her days by strict routines. She decided to keep fit, practise the piano and read. Her husband sent her books, including “inspirational” political works by leaders such as Vaclav Havel, but she was as happy reading Jane Austen or Vikram Seth. She listened to the radio for five or six hours a day – particularly the BBC World Service – and Beatles records.
Most importantly, she discovered meditation, which has become a central part of her life since. Indeed, one of her regrets about being released is that she has much less time for her private, spiritual exercises than she once did. There have been worries about her health since her re-emergence on the public stage, but she insists to me that she is in fine fettle. “Of course, I get tired,” she admits. “I am not superwoman.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest has been punctuated by periods of several months’ freedom. In these caesuras she has flouted travel bans and campaigned as actively as possible for her cause. It was in 1997, during one of these periods of release, that her husband became gravely ill. He was declined a visa to come to Burma. Instead, the regime urged Aung San Suu Kyi to leave the country to see him. She decided to not do so, fearing that the government would never allow her back. He died in 1999.
What was it like to be under effective “country arrest” in those circumstances? “It was self-imposed,” she says. Self-imposed or not, the choice must have been heart-rending? “It was difficult and not difficult. I think that if you are committed to a particular cause, then your choices are not that difficult. And also my husband was very supportive until the very end, and that made it much easier for me. He understood why I had to choose to do what I chose to do.”
What about her sons? Alexander and Kim were 16 and 11 respectively when their mother was first arrested. Kim saw his mother recently for the first time in ten years, but there were reports in the British press that Alexander – who has not seen Aung San Suu Kyi since 1999 – had been unhappy at his mother’s decision to put politics above family. Was her relationship with her sons strained? “They understood,” she says. “Perhaps not as much as my husband, but they did. My relationship with them is fine. My younger son has been able to visit me... But my elder son has not yet been able to come. Of course, we’re talking over the telephone and in emails, but it’s not the same as meeting somebody face to face. But we’re not in any way estranged. I think it’s a test of what family relationships mean if you can be apart from them and still retain that sense of family.”
In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi has two families – her actual flesh and blood, and the wider community. It is in this second role as “the Mother of Burma” that she now expends her energy. But, in the most recent seismic event in Burma – the 2007 Saffron Revolution, which was started by monks, joined by civilians, and eventually crushed by the government – she could play no part, because she was under arrest. Was that a frustrating experience for her? “I was very interested of course,” she says. “But I don’t think I’m temperamentally given to frustration.”
Did she believe that a real change could have come to Burma in 2007? “To tell the truth, no,” she says. “I was just wondering what was going to happen – and that depended on how the authorities reacted. When they reacted [so violently], I thought people became more politically aware. The Burmese are very devout. It became a religious issue. The government killed monks. I think this is what changed people’s attitudes.”
Since her release, the Arab Spring revolutions have spun the Arab world on its head. Aung San Suu Kyi has watched closely: “I’m very interested, for instance, in why the Egyptian army did not fire on its people and why our army did. What is the difference? I don’t think there’s a single answer. I don’t think it just comes down to sympathy. I’m sure several members of the army had sympathy with what we [in Burma] wanted to do. There were several members of the army who sympathised with the people in 1988, and also those who really respected the monks [in 2007]. So it’s not just a question of sympathy. It’s something to do with the way the army has become alienated from the people of Burma… My father once made a beautiful speech to the army in which he said, ‘The people must not be the servants of the army.’ But it’s nicer in Burmese, it’s quite poetic.”
In recent months, Aung San Suu Kyi has been taking her poetic message to the people, despite the regime’s ban on her “political activity.” Only a week before my arrival in Rangoon, she led a march through the city to mark the anniversary of her father’s assassination. 3,000 democracy supporters joined her on a short journey from the NLD headquarters to her father’s mausoleum. It may not sound like much, but in a country where a gathering of more than five people constitutes an “illegal assembly”, the event marked a reassertion of Aung San Suu Kyi’s heft.
Three weeks after I left Rangoon, she took another bold step by travelling to the town of Bago, where she made a speech. It was her first political trip outside the capital since her arrest. The last time she made such a journey, in 2003, her convoy was ambushed, but despite dire warnings from the regime, the event passed off without serious incident. Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi was mobbed by well-wishers.
“In Burma, I travel wherever I want to. After all it’s not that you want to clash with the authorities in any way, but I do think that I have the right to travel in a private as well as in a public capacity.”
Her boldness appears to be paying off. The government has restarted dialogue with the NLD, and on the day we met, Aung San Suu Kyi was due to meet a senior minister. She did not want to prejudice the success of the meeting by telling me what was on the agenda. Her supporters have since told international media that, in any event, little of substance was achieved, though Aung San Suu Kyi called the talks “positive”. More recently, as we were going to press, she even travelled to the presidential palace in the capital Naypyidaw for a meeting with the president, Thein Sein, in a sign that relations might be starting to thaw.
However, for all the affection Aung San Suu Kyi continues to inspire, there are those in the democracy movement who consider her tactics outdated and her passivity a hindrance. For instance, she continues to appeal for an international boycott of Burma. But, in a business environment in which China and North Korea are willing to trade without asking difficult questions about Burma’s human rights record, the impact of the boycott seems limited. “I think sanctions still make sense,” she says. “One of the things our new national assembly called for was the removal of sanctions. Why did they do that if it was not important to them in some way? More importantly, I believe we’ve got to think more about people to people relationships, rather than government to government.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was also criticised for encouraging the NLD to boycott the recent elections in 2010. Although the poll was widely criticised as a sham exercise in re-electing the military in civilian clothes, would it not have been better to crowbar some NLD representatives into the seat of power?
“To put it very shortly: no,” she says. “In order to be involved in elections, we would have had to sign an undertaking to protect and defend the constitution, which we do not think is good for the country. We would have had to expel all our political prisoners from our party. And we would have had to rewrite history and say the 1990 elections [which were stolen from the NLD] never happened. We would just have to write them off the historical blackboard. We couldn’t do that.”
Aung San Suu Kyi will wait for a better deal and better elections; she is the grandmaster of endurance. Who knows what her perseverance will yield? What became clear to me on my visit to Rangoon was that the Burmese people need something to happen fast. Aung San Suu Kyi tells me she understands their urgency. To emphasise her point, she uses Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “I am not too patient,” she says. “I always thought that Viola, sitting on the monument, smiling at grief, was very silly. That kind of patience is not for me.”
The analogy Aung San Suu Kyi uses is complicated but powerful. In Twelfth Night, a young woman named Viola, in disguise as a boy named Cesario, is in love with the Duke Orsino. But, because of Viola’s disguise, she cannot confess her true feelings to the Duke. In one heartbreaking scene in Act IV, she tells Orsino a story about an imaginary woman she has seen “smiling at grief” because she dare not speak her love. The metaphor works for Burma in many ways – the double-talk, the pain, the lack of free expression – but what is most affecting about Aung San Suu Kyi’s mention of Viola is that it confirms her ardour. Her great love affair is, and always has been, with her country.
On my last day in Burma, I visited a group of twenty-something students learning English on the fifth floor of a crumbling colonial-era building in downtown Rangoon. The class was mixed between men and women, and contained several monks – all of whom wore the traditional saffron robes with shaved heads. Westerners are relatively rare beasts in Burma, and, when I entered the room, they abandoned their studies and came to talk to me about their lives.
Almost as one, they said they were learning English so that – one day – they could leave the country. I asked why. The room grew quiet before one monk, who was 24, flashed a grin and told me: “the government.” I asked him whether he had been involved in the 2007 pro-democracy protests. He said yes. Had it been difficult for him to marry his Buddhist beliefs with the rage he felt at the military junta?
“Yes,” he said, with a giggle. “But the government is very bad, very greedy. Being a monk is about living in peace. But sometimes you are too angry.”
At this, the other students were struck dumb. I asked another young monk, sitting next to me, whether he agreed with his friend. “I do not want to talk to you about [these matters],” he told me. “I am too afraid.”
This is a problem for the future of Burma. Its people – who seem polite, devout, quiescent and gentle – have been bullied for so long that they may now be too cowed to effect change in their own country.
Aung San Suu Kyi foresaw this problem three decades ago. After the 8888 uprising, she wrote an essay entitled ‘Freedom from Fear’, in which she argued “it is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
But if her people are afraid, Aung San Suu Kyi is not. As she said in that famous essay, her hope for Burma’s future comes from “a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that, despite all setbacks, the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement.” In this statement, you see the foundation of her sometimes frustratingly measured approach. Her cause is moral, or it is nothing.
Before I stand to say goodbye, she smiles and leaves me with a piece of advice: “I always say, you can only hope as much as you work. We work very hard, so we have the right to hope.” From anyone else, this would sound like fortune-cookie hokum. But from Aung San Suu Kyi, whose wisdom has been hard-won, it sounds like an article of faith.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released in November 2010 but there are still 2,200 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, being held for exercising their right to protest. Support the call for a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Burma at amnesty.org.uk/burma.
A version of this article also appears in our sister title Another Magazine
Interview by Ed Caesar