The Spirit of Aung San Suu Kyi
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The Spirit of Aung San Suu Kyi
The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. By Peter Popham. New York: The Experiment, 2011. 480 pp.

Everyone recognizes that Aung San Suu Kyi is an iconic figure who garners immense support and adoration from millions of Burmese and countless others around the world. Her story stirs a desire to understand how she has remained resolute and has inspired multitudes despite years of isolation. Yet experts, writers, and journalists disagree about her. At least prior to Burma’s recent opening, some believed that she was a failure in terms of achieving her political goals, having wasted her life nobly but fruitlessly defying a brutal regime that knows no pity or shame.

Peter Popham, a veteran correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent, does a fine job of tracing the making of this great moral and political leader. He offers a satisfying account of why we should see Daw Suu’s life as a real success story, even if it does not lead to a conventionally happy ending.

When Daw Suu decided to take on the leadership of an ongoing democratic movement in August 1988, most Burmese knew her only as the daughter of General Aung San (1915–47), an architect of Burma’s independence. The historic significance attached to the name of this father whom she never knew—she was barely two when he was assassinated—clearly inspired her and made her eager, even at a young age, to learn what could be done to save her country from its multifaceted deterioration. Though plagued by doubt and ambivalence, Daw Suu was haunted even more strongly by the conviction that she had a calling to [End Page 171] offer Burma’s people her humble service during their time of need. This made her what Popham calls a “seeker.”

The organizers of Burma’s democracy movement counted on Daw Suu, as the daughter of the father of the nation, to unify and energize the movement. Her very presence in Burma had a fortuitous quality—she was visiting there in 1988 to tend to her dying mother, and one wonders how different Burmese history might be had her mother fallen ill at another time. Popham boldly calls her a “child to her father,” but I have my doubts, since her path is so different from the “by any means necessary” approach that Aung San chose to restore his country’s independence.

One might assume that Daw Suu, as an Oxford graduate and as a woman who spent the bulk of her formative and adult years abroad, has been tirelessly trying to introduce democracy and the rule of law into Burma as these are understood and practiced in the West. But her intellectual and moral orientation is far more complex, as Popham shows through her writings, through interviews with her friends and relatives plus Daw Suu herself (whom he met with once, in 2002), and through diary entries by her former confidante Ma Thanegi.

Daw Suu’s move to India at age fifteen was crucial to her intellectual development. Indians’ well-known flair for blending old traditions with modern ways in a confident, self-assured, and uniquely Indian manner fascinated the young Daw Suu. The inspiring example set by India has shaped Daw Suu’s life. While learning to appreciate the art, ideas, and cultures of varying countries, she has never let go of her own well-grounded moral principles or her Burmese upbringing and identity.

Obviously, there is a universal dimension to the ideals of human rights and democracy that she wants to see fulfilled in her own country. But in the course of her intellectual and spiritual journey, Daw Suu has rediscovered the values and principles ingrained in her country’s Buddhist-dominated culture, on which those universal ideals can be grounded. It is highly symbolic that she delivered her first major address on 26 August 1988, before Yangon’s revered Shwedagon Pagoda. Millions were moved by this direct and down-to-earth speech. She was not preaching something new. She was calling upon resources that her people already possessed. She was leading them to rediscover the...


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