Hope for Burmese reconciliation


PERFECT HOSTAGE: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Generals, by Justin Wintle. London: Arrow Books, 2007, 464 pp., £8.95 (paper)

In January, Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, voiced her growing frustration with the lack of progress in “national reconciliation” talks with the ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution, and the violent suppression of protests last September, a crescendo of international pressure built up against the SPDC, including from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, long known for ignoring human rights abuses in Burma (Myanmar). United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari was handed the task of nudging the generals toward a political transition.

The SPDC, however, does not seem interested in the type of power-sharing transition that either the international community or Suu Kyi has in mind. It remains committed to its own seven-step “road map” to democracy, one that has little credibility either inside or outside Burma. In mid-February it announced plans to hurriedly hold a referendum on a new constitution in May, allowing very little time for people to assess the document. Assuming the constitution is “approved,” elections will follow in 2010.

In “Perfect Hostage,” Justin Wintle reminds us of the “rigged” referendum held to gain popular endorsement for the 1974 Constitution (suspended by the current junta two decades ago), raising concerns that this year’s referendum may also prove a sham. Wintle suggests that the SPDC’s sporadic talks with Suu Kyi were aimed at damage control. She seems to agree, recently telling the Burmese to expect the worst.

Burma’s 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate is often compared to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. But who is the woman behind the iconic image? This superb biography goes a long way in helping readers understand her and why she has sacrificed so much for her nation. In telling her story, Wintle also recounts the life of her father Aung San, the independence fighter and founding father of modern Burma who was assassinated in 1948 when she was only 2.

Growing up as the daughter of a national hero was not easy. Her mother instilled a sense of duty, never remarried, and set an example by living frugally with dignity and resolve. At Oxford University, Suu Kyi was a serious student but did not distinguish herself in her studies. Nor did she participate in the swinging side of the ’60s. During holiday visits to an old family friend’s house in London, she met Michael Aris, a Himalayan specialist, who she later married despite her mother’s initial misgivings about betrothal to a foreigner.

After an idyll in Bhutan where her husband was researching and tutoring the royal family, Suu Kyi took a research position in 1985 at the University of Kyoto. Wintle writes, “Japan was not a hugely happy experience” for her as her son Kim was bullied at school and she “ran up against the inveterate chauvinism of the average Japanese male.”

At the end of March 1988 she learned that her mother had suffered a serious stroke and without hesitation embarked on a journey that would change her life, inspire the Burmese and focus world attention on their plight. Her arrival coincided with mass uprisings against the Ne Win regime, the consequences of which she saw in the hospital wards as she visited her mother. Ne Win, like her father, was trained by the Japanese, but she and her mother despised him, believing he had betrayed Aung San’s national vision. Wintle recounts the ghastly violence of the 1988 uprisings that claimed the lives of some 10,000 Burmese while thousands more suffered horrific conditions of torture and imprisonment. He criticizes NHK for never having the courage to air its video footage of this massacre.

Suu Kyi was thrust into a political leadership role even though she had spent most of her life overseas. Wintle helps us understand how she grew into the role and why the people responded to the hope she offered. In this portrait, she emerges as a prim and proper governess with flashes of her father’s impatience and sharp temper, committed to nonviolence, democracy and the cause of ethnic nationalities that constitute one-third of the population. Her steely tenacity made her an enemy of a state that relies heavily on intimidation, because she would not allow herself to become a prisoner of fear.

The junta placed her under house arrest in 1989, but her party, the National League for Democracy, won the 1990 elections in a landslide. The junta merely ignored the results.

Since then she has been mostly kept under house arrest, separated from her family and colleagues. Wintle poignantly recounts the junta’s shabby vindictiveness, not allowing her terminally ill husband to visit and also keeping her sons away.

On May 30, 2003, Suu Kyi was nearly assassinated as thugs descended on her convoy in Depayin and beat at least 70 of her supporters to death. Wintle concludes that the government was responsible for the attack and lays blame on Burma’s dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

Last September, the SPDC discovered just how unhappy the people are with 45 years of military misrule. Clearly, the people want more and still pin their tattered hopes on Suu Kyi. She may not have all the answers, but Wintle concludes that she offers the best chance at national reconciliation and an escape from the cycles of violence that cost Burma so much.