Reblogged from Source:
Aung San Suu Kyi: Beauty and the Beast
March 1, 2011
Newly released Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a powerful symbol of hope. But in her lifelong battle of wills with the regime, who is really winning?
Burma is a strange place to visit these days, particularly if you are waiting to see “the Lady,” which is how most Burmese refer to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released in November after seven years under house arrest.
Journalists are not welcome, so you can go there only as a tourist.
A foreign journalist can almost never speak to generals or mayors or official people.
And if you manage to get an appointment to see the Lady—which is fairly easy since she and her party members believe it’s one way to keep her flame alive—you have to stay under the radar or you’ll get deported before you’ve had your chance.
As for Burmese journalists and the some 150 privately owned journals they work for, after publishing special pages devoted to her release, they were promptly summoned by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (that censorship board required of all good tyrannies) and “advised” not to publish any more interviews with her.
Was it because, in the generals’ rendition (as they wrote in the state newspaper), Aung San Suu Kyi is an “evil ogress” who, if allowed, would “build her imperial palace on the skeletons and corpses of the nation”?
Or was Senior General Than Shwe simply peeved with all the attention she was getting?
In the real-life chronicles of Burma’s Beauty and the Beast—Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and military dictator Than Shwe—one episode stands out for its particular combination of whimsy, cruelty, and obsession:
A few years ago Than Shwe (who is now 78 and has ruled Burma for the past two decades) decided to develop fuel through the mass production of physic-nut shrubs.
Farmers across the country were ordered to plant them—despite the fact that the seeds contain toxins and poisoned dozens of children.
Apparently the reason for Than Shwe’s fixation on the nuts had less to do with their oil-producing capacities than with their Burmese name—kyet suu.
The two words are associated with Monday-Tuesday, and days of the week are so important in Burmese astrology that newborns are named, in part, after the day of their birth.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s name (pronounced “Awng San Soo Chee”) is associated with Tuesday-Monday.
So reportedly one of Than Shwe’s astrologers advised him to plant Monday-Tuesday nuts all over Burma to exterminate her powers and “prevent her seeds of dissent from taking root.”
Seven million acres were taken over from farmers for the project, and even city dwellers were ordered to cultivate the nuts on their balconies.
Why all this mystical effort to bring down a 65-year-old widow who has been locked away in her house in virtual solitary confinement for fifteen out of the last 22 years?
Why not just kill her?
After all, they tried in 1996 and in 2003.
They’ve had no compunction about razing villages and imprisoning thousands of protesters.
In 2007 they didn’t hesitate to beat peacefully demonstrating monks to death during what’s come to be known as the Saffron Revolution.
Perhaps more puzzling is why Aung San Suu Kyi elicits such anger and hatred from these omnipotent kleptocrats.
They hold all the riches and power in this lush tropical country—rubies, jade, teak, gold, a 400,000-man army, billions in Chinese, Indian, and Thai investments.
In their strategic paranoia, they managed to spend billions of dollars secretly erecting, in Fitzcarraldo-like fashion, a brand-new capital in the middle of the jungle.
Believing himself a reincarnation of the old Burmese warrior kings, Than Shwe dubbed his new city Naypyidaw, the “seat of kings.”
A U.S. diplomat told me the place was indescribable; then he described it perfectly: “a Nazi Disney World.”
“They’re jealous,” says an elderly academic, who does not want me to use his name, when we meet for tea at the stately Hotel Savoy:
“This meeting never happened.”
Jealous of what?
Like in high school?
Because she’s more popular?
What that jealousy means is that Burma, or Myanmar, as the generals renamed it to erase any association with the English colonial name, has become the locus of a drama that is as much about politics as it is a personal vendetta against a woman who has captured the imagination of the people and the world.
In a drama like this, every detail has a way of shaping a narrative of destiny—not just by sympathetic biographers and activists but by the angry dictator himself, who is doing almost everything in his power to rewrite Burmese history.
And write her out of the story.
The National League for Democracy—Aung San Suu Kyi’s party—is housed in an unassuming, wood-framed, two-story office along a busy commercial road around the corner from the Hotel Savoy.
The walls, tables, and shelves are covered in iconic posters and postcards of her. An old placard saying, CHILD LABOR IS NO GAME lies sideways atop a musty old glass cabinet.
A banner slung across one wall and signed by hundreds reads, FREE AUNG SAN SUU KYI. Piles of paper are stacked here and there near megaphones and generator adapters and enormous pots for crowd cooking.
Behind a small glass counter sits a middle-aged woman selling photographs of the Lady and greeting cards she designed by computer during her detention.
It feels at once like the ramshackle party headquarters that it is and the home of a cult. Everyone is busy and chatting, waiting for the Lady to arrive.
And as soon as she does, the room freezes and digital cameras and cell phones are instantly switched on to record her every move.
Across the street, the special police sitting with earphones in the back of a pickup truck are also filming everyone going in and out.
Aung San Suu Kyi is dressed in a soft pink blouse and a mauve sarong with blue, pink, and lavender flowers. In her hair above the nape of her neck rest two white roses.
She stops to greet a 90-year-old man who has traveled from Malaysia just to see her and pay his respects.
She wishes him many more years so he can return when he’s 100.
And then she’s gone, upstairs to meet the first of five journalists from around the world who’ve come to interview her today.
Of all the images in that packed office, one stands out.
It is of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Aung San, and it hangs over the entrance.
He’s in the background: youthful, fierce, and frozen at the age of 32.
A photo of her is superimposed in the foreground.
She looks to be in her late 50s, more like his mother than his daughter.
What glares out is his uniform—the officer’s cap and blazer.
Here is the founder of the modern Burmese army that is today tyrannizing his daughter and the nation.
Aung San was one of a circle of revolutionaries who rose up against British colonial rule.
In 1947, before he could realize his dream of an independent Burma under civilian rule, he was assassinated by political rivals.
Nevertheless, for the next fifteen years, there were elections, parliament, a constitution.
All that came to a bleeding halt in 1962, when General Ne Win—a “friend” and cohort of Aung San—overthrew the government, installed a military dictatorship to pursue the Burmese Path to Socialism, and later “civilianized” it under one-party rule.
It must have made Ne Win’s blood boil to see the daughter of Aung San return in 1988 to visit her sick mother and then, as if out of the blue, assume the mantle—in her father’s name—of a nonviolent democracy movement.
A month later she was named secretary general of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD).
The following year Suu Kyi, who had previously been written off as a foreign housewife with little interest in politics, was put under house arrest.
When I finally meet her upstairs in a quiet, simple office, she talks less of her father than of her mother, Khin Kyi, from whom she learned her first two words of English.
They were selfish and waste. She tolerated neither.
“Her life was service.
And I suppose that is where I grew up also believing for one’s life to be really meaningful, one must serve.”
The young Aung San Suu Kyi and her brothers were raised under the strict tutelage of Khin Kyi, who became Burma’s first female ambassador to India.
“I was a bit of a coward when I was small. I was terribly frightened of the dark,” she recalls with a breathy laugh.
“She didn’t approve of that at all, because she was frightened of nothing.”
So at the age of eleven, Suu Kyi would go downstairs and wander around at night in the dark, petrified.
After a few days she conquered her fear. “I’m glad I got used to it because if I hadn’t, I would have found it difficult to live on my own there for all those years,” she says, “there” being 54 University Avenue, the run-down two-story colonial-style villa on the lake that is her home and sometime prison.
Until her years of house arrest began, Suu Kyi lived as if in an Asian version of a Jane Austen novel (she’s read almost all of them, along with Dickens and Sherlock Holmes—“My first love!” she tells me).
She attended an all-girls college in Delhi, rode horses, arranged flowers, mingled with diplomats and political leaders, studied piano and foreign languages.
At nineteen, she went to Oxford, where she fell in love with Michael Aris, a charming young scholar of Tibetan and Buddhist studies.
Separated for nearly three years—Aris was hired to tutor the royal family in Bhutan; she came to NYU on a postgraduate program, then went to work for the U.N.—Suu Kyi and Aris conducted a romance in letters that are today locked away in the Bodleian Library and will undoubtedly appear as part of the movie version of Aung San Suu Kyi’s life.
(The week before I arrived in Burma, the actress Michelle Yeoh, best known for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, spent the day with Suu Kyi doing research for a Luc Besson biopic.)
The couple eventually married in London, lived in Bhutan, and then settled in Oxford, where she brought up her two sons, gave dinner parties for Oxford intellectuals, researched and wrote about Burmese history, including a short book about her father, and continued her lifelong study of Gandhi’s civil-disobedience movement against tyranny.
Like other activists in Burma, Suu Kyi and her family paid a heavy price for the political struggle.
After 1988, she never really lived again with her sons, Alexander and Kim, who at the time were fifteen and eleven.
In 1997 Michael Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The regime refused him a visa to visit his wife.
Even as he lay in the hospital dying two years later, the generals hounded her, cutting the phone lines whenever they tried to speak.
She never saw her husband again.
With such an epic story, it’s hard not to expect jewels to fall from Suu Kyi’s lips in an interview. But her release is no “Mandela moment,” as she reminds me.
(After all, Mandela’s release came at the end of negotiations.) In person, Suu Kyi exudes an air of total self-control, social grace, moral perfection, and even a prudish purity.
The perfect widow, the “perfect hostage,” as Justin Wintle has so aptly titled his biography of her. One of her friends from Oxford once said that she brings out the best in you, straightens your back, so to speak.
What you don’t expect is the little outbursts of humor or irreverence, and the hints of her father’s temper.
She jokes about becoming more fond of poetry in her old age, mentioning a spoof of “Casabianca,” a poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans that she’d had to memorize as a child.
The original begins: “The boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled./The flame that lit the battle’s wreck/Shone round him o’er the dead. . . .” It goes on to describe his obedient stoicism as he waits for his father’s permission to leave.
The parody she loved:
“The boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled./Twit!”
As soon as she says the word, she laughs at herself as if she knows how funny it is to hear Aung San Suu Kyi say “Twit.”
“I rather tended to agree with that.
I always thought it was very silly of him to have just stood on the deck saying, ‘Father, Father.’ ”
This is about the most she gives of her inner world, but in these moments you can feel the traces of charged charisma that has made her irresistible to millions of Burmese.
Under house arrest she was vigilant, disciplined, and regimented—which probably kept her sane as well.
She had no Internet, no satellite television, no phone. The radio was her lifeline; she listened five or six hours a day. “That was a job, really, whether I liked it or not.”
She regularly meditated and kept fit. Her devoted bodyguard, who only recently came out of prison himself, tells me she was still using old Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John workout videos.
But mostly she had a lot of time to read and think. “I have to confess I got very fond of Jean Valjean, my hero,” she says, referring to the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
In the book, Valjean redeems himself under various assumed identities after being branded a criminal for stealing bread.
“The whole novel was about revolutions, wasn’t it?”
A few weeks earlier Aung San Suu Kyi had spoken to John Simpson of the BBC, who tried to compare the Burmese situation with the Czech Velvet Revolution.
“This created a bit of a stir,” she says, not hiding her irritation.
“People said revolution”—gasp!—“that’s violence. Which is nothing of the kind.
Revolution simply means significant change. A significant changeover, if you like, and I’ve always said that the Burmese revolution for democracy has to be a revolution of the spirit.
The Burmese people have to understand that they are the ones who can achieve change, to accept the responsibility of shaping the destiny of our country.”
Than Shwe is often characterized as a psychopath in the great tradition of Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, even North Korea’s “dear leader,” Kim Jong-il.
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has gone further, comparing the generals to zombies—meeting with them, he has said, is like “talking to dead people.”
And yet Than Shwe has played a masterful game in outwitting, out-crushing, and out-waiting his military rivals, the ethnic-minority insurgent groups, the democratic opposition, the West, and even Burma’s national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Today her party, the NLD, is often characterized by Western diplomats, activists, and even onetime members as an out-of-touch relic, consisting mostly of “old uncles.”
The majority of the party’s intellectuals are either in prison or in exile. And Suu Kyi herself is blamed almost as much as Than Shwe for the country’s isolation.
If Than Shwe has played into a fairy tale about Aung San Suu Kyi, it is perhaps not the one she would have chosen.
Shut away for so long, the Lady of the Lake has become some twisted amalgam of Rip Van Winkle and Sleeping Beauty.
She’s been in a cocoon, radio or no radio. Even her supporters in Rangoon say her thinking is outdated, stuck in a time of pure ideals and principles when the masses were ready for ideological upheaval and change.
The qualities once so admired by her adoring followers now seem a liability. Her poise looks like rigidity; her self-control like political inflexibility.
“Gaps. Generation gap.
Even the ideological gap,” a well-known Burmese writer told me, describing the new environment she must adapt to.
“And the ideological is her biggest challenge.”
Suu Kyi’s powerful essays and speeches from the 1990s all return to the idea that man is more than an economic creature, but after 50 years of military kleptocracy, malnutrition, rampant HIV, malaria, infant mortality, one of the worst health systems in the world, and a devastating cyclone killing some 220,000 that the authorities did little to respond to, what energy is left for moral principles?
Even the monks who took to the streets in 2007 did so because of massive overnight fuel hikes that no one could afford.
So when Suu Kyi called for investigations into the fraudulent elections of early November, very few people were on her side.
Everyone knew they were a sham. When she called for a review of the generals’ new constitution, again no one cared.
As an economist said to me, “I told her the people want rice!”
Rangoon is a hard city to read. Much of what really goes on is invisible.
There are no soldiers or tanks on the streets.
The fear instilled by the regime is more insidious and internalized.
What you do feel the minute you arrive is its isolation, the listlessness of a place left behind.
The bars and cafés are a collage of Asian gaudy, mid-century milk bars, and the American West—John Denver and country-and-Western are big in the karaoke scene.
The Victorian-era colonial buildings remain but have been abandoned to monsoon erosion.
The taxis should be preserved in a museum to human ingenuity:
They are shells of their former Toyota selves—scrap metal bumping along with a car battery. World War II Jeeps are jerry-rigged with wires and batteries to haul truck beds.
I visit a village in Central Burma where no tourists have been for years. It is medieval. Oxen are still pulling carts full of hay.
There’s no irrigation. Water is hauled in barrels from outside the village or captured in vats from the rain.
And there’s no electricity. Burma used to be the jewel of Asia, one of its most educated and advanced nations.
But as soon as the generals gleaned that education and students were the real threat to their power, they began sapping them of resources and even premises.
Beautiful old Rangoon University is a collection of abandoned buildings and grass. Students have to travel out of the city to study.
“The character of the people has also eroded. Morality’s lost,” says Kyaw Thu, one of Burma’s most celebrated film stars.
“Bribery is normal now. Young girls work in karaoke and massage parlors.
The only focus is money for survival.”
Banned from filmmaking for daring to feed monks during the 2007 demonstrations, Kyaw Thu and his wife, Myint Myint Khin Pe, spend seven days a week running the Free Funeral Services and a health-care clinic on a former dump site on the outskirts of Rangoon.
He looks like a Samurai warrior, with a long ponytail, earrings, a black sarong, and a Nehru-style linen waistcoat.
His wife does most of the talking. Like everyone else I meet in Rangoon, they are great admirers of Aung San Suu Kyi.
But they also fear the effect that a visit from her could have on their center.
After she showed up at her own party’s HIV clinic, the government threatened to shut it down and shift the patients to a state-run facility.
Kyaw Thu visited the clinic with a famous Burmese singer and director and urged the government on TV to have sympathy for the patients.
Miraculously, inexplicably, the regime relented. I ask his wife if she thinks Aung San Suu Kyi has any power to help the country anymore.
“If she doesn’t confront the regime too much,” she says and smiles.
“They are very powerful. She must be clever.”
Outside the center, Kyaw Thu points to their fleet of hearses.
In Burmese tradition, a gravedigger is at the lowest level of society.
No one wants to touch the dead, yet death is the hardest time for a family, and no one can afford to pay for funerals.
Kyaw Thu had watched as anonymous bodies were piled into the hearse taking his wealthy grandmother to her grave and decided he never wanted to see that again.
But he also knows that to work for the poor, he has to compromise with the rich.
One of the hearses—a Japanese import—is decorated with a tall, tiara-like gold sculpture rising high above the windshield.
It is reserved for monks, people over 80, and, yes, the military.
Times have changed. Ideology is out.
Pragmatism is in.
And this applies to the sanctions debate that has re-emerged with Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.
For the last fifteen years, the West has punished the regime for its brutality with sanctions.
And as long as Suu Kyi and her exiled lobby groups advocate for them, it’s unlikely that any Western politician or donor will have the nerve to go up against a Nobel Peace laureate’s moral hard line.
So there’s no World Bank or International Monetary Fund assistance, no microloans, and very little humanitarian aid, almost the lowest per capita in the world.
“In 1996 she said, ‘It’s no time for humanitarian aid. We need political change.’
Well, I wish you luck, but in the meantime the people are dying like rats,” said an outraged European doctor, swigging the end of his beer and ordering another.
We were at the 365 Café, a noodle bar with menus in English, bad techno music, and plastic vines festooning the place.
We were the only ones there: too expensive for most Burmese.
“Because we don’t like the generals, we don’t give lifesaving drugs to people? Does that make sense?”
Put like that? Of course not.
But sanctions and divestment certainly assisted the cause of anti-apartheid in South Africa.
In Burma, however, sanctions have left the country hostage to its ravenous neighbors.
China, India, and Thailand are pillaging its natural resources, building massive dams and industrial zones with no environmental regulations or concern for the displacement of thousands of farmers.
“The Chinese dump cyanide for gold-dredging in the Irrawaddy River, so villagers have stopped eating the fish,” a Burmese woman who works in rural development told me.
She would rather deal with Western companies, which at least must abide by some regulations.
“The government doesn’t know anything about pollution standards.
They are military guys in the Dark Ages. We need to bring in fresh air. We need to de-isolate the military.”
There is a movement afoot in Rangoon that some are calling the third force or middle way.
Its adherents want to open up the country to Western companies, and they want training programs for civil society that would include people from the regime—whether police or civil servants.
Compromise: That is what everyone wants from Aung San Suu Kyi.
She says she has always been ready to enter into a dialogue with the generals. Her problem is that she is not very good at lying, making nice, smiling at evil.
During her periods of freedom, in 1996 and 2001, the generals would take her to see their bridges and roads, expecting her to say, “Oh, you’ve done such a nice job.”
They wanted her approval. Instead, all she could see was that the bridges led nowhere, that they were built by forced labor, that the people they were meant for had no education or health care.
When they took her to see their projects in the north, all she could see was the Chinafication of the region—casinos, prostitutes, Chinese karaoke.
What I heard from writers, editors, development workers, activists, and artists was the desire for a new role for their Nobel laureate, something above the dirty fray of politics.
They want her to abandon party politics, become a mediator between the people and the military and an advocate for democracy.
Ironically, it is the old Beauty and the Beast story; they just want the ending now.
“Treat the generals with kindness. Respect them. Remember they are male-chauvinist pigs, so charm them and make yourself an asset,” says the old academic I met at the Hotel Savoy.
In other words, kiss the beast into a prince—or at least something the country can live with.
So much is pinned on Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite their frustrations with her, she remains the most potent symbol of hope in Burma. People want her to be a psychological strategist, an economist, and a benevolent godmother to the people and the junta.
Which may explain her wistful last words to me. “I don’t think I have achieved anything that I can really be proud of,” she said. “When we’ve achieved democracy, I’ll tell you.”