Under my byline

Seeing Suu Kyi

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 22 August 2009

Aung San Suu KyiOVERLEAF 43

Amitav Ghosh met Aung San Suu Kyi twice in 1995-96, while he was “At Large in Burma” researching the essay of that title he wrote for the New Yorker (it later became part of his excellent book of narrative reportage, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma). About seven months elapsed between the two meetings. Ghosh spent that time meeting dissidents; he also travelled to the Thai border in the east, to visit the Karenni, a minority ethnic group fighting a guerrilla war in its native forests against the Burmese army.

In those same months in Rangoon, Suu Kyi came out of house arrest and returned to active politics. Her party, the National League for Democracy, called a conference on the anniversary of their election victory in 1990, but the military government prevented most of the participants from attending. Suu Kyi responded by announcing that her party would draft a democratic constitution for Burma, rather than wait for the one the government was supposed to be working on. But the government forestalled that option as well, and banned the informal political meetings Suu Kyi held at her gate every week to meet supporters and answer questions.

So Ghosh met her on either side of these momentous events; and he had also attended several of her “gateside meetings”. He writes with some sadness of the change he observed, particularly the absence of Suu Kyi’s earlier “lightheartedness”. At his first gateside meeting in 1995, he writes, “I was startled by how much she laughed. At times, she would break up in giggles, with a hand over her mouth; at other times, she would laugh full-throatedly, throwing her head back.” The people in the crowd “laughed with her, uproariously”. This, despite the constant and active surveillance of government intelligence agents.

In their first one-on-one meeting, Suu Kyi had spoken with a laugh of the effort it took to keep her house clean and to catch the rain that fell through the leaky roof. She was also unguarded enough to speak of her joy at seeing her younger son after years, during which he had grown from child to man.

On the issue, familiar to us Indians, of “colonial” versus indigenous names, her position had a matter-of-factness quite foreign to us. Burma had been renamed Myanmar, Rangoon Yangon, and so on, by the military government in 1989. “Would you rather I used the old names?” Ghosh asked, and Suu Kyi said “Yes, please”, adding: “I do not like narrow-mindedness… I think if you have enough confidence in yourself you should not worry about what you are called.”

The second time the two met, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), far from censuring the military government, had just welcomed Burma as a member. Suu Kyi said she thought that quite normal. “I was witnessing,” Ghosh writes, with this and other responses in mind, “Suu Kyi the tactician… She now seemed much more the politician, opaque and often abrupt in her answers.” She had also, despite the ASEAN entry, reversed her stand on sanctions — now, they were welcome, because foreign investment in Burma would “only help to make [the government] richer and richer”. But, as we have seen, and as Suu Kyi then did not, China, India and others have continued to engage with the generals, and not out of any concern for the Burmese.

Amitav Ghosh, Dancing in Cambodia...Last week the generals returned Suu Kyi to house arrest for 18 months, enough to prevent her campaigning in the very limited elections scheduled for next year.

At his first meeting, Ghosh noted that Suu Kyi, despite her animation, had a “sovereign, inviolate aloneness”. That trait may have been a source of strength, but it can be a mixed blessing in a political leader, particularly one who may eventually take charge of a nation so bitterly torn by past and present injustice, some of which she experienced personally.

Isolation and adulation create a myth that may one day meet an unexpected reality. If only another witness, a superb writer-reporter like Amitav Ghosh, were able to visit Burma and its leader again after this latest period of silence.

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