Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Book Review: Aung San Suu Kyi – A Biography by Jesper Bengtsson

Every time I read the autobiography or biography of a larger than life political character, individuals like Jinnah or Gandhi or Imran Khan or Sonia Gandhi, I look for clues or explanations as to why they are different from ordinary mortals. What makes these people tick? Why did Gandhi throw away his legal career in pursuit of political rights? Why did a secular Jinnah convert to the role of an Islamic guardian and seek to partition India? Why is Sonia Gandhi willing to stay in politics even after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, though she had been dead set against Rajiv Gandhi entering politics? Why is Imran Khan, the erstwhile playboy, willing to put up with so many brickbats as he somehow manages to stay afloat in the murky waters of Pakistani politics? Is it because these individuals are visionary saints who are so concerned about public welfare that they will make sacrifice after sacrifice to implement their vision for the improvement of society or are they so egoistic that they are willing to put up with any number of brickbats in order to be in the limelight? Or is it a combination of both?

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of legendary Burmese leader Aung San and his wife Khin Kyi. Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi was published very recently, but I assume it was sent to press a few weeks before bye-elections were held on 1 April 2012 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 out of the 44 seats in the fray. Aung San Suu Kyi is now all set to enter Parliament. When Bengtsson’s book went to press, negotiations were still on between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi, with little sign of any easing up in the junta’s rigid stance. Nevertheless, Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is a good book which goes a long way in helping us understand this great lady.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, the legendary leader of Burma, was killed a few months before Burma gained independence. He was poised to become the ruler of Burma. Bengtsson tells us that as a communist student leader Aung San was a man who wore dirty clothes, did not care about personal hygiene and practiced his speeches in front of the bushes. A man who founded the Communist Party of Burma, only to side with the Japanese, and even later switched sides yet again and fought the Japanese on the side of the British, Aung San comes across as a man who wants the best for Burma, with himself at the helm.

If Aung San hadn’t been assassinated, would Burma have been better off under him? Bengtsson would have us believe so. Bengtsson argues that Aung San was such a pragmatist that he would have acted as an unifying factor in a country with so many ethnic minorities, not unlike India, all of whom were persuaded with promises of autonomy at the time of Burmese independence to be part of the same country, again not unlike India.

Unlike her father, Aung San Suu Kyi does not appear to have a rough side to her at all in Bengtsson’s narrative. She has steel in her, lots of it, but all of that toughness is couched in beauty and gentleness. When interviewed by Bengtsson, she did not appear to be affected by her long imprisonment. Rather, we hear her say Nelson Mandela-esque that ‘the military gave me seven years of rest, so now I am full of energy to continue my work.’ There are incidents which show her to be very good at public relations. When asked during an election campaign why she married a foreigner, she replied that ‘I just happened to live in England when I was at the age when you get married. If I had lived in this village I might have been married to you.’ Could there have been a better reply than that?

We are told that Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother did not attend her wedding to Englishman Michael Aris. Her only surviving brother Aung San Oo was not present either. Apparently marrying a foreigner is frowned upon in Burma, yet Aung San Suu Kyi went ahead and followed her heart, knowing fully well that it would not help her political career. Later in life, when it came to a choice between living with her husband and children in the UK and pursuing a political career in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi chose the latter. Devotees may well argue that Aung San Suu Kyi was not just following a political career, rather she was fighting an authoritarian regime, one she was best placed to fight as the daughter of Aung San. Bengtsson’s biography has so many instances of Aung San Suu Kyi skirmishing with soldiers and holding her ground in the face of mighty odds. There can be no dispute that Aung San Suu Kyi is a good human being who follows her instincts and does what she thinks is right.

Now that Burma has returned to the path of democracy, is it likely to be friendly with India? Just like China, India too did not support the pro-democracy movement as much as it ought to have done. Rather, the emphasis was on doing business in Burma and getting the Burmese military regime to flush out Indian insurgents sheltering in Burma. The Burmese have for historical reasons had a negative opinion of Indians who acted as middlemen for the British in Burma. Bengtsson tells us that at the time of Burmese independence, cosmopolitan Rangoon had more Indians than Burmese. ‘Kala’ is a derogatory term used by the Burmese for Indians and other foreigners. There’s an interesting anecdote narrated by Bengtsson where an army captain who almost killed Aung San Suu Kyi (he was stopped at the last minute by a Major) later sat in the local police station, drunk, swearing to kill ‘the wife of that Indian.’ Bengtsson explains that among racist Bamar, all foreigners are called Indians. However, let’s not forget that Aung San Suu Kyi had a large chunk of her education in India (at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School and later at the Lady Shri Ram college) while her mother was posted in Delhi as the Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal. Bengtsson also tells us that while at Oxford, Aung San Suu Kyi ‘spent a lot of time with Indian students and at the beginning of her term, she fell in love with one of them. But her interest was not reciprocated and their contact never developed into a relationship. ‘One did catch a glimpse of her persistency in that case,’ says Ann Pasternak Slater. ‘It was clear from the start that he wasn’t interested in her in the same way she was in him, but she refused to give up. She held on to it for much longer than anyone else would have done.’ Hopefully Aung San Suu Kyi still harbours friendly feelings for India and Indians.

Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi not only profiles the subject very well, it is also a good primer on modern Burmese history. I found out a number of things I had no clue about – such as how after the communist takeover of China, a few divisions of Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops sheltered in the inaccessible jungles of the Shan State, received extensive support from the CIA, produced opium, refined it into heroin, all under CIA supervision, made various attempts to attack communist China until in the 1960s, a combined attack by Chinese and Burmese forces drove them into Laos. Even though events in Burma have taken a dramatic turn just after publication of this book, it is a very good read for anyone interested in understanding modern Burma.


Ruchira Shukla said...

Good review

Roshmi Sinha said...

Umm, the great Khan’s promised ‘tsunami’ is also wearing shining boots-beret-caps-black coats-flash bulbs-plus-lots-of-talk-time, apart from being aided by ample amounts of Hollywood-ian ‘special effects’, not to forget humongous quantities of botox shots, hair weaves, wrinkle removers and even the surgeon’s scalpel and knife!

Coming to Burma (now Myanmar) – during the British rule, lots of Indians went there – to seek fortune or set up business – and haven’t left a good impression. Perhaps the epithets for Indians reflect that.

About Aung Sung Suu Kyi, we have to see how things unfold. Being an icon is much easier than being a hands-on leader, trying to take along various shades of people and opinion. Give and take, compromises and difficult choices will be the order of the day, and one needs to get their hands dirty. International politics is very choppy waters … not to speak of smoke and mirrors. More to it than meets the eye. Given the various ‘springs’ supported by various nations, etc., big businesses that are keen to take advantage of the market in Myanmar cannot do so without an acceptable cover or face; and there is a need to keep the influence of the red dragon at bay as well. So, after 20 years, a Nobel Peace prize and tons of lip service paid-to-her-later – she is finally free and elections have been held too.

My two pence.

Winnowed said...

Aung San Suu Kyi has a long for to go. There is no guarantee she will get to be prime minister and be in a position where she can make a difference. If she gets there, will she be successful? I think she has a good chance of doing good because she has enormous international goodwill and she has shown herself to be clever and sensible. So far, that is.

Roshmi Sinha said...

Only time will tell. As I said, international politics is very choppy waters. Also the 1st and 2nd world have always been more inclined to work with people in uniform, and have had very little patience for democratic ones, especially when they have replaced regimes in uniform.