Podcast (Audio only)
On April 1, Burma will hold elections. Among the candidates running for a parliamentary seat is Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), the long-time democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who endured more than 15 years of house arrest before being freed in November 2010. Several days before the ballot, the Wilson Center’s Asia Program hosted a talk by Peter Popham, author of The Lady and the Peacock, a new biography of ASSK.
Popham, a journalist for The Independent, traced the arc of ASSK’s political career. During her early adult years, she showed little interest in politics. She left Burma at the age of 14, received an education at Oxford, and happily immersed herself in the British cultural fads of the late 1960s.
When she finally returned to her country in April 1988, Burma was on the cusp of a popular uprising led by nascent pro-democracy forces. ASSK, however, had returned not to get involved in politics, but to care for her ailing mother, who had suffered a stroke. Pro-democracy leaders seized on ASSK’s return to Burma to invite her to join their campaign; they believed that the involvement of ASSK—the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San—would bring prestige to their fledgling movement.
Initially, ASSK hesitated to join politics, fearing the disruption it would bring to her family. Yet she eventually relented. In August 1988, she made her first speech. She began travelling the country, attracting huge crowds and “an adoring following almost overnight.” Popham attributed her instant popularity to her famous father, but also to her style of communication. Because she had lived abroad and outside of the formal strictures of Burma for so long, her speeches were unusually informal and witty, which endeared her to the masses.
As she became more involved in politics, ASSK began to take direct aim at Burma’s repressive junta. Her tactics—including the singling out of individual Army leaders by name and declaring them responsible for 20 years of Burmese suffering—set in motion the series of house arrests that would mark her life for two decades.Popham said that once ASSK “disappeared” into house arrest, perceptions of her became quite simplistic. In the West, she was regarded as a “political saint,” while in the East she was seen as a Buddha-like figure. His intention in The Lady and the Peacock, he explained, is to capture the complexity lying beneath these “black-and-white” images. The book offers a portrait of ASSK as firm and strong-willed, but also as deeply moral and sincere. She is depicted as determined not just to blaze a unique political trail separate from that of her father, but also to forge solidarity with the masses.
Popham concluded with a discussion of ASSK’s objectives should she, as is widely expected, win a seat in Parliament. Her goals, he said, are more ambitious than simply serving as a parliamentarian. She hopes to change the country’s constitution—especially the clause that allots 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military. She also hopes to address Burma’s ethnic strife by negotiating a new agreement with the country’s many ethnic minorities. Still, the obstacles facing Burma are immense. Popham observed that while ASSK has weathered numerous challenges in her life, she would face “her toughest challenge yet” if the April 1 election catapults her into a position in government.