Sweet and Sour

November 19, 2010

Heroic coldness

MYANMAR, formerly known as Burma (its natives are still known as Burmese), has hit the headlines big-time in the past few days because Aung San Suu Kyi, the  globally admired Burmese civil rights activist, has just been released by the ruling military junta, having spent l5 out of the past 2l years under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s life story is fascinating and impressive. As the daughter of dignitaries (her late father, a General, commanded the Burmese Independence army, her late mother was Burma’s ambassador to India), the wife of a highly respected British academic (the late Michael Aris) and a successful professional scholar in her own right (she is a graduate and Honorary Fellow of Oxford University), she could easily have opted for an uncontroversial bourgeois existence within the cosy bosom of the Western intellectual community.

But she decided to become an Amazon instead. While other ladies of her ilk were enjoying domestic bliss and well-paid European college jobs, Aung San Suu Kyi headed back to her far-from-comfortable homeland and exposed herself to innumerable risks. She wound up paying a very high price for her bold patriotism

In 1988, at a time when widespread anti-government protests were plunging Burma into turmoil, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to the authorities (who were violently suppressing their opponents) in which she demanded that an independent consultative committee be set up to organise multi-party elections.

She then (despite the constant harassment she faced from law enforcement agents and a ban on political gatherings comprising more than four people) started to address the general public at nationwide rallies and became General Secretary of a newly formed party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Her defiance was relentless, her courage awesome. In April 1989, she fearlessly walked towards soldiers who were aiming rifles at her (since thousands of her supporters had been shot, she couldn’t have known that these normally trigger-happy goons would resist the temptation to despatch her to her Maker).

By July of the same year, the authorities had had enough of her rebelliousness  and she was detained without charge or trial. She promptly embarked on a hunger strike and the NLD won 82 per cent of parliamentary seats in the 1990 election.

The dictatorship, frustrated by its failure to manipulate voters, flatly refused to accept this result and Aung San Suu Kyi remained under lock and key.

The civilized world responded by bestowing several prestigious awards on her, including the Nobel Peace Prize (which her two sons collected on her behalf).

Now, thank God, this passionate champion of the masses is free at last; and though she is 68, she looks and sounds vibrant rather than elderly. And I will never cease to marvel at her extraordinary strength of character and charisma.

But while regarding Aung San Suu Kyi as a wonderful role model (for males as well as females) who is definitely on a par with the great Nelson Mandela – and while wistfully wishing that I was brave enough to fight against the rubbish to which we are subjected in Nigeria as gutsily as she has battled against the crude tyranny that has polluted and stunted Myanmar for decades – there is an aspect of her personality – an unfamiliar coldness – I wouldn’t want to emulate.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was incarcerated, she was separated from her children and husband. And they weren’t allowed to visit her often. In 1999, Michael Aris discovered that he had terminal cancer. He had not seen his wife for four years at that stage and petitioned the authorities to let him visit her one last time.

Their answer was (I paraphrase): “No…let her visit you in London if she wants to see you before you pass away. We will gladly release her for that purpose”.

I would, if I had been in her shoes, have suspended my ideological concerns and rushed off to console my dying husband and soon-to-be-bereaved offspring. But Aung San Suu Kyi rejected this offer, on the grounds that it was a ruse to get rid of her.

She was sure that if she left Myanmar, she would not be permitted to return to continue her struggle. And Aris died without bidding her farewell.

According to one of her fans, she regarded this refusal to say goodbye to the man she loved, an immensely good man who stood by her through thick and thin, “as one of the sacrifices she had to make in order to work for a free Burma”.

I was horrified when I came across this segment of her biography. If I was her friend, I would have begged her to be a devoted wife and go to London and re-establish her struggle from abroad if she was exiled; and it really surprises me that not one of the many commentaries I have read in newspapers or heard on TV contains any criticism of her ruthless treatment of poor old Michael Aris.

Icons are often as hard-as-nails on a personal level; and it’s clear that Aung San Suu Kyi was more concerned with the larger Liberationist picture than with the soft spousal sentimentalities that would preoccupy most mere mortals.

They say that “home is where the heart is”. And I guess that Aung San Suu Kyi reserved her heart for her bigger home – Myanmar – and its millions of downtrodden citizens. For her, the smaller family home was less important.

I’d be very interested to hear Vanguard readers’ reactions. Am I being unfair to disapprove of what Aung San Suu Kyi did? Or is it OK for heroes of either gender to be chillingly unemotional when major principles are at stake?