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Looking again at Aung San Suu Kyi

October 31, 2007

Last week, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s leader in waiting, met with a representative of the Burmese military. I’d glanced briefly at the picture in the various articles. But then a friend sent me a high-resolution version. It was the same picture (seen below) showing Aung San Suu Kyi in her meeting with a labor minister turned government intermediary. His name, confusingly enough, is Aung Kyi. Apparently, on his last visit to Burma, UN envoy Gambari suggested this permanent position be created. The junta chose this man to represent them with their prisoner and nemesis. But this larger version sent by my friend is much more detailed.

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The Burmese government is one of the most secretive on earth. Greedy for details, I scroll each corner of the photo, which—viewed at 100%—is much larger than my monitor. It is almost like I am looking through a magnifying glass. At first I don’t see much.

I want Senators to see through the eyes not of powerful constituents but through the eyes of ordinary Burmese people.

Even from the smaller picture that appeared beside news stories of the meeting, reported to have lasted less than an hour, one can see the doilies on the high-backed chairs’ arms, the formality of the meeting, the bright, stately colors; Suu Kyi has her ankles crossed, very properly. The interiors are lush, as is the immaculate carpet, the ornate furniture made of teak. (Of course, I inevitably think of the teak forests which, even within protected wildlife parks, are being clear cut to fund military atrocities and to clear out rebels and their families in those forests.)

But this is backstory, a distraction perhaps to what’s present. I’m trying to see this photo beyond politics, because—in a way, if it isn’t a paradox—that’s what I want Congress to do. I want Senators like Diane Feinstein to go to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus tomorrow (November 1) on oil, timber and jewels in Burma, and not see the situation through the eyes of powerful constituent-conglomerates (Chevron is headquartered in Feinstein’s state) but through the eyes of ordinary Burmese people. And not through loaded language, phrases rendered meaningless through repetition, but language that somehow might rise to that endangered species in politics: sincerity.

I make myself look a little closer at this woman who has been under house arrest for most of the past 17 years or so. I’ve read, and even written, about her house arrest enough now that it has the sound, to me, of a position rather than a statement of plain fact. I say it like I’ve taken sides, which I suppose I have: she should be free. I look again. Even from far back, from zoomed out in the smaller version of the photo, she wears her unhappiness visibly on her face. (I can’t help but compare this to other pictures I’ve seen of her.) Over the past year or two, there were persistent rumors of her ailing health, which dogged the junta; prove she isn’t being starved or tortured, the international community demanded. Finally her doctor reported some cold or other, a photo was released, and the clamor died down. Here she looks less than vibrant, I am sad to say. In my Photoshop application, I zoom in a little on her side of the shot.

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From this vantage, one sees the red purse on her lap, that she wears a wrist watch—this woman with nothing but time—and earrings. Her hands are clasped together, and look somewhat pale. Her veins show. (I think of John Pilger’s documentary on her, Land of Fear; her neighbors, banned from visiting her, were comforted by the sound of her constant piano playing.) But the lead story here, written across her face, is of hurt pride, loss, indignation; she is angry, defiant, tormented. She has suffered.

Again I find myself slipping into her biography, because her paleness, her veins, remind me of what she’s been through and how in-pursuit-of-her I’ve been, by way of writing about Burma, how much a symbol she is. (For Burmese exiles and opposition, her image is as ubiquitous as that of Che in Cuba.) If one becomes newly interested in Burma, as I did last year, signs can lead from her or to her; her advocates point to her as symbol of greatness, she points back to them.

Her father, Aung San, won Burma’s independence from the UK, but was assassinated before democracy took root. Suu Kyi herself managed to stay out of politics; leading a quiet academic life, she might have stayed in England, happily married to Michael Aris, an expert on Himalayan culture at Oxford. But, like anything, it was all in the timing.

She has been unfairly beatified by supporters around the globe.

Her mother got sick in 1988, and Aung San Suu Kyi traveled home without her husband or two young sons. A new democracy movement was taking root; the overconfident military dictatorship, then run by General Ne Win, a ladies’ man and gambler who practiced the occult, promised democratic elections in Burma. If he sought to keep power, this was a serious blunder. Meanwhile, democracy leaders saw Suu Kyi’s potential draw in their movement and convinced her to join the National League for Democracy. Her popularity soared, the generals arrested her, and she won the election from her home-prison. It was a bloody season, beginning with the generals opening fire on the movement’s rallying throngs. The last time she was in public, fifteen years after that massacre when she was briefly released in 2003, 100 of Suu Kyi’s supporters were killed around her and she was re-arrested.

But she has been unfairly beatified by supporters around the globe.

Burmese reverentially call her The Lady. When interviewers have been allowed into her home, she has deflected questions about the difficulty she faces to point out that so many of her peers incarcerated by the regime endure much worse. Acquaintances describe her in Freedom from Fear, a collection of writings by and about her edited by Aris, as steely-eyed with discipline, focused, good-natured, polite; she refused to drink alcohol at Oxford while studying there and verged on the naive when it came to questions of dating.

Disciplined, strong, moral, principled, yes. But the good news is, she has not crossed into some other realm free totally from fear and difficult emotions, a realm that you and I cannot get to. She is not a saint but a woman, a mother, a widow. One vignette describes her after a phone call with Aris was cut short during a period of her house arrest in 1999; Aris was on his death bed, sick with cancer, and the generals wouldn’t allow her to call him back to finish what turned out to be their last conversation. She burst into tears in front of attendants.

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Nearly a decade on, her eyes look moist again. The most conspicuous item brought in for the meeting sits between her and the government envoy…

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…a box of tissues.

She is a devout Buddhist. When two protesting monks last month broke government rules banning visitors from approaching her property, and stole up to her to offer solidarity and pay respects, again she cried. As I zoom in on her eyes, clearly she has cried in her meeting with Aung Kyi (who may himself have cried, judging by a little glint of moisture caught by the flash in his left eye). Hers look like cold tears.

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What has he said to her? Reports suggested that there has been talk of a power-share between her and the generals. This would be a huge capitulation for both sides. In the past the generals have expressed the following wishes: that she leave the country (which she has refused) and that she ask the outside world to lift sanctions (refuting the premise that the generals don’t care one way or another about sanctions). Has Mr. Kyi been asked to mention the deaths, the toll in lives on her people, to lure her from her principles with promises of freedom of movement? …with “You will see your sons.” The government has sent him to represent their position, but the government doesn’t actually need him to report anything back, does it? Because the military government hears her directly themselves. They are listening, directly—in the same way our government here in the United States now listens in to us…

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It is perhaps the last thing I notice. This is Orwell’s Inner Party Suu Kyi is dealing with. This is her interview with O’Brien. Did she see the wires? Could this be something harmless, a dehumidifier perhaps, or are the generals bugging her? What else could it be? Did this dignified woman struggle to prevent her captors, her friends’ killers from hearing her cry out?

Scrolling around the photograph for the least detail once more I see the wires run out of the frames. I see the yellow folio Mr. Kyi has placed on the lamp table beside him, perhaps with the government’s terms written neatly on pages inside it, perhaps with photographs of nefarious acts that might compel her to leave Burma. One simply cannot say. His glasses have been placed in his gray shirt pocket for the photograph. The banality of evil.

Back to Suu Kyi: her blue sandals are raised, about half an inch taller than the envoy’s, perhaps to keep her feet from sinking into puddles during heavy rains. Her nails on both hands and feet are unadorned, unpainted. Her neck is a little strained, her posture perfect, her usually vibrant face deadened. She even refuses to look directly at the camera. With all the weapons and wealth at their disposal, with the menace and memory of all those they have killed, they cannot make her turn her eyes where she has chosen not to turn them.

—Joel Whitney, Guernica

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