Sonia Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi have overcome tragic and arduous pasts to emerge as leaders of India and Burma. What’s next for these two historic icons?
Image courtesy Katin Ho
India has celebrated sixty-five years of independence and fifteen years of per capita income growth. The country still suffers, however, from uneven economic management, rampant corruption, and the chaotic difficulties that stem from scores of languages and a population that exceeds one billion. Nearby Burma is in upheaval, while it attempts to make the transition to democracy after half a century of military rule. Media censorship was lifted in August, but civil war still rages in the north and floods have caused major strife.
Both nations are complex, and both have histories heavily influenced by what Forbes refers to as “power women.” These respective leaders and icons, Sonia Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi, have led extraordinary, and, at times, tragic lives. Now, both are forced to defend their worldviews. Gandhi’s Indian National Congress party has suffered a series of defeats in assembly elections, and Suu Kyi is making the careful transition from dissident to parliamentarian.
At Asia House in London this past May, journalists Peter Popham and Rani Singh—who have just published new biographies of Gandhi and Suu Kyi, respectively—joined democracy scholar Mukulika Banerjee to discuss what the experience of these women can tell us about power, dynasty, and the political game. Jane Macartney, former Beijing correspondent for the New York Times and Reuters, moderated.
–Conversation published courtesy of Asia House London
Jane Macartney: I’d like to start by asking our two authors to talk a little bit about their books. I’ve learned that Peter and Rani are in some competition in the bestseller lists in India. So let’s hear from Peter on The Lady and the Peacock.
Peter Popham: The idea of writing a new biography of Aung San Suu Kyi was in my mind for the last five or six years, and around 2005 it sort of germinated. For a long time, it didn’t seem a particularly good idea because, as most of you know, she was under house arrest from 2003 until 2010. The last period of her house arrest lasted for seven and a half years, and it was a period of almost total isolation. She was in an increasingly dilapidated villa by the side of the lake in Rangoon, so she passed the time by moving her mattress from one part of the bedroom to the other to avoid drips coming through the ceiling. She had no contact with her family. She had no contact, or very little contact, with diplomats. Almost no contact at all with her political party. The regime had done everything in their power to banish her from people’s consciousness. And she might as well not have existed.
It didn’t look a particularly promising idea because more than fifteen years of her life since 1990 had been spent in this way, looking out at the lake entirely surrounded by soldiers, and leading a very strange and very lonely life. However, the last year and a half has been quite extraordinary for her and also for Burma. She was released from house arrest in November 2010. Immediately afterward, there was a completely fake general election in which her party did not participate. For the next nine months, very little happened. I went to see her in March last year and the National League for Democracy—her party—was still in full swing. It was selling t-shirts with her picture, they were having meetings. But it was like a little island of free political activity in a sea of complete repression, with no sign of change.
Then—rather abruptly and with very little warning—in August that began to change, with the president emerging as a reforming figure. And as many of you will have noticed, the political landscape in Burma is completely unrecognizable today. So it’s a very interesting and exciting moment for this extraordinary person and her struggle.
Rani Singh: People are fascinated by Sonia Gandhi because of her trajectory. For those of you who don’t know how she achieved the place she has now—which is very high on the Forbes most powerful list, Time Magazine’s most powerful list, and Newsweek’s most powerful list—she was born in northern Italy. She fell in love with Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge and traveled nearly halfway across the world to marry the son of India’s most famous political dynasty. Within the space of eleven years, within the Nehru-Gandhi family, she experienced one fatal air crash and two assassinations. She survived all this and overcame violent hostility to become president of India’s ruling coalition party, which she has led to two victories. I consider that she has had the most transformational journey of any leader in the last four decades, but it was circumstance and tragedy that paved her path to power, not ambition.
In Italy, Sonia was raised by traditional parents and attended a Sienesian convent. By the time she married Rajiv in India, her mother-in-law Indira was the Prime Minister. That was the start of Sonia’s political education; it was the best sort of incubation period a politician could ever have. Sitting at her dining table, looking after the guests, she would be meeting world leaders and witnessing some of the most important events in India and around the world.
But she was a private person. She was happily in love with Rajiv and he was in love with her. He was a full-time pilot, had two beautiful children, and were very happy just being a family. It was his younger brother Sanjay who was being groomed as the heir apparent, the one with the political acumen to become Indira’s successor. But suddenly in 1980, Sanjay was killed in a plane crash. Indira was devastated, but because she believed in the dynastic project, there was a sort of “Draft Rajiv” campaign that started.
Now Sonia by this stage knew that there were two sides to power. Used in a good way, she believed that power was an instrument to achieve a clear goal, to safeguard political and cultural heritage, to help society go forward. But she had also seen power as a weapon to achieve personal or group dominance, the bad side. That’s her philosophy of power. And so she resisted with all her might Rajiv coming into power, and failed. When he did come into politics as a full-time member, that’s when she really learned about grassroots politics. In 1984, her mother-in-law was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. It was the age of terrorism and Rajiv was asked to become Prime Minister the very same day.
Again, Sonia resisted. With the terrorism and assassination threats surrounding them, she knew Rajiv would become a number one target, she knew that he would be killed. She learned to be a Prime Minister’s wife, and traveled the world with him very effectively. Then, in 1991, he was cruelly assassinated by a Tamil Tiger.
During her mourning year, she set up the Rajiv Foundation with Rajiv’s friends, who knew at some point she might be asked to step up to the table. In the beginning she was very quiet, but over time she learned to chair meetings and interact with the likes of J.K. Galbraith, John Kerry, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, and so on. By the time her mother-in-law’s party, the Indian National Congress party, was disintegrating towards the late ’90s, she was asked to step up and agreed. She was first leader of the opposition, then stepped up to lead her party and become president. In 2004 she led it to a resounding victory, which she managed to repeat in 2009, turning down the post of Prime Minister but retaining the utmost power nonetheless.
Jane Macartney: On the note of utmost power, these are two women who, for most of their lives, had been housewives. How you think that their personalities have been changed by the acquisition of so much power?
Mukulika Banerjee: It raises the general question about women in power: whether they are bringing anything special as women to politics, or whether what is more interesting about them is their lives. Both books demonstrate very clearly that women in positions of prominence often have extremely interesting lives.
Typical themes that exist in male politicians’ lives, like family and kinship and distrust or loneliness at the top, seem to become heightened in the case of prominent women. Aung San Suu Kyi and Sonia Gandhi have had very dramatic lives in different ways. In thinking across Asia we are thinking across a wide range of countries, right from Golda Meir in Israel through to Sonia Gandhi in India. All these women as well as a handful of very powerful politicians in India surrounding Sonia Gandhi—Sonia is surrounded by three or four women who are in charge of big states. Delhi has a female minister, Sheila Dikshit; Mamata Banerjee is Chief Minister of West Bengal; J. Jayalalithaa is Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. These are big states the size of European countries. These are Merkel figures in an Asian context.
Each of them has something extraordinarily dramatic and tragic in their lives. So in answer to your question, they are often in politics—except for Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa—because they’ve been pushed into politics because of sudden deaths of fathers and husbands, outmaneuvering brothers and so on, which has thrown them into politics. Therefore their biographies, as they have developed and as we see them and discuss them today, have been quite fundamentally shaped by political gains.
Very often, interviewers use the word sacrifice when they talk about her life, but she always resists the word. She says it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a choice.
Jane Macartney: Peter, how would you assess the changes in Aung San Suu Kyi’s personality?
Peter Popham: Her biography is distinct from the ones that Mukulika just outlined, in that she is not an accidental politician in the way the Sonia Gandhi is. It was very much a choice on her part to throw herself into the Burmese democracy struggle in 1988. It was a very difficult decision to make because she had been a full-time mother and housewife with a little academic work on the side for many years. So it was an extraordinarily dramatic tangent with unpredictable consequences right from the beginning, but it was not accidental.
Very often, interviewers use the word sacrifice when they talk about her life, but she always resists the word. She says it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a choice. In other words, it was an extremely difficult choice, but it was a choice. The other way we have to distinguish her from all the other people you mentioned is that she has not actually had any power.
She has had power in her party, something close to total power in her party, and has enjoyed a large degree of influence, particularly as a go-between for the Naypyidaw regime and the West, Obama on down. Hillary Clinton, Cameron, you name it. She can get them on the phone and she can, certainly in the case of the U.S. State Department, dictate their policy, at least up to a point. But actually having the power of office is something different. It was Hillary Clinton, who met her for the first time in December, who pointed out in a speech she gave that there is a huge difference between a democracy icon and a working politician. My guess is that when they met, Hillary was at pains to explain the sort of changes she will be going through now that she’s an MP. She may become the Speaker of the lower house of parliament in Naypyidaw, and it’s been suggested that she become a minister. But in any case, she is a responsible politician and has to start making compromises and things which she hasn’t really had to tangle with until now. It’s a very interesting and very challenging moment.
“It’s interesting that people laud [Sonia Gandhi] for turning down the Prime Minister role, but she has kept the power very tightly unto her.”
Jane Macartney: Rani, I’d like to actually change questions here slightly. Sonia Gandhi holds this power, but we haven’t really seen her exercise it, whereas Aung San Suu Kyi we see increasingly in the public arena. How does Sonia exercise the power she has?
Rani Singh: It’s interesting that people laud her for turning down the Prime Minister role, but she has kept the power very tightly unto her. The Indian National Congress Party has a president at its head and the core group—the decision-making part—is called the Congress Working Committee. According to its constitution, it’s made up of twelve elected members and eleven who are nominated by the president of the party. Since Sonia took over the presidency in 1998, there haven’t actually been any elections for members of the Congress Working Committee, which means that every person there is beholden to her for their political future. She holds the key. So, that creates a certain dynamic.
There is a reverence for the Gandhi name within the INC—so long as it’s living and breathing and it’s a Gandhi, it’s important to have one. They feel it’s the glue that will stick them together. Sonia holds the record now for being president for twelve years. In 2010, the constitution was altered so that the presidency could be extended from a three-year term to a five-year term, so she is there in the job for as long as she wants it.
Loyalty is very important. Sonia values people who have been loyal to her mother-in-law and to her husband. She doesn’t trust easily. The people she holds closest to her and consults every day are her children, Rahul and Priyanka. So she’s learned how to shed her friends and she is very alone. Her personality changed over the years. She changed her personality from being someone who was very interested in art and Indian heritage—this wife and daughter-in-law who would sit quietly in the background—to somebody who has taken to her new arena with great aplomb.
Jane Macartney: I’ve spent many years covering a country with very little democracy—China—so what you said struck me quite strongly in terms of how the National Congress Party runs itself and extends the presidency in this way. I wonder if that is something that Mukulika would like to speak to. Because there is so much myth attached to her, is there a risk with someone like this of losing democracy? That she acquires so much power that democracy within the party and perhaps in India is eroded?
Mukulika Banerjee: Yes, I think the specific issue here is that the biggest failure of Indian democracy is the lack of democracy within political parties. It’s completely given up on having elections within political parties and this has become a trend not only in the Congress, the oldest party in India, but in all other parties.
So this cherry-picking and rewarding loyalty over ability has become a hallmark of the Congress, which is extremely dangerous. In Sonia’s case, this is particularly true, and stems from a kind of distrust—this business of consulting no one but your children. Incidentally, these are children who are completely involved in politics. Rahul Gandhi is a politician. Priyanka is an amateur but capable politician. There is a larger issue, which Peter raised, of what happens when you move away from agitational politics, or oppositional politics, like Aung San Suu Kyi and others. I have to say that thinking across the spectrum there, the record of women politicians has been very poor.
They’ve been just as dictatorial, just as taken by hubris of various kinds. Again and again. We see this in Bangladesh oscillating between these two women, we see it in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is slightly better. It’s a story of excess in so many ways. Of money, of power, of paranoia. It’s constant excess. And that makes you wonder. We shouldn’t be too harsh, judging them, simply because they are women. In a sense, they are no different from their male contemporaries.
Jane Macartney: But do you think that perhaps this excess comes from the fact that they haven’t actually fought their way up as politicians like the men in their families did, and it has suddenly arrived on their doorstep and they’ve taken it up without that learning process, without the difficulties that their menfolk encountered?
Rani Singh: I think in Sonia’s case, there’s a huge learning trajectory that I’ve outlined. She has really worked hard at it, as Rajiv did, because he was just a pilot. He wasn’t a politician at all. And so they really learned on the job. Without making excuses for anybody, I think what you’re subject to in India are the vagaries of the situation.
In the case of Indian political parties like the INC, there is a cult of personality that emanates from the leader. Rules and things like that are subjugated to what the leader wants and says. It’s a question of whatever your philosophy may have been before you stepped onto the front stage. Once you’re there, you realize that there are certain limitations—I’m not making excuses—and in the case of the Indian National Congress, they’re part of a coalition. They’re not absolute power holders. People like Mamata Banerjee have huge spoiling capacity. She is very powerful. And so by having coalition allies, they can’t have people in cabinets that they would like because they have to make places for the coalition allies. To a degree, and this is where Sonia’s strength comes, she has fitted herself to the job and she is the super-manager. She’s good at horse trading, she’s good at making friends, and she is good at playing people. She is good at walking across the aisle and inviting people for tea and dinner in order to secure votes.
Jane Macartney: Peter, I’d like to ask you something about the iconic status that Suu Kyi holds. Do you think she is starting to make certain compromises? As has been discussed, do you think she is now making compromises to get closer into power?
Peter Popham: She was criticized for many years for being a very stubborn person incapable of compromise, and I think that was a misunderstanding and probably a deliberate misrepresentation. She has in fact shown her willingness to negotiate with the other side ever since 1994, the first time, and then in 2003, she very nearly came to an agreement, until General Than Shwe took flight and aborted it. She has recognized for a long time that you can’t actually preserve your naïve ideals intact and get what you want anyway, particularly because she is so closely wedded to her ideals of nonviolence. She has never proposed to take over by a coup d’état or violently. That really does involve coming to terms with the people who hold power. We are looking at the Nelson Mandela, Willy De Clercq sort of arrangement, which will be inevitably messy and imperfect and we see this already in the fact that despite everything that’s happened in the past year, there is still a very nasty civil war in the north of the country, which is getting worse, not better, in the Kachin region.
Some political prisoners are still in jail, and media censorship has been modified, but it has not been lifted. The machinery is still there. Even the most celebrated achievement of the president, which was the suspension of work on the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River, was very controversial. He suspended it last year, saying that it was against the will of the people, which to me and many others, seemed to be a real indication that the wind had changed in Burma. But it was only a suspension, and it is now being looked at and the construction of the dam may start again. She is now in the thick of all these very difficult issues where the broad brush answers that come to hand when you’re leading a beleaguered opposition party, are really of less and less use.
Jane Macartney: Since she is so much at the forefront of breaking news, I would like to ask a follow-up question, which is, do you think she feels that things are moving too fast, in terms of the lifting of sanctions, U.S. recognition, etc.?
Peter Popham: I think that’s the case, actually, yes. She’s always been aware that sanctions were really the only weapons that she and the West had to lure the regime into making serious changes. She has been talking over the past year about how there will come a time when sanctions should be lifted, etc. But I had the feeling when she was at that press conference with David Cameron, and he announced to my consternation and the consternation of many, that all sanctions were to be suspended, with the exception of those relating to the arms trade—I thought she looked uncomfortable. She said in a video link to a conference in Washington that no, these reforms are not irreversible.
Jane Macartney: In terms of looking towards the future, I wonder if you could talk to us about what you think is going to be the future for Sonia Gandhi.
Rani Singh: As Mukulika pointed out, Priyanka and Rahul are passionate about politics. Sonia has been ill, but in recent state elections, those close to her tell me that she has been campaigning just as vigorously as she ever did.
She does believe in dynasty. She does see herself as the preserver of the legacy, and the keeper of the Nehru-Gandhi flame. She and Rahul and Priyanka decided some time ago that Rahul would step up and come into politics, and since she doesn’t trust anybody else, she really wants Rahul to take a bigger and bigger role at her side. That’s what I see happening, but it’s going to be very gradual.
Jane Macartney: Mukulika, in terms of these political families, what do you see as the risks? There are so many assassinations—as you know, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Immediately it was her husband who took over and all the risks that were involved with that, that he was not a trained politician in the way that she was. I thought you might like to talk about the risks of the dynasty and this lack of structure.
Mukulika Banerjee: Most of these political contexts we are discussing are democratic contexts, which therefore have some sort of default position of dynastic politics, which itself seems to me the biggest problem. I don’t think there’s anything in the DNA of Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis that prefers dynastic politics. There is a real commitment to having a democracy and of popular participation being important. There’s nothing intrinsic about any of these societies that prefers dynasty.
What does seem to be at work, though, is the charisma of the family. There are these very charismatic figures that gain the charisma through the families that they are married into or born into. Thinking ahead in the future, one can’t help but think about how they got there. All the women who are there in power had brothers as well—the women who are daughters of famous men, like Aung Sun Suu Kyi or Benazir Bhutto, all had brothers, who for one reason or another, weren’t the people who came forward. They either outmaneuvered them—like Benazir did—or in Sun Suu Kyi’s case, her brother just wasn’t interested, he became an American citizen. But when these women come into power themselves and have a choice between daughters and sons, they seem to choose their sons, which is an interesting trend.
It says something about how women see what politics is about, whether they think it is about dynastic politics, it’s ultimately a patriarchal dynasty that we are talking about. So having women there is not shifting the game in any sense; we are still playing exactly the same game but with women who are thrust into these positions. So I think in dynastic politics there’s no radicalism and it is extremely anti-democratic.
Audience Member: Both authors are speaking with such authority about their subjects. How much access did you have to them and how did you really get to know how they’re thinking?
Rani Singh: In the case of Sonia, there hasn’t really been an international biography about her. There had been a few written in India. There was a huge responsibility I felt and she’s notoriously private. She doesn’t like the idea of being the subject of a biography. So it wasn’t an easy ask at all. Though I met her, she didn’t want to answer any questions.
So I just got as close as I could, using people who were connected to the family, connected to me, until I could find answers to questions. I went out to India to look at various parts of her life, like what happened when Rajiv died. That’s a complete kind of dark zone that nobody knows much about. It was a question of being persistent and being polite to get the answers that I wanted. And I did. I think they could see that I was serious and they did trust me.
Jane Macartney: I’d like to ask the same question to Peter, who I think has managed to meet his subject, but she is equally elusive.
Peter Popham: Yes, my experience is not totally dissimilar to Rani’s. I did interview her when I was the Independent’s correspondent in South Asia. I interviewed her after she came out of house arrest in 2002, and I had a good interview then. I had a chat with her in March last year. I was hoping that that chat would be a massive, killer interview, that would transform my book’s prospects, but she was utterly uninterested.
The fact that I was writing a biography of her was a turn-off for her because she thought that I was trying to get an endorsement for this work, which she had not seen anything of. We had a friendly, playful conversation but by no means what I was hoping for. However, I did have a stroke of luck quite early in the research when a woman who had been very close to her during her political campaigning in 1989 allowed me to use diaries, which she kept of her campaign tours. She had been with her every hour of every day throughout these thousands and thousands of miles they covered in Burma in 1989. She happens to be a very lively, interesting, and observant writer, and so this was wonderful primer material, which brings the character of Suu Kyi to life. We’ve heard a lot about her sacrifice and this and that, but we haven’t known that she was a real fan of 1950s pop music and likes to sing and doesn’t know when to stop working. She works until she drops.
Audience Member: Nobody’s mentioned the fact that both these women effectively left—well, one was never part of the country and the other left it—and had to overcome, certainly Sonia when Rajiv came to power, had to overcome a lot of opposition to her nationality. I believe that Suu Kyi also had to overcome a lot of concern and suspicion about her return. Would you say that those suspicions have been entirely wiped away at this point, or is there any chance that they could be undermined by their periods in other countries?
Peter Popham: That’s a very interesting point. And an important one, in the case of Suu Kyi, because she left Rangoon when she was fourteen in 1960, and she didn’t go back until 1988, when she was a mother of two.
There are two elements to her impact in Burma. One was the charisma of her father’s name, which was comparable to the name of Mahatma Gandhi in India. And the other was the fact that she really had become a foreigner in many ways and she brought a different sensibility to Burmese politics. She was outspoken. She was blunt. She had no time for the ritualistic, patriarchal compulsions of traditional Burmese politics. And this is one of the reasons she got on so badly with the regime, because she wouldn’t mind her manners, in their terms.
I think in the long term, that foreignness is probably the most important contribution she’s made to Burmese politics, because she was convinced, before she returned, that there was a way of modernizing Burma without betraying Burma’s culture and its soul. And this has really been her project: to bring it into the 21st Century without turning it into a place without an identity. And I think that twin goal has been her sort of compass throughout.
Rani Singh: It’s amazing the similarities between the two. The foreignness, and how it plays out. Sonia was born in Italy and she still has a slight Italian accent. The hostility towards her, this foreign daughter-in-law, foreign wife, when India itself is such sort of a collection of countries, was really extremely violent. In her case, because Indira was so passionate about the country and Rajiv was too, even though he went to university abroad, she absorbed that love and passion for the country from an early age. Indira sent her out into the countryside with Rajiv to really taste India at a grassroots level, to really get that nexus between her and the common man. Her own passion for heritage and the arts means that many Indians say that she is more concerned about preservation and history than many Indian-born Indians. She also brings something else to the table because she is European, because she is from Italy, she brings a kind of clinical Europeanness, to the spaghetti mind of the political Indian. And she is able to cut through things. She’s not verbose. She’s very succinct. Even with a few words, she can reduce a man to tears, which is an asset to the Indian polity. But as far as her foreignness is concerned, it’s still raised and used as a stick to beat her with by sways of the Indian population and the opposition. This is why, an Indian National Congress senior said to me, when Rahul steps up, he’s an Indian-born member of the Gandhi family, so it will be much easier. He won’t be suffering the amount of hate and vitriol that Sonia does.
Jane Macartney: One of the things I found interesting in Peter’s book was on the issue of dynasty. While we look at Suu Kyi as the daughter of the founding father of Burma, nevertheless traditionally in Burma, there’s been this sort of culling of the family whenever someone takes power.
Peter Popham: For a long time I saw Suu Kyi as of this whole array of women leaders who had come to prominence after independence because of their close relations to freedom fighters. As a kind of post-colonial answer to the problem of legitimacy, the legitimacy of states that are very new and are inevitably fragile and have been dominated by a foreign force for a period of time. I think that is the case, it is the reason for Suu Kyi’s appeal, as it is for the Gandhi dynasties.
It’s slightly different in Burma’s case because the dynastic principle is much weaker in Burma than it seems to be in rest of South Asia. You remarked that Suu Kyi’s brother was not interested. You can’t find any other examples in recent Burmese history of the children of freedom fighters who are in positions of power or potential power. I think that in Burma we are looking at a slightly different phenomenon and certainly, there isn’t the accidental quality that is evident in widows and bereaved daughters and so on.
Jane Macartney: Mukulika, do you think that we judge women differently when they come into power, especially in Asia?
Mukulika Banerjee: I think we do have expectations, otherwise Asia House wouldn’t put together a panel called “Women, Power, and Politics.” If this were a panel called “Men, Power, and Politics” you would probably all be outside in the sunshine enjoying a bottle of wine. So I think we do have expectations, especially here in Europe, looking at Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton who become sort of honorary men, in a sense. We wonder whether Asian women might actually bring a different quality to the political game.
Sonia is an interesting crossover figure, and her foreign origins became a national issue in 2004. Her skill is the power of silence, which we may say is partly because she is a woman, and women know how to make accommodations within families, as daughters-in-law, which she did marrying into an entirely new culture. I think Sonia’s biggest asset, which many observers of Indian politics will say, has been how well she has judged when to speak. The fact that she stood aside and refused to pick up the post of Prime Minister took the wind out of the sails of the right-wing nationalist Hindutva Party, which was the biggest opposition party. Insisting that Manmohan Singh take over, as an educated economist who had started the economic reform, was the coup.
You could say that she had that kind of wisdom by virtue of being a daughter-in-law or a woman, maybe. How many men have been able to make that kind of well-judged, sacrificial statement?
Audience Member: I was very interested in what you had to say about Suu Kyi appearing to lose control of the sanctions argument, and I’m interested in what you said about her being able to dictate to the U.S. State Department. I know that as recently as March, Virgil Keen who’s been into Burma was of the view that Cameron would do exactly what Suu told him. So was it really just in April that it shifted? Tell us a bit more on your thinking on her having lost control.
Peter Popham: It’s hard to know exactly what’s happened, but the fact is that there are enormous commercial interests poised to get into the country. They’ve been straining at the leash ever since 1988. There’s an organization led by the former British ambassador to Thailand, Derek Tonking, called Network Myanmar, that’s been lobbying hard for sanctions to be lifted for many years. They didn’t care that Suu Kyi was under house arrest, or about the thousands of political prisoners of war everywhere. The commercial imperatives were so strong that they were determined to get in.
I think that at some point this year, these forces have become irresistible. I think that it was Germany that led the way and probably Cameron and the British government got pushed a bit faster than they wanted to go. It’s extraordinary that a woman who has never held any public office and has no professional experience as a politician and has been in seclusion for more than fifteen years, should be the figure to negotiate between an elected government in her country,and elected governments elsewhere. So it’s been a bizarre power that she’s possessed and I just feel that … I don’t have any proof, but that it’s slightly slipping out of her hands.