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Aung San Suu Kyi holds a bouquet of flowers as she appears at the gate of her house after her release — AFP

Reviewed by Sumera S. Naqvi

BURMA, or present day Myanmar, shares a battered colonial history with the subcontinent and is still in the process of resurrection. These countries share common political nuances with a marked political significance of women leaders who suffered either by losing a father or a husband to political struggle. Aung San Suu Kyi is a name in the league of such women leaders.

While Burma still reels from the torments of a dictatorial-cum-military dispensation, Suu Kyi, one of the most powerful pro-democracy politicians in the region today, is an iconic factor in keeping hope alive for a peaceful political transformation that will eventually smooth the way to democratic governance.

Journalist Peter Popham’s book, The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi is a well-documented biography of a life devoted to the cause of freedom.

Popham has put together the life of a hero based on her writings, articles, pictures and other relevant documents and sources. The sense of purpose and meaning that Suu Kyi has carried as she trailed her father, Aung San’s, struggle is aptly captured by the writer, sustaining interest every step of the way.

Suu Kyi insists in an interview, quoted by Popham, that she had done nothing out of the ordinary, that she was basically a housewife. But there was a sense of commitment that she felt toward her fellow citizens; a call that at any point in time could beckon her to return to her people and help them. She knew that call would also separate her from her beloved husband, Michael Aris, an Englishman. In a letter to him she shares this sense of commitment: “I only ask you one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them … would you mind very much should such a situation arise? How probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is there.”

Aris married Suu Kyi despite that fear of separation. Later in the coming years, as Suu Kyi would leave to attend to her ailing mother, Aris would be diagnosed with prostrate cancer. Aris died without meeting Suu Kyi, who yearned to see him, as he was denied a visa to Burma.

That Suu Kyi remained “the most feted exponent of non-violent political resistance since Mahatama Gandhi”, can be attributed to her calm composure honed by being under house arrest for almost 15 years. The rebel blood she inherited from her father, Aung San, the founder of modern Burma, gave her the resilience to forge ahead. Aung San in his younger days had seen the subcontinent slip into the hands of the British; Burma also met the same fate.

As he and his friends gathered the “courage to claw back what the invaders had stolen, beginning with pride and self-respect,” the struggle led up to the “non-violent action against the British” in which the Burmese decided not to pay any “rents or taxes or supply them with food”.

As the British eventually conceded to the demand for complete independence of Burma, Aung San was murdered by “the two scourges of Burmese politics” as Suu Kyi later wrote: “factionalism and jealousy”.

Then on, Burma experienced the turbulent journey of political instability and turmoil. From periods of military dominance to a failed socialist dispensation to the more recent time of elections and establishing political reforms, Popham intricately weaves Suu Kyi’s personal life and political struggle against rigid dictatorship. It was in the 1990s that her party, the National League for Democracy, rose to garner popular support among the public, also becoming a threat to the ruling junta.

Obviously, the ruling elite feared that such popular dissent would hurt their interests. For Suu Kyi was “seen as a witness, a moral compass for her country,” Popham writes. “Her virtue-based politics contrasts starkly with the ruling generals.”

Today as the National League for Democracy sits in the opposition benches in the Burmese parliament proposing legislation for change, one of the bills it has put forward is the demand that members of the parliament declare their assets. Suu Kyi, also labeled the ‘poster girl of the West’ by the ruling junta, challenges the status quo with the Burmese military still finding it difficult to grant political freedom. They claim almost 25 per cent of the seats in the Burmese parliament under the constitution and this still remains not only a threat to pro-democracy change in the country, but also a bone of contention.

Suu Kyi’s journey is still a thorny one, and serves many lessons for Pakistani counterparts who yearn to see a better and brighter future for democracy in the country.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma


By Peter Popham

Random House, US

ISBN 184604250X

464pp. Price not listed