I first heard of Suu Kyi in The Lizard Cage. She and her father, Aung San, were emblems of democracy and foci of a struggle against dictatorship in that novel. I was hooked and wanted to know more because I had never heard of these figures. This led me to Peter Popham’s life of Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi is a major figure in Burmese politics. She is the daughter of Aung San, the man credited with throwing off the mantle of Britain and bringing Burma to the bring of democracy just before he was assassinated. Popham begins his life of Suu by looking at her father’s legacy, foregrounding the idea that to understand Suu one must understand this legacy. Aung San is not a sanitized figure. To throw off the British, he allied with the Japanese, whom he later threw over due to their fascist ideology, or perhaps because they were losing. Suu’s mother is another powerful force in Popham’s life of Suu. Not only did she raise their children following Aung San’s assassination; she was named to a diplomatic position in India and its her stroke that bring Suu back to Burma and positions her to become involved in Burma’s modern drive to democracy.
Suu was educated in a Christian school in India and attended Oxford after. She married the man who became the expert on Tibet, Michael Aris, with whom she had two sons. She seemed to be searching for her role beyond wife and mother when she was called back to Burma following her mother’s serious stroke. While there, the current dictator, U Ne Win, called for open elections and set the wheels in motion for an appeal to Suu Kyi to pick up her father’s mantel and lead a newly formed party, the NLD. What followed was the release of hope and its subsequent dashing by the Burmese government, once it recovered from U Ne Win’s apparently unplanned announcement. Suu toured the country, winning followers wherever she went and building the government’s suspicions. She was placed under house arrest for most of 1989-2010, during which time she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part due to her insistence on nonviolent resistance, despite severe, violent government reprisals.
Popham follows the ups and downs of Burmese politics as well as the ups and downs of Suu’s personal life in these years. He tries to address criticisms of her choices, which led her to isolation from her two children and her dying husband, as well as more current criticisms of her silence regarding atrocities against ethnic minorities in Burma.
For many Americans, Burma likely remains an unknown place on the map. Some may have noticed the name change to Myanmar, but few of us know the story behind that change or the reasons for its people’s struggles. Popham’s life of Suu Kyi offers a focused window into the modern life of this country and its peoples and a view of a modern political leader who is widely vaunted, but not a saint. Suu Kyi is an important modern figure and Burma/Myanmar an important player on the global scene. Popham’s work makes both easily accessible to the uninitiated.