on April 21, 2012
Knowing little about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, I found her elegant biography both informative and lovely. Of course, the story of the Burmese activist could practically tell itself. Her life was balanced between a Western education, a home where her parents were directly involved in the liberation of Burma and years of detention, house arrest and trauma fighting for her country. In an age where non-violent resistance is becoming a primary means of effecting change around the world, it is easy to forget Burma's Saffron revolution of 2007. Aung San Suu Kyi's story personalizes her country's travails and embodies a life that symbolizes for not only her country's, but also the world's non-violent struggles. The author, Peter Popham, enlivens Aung San Suu Kyi's tale with his craft, in-depth research, findings from clandestine meetings, and story construction. I was surprised by some of the other reviews on this site, which paint, I believe, an inaccurate picture of what I found to be a well-wrought account about a remarkable figure.
on May 12, 2012
I had the bittersweet pleasure of seeing one of Suu Kyi's last public talks in the 90s. A monsoon downpour ended the talk, before the usual English language portion, but her charisma and electricity were evident anyway, along with the broad cross-section of people who had come to listen. People I knew in the human rights world worried about the degree to which change in Burma had become so heavily invested in her, as opposed to a broader based movement. Still, both Suu Kyi and the grassroots desire for change persisted through her long exiles.
The book provides a brief history of Burma and brief biography of Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, the revered hero of Burma's independence, who was assassinated during her early childhood. The history of Burma, the circumstances of colonization and the evolution of the independence movement presaged challenges that Suu Kyi would face in bringing together disparate ethnic groups and clashing with a military her father once led. Suu Kyi had a privileged but disciplined upbringing by her mother and was somewhat out of step with the 1960s world she encountered at Oxford. Suu Kyi had a brief career at the UN, but the married a British future academic from a more modest background. She lived the thrifty life of an academic's wife and took care of their home and children, while also occasionally helping with her husband's work. Her husband had agreed that if she was needed in Burma, she would have to give that life precedence. It was a promise that led to long separations from her family and her husband's tragic death without her.
The book is handicapped by the author's limited direct contact with Suu Kyi and her limited contact with the outside world over the past twenty years. Oddly, the author did interview her shortly before the book was completed, but we are told little about the conversation. Nonetheless, the story flows and Suu Kyi evolves, if at a distance. Anyone expecting a first person account or an intimate close observation will be disappointed. Popham has written a sympathetic biography but one with enough to critical observation to avoid hagiography. For me, the story faltered a bit when Popham attempts a bit of Buddhist psychobiography. He makes a number of contradictory assumptions about her political choices and makes the mistake that outsiders usually do with religion: he confuses doctrine with personal belief, and loses sight of how religion also is practiced within a particular culture. Exactly what Suu Kyi took from her re-immersion into Buddhism and how it affected her dealings with Burma's military regime will only be known when she speak about it, and then we'll only have her biased version. What is clear from the book is that Suu Kyi evolved from housewife into a canny and skillful politician, exactly when Burma needed one. Her father's prestige was easily transferred to her, but her skill in building on that has made a considerable difference.
on August 17, 2012
It feels wrong to give this book a poor review when the woman being written about is such an amazing human being. I was deeply disappointed by the sloppy organization and the showy prose. Again and again the writer distracts from the story of Aung San Suu Kyi with overtly dramatic rhetoric. His subject matter deserves better.
Second, the book didn't offer much in the way of new or interesting information. Since this was apparently an unsanctioned biography the author relies on minutiae from distant or past acquaintances. I cannot comprehend why he thought it needful to descend into such trivial matters. Because she's a woman we should care what she was wearing?
I am so disappointed. I wanted to purchase a copy of this book for my mother's Christmas present when I first heard it was coming out. Sadly, I will have to wait for an author who is willing to let Aung San Suu Kyi shine in her own amazing way rather than competing for the readers attention with flowery language about the least interesting of details.
Among other distinctions, Aung San Suu Kyi, referred to as "Suu" throughout "The Lady and the Peacock," is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. However, she was unable to attend in person to receive her award, being confined to her home alone and forbidden to travel by the powers-that-be at the time. Her husband and son attended instead. While demonized and consistently underestimated by the Burmese authorities because of her gender, Suu's efforts to bring about a fairer, more democratic government were honored by those outside Burma, and indeed by millions of her own people.
Suu is the daughter of the Burmese revolutionary Aung San, who was assassinated when she was two. He had barely assumed office, but the anniversary of his death, known as "Martyrs' Day," was the most popular national holiday until abolished by authorities. Suu's mother, Daw Khin Kyi, partly to keep her out of the way by those in power, was named the Burmese ambassador. Suu attended school in New Delhi, then England, where she graduated from St. Hugh's College in Oxford with a less-than-stellar degree which would keep her from taking advantage of further educational opportunities. Later, she married British journalist, Michael Ayis, had two sons and for a time, became a homemaker. However, Suu, through her creation of the National League of Democracy, her writings on nonviolent ways to bring about a better government, her inspiring speeches to the public, and her family name, became an international celebrity and a symbol of hope for the Burmese, even after being placed under house arrest.
Her journey does not really follow the traditional narrative arc, at least from the Western viewpoint. It may seem to readers that for every step forward, she and her followers take two back. However, the opposition they face is unimaginable by American standards, Suu's determination, courage and sense of humor shine through this book, and the writer does manage to convince me of this woman's heroism.
How this compares to other books with the same topic, I can't say. It's an unauthorized biography, and there's some repetition as the narrative returns to the present for the second time and events start to overlap, but it strikes me as a decent place to start learning about her.
Aung San Suu Kyi is no doubt an impressive woman with a will of iron and great moral fibre. She is certainly beautiful too. Her father, Aung San, seemed set to guide his country, Burma, into prosperous independence despite the severe ravages of WW II. He was assassinated when Suu Kyi was only two. Burma lapsed into ethnic wars, then a military dictatorship, both of which lasted till 1988, when dramatic events gave the world hope that Burma might shrug off its endless violence and self-induced poverty and turn the corner at last. Instead there was a vicious military crackdown with a massacre of thousands. Aung San Suu Kyi then emerged from life as a housewife, mother, and exile amongst the halls of academia (Oxford) and took up her father's burden from forty and more years before. Kept under house arrest for years, threatened with death, cut off from her family, she wound up with a Nobel Peace Prize, and a successful politician (today). It is an amazing and heartwarming story.
However, I would advise you to read it somewhere else. Written in a rather breathless, journalistic style, this book gives only minimal background to Burma (or `Myanmar' as the generals insisted on calling it). Its length is devoted almost solely to what amounts to a hagiography of a modern saint, but Suu Kyi does not pretend to be a saint. What did she wear on this occasion ? What did she have for breakfast ? What did she say to her friend just before such-and-such happened ? What did a Kachin grandmother say when she saw Suu Kyi ? During the meetings at her house, who slept in which room? On and on. I think books on great figures from countries not well-known in the world need to look at the bigger picture and put the figure into it. Sorry, I was disappointed. I think a better book on this interesting and important figure in the world will be written. Maybe it already has been. Look for it. Meanwhile, if you want a great book about the same period in Burma, get ahold of Pascal Khoo Thwe's "From the Land of Green Ghosts", written from an entirely different point of view.
on May 28, 2012
As I was reading Peter Popham's The Lady and the Peacock, I kept saying to myself, "Mr. Popham is speaking a foreign language to most of these English-language readers" - and several of the reviews already posted serve to confirm my fear. People with limited multicultural exposure will find many of his concepts incomprehensible. (I lived 15 years among the Navajos actively trying to learn whatever I could about their language and culture - and I am FAR from an expert. I also was married for 11 years to an Iranian with a brief period of residency in Iran where by law I was an Iranian citizen - at least while I was there - again I am not an expert. But in both settings I learned a lot about unspoken cultural assumptions - which seem to be what Popham is trying to make the reader aware of.) My amazement is that Peter Popham has grasped matters so well - no doubt because as a foreign correspondent he has habitually delved more deeply into the cultures wherein he is reporting than do most foreign correspondents. There is nothing simplistic about his presentation of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is comprehensive and many-layered.
First, Aung San Suu Kyi is a product of a culture founded on ideas so different from our Western concepts that she might have been raised on a different planet. In his effort to understand that culture, he cites sources, including but not limited to what Suu Kyi herself and those close to her have written, which he has consulted to begin to penetrate the realities of that culture and how and why Suu Kyi's actions impact upon it.
Second, Suu Kyi has had an advantage few others within Burma do: She has lived outside her country for decades and been married to a man from another culture - but what an amazing man Michael Aris was! He seems to have understood her culture almost as well as a native might have. Popham conveys that, while she learned much from interactions with Indian and English cultures, she never departed from being Burmese.
Third, Popham examines the historical interaction between Buddhist monks and ancient kings and sees parallels that apply to today's politics in Burma. He also notes that the Burmese never subjugated their women to the extent that other Asian countries did. Further, he notes what Suu Kyi had to say about problems incorporating democracy into Burma: significantly, that Burmese do not historically have experience with anything resembling the "loyal opposition," which is an integral part of democracy. (This gave me cause to think a bit about why democracy has had problems in the Middle East.) Further he explores the relationship among the many ethnic groups that comprise today's Burma.
Fourth, Popham notes Suu Kyi's efforts to move toward a virtues-based government - and this concept is certainly not in practice in Western democracies of my experience. It resonated with the work of my faith to create a world-wide, virtues-based culture and government - and our definitions of and applications of virtues are closer to what Popham describes as Suu Kyi's virtues than to what my Western friends and acquaintances define as virtues.
Fifth, Popham seems to understand what must have been a very special marriage relationship. He points out that Suu Kyi and Michael Aris had many of the typical disagreements of married couples, but he penetrates the very special way in which each gave full support to the other in matters that were critical to them. For two decades Suu Kyi was a housewife and mother supporting her husband's studies toward and efforts in his career. Her husband, unusual for even a Western "liberated" man, was able to turn the tables and do the support work that was so critical to enabling her to do the work for her own country that she had to do. Even at point of death, Aris told her not to leave Burma, for that would undo all that she had so far attempted.
Sixth, Popham understands commitment - and the conflicting emotions Suu Kyi has to have experienced about her two commitments: to the family in which she is wife and mother and to the country of her birth where she feels she must try to carry on her father's attempt to plant democracy. Among other things, he realizes that she carried the lives of many other people on her back during her detention; had she decided to leave, as the government tried to get her to do, most of those other people would probably have been put to death in her absence - which would have been permanent because the government had no intention of allowing her to return once she might leave.
All of these threads and more are woven into Popham's presentation of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, along with enough history of Burma to make it into a wonderfully interesting tapestry. I will say that when I was approaching page 100, I nearly put the book down saying, "Enough of this!" But something told me he would not spend the whole book on the somewhat trivial - but ultimately important to understanding Suu Kyi's character - details of her travels in 1988. This is a quite scholarly presentation despite the fact that Popham's footnotes do not conform to usual scholarly practices in English. It is also pretty readable to anyone with some real foundation in multiculturalism.
At the end of the book, Popham espouses the need for tactical application of nonviolent methods - which strikes me as being more confrontational and divisive than Suu Kyi would want to be. My supposition is that she would not really support confrontationalism in any form because she seems to be focussed on unity. Doing a little quick internet glancing, I find that much has happened in 2012 after the time that this book was able to report. As I write this, Aung San Suu Kyi is reportedly about to leave Burma for the first time in 24 years with assurances she trusts from the current government that she will be able to return. She is now a part of the parliament. As things continue to develop, time will tell whether or not my disagreement with Popham about where she will go and how she will get there is valid or not.
All in all, this is a book I found thought-provoking and well worth reading.
on September 1, 2012
When Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Prize, I became aware of her. And, I suspect, that like many people I was later aware of her in a tangential way through news reports. Therefore, it seemed that this book was particularly well-timed, giving me an opportunity to learn in detail about this remarkable, charismatic woman and her remarkable life.
Her father was assassinated for his political beliefs when she was a small child. She grew up abroad, married someone who isn't Burmese and apparently lead a somewhat conventional life as a housewife. In the late 1980's she returned to her homeland and found herself and her calling as she lead a revolution. After this, as we all know, she suffered oppression and years and years of house arrest.
There's a lot of meticulous research underlying this book, author Popham never forgets that his goal here is to attempt to capture not simply her political wins and losses, but here spirit, her probing mind, and her personal characteristics. rrows, her intellect and enduring sense of humor, her commitment to peaceful revolution, and the extreme price she has paid for it. I found the writing here utterly riveting and, on a few occasions, felt as if I was actually in the presence of this amazing human being.
I think the main problem with this book is that I just didn't think the author really knew what he was doing putting it together. The book is very disjointed and hard to read. It just jumps around and doesn't really have a focus point for me, the reader. Yikes!!
I really wanted to read about Aung San Suu Kyi but not being very politically minded I found this book very off putting and strange. I got into the book at about 100 pages and just got bored. And I know that this woman is not boring!!! She is a revolutionary but I didn't feel that the author actually KNEW her, or could capture her spirit.
The writing feels very journalistic. I don't read the newspaper, so maybe if you are used to reading a newspaper or periodical this book would be for you. Or, maybe if you already know a lot about her, this book will fill in the holes. BUT knowing NOTHING about her, I did not feel taken care of, or acknowledged as the reader. This book DID not educate me on HER, but assumed in a way that I could relate to the story without getting some very fundamental things up front.
I really wanted a STORY!! There were a lot of "perhaps" and "maybes" in this book. That leads me to think that the author never actually interviewed or really knew his subject. What ever the case, it came across as dry, strange and too big a book to finish....
Kind of a bummer since I know she is an amazing woman.
In 1989, a dissident Burmese politician, who had spent most of her life up till then living abroad, was put under house arrest by the ruling military junta. Usually such people fade into obscurity over the next 20+ years, but Aung San Suu Kyi did not follow that track. Instead, she won several international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in the next few years, but while she was free to leave the country to receive the honors, the ruling generals would not have let her return.
And now, in 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi has lost none of her fervor. She has just been rated the 19th "most powerful woman in the world" beating out luminaries like the Queen of England and the Australian Prime Minister. Released from house arrest only two years ago, she ran for the Parliament of Burma and was elected along with a majority of her party's candidates.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of the first leader of Burma, who was assassinated before he could take office. Aung San, her father, had a colorful past. He was active in independence movements before World War II when Britain still governed Burma. The Japanese were happy to have his help, and when they invaded Burma in 1942 Aung San and his followers joined with them, believing that they would free the country from its foreign rulers.
But Aung San was duped. The Japanese treated the Burmese in the same way that the British did. So Aung San clandestinely contacted the British in India and won the respect of Lord Mountbatten of India. When the British re-occupied Burma, Aung San and his followers rose up against the Japanese. After the war ended, the new British Labor Government was anxious to grant countries like India and Burma independence.
For a period Aung San was a Communist, but later renamed his organization as "Anti-Fascist." Unfortunately, although he had the support of the overwhelming majority of Burmese, many of the soon-to-depart British Colonial officers were deeply suspicious. In the one-year period between the announcement of independence and the Burmese taking over, Aung San was named as the first Prime Minister.
While Aung San and his cabinet were discussing the way the country should go, a gunman broke into the offices where they worked and killed Aung San and his colleagues. The killing was traced to a previous Prime Minister, with possible involvement from the British. But Aung San was gone, and Suu Kyi was only two. The Generals took over, and Suu Kyi's mother was sent to India as Burmese ambassador.
Suu Kyi grew up without any political ambitions. She went to school in New Delhi, and followed that with college education in Oxford University in England. She married in 1971 to a scholar of Tibet, had two children, and for the next twenty years lived the life of a housewife, picking up a perfect English accent, but still not politically active.
In 1988 she went back to Burma to care for her dying mother, and this time she soon became active politically. She became leader of the opposition to the Generals' dictatorship. In 1990 her party won 59 percent of the votes, but the Generals declared the election invalid, and confined Suu Kyi to house arrest. A world outcry erupted, and she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
At this point in reading the book I began to wonder what made the woman who she was, but up till then the story had been about her politics. Then all of a sudden the story stopped and went back to the beginning of her life and described her as an individual. I leaned of her education in New Delhi in detail, along with her time at Oxford University. She was somewhat straight-laced at Oxford, but she had boyfriends. One of these, Dr. Michael Aris, eventually became her husband.
Her sense of humor comes shining through, and also her ability to live under stress. After house arrest her husband was only able to visit her intermittently, and then, when her husband contracted terminal prostate cancer in 1997 he was not allowed in the country. Of course, the generals would be happy for her to visit him in England - so long as she didn't come back. He died in 1999, four years after she last saw him.
In almost twenty years of house arrest, her determination never wavered. At times, she was released for short periods to campaign for her party before general elections and in one case she was surrounded by angry mob (paid by the generals) who were trying to assassinate her. But the rest of the world, particularly in the last few years, kept up the pressure on the generals. In 2008, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Now the current ranks of the dictatorship are gradually loosening their grip on the country. Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and is able to travel to other countries and return. In 2012 she was able to give her Nobel acceptance speech in Norway. Nudged by Western Governments - Hillary Clinton visited Suu Kyi in Burma as U.S. Secretary of State - the ruling junta is looking at things like the success of neighboring countries like Thailand, and hoping to invite foreign firms to help boost the economy.
This is the story of a remarkable woman. In one or two places the author stops just short of hero worship, but generally it's an even-handed account of Suu Kyi's life. After going through all she's done and still looking like she stepped off the aging train at around seventeen, she's worth investigating. I recently read a New Yorker article on Suu Kyi and more than half of it could have been taken from this book.
So read this story of one of the leaders of World Peace. You'll quite simply be amazed. And let's hope that Myanmar offers total freedom to its population very soon.
In November 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from detention. She is the most famous woman politician in the world. Between 1989 and 2009 she could have left Burma but she insisted upon staying. Her impact is spiritual and emotional. Her father was only thirty when the Japanese surrendered and when she was born. She was two years old when her father died. His supposed killer was identified but her father really succumbed to the two scourges of Burmese politics, factionalism and jealousy. The father is heroic, the daughter is heroic. In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a crowd for the first time. The family moved to Delhi when Suu was fifteen. Burma was a backwater compared to India. At St. Hugh's College, Oxford, Suu read Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. After graduation she worked for three years in New York City at the United Nations. She married Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar. The couple settled in Oxford. They had two sons. Aris's specialty was the history and culture of the kingdom of Bhutan, an offshoot of Tibet.
Suu went to Rangoon in 1988 to see her mother who had suffered a major stroke. Burma was under a military dictatorship. By 1988 there was a growing resistance movement to the rule of General Ne Win. During the summer Ne Win resigned to be replaced by one of his underlings. Ne Win called for a multi-party system, then revoked it, but the students made a multi-party system part of their demands. Thus, an elegant scholarly middle-aged woman who had not lived in the country for thirty years became the focus of political speculation, (her father's daughter). There was an 8/8/88 general strike. When Suu spoke she looked like her father and sounded like him. She seemed to be a true leader, very sincere, charming, beautiful. There were between eight and ten thousand deaths in the following crackdown. After September eighteenth Suu challenged the writ of the regime by touring the country. In January 2009 Suu's right to move around with her party was questioned. A charm offensive removed obstacles to her campaign.
The support of the Buddhist monks became crucial to the history of Suu's party. Nonviolence was a must, partly Gandhi, partly Buddha, in Suu's approach to opposing governmental policies. It was difficult to keep the students involved in the struggle. They wanted to split away. Suu wanted to have a professioanl army that didn't engage in politics. In the face of grave peril, Suu, like her father, showed courage. For forty years the Burmese state had glorified the cult of Aung San, (the father). The state did not know how to treat Suu. The party embarked upon a path of civil disobedience. Suu dared to complain of the actions of the dictator. On July 18, 1989, Burma's experience with glassnot came to an end. Colleagues were imprisoned and Suu was detained. She was not to be released for six years. By not agreeing to leave the country, Suu was waging a war of wills with the leaders.
In England, Suu's home for years, mortal fear was not used as government policy. In Burma it was. Suu felt in Burma fear corrupted, not power. In Buddhism much value is attached to liberality, generosity. Suu's thinking developed during the years of detention. In May 1990 Suu's party won a resounding electoral victory. Then the army said the elected body would not be a general assembly. For Suu the first years of detention were the hardest to bear. The British abolished the Burmese monarchy in 1885, and the monks lost their royal patrons. There was a widespread lay meditation movement in Burma. There is an Afterward, Notes, a List of Names, a Further Reading section and and an index at the end of this compelling account of Aung San Suu Kyi's pursuit of democracy for Burma.