Isolation and Repression
Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience
By Justin Wintle
New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, 447 pp., $27.95, hardcover
No Time For Dreams: Living in Burma Under Military Rule
By Carolyn Wakeman and San San Tin
Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009, 195 pp., hardcover
Reviewed by Marianne Villanueva
Few people are as patient or as long-suffering as the Burmese. Since 1962, they have been subject to the arbitrary demands of a callous and power-mad junta. The country, renamed “Myanmar” by the regime, is a pariah in the international community, but even the most stringent international sanctions have had little discernible effect. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is now 64 and reportedly in frail health. The Burmese military plays a waiting game, and they are winning. Meanwhile, the world stands by, suffering from what Burmese poet Kyi May Kaung calls a bad case of “compassion fatigue.” Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past twenty years, was sentenced in August to three years in prison with hard labor, later commuted to eighteen months of house arrest, during a sham trial orchestrated by the ruling junta. She was accused of harboring an American, John Yettaw, who swam to her lakeside home without her knowledge, and who the Burmese junta said was a spy. There is little likelihood that she will ever attain her freedom.
The past decade has seen the publication of books written by Burmese exiles, such as Paschal Khoo Thwe’s memoir, In the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey (2002) and River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (2006) by Thant Myint-U. Emma Larkin, a journalist living in Thailand, is the author of the lovely Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005) and the author of the introduction to San San Tin’s No Time For Dreams. Yet, precious little is known about the realities of present-day Burma and its people, even to their neighbors in Asia. As Justin Wintle puts it in the preface to Perfect Hostage, his biography of Aung San Suu Kyi: “Without a regular flow of dependable, nonpartisan information about it, any country can go to the dogs unseen.” Burma remains a mystery, and if its rulers have their way, this situation will remain unchanged for eternity.
Suu Kyi, says Wintle, “became a public figure, and a woman to be reckoned with, on a specific day at a specific time in a specific place”: On August 26, 1988, she ascended a temporary rostrum and “addressed a crowd variously estimated at between 300,000 and one million individuals.” By then, student dissatisfaction with the regime had boiled over into widespread protests. The apparent cause was a brawl in a Burmese teashop that had broken out several months earlier, in March. The instigator of the brawl was widely believed to be the son of a government official; he was briefly arrested and then released. When students gathered to protest this apparent injustice, they were fired upon. Months of escalating violence followed.
At the time of her speech, Suu Kyi had lived most of her life abroad. She was 43 years old and married to an English academic, Michael Aris, with whom she had two young sons. Her father, Aung San, was a revered national hero. Even today, in the Burmese former capital, Rangoon, it is possible to visit a museum dedicated to his memory, the Bogyoke Aung San Museum. So powerful is the myth that surrounds Aung San that early on the regime recognized and feared the destabilizing threat posed by his daughter. The facts that Suu Kyi had never sought a leadership role and that she seemed content living a private life as a wife and mother mattered not at all. Today in Burma, even to mention her name is considered heretical: the regime’s minions refer to her only as “the ugly one.”
Wintle chooses to take a chronological, historical approach to his subject. Thus, Perfect Hostage includes an exhaustive recounting of the last hundred or so years of Burmese history. The reader learns of such events as the 1879 slaughter of the ruling prince’s relatives, orchestrated by his bloodthirsty wife Supaylat. “Potential rivals for the Crown,” they were murdered along with their wives and children. In Burmese history, “such post-succession purges,” Wintle writes, were “a commonplace.”
Suu Kyi herself does not enter the narrative until her birth, on page 143. Aung San Suu Kyi means “Strange Collection of Bright Victories,” Wintle says, explaining further that the incorporation of her father’s name into hers “was unusual, though not unique, particularly among the offspring of the illustrious.”
The household was unusually vibrant, thanks in large part to her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, a “cosmopolitan” woman whose wide network of friends and relationships helped to advance her husband’s budding political career. This early exposure to the crowd her mother entertained at home, Wintle writes, “added to the broadening of Suu Kyi’s developing outlook.” When the time came for her to attend college, it was “at her mother’s insistence” that she took up the study of political science. In 1964, she “won a place at St. Hugh’s College in Oxford, to study politics, philosophy and economics.”
In London she boarded with family friends, the Gore-Booths. Lady Gore-Booth remembers Suu Kyi as the “perfect guest . . . She never made any noise, but I always knew when she had come into the room. If she passed in front of her elders, she would gently incline her head, the way only an exquisite oriental girl can.” How surprising it must have seemed to her, then, when this “exquisite oriental girl” turned into some one who was much more.
Despite the wealth of information that Wintle assembles, Suu Kyi remains an elusive subject who stubbornly seems to resist all analysis. She is, he writes at one point, “a sort of oriental Mary Poppins.” What is the reader supposed to make of this comparison? It comes in the section that describes Suu Kyi’s years in England, in which Wintle’s unfortunate tendency to dish out everything that is known is at its most annoying. His narrative is often reduced to a collection of such distracting and irrelevant tidbits as, “She was not yet prepared to surrender her puritanical virginity”; and, “Every year, she was the first to get her Christmas cards out.”
It is clear that, in the early years of her marriage at least, Suu Kyi seemed “content enough” to play the role of dutiful wife: “To the dismay of her more radical women friends, she uncomplainingly ironed [Aris’s] shirts, his socks, and his underwear, and cooked his meals and cleaned their house.” She even “attended dress-making classes.” The turning point appears to have come with her mother’s hospitalization at Rangoon General Hospital in April 1988. Suu Kyi had returned home to help care for her ailing mother. As fate would have it, “Rangoon General Hospital was the place to be for anyone with a serious interest in Burma; it was where the nation’s pulse beat the hardest.” This was where the wounded leaders of the student revolts were taken. There, “despite their condition, they were chained to their beds. The surgeons were ordered not to operate . . . Others were removed by the police and not heard of again.” Something called out to Suu Kyi to take action. This seemingly most gentle of women did not flinch. She saw her involvement as duty, which she has continued to uphold, even after such wrenching personal crises as the death of her beloved husband and her separation from her two children.
San San Tin’s memoir, No Time for Dreams (co-authored with Carolyn Wakeman) is an altogether different kind of book from Wintle’s. To be sure, Tin and Wakeman were not operating under the same constraints as he was: that is, they were not saddled with the responsibility of depicting an iconic subject. San San Tin seems tremendously more animated than the saintly and “governessy” Suu Kyi depicted in Perfect Hostage, and her narrative is consequently more engaging and fluid. Most importantly, No Time for Dreams provides the reader with a truly intimate view of Burmese culture, which is based not only on historical knowledge but also on lived experience.
Tin is forthright and outspoken. Her memoir is at its best when it depicts the kind of choices with which an intelligent young woman growing up in the rigidly controlled environment of the repressive Burmese state was confronted. Tin’s father was a businessman with “leftist sentiments” who was arrested in 1958, when the junta came to power. After this, their “closest neighbors locked the small gate that connected our two compounds,” says Tin, and she learned “at a young age how politics drives a wedge between friends.”
Military rule brought other changes: “Our British textbooks disappeared, and the teachers no longer mentioned Lord Horatio Nelson or Guy Fawkes’ Day. Instead we used outdated readers with traditional Burmese stories or tales from the Buddha’s life until new socialist textbooks appeared the following year.” Several years later, in 1964, the Revolutionary Council banned all English names, and the author, who had been called Cynthia, “officially became San San Tin, the name my family picked based on the position of the planets at the time of my birth.” In an effort to curb student protests, the government closed “all colleges except for medical and engineering institutes,” and scattered “the most talented students around the country.” The program was allegedly meant to boost rural literacy, but Tin explains that it was little more than “a propaganda campaign.” Sadly, “Burma’s educational system, once among the best in Asia, had deteriorated so seriously that some college students could not even use an English dictionary,” she says.
A sense of the country’s appalling isolation is brought home in stark details: 1963 was the last time San San Tin “tasted chocolate.” When, in 1972, her brother joined the merchant marine and began sending presents home, his family “puzzled over the possible meaning of [the term] T-shirt.” Tin writes: “One of my brothers thought the shirt had a T-shape, but someone else thought it was to be worn at tea time.” Tin seems to have been remarkably self-aware from an early age. In the introduction, Emma Larkin writes that Tin had always dreamed of “being a writer.” But when she was attending university, she chose “to study mathematics rather than literature because,” Larkin writes, even the Burmese junta could not “subvert the logical certainty of mathematical theory.”
Tin decries the hypocrisy of the military regime. She and fellow “research assistants, compilers and . . . youth organizers” she writes, “studied socialist ideology and memorized jargon about class exploitation and the means of production” while
high-ranking party officials enjoyed a separate world of seclusion and privilege. Children of Central Committee members described movies shown in a special cinema hall before release to ordinary theaters, and told about a special book that allowed the purchase of consumer goods at reduced prices.
Still, at all times Tin’s outrage is tempered with practicality and the awareness that she is responsible for helping her family financially. Though she hates her job as a research assistant, she understands the benefits of receiving “a modest but steady income and a monthly ration of rice and oil, along with packs of cigarettes that could be resold.”
Eventually, however, reality catches up with her, and she is dismissed, along with other party rejects. Life for her family becomes Orwellian. Forced by financial constraints to move to a new home, they discover that they are “not officially residents” because they have not filled out “Form # 10 at the Immigration Department.”
That required procedure verifies the occupants of every house, allowing the regime to track the movement of its citizens. Another occupancy rule stipulates that when a visitor spends the night in another person’s house, both owner and visitor must register. Usually the ward councilor notifies neighbors in advance of a check for compliance with the residency requirements and reminds them to register any visitors. But in 1978 we received no warning before the ward councilor, an inspector from the Immigration Department, two policemen, and several others, knocked at our door. Because we lacked the proper document, we were ordered to the township police station.
Tin survives these indignities as well as the cataclysmic events of March and April 1988, which were so instrumental in Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to take action. Toward the end of her memoir, the young woman who had previously managed, with great cunning and resilience, to preserve a measure of independence in spite of the strictures of her country’s rulers, watches in admiration and hope as Suu Kyi, the privileged daughter of her country’s national hero, steps forward to assume her place in history. Unfortunately, her elation is short-lived. The government re-asserts its power and crushes the revolt. In September 1988, the government embarks on a systematic hunt for all those who had participated in the protests. San San Tin survives it and endures under the regime for ten more years, but finally, in 1998, she enrolls in an environmental journalism course in Bangkok. She never returns to Burma.
After reading these two books, it is clear that Burma has no shortage of morally courageous citizens. But it is also clear that moral courage is not enough: Aung San Suu Kyi continues to languish under house arrest and many of Burma’s best citizens, like San San Tin, can only watch helplessly from abroad as the country they love so ardently continues to bleed.
Marianne Villanueva is a Philippine-born writer who now lives in San Francisco. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila (1991), Mayor of the Roses (2005), and The Lost Language (forthcoming in November 2009 from Anvil Press of the Philippines).