Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book 101, Myanmar: "Letters from Burma" by Aung San Suu Kyi

I'm in Southeast Asia again! Literally (flew home this morning) and bloggularly! Just in time to attend PinkDot tonight, where I'm manning the booth for IndigNation.

Speaking of human rights, I read this baby on the plane. Terribly fortuitous time to be covering such work, I thought, given the recent release of The Lady, not to mention the actual release of the Lady herself.

But the collection of essays begins oddly, more like a travelogue than a document of human rights violations: she describes a pilgrimage to Thamanya in Karen State to visit the holy teacher U Vinaya: the bumpy Pajero ride at dawn, the history of the district and the delights of eating vegetarian food at his monastery.

The letters weren't written during a period of house arrest at all, you see: they date from a one-year period from late 1995 to 1996 when she'd been recently released after incarceration for six years (she would later be held for nine more years, some in actual prison). Each one was published as a weekly column in a Japanese newspaper, and indeed she frequently makes direct reference to her Japanese audience, discussing their aesthetics of purity, their rapid economic development, her objections to their nation's investment in Myanmar despite its undemocratic regime.

I had fears at first that this was going to be another upper-class, spiritual encomium to the nation, not unlike Treasures of the Thunder Dragon. But of course the Lady weaves details of NLD's struggle for democracy amidst the charming descriptions of the Thingyan water festival and the changing of the seasons. To explain inflation, she gives us a mouthwatering account of traditional fried rice breakfasts, with meat, prawns or eggs, then reveals that today even the eggs are no longer affordable to many families, let alone the meat and prawns.

And then, of course, history invades the story. University riots cause further arrests among the NLD, blockades in front of her house and the houses of her co-leaders, the infamous incident where government-paid thugs fire into the windshield of her departing car.

The miracle of course is that there is so much good humour she describes in her accounts: how the gatherings each week at her door and the comedy performances at the NLD celebrations are threatened by violence and arrests and kangaroo trials, and yet people continue to turn up, laughing and singing so merrily that even the government spies start to join in. It makes me think of the cheerfulness at SDP rallies in Singapore, but we've never lived under as desperate conditions as the Myanmese (I will continue to use "Myanmar" until there is an official change; it is the word I have grown up with and I believe political realities deserve recognition).

One final note: I've occasionally played devil's advocate by pointing out that Aung San Suu Kyi is not in fact extraordinary in her endurance; that many of her fellow activists in Myanmar have suffered far worse than she. She's privileged by her parentage, her class, her ability to speak English, her sex, her beauty, her marriage. But she knows this. She recognises the terrible effect of incarcerations on the families of the politically imprisoned, and admits that she worries little about her own children, growing up guarded by the human rights protections of Europe.

I honestly don't know if she'd be an effective president of a democratic Myanmar, but truth is, reading this book gives you a sense that she's a great leader already - intelligent, compelling, but never vain, never less than compassionate.

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Representative quote: Visitors to my country often speak of the friendliness, the hospitality and the sense of humour in the Burmese. Then they ask how it is possible that a brutal, humourless, authoritarian regime could have emerged from such a people. A comprehensive answer to that question would involve a whole thesis but a short answer might be, as one writer has put it, that Burma is indeed one of those lands of charm and cruelty. I have found more warmth, more wholehearted love, more tenderness, more courage and more caring concern among my people, as we hope together, suffer together and struggle together, than anywhere else in the world. But those who exude hate and vindictiveness ad rave about annihilating and crushing us are also Burmese, our own people.

Next book: Sunthorn Phu's The Story of Phra Abhai Mani, from Thailand.

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