Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

 “STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM – AUNG SAN SUU KYI” Jesper Bengtsson (Harper-Collins,  Fourth Estate, $39:99)

Now aged 66, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a modern symbol of embattled democracy, and for good reason. Since her return to Burma in 1988, she has been the focus of the pro-democracy movements which oppose the ruling Burmese military junta. She has spent years under house arrest in her home near Rangoon – from 1989 to 1995 and again from 2003 to 2010. The military would love her to just leave the country and stop being the centre of international media attention. But she has had to set aside a family life with her husband and two sons in her determination to stay.

In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aung San Suu Kyi advocates an open society infused with Buddhist values. In such political philosophy as she has expressed, she clearly wants to avoid the accusation – so dear to the junta – that she is simply an agent of “Western values”.

She is pro-democracy, but also anti-colonial and anti-violence.

She cites Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as inspirations. The international media readily take up the comparisons. At the same time, she is aware of how much Burma is a collection of different ethnicities, often at war with one another. The country’s corrosive drug trade (opium, heroin) has been supported by the junta for its revenue. The warlords who run the trade are a powerful lobby. The democracy movement is not always cohesive, and sometimes the junta is successful in appealing to a xenophobic streak in the population. Because of her Western education (University of Oxford) and her marriage, they regularly refer to her as a ‘foreigner”.

Perhaps Buddhism could be what would hold a fragile future Burmese democracy together? At least it seemed so in the “saffron revolution” of 2007 in which Buddhist monks were to the fore in demonstrating against the military regime.
For somebody who knows little about Burma (like me), Jesper Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi provides an excellent primer. I’ll say at once that this is not a book for scholars. It is directed at a wide popular readership. There are no footnotes, no index and only a limited bibliography.

Jesper Bengtsson is a Swedish journalist, and one of the founders of “Reporters Without Borders”, a liberal-left outfit that covers international affairs. He first wrote Struggle for Freedom in Swedish (the Swedish edition appeared last year) and then appears to have also produced this English version. No translator is credited.

Obviously Bengtsson speaks English fluently as many of his sources are interviews he conducted, in English, with people in Burma, Britain and the USA. At the same time there are a few moments when specifically Swedish concerns come through. One of the best is in the chapter where Bengtsson takes to task Western powers which claim to support Burmese democracy but which have been happy to sell arms to the Burmese junta. Bengtsson flings a dart at Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme for signing off such an arms deal.

I admit there are moments when Aung San Suu Kyi  seemed, in Bengtsson’s account, altogether too saintly. Were there no tensions, tears and raised voices in the family in the long periods when she was separated from her English husband Michael Aris and their two sons Kim and Alexander? Why does her elder brother hate her so much, to the point of joining the junta in their criticisms of her? Has she never ever lost her cool, even in private? But these questions could reflect the ingrained cynic in me. Aung San Suu Kyi could well be every bit as good as Bengtsson paints her, and the way he reports her reaction to her husband’s death by cancer is very moving.

Besides, the book does not gloss the mixed heritage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the Burmese independence leader Aung San who, for a time, collaborated with the Japanese in the Second World War. He believed that the Japanese would drive out the British and allow Burmese self-rule. The Japanese did the former, but not the latter, so Aung San changed sides and helped drive the Japanese out. He was killed by an assassin when his daughter was aged 2. Although Aung San remains a Burmese national hero, there’s much ambiguity about the historical judgement of him. Bengtsson captures it well, and he is equally open about the element of privilege in Aung San Suu Kyi’s upbringing.

In the end, history will judge the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi. She may be somebody who really did shame a junta into relinquishing power. Or she may be somebody whose importance was more symbolic than practical. Establishing a democracy is a complex matter, and even one very good advocate cannot overcome all the problems of a country like Burma.

Whatever the long terms verdict, however, Struggle For Freedom is a good starting place to understand how that country functions, and who its most controversial citizen is.

Footnote: The country is called Burma throughout this book. Bengtsson makes a point of noting that the alternative name “Myanmar” has been promoted by the military junta and has never been accepted by the mass of the population.

Second Footnote: Aung San Suu Kyi delivered two of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures. Her first lecture, on political freedom, was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on Sunday 24 July. You can hear her two talks on the BBC website at “BBC Radio 4 Programmes - The Reith Lectures”

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