Perfect Hostage

August 18, 2007

Nearly two decades ago, the people of Burma came within reach of achieving the kind of “velvet revolution” that brought freedom and democracy to eastern Europe. The student uprising of August 1988 failed to rid Burma of the generals. Today, the country remains under military control, and its adored opposition leader, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest, her voice largely stilled and fellow opposition leaders dead or imprisoned. In Perfect Hostage, his elegant and passionate biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, historian Justin Wintle raises a tragic and obvious truth – that she may have contributed to the failure to remove the junta from power.

Highly-principled and believing in Buddhist pacifism, Aung San Suu Kyi rejected violence. In 1990, two years after the students were crushed, her party overwhelmingly won legislative elections. To no avail: the military reinforced their power. “The triumph of failure?” Wintle asks. “What needs to be acknowledged and continuously applauded, is Aung San Suu Kyi’s phenomenal ability to inspire others, not just in Burma, where her presence has underpinned the democracy movement since August, 1988, but around the world. Without her kind, we are all impoverished.” More than a political story, this is the human saga of two families, one Burmese and one British, who joined only to be torn apart by politics.

Aung San Suu Kyi was two when her father, Burmese independence hero General Aung San, was assassinated in 1947. She grew up in Burma and in India. At Oxford, she fell in love with and married the British Tibetologist Michael Aris. They had two children, Kim and Alexander. In 1988, she returned to Rangoon to nurse her dying mother. Students rose up and blood flowed in the streets. Her duty as Aung San’s daughter propelled her to stay and become politically active. Aris brought up the boys on his own, and the vindictive military never permitted him to see her. In 2000 he was on his deathbed with prostate cancer, and Aung San Suu Kyi made the heartbreaking decision to stay in Burma rather than risk permanent exile. On his 53rd birthday, Aris died without saying goodbye to the wife he adored. This human dimension gives Aung San Suu Kyi’s story added poignancy. Wintle was unable to communicate with his subject. But he has captured what are her essentials well – her courage and fidelity to truth.

At Suu and Aris’s wedding, someone recited  Kipling’s Mandalay: “I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land! On the road to Mandalay…” Aris loved those words, which perfectly described his Suu. Against all odds, she is still struggling to make Burma a better place. It is tragic that Aris will not be there when it happens.

Reviewer:  Jon Swain is senior foreign correspondent of The Sunday Times.