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THE LADY AND THE GENERALS: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Freedom by Peter Popham

THE LADY AND THE GENERALS: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Freedom by Peter Popham
01 Jun
Who is the real Aung San Suu Kyi? Despite the fact it’s hard to mention Myanmar without including her name in the same breath, it’s a far more complex question than we might otherwise think.

As Peter Popham notes in his latest work: ‘As long as Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, the point of her was easily grasped... little was demanded of her except resistance.’ In those many years when she was most conspicuous by her absence, her infamous face, with its calm yet determined features, passed from martyr to cult hero. Her enforced silence manifested qualities and characteristics amongst her loyal following based on no more than unconfirmed scraps of information and hearsay. Were she ever to follow in her father’s footsteps and assume the mantle of national leader, they told each other, she would be strong, brave, moral, and compassionate. Why else had they spent so many years worshipping her?

Her eventual 2010 release, election as an MP two years later, and the subsequent years, have shown the fallible human behind that cult figure – or so Popham assesses. Once the imposing and authoritative shadow of the military was somewhat removed, a result of President Thein Sein’s recent reforms, the situation became far more nuanced, and mere ‘resistance’ hasn’t cut it for professional politician Suu Kyi anymore.

For example, the Rohingya question has overshadowed her for years. What to the outside world is a clear case of human rights abuse, with incidents such as the June 2012 anti-Rohingya violence in Arakan state, is a situation where the Myanma tend to be much more sympathetic to the ‘perpetrators’. Herein lies Suu Kyi’s dilemma: to condemn the violence and maintain her international reputation as being firmly committed to human rights but risk a loss of popularity at home? Or follow the national consensus but lose face overseas? Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

Suu Kyi's eventual 2010 release, election as an MP two years later, and the subsequent years, have shown the fallible human behind that cult figure

Popham writes a comprehensive, if jumbled, history of the country. He appears reluctant to stick to the self-assigned themes of each chapter, while his loose chronology leaps erratically around the events of the past 70 years. He also has a habit of repeatedly explaining facts and historical events time and time again, as though unaware he had already introduced that particular information in the previous chapter, and possibly also the one before that (although this repetition may have the inadvertent impact of helping readers unfamiliar with the country’s tumultuous past get to grips with the historical and legal complications and dead ends which have led to the present situation).

As the title suggests, Suu Kyi gains the most amount of attention in this, Popham’s second book on Myanmar, as he explores the question of who she really is and what she may achieve now that she finally (if informally) has the power she waited for after so many years. The 2008 constitution bars her from the top job, however her insistence that she will call the shots regardless (indeed, Popham argues the current priority for the NLD is changing the constitution so she can take the Presidency, as opposed to enacting any immediate change to Myanmar’s economic situation, for example) creates potentially serious and significant complications to both her political career and personal legacy. A failure to drastically turn around the country’s fortunes could see her stock tumble rapidly, especially if her secular beliefs clash with the country’s strict Buddhist communities. He also highlights other potential weaknesses, including her reluctance to delegate, and the short shrift given to many world leaders. The delicate art of geopolitical diplomacy is a field where she will have to tread carefully and intelligently if she wishes to keep all her allies on side over the coming years.

Popham includes a fascinating personal exchange from 2011, when he twisted the arms of people close to her until she agreed to a meeting. Upon sitting down she immediately rejected answering any of his questions, stating she ‘would never agree to an interview for a biography as it is a way of seeming to give authority to the biography’. As he notes, ‘celebrity was neither her wish nor her intention’, and yet it is what she has achieved, with all the biographies and scrutiny that come with it. 

This review was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Click here to purchase The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Freedom by Peter Popham from Amazon

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