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Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Justin Wintle. Hutchinson and Random House. 450 pages. £11.99.

She has been likened to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, even Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence she has espoused. Burma's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi—often referred to just as “the Lady”—may be incarcerated but she remains a symbol of defiance and moral strength, and as such has attracted sympathy and support not only inside her country but from all over the world. The world's most famous political prisoner, in 1991 she received the Nobel Peace Prize.

She has received myriad additional recognition: In 1992, UNESCO awarded her the International Simón Bolivar Prize. The following year, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles named her the recipient of its Victor Jara International Human Rights award, and, in December 1994, the Forum of Democratic Leaders in the Asia Pacific made her an honorary adviser to its board—and all this while she was still under house arrest.

She seems to be above criticism, a saint-like figure who can do nothing wrong. Justin Wintle's potentially controversial biography of her, therefore, is very much needed and welcome. He no doubt admires her and her courage, but, at the same time, writes that not every criticism leveled at Ms. Suu Kyi should be ignored, “otherwise any concern for Burma becomes a Stalinist parody of democracy.”

Mr. Wintle takes Ms. Suu Kyi to task for supporting Western economic sanctions and boycotts, which he argues “have helped drive the regime deeper into the embrace of China.” He criticizes the Burma Campaign U.K. for blacklisting the Lonely Planet's guide to Burma and argues that tourists should visit the country “in the millions.” The United States' and the European Union's policy of denying places at their universities and colleges to the children of regime members is counterproductive, he states, arguing that it is “surely much better to give the grandsons and granddaughters of [Burmese junta leader] General Than Shwe and his ilk a decent liberal education than to see them packed off to Beijing.”

Mr. Wintle's biography is well-researched and covers, in great detail, Ms. Suu Kyi's childhood in Burma and her years in India, Britain, Japan and Bhutan. He was fortunate in being given privileged access to an unpublished biography of Daw Khin Kyi, Ms. Suu Kyi's mother, written by her during the period of her first house arrest 1989-95. But it is perhaps a bit unfair to highlight the fact that Ms. Suu Kyi was not a particularly successful academic. She may have got only a third-class degree from St. Hugh's College Oxford—and her friends might have expected her to do much better—but is that really relevant to her role in Burma's pro-democracy movement?

It is also unfortunate that Mr. Wintle repeats two myths spread by the junta and its sympathizers. One is that Burma's first, 1947, constitution included a clause “prohibiting anyone married to a foreigner from becoming Burma's president,” Mr. Wintle writes. The other is what was actually elected in May 1990. While acknowledging the NLD's landslide election victory, Mr. Wintle states, incorrectly, that, “Even Khin Nyunt's pre-election assertions, that the contest was the choose members of a Constituent Assembly, not a parliament, now appeared to be a dead letter.”

In fact, Khin Nyunt had said before foreign military attachés in Rangoon on Sept. 22, 1988, “Elections will be held as soon as law and order has been restored and the Defense Services would then systematically hand over power to the party which wins.” He didn’t say a word about the need for a new constitution. And on May 31, 1989—a year before the election—the junta promulgated a pyithu hluttaw election law. A pyithu hluttaw in Burmese is a “people's assembly,” i.e., a parliament, not a constituent assembly, which is a thaing pyi pyu hluttaw—a term never used before the 1990 election. That a constituent assembly, not a parliament, had been elected was first stated by Khin Nyunt in a speech on July 27, 1989—two months after the election.

In the end, the elected assembly turned out to be not even a thaing pyi pyu hluttaw. About 100 of the 485 elected members of parliament (of whom 392 were National League for Democracy candidates) were to sit in a “National Convention” together with 600 other, nonelected representatives who had been hand-picked by the military. No Burmese citizen expected that to happen when they went to the polls in May 1990. The junta had just not expected the NLD to win, so the rules had to be changed after the election.

As for the president's spouse, the 1947 constitution does not mention who the president could or could not be married to. A person would not be qualified for election to parliament if he or she “is under any acknowledgement of allegiance or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen entitled to the rights and privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power.” Ms. Suu Kyi's marriage to Michael Aris, a British citizen, gave her the right to reside in Britain, but certainly no other special rights or privileges. If the law were meant to prohibit the president from having a foreign spouse, the old dictator Ne Win would have had to resign when he, in 1976, married June Rose Bellamy, also a British citizen.

Another myth repeated by Mr. Wintle is that Ms. Suu Kyi's son, Alexander Aris, who accepted the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of his mother “halted” in his speech in Oslo City Hall because “still a teenager, he had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to develop himself as a public speaker,” and that he read “a text his father had helped him prepare.” This reviewer was present at the ceremony in Oslo in 1991, and was as stunned as everyone was how eloquent the young Mr. Aris—then only 18—was, and, according to his father, the speech was not written by him. There were standing ovations after the speech, and some of the Norwegian hosts told me that it was one of the best speeches they had ever heard at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Despite such shortcomings, this book is definitely worth reading. It has a very comprehensive index, but it badly needs footnotes, because it is obvious that much of the account of the events of the turmoil of 1988-89 comes from other, written sources, as does the historical background material. Besides, the very long history chapters actually do not offer any new perspectives or insights; they simply repeat what has been written elsewhere.

Rather than scrutinizing Ms. Suu Kyi's academic credentials, it would have been a better idea to more thoroughly analyze her transformation from an effective mass mobilizer to somewhat of a Buddhist mystic. Mr. Wintle does touch on that subject, but only superficially and almost in passing. He quotes a Burmese activist in exile, who listened to her speeches in Burma in 1988 and 1989, as saying that she “spoke elegantly but simply, so that everyone could understand exactly what she meant.” He also quotes an old friend of hers from Oxford days as saying that she was never especially religious, “rather, Buddhism was there as part of her cultural baggage.”

Under her first spell of house arrest, however, she took to meditating and began reading books on Buddhism. She emerged from house arrest in 1995, and again in 2002, with a highly spiritual approach to politics and social development, a major departure from her earlier writings and speeches, which had been far more down-to-earth and worldly. That is a major reason why, for instance, many foreign businessmen, politicians and statesmen find it difficult to relate to her. She may be a saint, but she is not a shrewd politician. That also seems to be the main message of this book, which is bound to create a fierce debate not only about Ms. Suu Kyi's personality and role in Burmese politics, but also how the outside world should approach the seemingly never-ending Burmese imbroglio.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, June, 2007

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