Peter Carey reflects on a life of Nobel peace prizewinner and political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
A 'land of charm and cruelty' is how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (St Hugh's 1964) has described her country. This heart-rending paradox lies at the heart of Justin Wintle's fine biography of the heroine of the struggle for democracy in Burma. 'Bright collection of strange victories' - the meaning of Aung San Suu Kyi's name in Burmese - could have been its sub-title.
Wintle's book is both a deep and sensitively researched life of Aung San Suu Kyi and her family, in particular her remarkable parents - Bogyoke Aung San, the founder of modern Burma, and Daw Khin Kyi, her equally formidable mother - as well as a history of what was once known as the Golden Land from the era of the great temple-builders of the Pagan dynasty in the mid-ninth century to its present grim reality under the military jackboot of the Orwellian State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). This is a place where thousands of political prisoners still languish in jail, where torture, rape and political assassinations are routine and where the treatment of ethnic minorities in the great swathe of land which stretches from the Yunnan border of China to the golden beaches of Tenasserim Division amounts to a Southeast Asian Darfur. Yet, unlike Darfur, Burma does not rate high on the international Richter scale of concern given the succour afforded the regime by its neighbours, in particular China and India, but also an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) rogue's gallery of states which think nothing of hanging drug-smugglers at home while doing a brisk trade with the heroin-exporting generals in Pyinmana.
The spiritual descendants of the last Burman king, Thibaw (r.1878-85), and his vindictive queen, Supayalat, who had their political rivals trampled to death by the royal elephants on the teak floors of Mandalay palace trussed in burgundy-coloured sacks so their blood would not be seen by the palace servants, the present-day military rulers of Burma have also trampled the democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) into a lifeless corpse, while claiming that only they can guarantee the integrity of the Union of Burma. Wintle's book brilliantly explores the limits of Gandhian satyagraha (non-violence) epitomised by Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle for a democratic Burma in the face of the bayonets of the tatmadaw (Burmese army). Reading his gripping pages is to relive once again the hopes and terrible disappointments of the almost two decades since Aung San Suu Kyi left her North Oxford existence as the wife of a respected scholar of Tibetan Buddhism - the late Dr Michael Aris - and became the iconic leader of the Burmese democracy movement.
These were the years of Aung San Suu Kyi's heroism in the face of the levelled rifles at Danubyu in the Irrawaddy Delta - 'freedom from fear' in action, which helped to win her the 1991 Nobel peace prize; of the stunning NLD victory at the polls in May 1990 (82 per cent of the constituency vote) and the toothless Gandhi Hall declaration which followed; of the stoicism of the long years of house arrest and the sacrifice of family, which included enforced separation from her husband as he succumbed to malignant cancer in the first quarter of 1999; and, most sinister of all, of the vicious assassination attempt on her by the regime at Depayin in Sagaing State on 30 May 2003, when at least 70 of her supporters were killed and more than 100 injured as they were attacked by 2,000 cudgel-wielding thugs in the pay of the junta.
With Aung San Suu Kyi once again under house arrest and the NLD in ever-deeper disarray, one cannot look to the future with anything akin to hope. But perhaps that is to miss the point. As Wintle reminds us at the end of his book: 'What needs to be acknowledged - and continuously applauded - is Aung San Suu Kyi's phenomenal ability to inspire others, not just in Burma ... but around the world. Without her kind we are all impoverished.' This book should be required reading in Oxford, where Aung San Suu Kyi graduated in PPE exactly 40 years ago, and where the liberal and humane values which she has upheld are very much the core values of the University. Without them, we are indeed impoverished.
Peter Carey is Laithwaite Fellow and Tutor in History at Trinity College.
Prospect Burma is a non-political educational charity supported by Aung San Suu Kyi that provides overseas scholarships for young Burmese. See www.prospectburma.org for more information.