By John Garth
Aung San Suu Kyi returns to Oxford for the first time since her studies in the 1960s, taking time out to speak, exclusively, to John Garth.
Immaculate four-wheel drives stand beside the Principal’s lodging; dark-suited figures move purposefully across the gravel. A paparazzo, pointing a telephoto across the lawn from the southern gate, is shooed away. Rarely has any Oxford college assumed such tight security. Morning sunlight shines on the window seat at St Hugh’s, and upon the most celebrated political internee since Nelson Mandela: Aung San Suu Kyi, here to speak exclusively to Oxford Today in the only UK print interview during her historic visit.
Not since President Mandela’s visit 10 years ago has the University welcomed an international figure of such broad appeal. Yet Daw Suu’s power remains as yet unratified by her nation, and a more fitting comparison might be with Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1931 spoke to Indian students here about enfranchising the subcontinent’s untouchables. Later on in the same day, at Encaenia, to a standing ovation from a packed Sheldonian, Daw Suu (as she is known by her Burmese honorific) would make a similar appeal for the rights and freedoms that might permit Burma’s young people to experience “a bit of Oxonian Shangri-La” – student life as she enjoyed it in Oxford in the 1960s.
She walks into the Principal’s dining room with her trademark flower in her hair – today, a butteryellow rose chosen from among the many flowers she was given by well-wishers on arrival in Oxford the day before, her 67th birthday. The lineaments of her face are beginning to suggest someone in her sixties. But the lines at her eyes imply laughter rather than her sorrows since last in Oxford. She was obscure then: living in Park Town as wife of Wolfson research fellow Michael Aris and mother of two sons. When she flew to Rangoon to nurse her dying mother in 1988, embattled democracy campaigners seized on her as a figurehead: her father Aung San had led Burma to indepence in 1947 (he was assassinated the same year). Even the military junta accorded her a measure of grudging respect, fearing repercussions if it inflicted upon Aung San’s daughter the tortures, long imprisonments or permanent disappearances it meted out to others. But she has endured a feline cruelty including 15 years under house arrest; at its worst, she was ambushed, beaten up and briefly consigned to the notorious prison system.
In her absence, several biographers and even a filmmaker, Luc Besson, have portrayed her battle with the Burmese authorities with all the drama it surely merits. She has not read the books or seen the films (“I would find them embarrassing”) and her own account of her time under house arrest is understated. “I like people; I’m fond of my friends,” she says. “But I’ve never had any difficulty staying alone, and that helped me a great deal. So when people talk about my strength I’m a little surprised, because I have not found it particularly trying.”
She makes no reference to her personal sacrifice: how her family in Oxford were eventually shut out of Burma; how, when Michael Aris was dying of cancer in 1999, she faced the agonising choice between her husband and the country whose democratic aspirations she had come to embody. Knowing the junta would never allow her back if she left, she stayed in Burma, and endured further years under house arrest from 2003 to 2010.
“I would have had to abandon my colleagues who were going through a much more difficult time than anybody in England,” she recalls. “My highs and lows had a lot to do with what my party was going through outside. I had access to shortwave radio so I always knew what was happening in general, and I heard that my colleagues were going through very difficult times, and of arrests of more of our members. But I didn’t have tremendous mood swings.”
She kept her spirits up with piano playing and thoughts of her alma mater. “Memories of Oxford have helped me, and what I learned at Oxford – not just in the lecture rooms but from my friends.” She was to expand on the theme later in her speech at Encaenia, declaring: “Oxford is a place of tremendous broad-mindedness. Nobody discriminates against anybody else because he or she may be different, or may not have achieved as much as others. Every human being is expected to have a value and a dignity of her kind or his kind. And that’s why, throughout the years when I was struggling for human rights in Burma, I felt I was doing something of which my old university would have approved. And to feel the approval behind me has helped me a great deal.”
A passion for writing – in the 1980s she had been hoping to develop a career as an author – could not be pursued under house arrest: “I didn’t want to keep papers which might be taken away from me.” But she found escape in reading, among other things, the spy fiction of John Le Carré – as she was to reveal at Encaenia, when the author also received an Honorary Doctorate under his real name, David Cornwell. (The two sat together like naughty children, separated by an aisle and a long stretch of empty bench from a third honorand, Baroness Manningham-Buller, former MI5 chief.)
Daw Suu was released in November 2010, days after a rigged election which kept the military junta in power under the veneer of a new civilian government. In an incredible turnaround, she was permitted this April to take part in elections, and then to assume the parliamentary seat she won for the National League for Democracy (NLD ). Only since then has she felt able to leave Burma with the confidence that she would be able to return.
The interview at St Hugh’s on Wednesday 20 June comes in the midst of an itinerary that would have laid low a lesser soul: she flew to Geneva the previous Thursday, then to Norway to receive her Nobel Peace Prize (awarded originally in 1991) and her Rafto Prize for human rights; to Dublin to be given an Amnesty International award by Bono of U2; to London to speak at the LSE; and to Oxford and a private birthday party at St Hugh’s. She’s just had breakfast with a delegation from St Antony’s, where Dr Aris held a fellowship. We have just 13 minutes to speak. Yet she seems serenely relaxed, shifting easily between gravitas and warmth, and saying she’s looking forward to “taking part in the fun of Encaenia”.
She commands attention: until I start seeing hand signals in the background counting off the minutes left, I forget there are at least half a dozen other people in the room all focused on this interview. I’m surprised to find myself thinking of Margaret Thatcher, though there is only calm assurance where the Iron Lady inclined to stridency. It’s the same combination of very precise pre-Estuary English, combined with a certain steeliness in refusing to be led where she does not wish to go.
Has the visit to Oxford been bittersweet, I ask, thinking of Dr Aris and of the life she left behind in March 1988, when her sons Alexander and Kim were 14 and 10 years old respectively. “No bitterness,” she says. “All sweet. It’s been wonderful meeting old friends again; and Oxford makes me feel that I am still part of the family, that I belong to Oxford.” She mentions that after the birthday party in her honour at St Hugh’s last night, she sat on her bed chatting about old times with Ann Pasternak Slater, former St Anne’s English don, who as a fellow fresher had taken her under her wing back in 1964.
Her affection for England seems strange in a child of the liberator Aung San, I suggest. “Not at all,” she disagrees. “My father said in some of his speeches that the English may have been our enemies because they had colonised the country but there were many things we could learn from them. And he liked the English, there were qualities about the English that he admired, and he had a big enough heart and also enough confidence in himself to say this openly.”
Daw Suu read PPE, matriculating at St Hugh’s in 1964. But she insists: “I was looking at politics rather from the point of view of an outsider; just studying it, not being involved in it.” Would she put herself on the political spectrum at all now? “No, I wouldn’t, because Burma is not yet a working democracy, and if we’re going to find ourselves fixed places on the political spectrum before we’ve even achieved the basics of democracy, I think we would be in danger of very rigid conditions in the future.”
The answer follows a pause, as if she’s weighing up a chessboard of consequences. And as globetrotting ambassador for the Burmese opposition, heaped with honours by the free world, Daw Suu may now seem a queen on that chessboard. But is she really just a pawn in a prolonged barter between the Burmese government and the capitalist West over the country’s markets and resources, as they open up again after years of isolationism and sanctions? “I’ve never felt I was a pawn of any person, any country or any organisation,” she observes. “I’m doing what I’m doing because I believe in it. I think it would be very, very unfair to the West to describe them as using me as a pawn, because many Western countries and organisations have been genuinely helpful.”
She elucidates her new policy of promoting business with Burma rather than urging sanctions. “Now, because of the economic opportunities, there will probably be businesses which would be more interested in what kind of profits they may make out of the country than in what kind of benefits they can bring to it. This is why I keep insisting that we want democracy-friendly, human rights-friendly investment, and people who aren’t involved in the business world should help us by keeping up awareness of what these businesses are doing, how they are investing and with whom they are working in Burma. Are they strengthening the same old people who have had a grip on the country for the last few decades, or are they really empowering new people, helping to spread the fruits of democracy in the country?” She repeatedly refers to the country as Burma, a habit which provoked an official demand, days later, that she “respect the constitution” by calling it Myanmar, in accordance with the junta’s 1989 fiat. (In fact, both names originate in the name of the country’s ethnic majority.)
So the battle continues between democracy and military dictatorship. The ultimate resolution to all this is far from clear but Daw Suu focuses on the ground that has been gained. “The number of MPs we have in the National Assembly is small, but on the other hand we have very good relations with the ethnic nationality parties who are represented in the National Assembly and that’s a tremendous strength, as we can prove that we can work together in unity.”
The same week she has been accused of failing to speak up for the Muslim Rohingya minority being persecuted in western Burma. Yet when I ask if her emergence into the murky world of pragmatic politics threatens to tarnish a gleaming reputation, she dismisses the question. “I’ve always been in the world of politics, whether you call it murky or not, and I’ve never thought of myself as a guiding light. I don’t give long guiding-light-like speeches; I always present to people what I think are the important issues of the day.”
In 10 years’ time, she says, “I think Burma will be in a much better position, but how much better depends first of all on the commitment of our people and secondly on the responsible understanding of the international community.”
The way forward, she stresses, depends on the goodwill and integrity not just of President Thein Sein, but of the entire government and military. Yet the very event which brought her back to Burma in 1988 was an apparent democratisation that turned abruptly into brutal, murderous repression. Surely history suggests the government and military cannot be trusted?
“I don’t think we should be shackled by history. I think we should use history to teach us better.” And if the current phase of democratisation in Burma were to prove another false dawn? “Well, we’ll have to keep on working for the real dawn to arrive.”
John Garth is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Oxford Today, the OU staff magazine Blueprint and author of Tolkien and the Great War. He read English at St Anne’s, worked for many years as a news sub-editor on the London Evening Standard, and has reviewed books for several national UK papers. He lives in Oxford with his wife Jessica and daughter Lorelei. www.johngarth.co.uk