Stephen Coan
2 minute read
2 Oct 2008

Biography of a political leader

Stephen Coan

STEPHEN COAN reviews Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle. Hutchinson.

Earlier this year South Africa shamed itself voting against a United Nations Security Council resolution critical of Burma. Burma’s military has ruled the country since 1962 and ignored a 1990 landslide election victory by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then, Suu Kyi has spent most of her time under house arrest.

Suu Kyi became a political leader almost by accident. Her father, Aung San, led Burma to independence from the British in 1947 but was assassinated the same year. Suu Kyi was a small child at the time and her subsequent education took her far from Burma and its politics. She studied at Oxford and married academic Michael Aris by whom she has two sons. She returned to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother. When the leader of the socialist ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down the Burmese people took to the streets demanding democracy and Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s saviour, found all hopes pinned on her. The popular uprising was brutally repressed. But the generals took note and, in 1990, called a general election which Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won with a large majority. But the military authorities refused to recognise the result and hand over the reins of power.

Suu Kyi has steadfastly opposed the generals ever since. She has spent most of subsequent years under house arrest. When her husband, a British citizen, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, he was refused an entry visa to Burma. She did not see him again – he died in 1999 – and her two sons continue to live in Britian.

Inspired by Buddhist and Gandhian principles, Suu Kyi has never flinched, in the process being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize plus a string of other humanitarian honours. Hers is an extraordinary story but Justin Wintle’s biography turns out to be a rather pedestrian affair that never really gets under the skin of his subject. Wintle appears to have had little or no access to family members or close friends and much of his account relies on reported material rather than insider knowledge. However, it should be noted this is the first biography of Suu Kyi and he does provide a useful history of Burma together with a comprehensive reading list.

To date Suu Kyi remains under house arrest while over 1 000 of her supporters are still in prison. Meanwhile the Burmese are taking to the streets again, protesting huge food and fuel price hikes as Burma implodes Zimbabwe-style.