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Choices for an Uncrowned Queen’

Aung San Suu Kyi; drawing by John Springs

If Thailand has a half-deified king, Burma has in her its uncrowned queen. Indeed, her brief appearance at the literary festival reminded me of a visit by Britain’s queen, with everyone crowding around awestruck, laughing at the slightest quip, and wearing involuntary smiles on their faces. (Me, too.) She is regal, working a room with dignity, professionalism, and charm, but the hard political reality still rests in that adjective “uncrowned.” Her nimbus and charisma derive partly from the hereditary principle—never for a moment does she or anyone else in Burma forget that she is the daughter of this postcolonial country’s founding hero, General Aung San—and partly from her own extraordinary life story, courage, presence, wit, and beauty.

Her popularity, however, is not yet anchored in any constitutional position. Quite the reverse: Article 59(f) of the country’s 2008 constitution—written by the military—bars from the presidency anyone whose “spouse, [or] one of the legitimate children of their spouses…owe allegiance to a foreign power.” Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford colleague and friend of mine, was British, and their children Alexander and Kim—second and third on the country’s former blacklist—therefore have British citizenship. That is an article she needs to change; and to do so, according to that same constitution, you need the votes of more than 75 percent of all members of the lower house, and then those “of more than half of those who are eligible to vote” in a nationwide referendum (i.e., including the ethnic minorities). Guess who the generals were trying to stop.

On the stage of the Inya Lake Hotel where the Irrawaddy festival is held, just across the lake from the family home where she spent all those heroic years under house arrest, Suu Kyi talks easily and charmingly to an adoring audience about the books she likes best: George Eliot, Victor Hugo, and, yes, detective stories. Detective stories are very useful, she quips, in her current work in politics: they help you figure out “what people’s motives are.” And we all laugh, entranced.

I am irresistibly reminded of the halcyon days after Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1990. There is the same mix of fairy-tale charm, public adulation at home and abroad, and a nagging murmur of private unease. The unease, in her case as in his, flows from several different sources—including the unhappiness of local intellectuals who barely get a look in. But mainly it is about the dissonance between the moral-literary-spiritual antipolitician of yesterday and the practical politician of tomorrow.

For and around such exceptional figures, in such exceptional moments, there are then two questions. The first is how they themselves understand and present their own role; the second is how others write and speak about them. As I pointed out several times in essays for The New York Review in the 1990s, the playwright-turned-president Havel always insisted that he could be both at once: intellectual and politician. Asked very early in his presidency if dissidents-turned-politicians could continue to “live in truth” he replied, “Either yes or no. If it proves not, I certainly won’t go on being one.” But he did—for another thirteen years, until he finally retired from the presidency of the Czech Republic in 2003, having successfully disproved his own original claim.

However, he then went on to demonstrate something else on which he had always insisted—that, even after all those years of being a politician, he could go back to being a playwright. Still dissident in spirit, he wrote one last, sharp, amusing play, Leaving, about the addiction to power and the difficulty of giving it up.

The uncrowned king of Bohemia’s position in 1990 was in so many respects easier than that of the uncrowned queen of Burma today. He was already president. That presidency did not make him responsible for most aspects of governing the country, including the economy. Havel himself had always, even as a professed antipolitician, shown considerable political skills. His country was close to the prosperous, dynamic European Community (soon to be European Union) and, though badly run-down, was in incomparably better shape than Burma today. Yes, Czechoslovakia would soon break apart, but peacefully and only into two quite well-defined parts—today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia.

She, by contrast, is not yet president. It will take some three years of politics, with lots of compromises, before she gets to Naypyidaw’s equivalent of Prague Castle, as she is plainly determined to do. Whether you look at the economy, health care, education, or any other measure of human development, her country is in a dreadful state, after decades of being isolated and exploited by its military rulers. Her own political nous has not been so evident as Havel’s in the opposition years, and the NLD lacks the expertise necessary to govern. Burma is not an Asian Czechoslovakia but more like an Asian Yugoslavia, an ethnic patchwork that can only be kept together by timely and far-reaching devolution of power. (Ironically enough, another of the favorite books she mentioned at the literary festival was Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which explores pre-1939 Yugoslavia.)

On the other hand, she seems clear-sighted about what she has to do. “I’ve never had illusions about politics,” she told one of her BBC interviewers. No Havelesque visions there; and that’s an advantage. In my experience, the ex-dissidents who do best in post-dictatorship politics are those who say in effect, “OK, back then I was an intellectual, now I am a politician. One day I may go back to being an intellectual again, but for now I’ll do my best at playing a reasonably clean game of politics. For these are different games with different rules.”

Yet the perhaps necessary compromises are painful to watch. Since I left Burma, Suu Kyi has chaired a parliamentary commission which decided that a copper mine jointly owned by the Burmese military and the Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco can continue to operate, despite popular protests against evictions of local farmers. While terrible anti-Muslim pogroms have spread to other parts of Burma, she has pursued a rapprochement with the military, sitting in the front row at a march-past on Armed Forces Day, next to the top brass. She did not look comfortable.

This brings us to those, both inside the country and abroad, who write and speak about her. Maybe she is prepared to give up being a saint, but are they—are we—prepared to let her drop the halo? I notice in a weekly newspaper, The Myanmar Times, a piece about Burmese journalists’ reluctance to report critically on Suu Kyi and the NLD, from which some disaffected factions have already broken away. So whereas in Thailand criticism of the king is strangled by draconian lèse-majesté laws, here criticism of the queen is held back by a velvet ribbon of self-censorship—plus the fear of adverse reactions from readers. (“How dare you criticize our queen?”) That is not universal, but there is generally a gap between the critical comments one hears in private and what people will write or say in public.

If I were a Burmese political activist and wanted the best for my country, I would self-censor too. After all, other political forces in Burma, including some from the still-dominant military and ex-military, would like nothing more than to see Suu Kyi’s supporters fall apart, squabbling over the spoils of power that they do not yet even possess. Unity is strength, and the democratic forces in Burma need all the unity they can achieve so as to keep this country together, win that landslide election victory in 2015, prepare for government, and make Suu Kyi president—which she must be. If I were a Western politician or diplomat, I might make that same tactical call. But this cannot be the right choice for a journalist, scholar, or political writer.

To be durably and fully free, a country, be it Burma, Thailand, India, or the United States, also needs writers who see it as their role to dig out the facts, get at the truth as best they can, and then portray that truth as honestly, fairly, clearly, and vividly as possible. And those in power, be they crowned kings, uncrowned queens, or mere presidents and prime ministers, need such fact-grubbers and truth-tellers too. This is not, I hasten to add, necessarily a nobler task than the politician’s, nor always more difficult, but it is a vital complement to the role that Aung San Suu Kyi has now chosen. Our job is to tell it as it is.

—This is the third of three articles on free speech in South and Southeast Asia.

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