Aung San Suu Kyi: Mother Courage

For putting her country before her family, Aung San Suu Kyi is often thought cold-hearted. But the charge is unjust, says her biographer Peter Popham

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The Independent Online

It's the one issue that gets people exercised about Aung San Suu Kyi. Sarah Sands raised it in her review of my new biography of the Burmese democracy heroine, The Lady and the Peacock, published this week. "She is a woman and a mother," Sands wrote, "so her patriotism has been equated by her opponents with an unnatural heartlessness... Ever since ... [she forsook] her devoted husband and sons in order to form a political opposition in Rangoon, we have wanted to know why."

It's not a question we would ask of male political figures – who would dream of weighing Gandhi's appalling family relations or Martin Luther King's philandering in the scales against their political achievements? – but that doesn't make it go away. Suu Kyi's response to all those who try to tease some semblance of ordinary maternal or wifely emotion out of her is invariably stony. And this makes us think less of her, as a woman, a wife and a mother, if not as a human being.

But after long immersion in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, getting to know her closest British relatives and some of her most intimate friends from different stages of her life, I believe the charge is unjust and misconceived. Two meetings with her and nearly five years of research have led me to the conclusion that there is no reason to believe there is anything hard-hearted about her at all.

When Suu Kyi was released from house arrest almost exactly a year ago, it was more than 10 years since she had last seen her sons, more than 11 since her English husband Michael Aris died of cancer on the other side of the world, barred from visiting her one final time before he died. During the 21 years and four months between the start of her first period of detention and the end of the most recent one, her opportunities to spend time with any of the three of them can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

There is a plain word to describe this: torture. Burma's military regime has had nearly 50 years to refine its ways of getting people to do what it wants, or to punish them for insubordination. Their techniques divide into the crude and the relatively subtle. The crude ones are the standard techniques practised in many Third World countries, including cigarette burns to the flesh, electric shocks to the genitals and life-threatening beatings.

The more subtle techniques torture their targets without the need to lay hands on them – without overtly violating their human rights.

Suu Kyi defied the regime more boldly and successfully than anyone in Burma, but once under house arrest she was at their mercy. But torture of the cruder sort was out of the question for a woman who was already well-known abroad, the "West's poster-girl" as the regime's newspapers called her, and the daughter of Aung San, the hero of the Burmese independence movement. But the regime found a way to be as cunningly cruel with her as they had been ferociously cruel with others. They wanted one thing of Suu Kyi and one thing only: for her to leave the country.

Given the massive popularity she had aroused everywhere she went during her campaign trips, they could not sleep easy until she did. But, as a Burmese national, she could not be compelled to go. So instead they tried to make it psychologically impossible for her to stay – by preventing her from being with her family. As soon as Michael and the boys returned to Oxford after spending the summer of 1989 with her, the Burmese passports of Alexander and Kim – who had dual nationality – were revoked.

If the "hard-hearted Suu Kyi" version of her story is correct, then this was a flawed strategy: if she was as tough and politically single-minded as some people believe, it would have mattered little for her to be separated from them. And indeed, in interview after interview, that is the impression Suu Kyi has strained every muscle to give. The longest, most personal interviews she has ever given are with Alan Clements, a former Buddhist monk, collected in a book entitled The Voice of Hope; but even in these long sessions, which roam across the whole of her life and all her intellectual and spiritual interests, she says little about her children. "As a mother," she said, "the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons" – but then added immediately, "I was always aware... that others had sacrificed more than me."

There: that chilliness. That's what we recoil from. Until we put ourselves in her shoes.

Suu Kyi has been under siege by the regime, physically and emotionally, for more than 20 years – and that situation continues today, incidentally: the ledge on which she and her party are permitted to live remains extremely narrow and precarious, whatever the vaunted "reforms" of recent weeks. Her party, for example, has no legal status whatever.

During her 15-plus years of detention, Suu Kyi lived in her large family home, but it was infested with soldiers inside and out, and she had no way of communicating with the outside world – no telephone, and, for most of that time, no letters and no visits. Yet she and the regime were well aware she could leave any time she chose. That was the torture: she could leave – and never come back, or she could stay – and endure the torments of solitude.

What grounds do we have for thinking it was torture for her to be apart from her family? In an unpublished letter to her parents-in-law from Rangoon in June 1988, while she was caring for her sick mother and before she became involved in politics, she wrote how she missed the family and how much she was looking forward to their arrival: she reveals that the longest she had ever been away from all three of them before was one month, and even that was too long.

Her reluctance to get involved in Burmese politics is another clue. In Rangoon in 1988, with the uprising breaking out on all sides, it was months before she finally agreed to take part: she was already aware that the commitment would be all-consuming. It was only after immense pressure from those who saw her as a potential figurehead that she finally took the plunge.

Since then, she has never publicly questioned that decision, but from time to time the emotional cost – far too great to be hinted at to a journalist – emerges in private. One person privy to it was Ma Thanegi, a woman who kept a diary of Suu Kyi's campaign trips in 1989, when Ma Thanegi was her close companion. The diary has never before seen the light of day, but I have been able to include long extracts in my book.

At one point, Suu Kyi and Ma Thanegi travelled down river together by boat, sharing a "small, grimy" cabin. "After giving a speech from the boat," Ma Thanegi wrote, "she sat sewing for a while in the cabin mending some of the [student bodyguards'] shirts. She talked for a while about Alexander and Kim. She said that she used to sew name tags in her sons' shirts for school, then she fell silent. As she sewed she had tears in her eyes... I could see her trying not to cry. Then she said, 'I had better concentrate on my new sons...'

"She never let on, except as jokes," Ma Thanegi wrote, "how much she missed her family..."

'The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi' by Peter Popham, is published on 3 Nov (Rider, £20). Order for £17 (free P&P), 08430 600 030, or visit