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OTI Online
Fall 1998

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma's Gandhi
by Alan Clements


...it is more important to understand the mentality of torturers than just to concentrate on what kind of torture goes on, if you want to improve the situation.


Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and the first person to win it while under detention. Clearly one of the world's most exceptional women, she remains an enigma due to her forced isolation. Under the dark shadow of Burma's omnipresent military junta, author Alan Clements spent five months conversing with her, knowing that each interview could be the last. Aung San Suu Kyi was, and still is, under constant threat of rearrest, and Clements could have been deported at any time. Since completing The Voice of Hope, he has been permanently banned from Burma.

Behind a gate guarded by the feared military intelligence who monitor her telephone, control her movements, and haul her closest supporters off to jail -- Suu Kyi, 53, lives in a large but modest, run-down home in Burma's capital, Rangoon. It is here that she was kept isolated under house arrest for six years (1989 to 1995). For much of that time, she was allowed zero contact with her English husband, Dr. Michael Aris, a Tibetologist at Oxford University, and their two young sons, Alexander and Kim, who have grown up without her. Since then, the authorities have insured that her contact with her family has been sporadic at best. Aris, in fact, has been refused a visa to Burma since 1995. More recently, three of her top aides, all cousins, have been imprisoned -- one tortured so badly that he had to be hospitalized. And Suu Kyi is increasingly cut off from those around her again by the regime, the road to her home barricaded closed, visitors turned back. She draws emotional strength, however, from the deep bonds with her close supporters, even when they cannot meet, and her lively sense of humor.

I do not believe in armed struggle because it will perpetuate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power.

Burma's brutal military junta, which was formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), now calls itself the less threatening sounding State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) at the recommendation of two Washington D.C. public relations agencies: Jefferson Waterman International, and Bain & Associates, hired by the regime to improve its image. This is no small challenge; SPDC has been condemned the world over for widespread human rights violations against an increasingly impoverished nation. President Clinton has imposed economic sanctions on Burma, which Suu Kyi supports; she has also called for a boycott on tourism to her country. Meanwhile, the SPDC is successfully courting foreign corporations and using Burma's lucrative drug trade to keep the crumbling economy afloat.

I never felt cut off from life when I was under detention. I listened to the radio many times a day, I read a lot.

Burma's regime has no intention of turning over power peacefully, but Suu Kyi -- described by Vaclav Havel as "one of the outstanding examples of the power of the powerless" -- remains committed to non-violence. Following is an excerpt from The Voice of Hope.

How effective is non-violence with a regime that seems devoid of any sense of moral conscience?

I do not believe in an armed struggle because it will perpetuate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power. That will not help democracy.

Non-violence means positive action. You have to work for whatever you want. You don't just sit there doing nothing and hope to get what you want. It just means that the methods you use are not violent ones. Some people think that non-violence is passiveness. It's not so. I know it is the slower way, and I understand why our young people feel that it will not work. But I cannot encourage that kind of attitude. Because if I do, we will be perpetuating a cycle of violence that will never come to an end.

You once said, "Fear is a habit; I'm not afraid." But is that true, are you not afraid?

I am afraid. I'm afraid of doing the wrong thing that might bring harm to others. But of course, this is some thing I've had to learn to cope with. I do worry for them though.

In fact, when people associate your name with bravery and fearlessness, you always say that your NLD colleagues have suffered more and been much more courageous than you...

When I was a child I was afraid of the dark, whereas my brothers were not. I was really the cowardly one in the family. This is probably why I find it strange when people think I'm so brave. Some of the things I do that others consider brave just seem normal to me.

Like walking into a line of armed soldiers ready to shoot you, as you did?

I don't know if I think of that as very courageous. There must be thousands of soldiers who do that kind of thing every day. Because unfortunately, there are battles going on all the time in this world.

How do you respond to SLORC's personal criticisms of you?

Their attacks are so crude that they win my sympathy rather than anything else. At one time I thought they were actually rather funny. Before I was placed under house arrest, we found that every time one of them attacked me viciously, we gained more support. We used to jokingly say.to each other, "We have to present them with special certificates of honor, for helping us with our campaign for democracy." Later, I realized this was not a good idea. It was rather serious, not because it was an attack on me, but because it was creating a greater gap between us and them -- between those who wanted democracy and those who wanted to stand by the authorities. So I am against this form of propaganda warfare.

What does it feel like to be under such scrutiny all the time? The pressure from unseen eyes, a tapped telephone, the Military Intelligence (MI) men everywhere, and the ever present threat of re-arrest?

I'm not aware of the pressure all the time. But sometimes, of course, I am. For example, somebody from America, whom I had not met for years, rang up. He started talking about his brother's recent meetings with some people in the government, and I said, "Do you realized that my telephone is tapped. Do you intend that everything you say be heard by the MI?" He hung up pretty quickly after that. On such occasions, I am aware of my unusual circumstances.

Soon after Nelson Mandela was released from imprisonment, the inter national media began labeling you "the world's most famous political prisoner." What are you comments on this?

I'm not one who thinks that labels are that important. Recently somebody asked if I felt that I had less moral authority now that I was free. I found it a very strange question. If your only influence depends on you being a prisoner, then you have not much to speak of.

You were cut off from life in a fundamental way during your detention. Cut off from your family, your husband, your children. Cut off from your freedom of movement, of expression...

I never felt cut off from life. I listened to the radio many times a day, I read a lot, I felt in touch with what was going on in the world. But I was, of course, very happy to meet my friends again.

I missed my family, particularly my sons. I missed not having the chance to look after them -- be with them. With my sons, I was always running around with them playing together. Having long discussions with them. Sometimes I would argue with them -- tremendously passionate arguments, because my sons can be quite argumentative, and I am argumentative, too. My elder son, being more mature, tends to discuss philosophical issues more, whereas with my younger son, we don't talk about that sort of thing much -- at least not yet. He's very musical...

But, no, I did not feel cut off from life. Basically, I felt that being under house arrest was just part of my job -- I was doing my work.

You have been at the physical mercy of the authorities ever since you entered your people's struggle for democracy. Has SLORC ever captured you internally -- emotionally or mentally?

No, and I think this is because I have never learned to hate them. If I had, I would have been at their mercy. In George Eliot's book, Middlemarch, there is a character who's afraid he might no longer be able to love his wife who's been a disappointment to him. When I first read that I found it rather puzzling. My attitude was -- shouldn't he have been more afraid that she might have stopped loving him? But now I understand why he felt like that. If he had stopped loving his wife, he would have been entirely defeated. His whole life would have been a disappointment. I've always felt that if I really started hating my captors, hating SLORC and the army, I would have defeated myself.

People have asked me why I was not frightened of SLORC after all those years of house arrest. Was I not aware that they could do whatever they wanted to me? I was fully aware of that. I think it was because I did not hate them and you cannot really be frightened of people you do not hate. Hate and fear go hand-in-hand.

Is torture still used in this country's prisons?

Yes, torture goes on in all the prisons of Burma, and I have evidence of this. But it is more important to under stand the mentality of torturers that just to concentrate on what kind of torture goes on, if you want to improve the situation.

If your struggle for democracy succeeds, will members of SLORC face criminal charges?

I will never make any personal guarantees. It is only for our party, the National League of Democracy, a group that represents the people, to speak. But I do believe that truth and reconciliation go together. Once the truth has been admitted, forgiveness is far more possible. Denying the truth will not bring about forgiveness, neither will it dissipate the anger in those who have suffered.

Many people want to describe you in heroic terms, you've even been called 'Burma's Saint Joan...'

Good heavens, I hope not.

Fellow Buddhists have referred to you as striving for the attainment of Buddhahood -- the perfection of wisdom, compassion and love, with the intention of assisting others to attain freedom.

Oh, for goodness sake, I'm nowhere near such a state.

And I'm amazed that people think I could be anything like that. I am one of those people who strive for self improvement. I do try to be good (laughs). This is the way my mother brought me up. She emphasized the goodness of good, so to speak. I'm not saying I succeed all the time but I do try. I have a terrible temper. Although I don't get as angry now as I used to. Meditation helped a lot. But when I think somebody has been hypocritical or unjust, I still get very angry. I don't mind ignorance; I don't mind sincere mistakes; but what makes me really angry is hypocrisy. So, I have to develop awareness that I have got to control this anger. And that helps.

Do you ever step back from the immediacy of the struggle and contemplate your role in the bigger picture of existence?

Yes, in fact, it still surprises me that I'm supposed to be an important person. I don't see things that way at all. I don't feel any different now that I'm in politics compared to what I felt before. Of course, I've got more responsibilities to discharge. But I had many responsibilities as a wife and mother, too. Things may appear big and important at times, but I realize they are small when I consider that we are all subject to the law of impermanence. To put it in more blunt terms, I do contemplate my death. Which means to me an acceptance of the principle of change. And by reflecting upon your own death some of the problems which seem significant to you just shrivel into nothing nothingness.

Few people face the fact that they are going to die one day. If you contemplate your own death, in a sense it means that you accept how unimportant you are. It's a way of stepping back from the present, from the immediate concerns of the world in which you're engaged, realizing you are within the whole scheme of things. And yet, you are essential in your place, even if you may not be of great importance. Everybody is essential. But it is a matter of having a balanced view of your place in the world. Having enough respect for yourself to understand that you too have a role to play and at the same time, having enough humility to accept that your role isn't as important as you or some people may think.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said, "In the grain of rice see the sun." Do you see yourself as just a seed-sower of democracy?

I once read a book by Rebecca West. She was talking about musicians and artists as a "procession of saints always progressing toward an impossible goal." I see my life like that -- as part of a procession, a dynamic process, doing all that we can to move toward more good and justice; a process that is not isolated from what has happened before or what will come after. And I do whatever I have to do along the path, whether it's sowing seeds or reaping the harvest or (laughing) tending the plants half-grown.


Reprinted from The Voice of Hope, Conversations with Alan Clements, by Aun San Suu Kyi with Alan Clements, published by Seven Stories Press, courtesy of the publisher. Additional reporting by Leslie Kean, a California-based writer, and co-author, with Clenents, of Burma's Revolution of the Spirit: The Struggle for Democratic Freedom and Dignity (Aperture).


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