Democracy icon never strays from beliefs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am


When the word 'icon' becomes affixed to a figure on the international stage, it is inevitably accompanied by a growing sense of unknowability. It denotes an aura, a separation from normal existence. It seems harder to get a feel for what they are really like, what makes them tick.

Myanmar's democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is a case in point. In fact, her long years - 15 out of the past 20 - under arrest in her decaying colonial mansion on Yangon's Inya Lake have only added to that aura. For all her higher motives and fierce commitment to freedom, she has at times been portrayed as austere and aloof.

In the darker years of the past decade when the jackboots of the country's military junta stomped louder and hopes of reform appeared non-existent, even some of her supporters privately questioned her relevance to a new generation of activists in a desperately poor nation.

They worried, too, for her health and state of mind as she endured year after year without seeing her two sons, or her late husband as he battled against the cancer that would kill him. She felt she could never leave to see them, knowing the junta would never let her return. And they could not get permission to see her.

In the city of whispers that is Yangon, the crumbling former capital, the junta's stooges seem to delight in propagating such talk across the tea shops and noodle stalls.

Yet in the months of relative freedom since her release in November last year, not only has Suu Kyi impressed many with her good spirits, she has shown glimpses of her warmth and humour as well. 'If she was a racehorse, you'd say she looks good in herself,' said one Yangon-based envoy who has met her recently. 'It's a wonderful thing to see.'

Intense focus is now on Suu Kyi as she leads her party, the National League for Democracy, into talks with the recently installed civilian government. A string of events has suddenly brought optimism that change to Southeast Asia's most recalcitrant state could be on the way.

Some 200 political prisoners have been released from the notorious Insein Prison, and media and internet censorship is being eased. Then there is the stopping of construction of a controversial Chinese-built dam, which would have been built where the Mali and Nmai rivers join to become the Irrawaddy. Pressure to halt the project had come from Suu Kyi among others.

The nature of Myanmar's troubles, however, means there are grounds for considerable caution. Few would be surprised if there was military backlash, particularly if there is little sign of long-standing Western sanctions being eased.

While Suu Kyi is in the awkward position of having to tell her supporters less about the highly sensitive talks with President Thein Sein than she and they would like, she remains in no mood to give ground on her core beliefs.

Last week she told a University of Michigan audience in a recorded speech how freedom from fear is the 'master key' that could clear a path for other liberties.

'Fear renders us dumb and passive. Fear paralyses,' she said in the address to accept the university's annual Wallenberg Medal. 'If we are too frightened to speak out, we can do nothing to promote freedom of speech.

'If we are too frightened to challenge injustices, we will not be able to defend our right to freedom of belief. Neither will we dare to ask for the rectification of the social ills that make our lives a misery.'

Then, addressing questions about whether she felt different after her house arrest, she sought to inspire with her answer: 'My mind had always been free.'

In an appearance via video link at the University of Hong Kong in May as part of its centenary celebrations, Suu Kyi elaborated on the mental disciplines that kept her going during house arrest - a time that, by the end, left her without access to a computer or television and with very few visitors allowed in to see her. Maids were her only companions.

When one woman asked her 'from the heart' what made her happy, Suu Kyi said: 'Very small things make me happy. I've learned to treasure the very small things in life ... that is something I've learnt living the life I've led.' It was a poignant understatement that moved some in a packed Loke Yew Hall to tears.

She also spoke of the importance of her Buddhist faith and meditation, of being able to stay engaged by following world events on radio and of listening to Mozart and Bach.

Asked what message she had for jailed fellow Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and other detainees, she spoke of the importance of personal philosophy. 'If you cannot keep faith in yourself, you cannot achieve inner peace ... that is the most important thing if you are going to keep going.'

One of the many people moved was Katherine Ma, director of communications at HKU, who was part of the team in Yangon running the broadcast from Suu Kyi's lounge. Ma described being worried that somehow Suu Kyi would simply be too aloof, or that the years of isolation had affected her sense of reality or her state of mind.

'All those fears were ruled out as she walked in and introduced herself. She seemed very polite, decent and sophisticated, yet straightforward and accommodating as well ... she really wanted to get her message out and talk to people,' Ma said.

'She wasn't like a worn-out politician at all, with a fixed smile and stock answers. She listened to the questions and really tried to answer in way that would touch people. Even though the link was cutting in and out, I think people really responded to her ... and realised she was trying to speak to the individuals asking her questions'

Ma said she was surprised Suu Kyi realised the importance of speaking to a wider Hong Kong audience via the university, and of grasping its importance to China. During the breaks in transmission, she spoke of the importance of education to help people build their capacity to cope with the challenges of life, and expressed the hope that one day she will be able to speak to students in mainland China via HKU.

'Some people would simply say that is naive, it will never happen ... but that is one of the amazing things about Suu Kyi, she is not so much a politician but a true idealist. She keeps to her visions through all the adversity ... she knows the importance of not letting go of those hopes. That is what makes her so different.'

While Suu Kyi looked a little underweight, Ma was struck by her bearing and ramrod-straight back. 'I got the sense her health was good, and she was strong.'

Some NLD officials admitted their concerns about her periods of fasting and to fears that she was not getting enough medical treatment. 'Her ongoing strength has surprised us all,' one official said from Yangon. 'That in itself is inspiring ... she's looked after herself so well, she wants to keep going, she doesn't want to let go of the cause.'

The daughter of the late independence hero General Aung San, Suu Kyi has the courage that is backed by a strong sense of destiny. As Suu Kyi knows better than anyone, there are no guarantees in Myanmar's politics and the generals can be notoriously fickle. While she has expressed a cautious confidence at recent developments, a sudden shift in mood could see excuses found to lock the gates once more at 54 University Avenue.

The 66-year-old is going to need all the inner strength she can muster to bring her visions to reality in the months and years ahead.