The Power of the Powerless

The Power of the Powerless

June 15, 2008

The Power of the Powerless


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A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience.

By Justin Wintle.

Illustrated. 464 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. $27.95.

There are not many countries whose stories are so intensely bound to the character of a single person, much less a person with no tangible power, not even the power to leave her house or receive a visitor or make a telephone call. Yet for nearly two decades, events in Myanmar (formerly Burma) have revolved around the condition, the policies and most of all the victimization of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now 62, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. Hers is a symbiotic power, as Justin Wintle describes it in his aptly titled “Perfect Hostage,” bestowed by the almost cartoonish thugs who have made her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless,” in the words of the former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

The State Peace and Development Council is a stereotypical military junta, brutal and efficiently repressive. But the generals, in a way, are as much hostage to Aung San Suu Kyi as she is to them. Their control of the country and its destiny has been constricted by her moral authority and personal magnetism, and by the continuing allegiance she inspires from people both inside and outside the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi, though, is not simply an icon, and the sway she holds over her oppressors — and her supporters — is more complex than simple victimhood. This thoroughly researched biography sets out to explicate the personality of a leader who found herself by chance (though also by birth) at the head of her country’s struggling pro-democracy movement. By delving into her childhood and her years as a student at Oxford University, Wintle, a journalist and the author of books on Vietnam, finds the seeds of her commanding personality, her straight-backed moral certainty and a “fierce purity” that gave her, as one friend said, “the knack of putting one on one’s best behavior.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of U Aung San, the independence hero of Burma (which was renamed by the current military junta). Though she was only 2 years old in 1947, when he was assassinated, she has described him as her model and inspiration. And it is this family connection that brought her — the nonpolitical wife of a British academic — to the forefront of the opposition in August 1988, when the nation was convulsed by a popular uprising and massacres by the military. The opposition coalesced around her in a political party named the National League for Democracy. It overwhelmingly won an election in 1990 that was annulled by the generals. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest even before the vote was held, and since then has been released for only brief periods.

“Perfect Hostage” suffers in places from the awe this brave woman inspires in those who write about her. Wintle sometimes employs jarring turns of phrase — he speaks of the Burmese people’s chances of having “the generals’ guts for garters” and suggests that if Aung San Suu Kyi is killed, “her sainted blood might trickle into InyaLake.” But the book presents readers with the complexity of Myanmar’s history and its present tensions, and of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who is described as both flexible and inflexible, ready to cooperate with her oppressors but unbending in calling for international sanctions against them.

The most provocative section comes at the end of the final chapter. Though it seems a bit of an afterthought, it attempts to explain what Aung San Suu Kyi has meant for the fate of Myanmar. Have her idealistic vision, her personality, her fortitude and her perseverance been a positive force, or have they held her nation back from the possibility of change? It is a difficult question to answer, both because Aung San Suu Kyi is so charismatic and her story so morally unambiguous, and because of a sort of political correctness that has come to characterize support for her.

But it is just this determined support, Wintle suggests, that may have inhibited the kind of moral and political compromises sometimes needed for history to move forward. Rather than embracing what he calls “Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategy of highest principle,” he says Western nations could have pursued a policy of economic and political engagement that might have drawn the generals out of their shells. “Counterproductive sanctions,” he says, include “instances where rightly principled positions have turned into inflexible dogma — a charge sometimes leveled at Aung San Suu Kyi herself.”

This is a surprising finale to an admiring biography of one of the most attractive personalities of our time. But even if Aung San Suu Kyi fails as a democratic pioneer, even if she may have drawn her country and its critics down an unproductive path, Wintle says, she is one of the rare figures who have shown us what is good in ourselves as human beings. “Without her kind,” he says, “we are all impoverished.”

Seth Mydans covers Southeast Asia for The Times.

Copyright 2008The New York Times Company