The Lady and the Peacock

An exclusive excerpt from the new biography on Burma's democratic opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

On April 1, voters in Burma are set to take part in an election that could see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament — with the tacit consent of a government trying to prove its professed reformist credentials. If she wins, it will be the latest breathtaking twist in a long and improbable journey that has taken her to the Nobel Peace Prize and beyond.

Today Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the world’s most famous pro-democracy crusaders, an exemplar of moral courage in the defiance of tyranny. But she didn’t start off that way. When activists opposed to the ruling military dictatorship in Burma chose her as their leader in 1988, there was little that distinguished her aside from her illustrious ancestry: Her father, Aung San, had freed Burma from British colonial rule after World War II. But she soon showed that she was more than just her father’s daughter.

In the following exclusive excerpt from The Lady and the Peacock, a new biography by British journalist Peter Popham, we witness the incident that first made her a legend. In 1988, a nationwide uprising against the military regime prompted a bloody crackdown by the generals. The following year, they tried to shore up their crumbling legitimacy by allowing for a national election. Aung San Suu Kyi and her nascent National League for Democracy (NLD) decided to participate. On the campaign trail, she and her followers (including her confidante, Ma Thanegi, whose diary provides the basis for much of Popham’s account), soon found themselves confronting the guns of the junta. In April 1989, the contest of wills finally came to a head in a town called Danubyu:

More party members were being arrested: The persecution of democratic activists was already growing familiar. And, as Ma Thanegi noted, word of the growing discord between students and their elders inside the party had reached the outside world.

"April 3: In evening met with families of NLD members arrested in Mon state . . . Ma Ma [a familiar reference to ASSK] saw Asiaweek article about split between students and NLD . . . Someone denied having sent out an open letter about the split . . ."

The next day Suu, Ma Thanegi and their convoy were on the road again, back to the Irrawaddy Delta for the fourth time since January — heading for the encounter which would imprint forever an image of almost unbelievable courage on Suu’s name.

"April 4: left home at 5:30 and had to wait for an hour at Insein jetty. We took two cars, Tiger’s car and a green pickup. Arrived at Meizali village, army said we could not stay there." They set off again, stopping by the roadside to drink sugar-cane juice while they waited for the green pickup, which had fallen behind, to catch up.

Leaving Rangoon they had driven almost due west; at Meizali they joined a river which they now followed as far as the next village, Hsar Malauk: "A long village," Ma Thanegi recalled, her descriptive powers failing her for once, with "a nice loo." "Ma Ma stood on a table at the front door of the NLD office," she added, "to address public."

But trouble was brewing again.

Near end of her speech two cars arrived and parked on either side of the crowd, and started blaring on about decree law 2/88 etcetera [the martial law provision banning public assemblies, of which Suu and her party were flagrantly in breach everywhere they went] and making such a racket. Ma Ma talked through this and the crowd which had until that point listened in silence started clapping and cheering and whistling. Then one car after another in turn repeated the announcements. We all made a show of listening carefully, Ma Ma included, turning our heads to each car in turn, then when one of them was a bit delayed Ma Ma called out "Aren’t you going to start?" — at which they gave up and went away.

Ma Ma said goodbye to crowd and we went home to lunch. A lot of reserve firefighters and people’s voluntary forces standing around but looking sympathetic. Lovely lunch of nice seafood-sellers in market had cut prices to get rid of their wares faster so they could listen to the speech. Ma Ma able to rest in the afternoon, boys had football match on the beach in evening. Lovely dinner also, fish, fish.

Next day they left Hsar Malauk and drove north alongside a waterway so broad you could barely see the far side, to the township of Danubyu, where in 1824, during the First Burma War, the Burmese Army had lost a critical battle to the British. The authorities here, under Suu’s old enemy Brigadier Myint Aung, had decided to make things difficult for them. As at the village of Kim Yang Gaung, which they had visited on March 24th, the army had ordered the population at gunpoint to stay indoors-though not all obeyed. And at the entrance to the town Suu’s convoy was stopped and told they could not drive through the town’s main street but must take a different, circuitous route to reach the party’s office.

"April 5," Ma Thanegi wrote, "arrived in Danubyu and found there were certain roads which we were not allowed to pass through. They had given us a longer alternative route." The two sides parlayed tensely over the arbitrary restriction, until Suu discovered the perfect loophole, an excellent legalistic reason why they could not obey: The new route "unfortunately meant we had to go the wrong way down a one-way street. Ma Ma firmly said we must not break traffic rules, so joyfully Tiger turned into the forbidden road leading to the market past cheering crowds and then to NLD office. Local SLORC secretary followed and parked a little way off, looking furious." Win Thein, one of the student bodyguards, remembered seeing scores of soldiers lined up in front of the party office, guns at the ready.

The officer in charge of the troops, Captain Myint U, acting under the orders of Myint Aung, told Suu that Danubyu was under martial law and that she was therefore forbidden to address the public. Suu was obliged to compromise. "Ma Ma made a speech inside NLD office, then we all left the office to walk to a jetty nearby, intending to take a boat to some of the outlying villages." With the local supporters who had joined them, Win Thein remembers there being some eighty people in the group — but under the dire regime of Brigadier Myint Aung, even walking in a group was a violation of martial law. "As we walked along, SLORC followed in a car warning us not to walk in a procession," Ma Thanegi wrote in her diary. "Three warnings were given to the effect that if we did not break up they would shoot to kill."

It was the first time they had been subject to such a direct threat to their lives.

"Order was given to load and aim. Arms loudly loaded by soldiers standing near officers as we passed and we looked calmly at them and walked on. Ma Ma told one soldier, ‘Hey, they are telling you to load, aren’t you going to, soldier?’ They raised their rifles on first warning but after that we were at jetty and already on boats."

They were on the water, and safe. "Stopped at villages, glorious lunch which I sat through with gritted teeth while party supporters recited two poems. With the exception of very few I would like to hit poets who are writing poetry, usually very bad, about doing this and doing that in the movement and reading them aloud . . ."

The military presence did not stop at the town limit. "Armed soldiers all along the way," Ma Thanegi wrote. "Two majors followed in their own boat and one soldier on it grinned and nodded several times when we waved at him."

Despite all the intimidation they had experienced in Danubyu, they planned to return to the town in the evening and spend the night. Not everyone in the party thought this was a good idea: Win Thein says that he was among the voices urging Suu to pass the town by and land further downriver; their cars could drive down from Danubyu and pick them up there. But Suu insisted on sticking to the original program.

Sure enough, the army was there on their return to the town, in the form of a single guard, forbidding them to disembark. "Came back to Danubyu at 6 pm," Ma Thanegi wrote, "when armed and lone soldier tried to stop us from landing. But we said no we are landing. You mustn’t come on land, he said, yes we will we said. And we did."

They set off through the almost deserted streets to walk back to the NLD office for dinner. But even though the market was long closed and the townspeople were indoors, the army was still determined to impede their progress. "On the way we were told by one military policeman that the road in front of market was not allowed to us." The order seemed ridiculous to Suu — just another attempt to bully and humiliate them. "Market closed by that time and streets almost deserted. Route given quite a bit longer . . ." Again Suu flatly ignored the army’s command. "Ma Ma said ‘We’ll take shorter one.’ MP shouting angrily after us as we passed him."

By now the sense of danger was acute. "I quickened pace to get ahead of Ma Ma and boys . . . I managed to get right out in front beside Bo Lwin, our very tall, very dark and very nice cameraman and Win Thein, our hot-tempered bodyguard who was carrying the flag." Meanwhile an army jeep roared up and screeched to a halt at the end of the road down which they were walking.

I kept one eye on Win Thein and one on Captain Myint U, who had halted his jeep at the top of the road. Six or seven soldiers jumped down from the jeep and took positions, three or four kneeling, three standing. The kneeling chaps pointing guns somewhat low, at our midriffs, standing ones guns pointed upwards. Someone on jeep turned on a song about army not breaking up etcetera — we had heard the same song played from afar this morning as Ma Ma spoke at Danubyu’s NLD office.

A furious captain swung around to shout and the music stopped in one bar. I felt a bit giggly at this but only for a moment. Captain Myint U came towards us, one arm outstretched and finger wagging, shouting at us to stop walking in procession.

People react to terrifying situations in unpredictable ways. Ma Thanegi’s reaction was to get angry herself. "How the hell did this fool expect our group of forty to walk?" she wrote. "Indian file and ten paces apart? We were just hungry, hot and longing to rest. I thought I had better tell this fool the true meaning of 2/88, and called out to him that I would like to talk with him. I shouted this several times but he didn’t hear, he was too intent on shouting to Ma Suu that he would shoot if people blocked road."

Suu now offered a compromise. "Ma Ma called out to us to walk at the sides of the road — I didn’t hear because I myself was still shouting at the captain. But somebody came up beside me and pushed me towards the side of the road."

Suu herself recalled,

In front of me was a young man holding our NLD flag. We were walking behind him in the middle of the street heading home for the night, that’s all. Then we saw the soldiers across the road, kneeling with their guns trained on us. The captain was shouting to us to get off the road. I told the young man with the flag to get away from the front, because I didn’t want him to be the obvious target. So he stepped to the side. They said . . . they were going to fire if we kept on walking in the middle of the road. So I said, "Fine, all right, we’ll walk on the side of the road . . ." And they all moved to the sides.

But for the irate young captain, the gesture was too little, too late. "Captain Myint U said he would still shoot if we were walking at the sides of the road," Ma Thanegi wrote.

At this point Ma Ma walked out into the middle of the road, the boys after her, and by that time she was so close to the soldiers that she brushed past them. They stood petrified, clutching their arms to their chests and looking pale.

I had such a stab of sick fear when I saw her pass through but within seconds she was safe.

Just before this I vaguely heard someone shouting, "Don’t do it Myint U, don’t do it Myint U!" and I thought it was one of our NLD people, not knowing it was one of the majors who had been ambling behind after us." She learned later that his name was Major Maung Tun of 1-08 battalion. "He came up running and ordered Myint U not to fire — the captain tore off his epaulettes, hopping around in the dust raised by our group and his own feet and shouting, "What are these for, what are these for?"

I listened for a few minutes thinking he was speaking to us but then realized it was not so. Then I followed Ma Ma and others home to the NLD office . . .[PAGEBREAK]]

Why did Suu walk back into the middle of the road, risking death? She explained that the captain’s rejection of her proposal to walk at the side of the road struck her as "highly unreasonable." "I thought, if he’s going to shoot us even if we walk at the side of the road, well, perhaps it is me they want to shoot. I thought, I might as well walk in the middle of the road . . . . I was quite cool-headed. I thought, what does one do? Does one turn back or keep going? My thought was, one doesn’t turn back in a situation like that." In a later interview she said of that split-second decision, "It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target . . ."

She added, "I don’t think I’m unique in that." In situations of sudden danger, "you can’t make up your mind in advance what you’ll do; it’s a decision you have to make there and then. Do I stand or run? Whatever you may have thought before, when it comes to the crunch, when you’re actually faced with that kind of danger, you have to make up your mind on the spot . . . and you never know what decision you will take."

She remembered noticing the reaction of the soldiers who had been aiming at her. "We just walked through the soldiers who were kneeling there. And I noticed that some of them, one or two, were actually shaking and muttering to themselves, but I don’t know whether it was out of hatred or nervousness."

It was this incident which, more than any other, created the mystique of Aung San Suu Kyi, while at the same time — in this land of the zero-sum game — effectively dismantling that of the army. If anyone still doubted that she was her father’s daughter, true-born child of the man who had defied both the British and the Japanese and come out on top, they could doubt it no more. When, on July 19, 1947, assassins burst into the conference chamber where he was holding a cabinet meeting, Aung San’s response — as instinctive as Suu’s in Danubyu — was to stand up and face them: Their bullets tore apart his chest. That was heroism, and returning to the middle of the road in Danubyu and keeping on walking was heroism, too. Suu may be right in saying that she is not "unique" in the way she reacted to a moment of grave peril, but her whole prior life had been a preparation for that moment.

"Ma Suu and I were once tidying the glass-fronted cabinets where [her mother] Daw Khin Kyi’s clothes were kept," Ma Thanegi later recalled. "She took out a white scarf with a large patch of dried blood on it, and said that when her father died all her mother could say was, ‘There was so much blood! There was so much blood!’

"It was her father’s blood. I broke out in goose pimples; I was trembling, with tears in my eyes, to be touching the blood of our martyr, our hero, our god. That must be the most memorable moment of my life."

Word of what had happened and what had so nearly happened helped to consolidate Suu’s reputation among the deeply superstitious Burmese public, many of whom now began to consider her a female bodhisattva, an angel, a divine being. The fact that she had survived the army’s attempt to kill her was proof positive of her high spiritual attainment: only someone "invulnerable to attack," "guarded by deities" and "subject to adoration" could have come through alive. She was "a heroine like the mythical mother goddess of the earth," one admirer wrote three years later, "who can free [us] from the enslavement of the evil military captors."

In January, Suu had told the New York Times reporter, "I don’t want a personality cult; we’ve had enough dictators already." But it didn’t really matter whether she wanted it or not. Now she would be stuck with it, forever.

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