Biographer: Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity has fallen but she wants change in Burma

Peter Popham who wrote the biography of Aung San Suu Kyi , The Lady and the Peacock, which was published in 2010.

Peter Popham who wrote the biography of Aung San Suu Kyi , The Lady and the Peacock, which was published in 2010, speaking at Asia House

Biographer: Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity has fallen but she wants change in Burma

29 May 2014

By Sue Lanzon

Peter Popham has recently returned from his 10th visit to Burma. In keeping with the theme of Changing Values, he was at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival to discuss the changes in the political landscape since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in November 2010, and what the future might hold for the country.

Popham, author of the 2010 biography on Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock, first met her at the time of her previous release from house arrest in 2002. He was at that time working as The Independent’s India correspondent and travelled from New Delhi to cover the story. She was, in his words, “famous, but completely unknown.”

Since her final release in 2010, she has become more in the spotlight. Popham described how Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent transition from saintly icon to politician has meant a reduction in her popularity – both in Burma and the West. Her support for sanctions until there was democratic change has led to her being blamed for Burma being the poorest country in South East Asia.

Popham said that, as leader of the main opposition party in the Burmese Parliament, “she now has to do what it takes to stay afloat.” He believes that she is prepared “to do anything in her power to change the destiny of her country.” There is an ongoing effort by the military to keep her in check, “to neutralise and contain her…She is still the most important person in Burmese politics.”

Although she has often been compared to Nelson Mandela, Popham highlighted the differences between the two figures. Whereas, at the time of Mandela’s arrest, the African National Congress already existed as a political party in a functioning democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi “carved a democratic space” and founded The National League for Democracy (NDL).

There has been a dramatic change in the atmosphere of the country since the by-elections of 2012 (in which the NDL took 43 of the vacant 44 parliamentary seats they contested). The government no longer has a monopoly on the press, political prisoners have been released, and freedom of expression has replaced the climate of fear.

Though foreign investment has been slow to take off, the equalizing of the exchange rates is a major step towards economic reform. However, at present, there exists “a gap between expectation and reality…You can say what you want but your living standards haven’t improved.”

Beneath the changed landscape, the fundamental realities of power remain the same, he said. Although the military have formally withdrawn, The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the military by proxy. The 2008 Constitution was designed to enshrine the military’s power within the framework of democracy.

Looking ahead to the next general election in 2015, Popham said that Burma’s prestige now depends on being seen to conduct fair elections. Reform is the only way to create a counter-weight to isolationism and the growing wealth and economic influence of other Asian countries, in particular China. He predicts a coalition between the NDL, the main opposition party, and the ethnic parties.

With regard to the different ethnic groups in Burma, Popham considers the tendency to xenophobia is a particular risk in the coming years. The temptation to reject the outside world is partly a product of Burma’s difficult colonial experience, partly due to the lack of clear laws against land claims. The situation is, if anything, worse than in the past.

“The easiest way to obtain land is to boot out the people occupying it…the evicted become xenophobic towards foreigners.”

Ethnic tensions, such as the recent violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims is another problem. Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for her apparent reluctance to speak out against the persecution of Muslims. Her principled approach to everything is at odds with this apparent political expediency.

Aung San Suu Kyi is prevented from becoming president due to a clause in the constitution that excludes anyone married to a foreigner from standing. Popham regards this as part of the military’s strategy to contain her power. Her marriage and her years spent living away from Burma are her Achilles heel. Some consider that she’s not Burmese at all.

If she does come to power, Popham said, we can expect investment in education, health care and the legal system, that have up to now been starved of funds. There is a generally low level of literacy, part of a deliberate policy to suppress protest. Popham feels sure Aung San Suui Kyi would want to reverse that.

Her larger goal would be to unite the ethnic minorities, to encourage the sense that they each had a stake in the country; that “the different components shared enough in terms of values and history to create a democratic society that actually functions.” So, it seems like change might be on the horizon.

To see a video clip of the event click below:

To listen to the audio of the event click below:


Sue Lanzon is a volunteer at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Her first collection of short stories, Something In The Water & Other Tales Of Homeopathy, is published by Winter Press.

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