"The Lady and the Peacock" by Peter Popham, The Experiment, $27.50, 448 pages
"Democracy's Quiet Champion
by Philip Delves Broughton
On the night of May 30, 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi was driving in a convoy of cars through northern Myanmar—the country she had grown up knowing as Burma—when two monks hailed her from the side of the road. She ordered her driver to stop. But as she spoke to the monks, several trucks full of armed men screamed up and surrounded her convoy. It was an ambush.
The government had decided to have her killed rather than tolerate her opposition any longer. Thugs began pouring out of the bushes, brandishing clubs and iron rods. Aung San Suu Kyi would have been among the more than 70 killed that night had it not been for her driver, who turned his car into a battering ram. He drove straight at the attackers, forcing them to scatter, then wove through several roadblocks. By the time he was stopped by the police, they were far from the rabid mob.
The moment that political leaders start to be called "iconic" we tend to forget about the grit and bloody-mindedness that got them there. Iconic figures are valiant and true, as smooth and perfectly formed as their marble statues. Real-life leaders are much rougher characters. When we see the laughing, avuncular figure of Nelson Mandela, it is easy to forget the pugnacious young lawyer who terrified South Africa's white ruling class for so long. So it is with Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader and longtime foe of its ruthless regime.
She speaks in cut-glass English, typical of her postcolonial British education, and always looks elegant, in her silk blouse and longyi (the Burmese sarong). She wears a flower in her hair even in the most destitute places. But for nearly a quarter of a century now she has waged a political fight at great personal cost. It is a cost she tends to play down, saying that it is trivial compared with the suffering of many other Burmese, who have been killed or jailed for their political views.
But it is a cost well worth recounting especially during these exciting times for Myanmar. The long petrified political system is cracking open. Investors are jamming the hotels of Yangon, the commercial capital of the country, hoping to get in early on what they hope will be the next Asian Tiger economy, once the United States and Europe lift their sanctions. This moment of imminent transformation did not just happen. It was hard won, by Aung San Suu Kyi and many others, and it has rarely seemed as inevitable as it does today. Peter Popham tells this story superbly in "The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi," by far the best book yet written on this elusive heroine.
It has been 24 years since Aung San Suu Kyi stumbled into Burmese politics. It wasn't pure accident; nor was it properly planned. She happened to be in Yangon in the summer of 1988 to take care of her ailing mother when a series of demonstrations against the military government erupted around her. Her father, Aung San, had led Burma's nationalist movement during World War II but was assassinated in 1947, shortly before Burma won its independence from Britain. Aung San Suu Kyi was 2 years old at the time, but her family name had not lost its political pungency. When the protesters began looking for a leader, she stepped forward.
Aside from her name, Aung San Suu Kyi had no particular qualifications for this new role. She was 43 years old, the mother of two young boys and the wife of an Oxford don, Michael Aris. She had left Myanmar when she was 15, first for India, where her mother was sent as the Burmese ambassador, then to Oxford for her undergraduate degree, then New York, for a lowly job at the United Nations, and then back to Oxford with Aris.
Her hopes for an academic career had been stymied by her weak undergraduate degree, and she had written a few slim, children's guides to Southeast Asia and a short biography of her father. She was, according to friends, austere, frustrated and, by that point in her life, not much fun.
Before marrying Aris, though, she had made an unusual prenuptial request: "I ask only one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them." Aris did that and more.
After her stunning entry into Burmese politics in 1988, any hopes she had of a hop, skip and a jump into power were slowly snuffed out. Meanwhile, Aris and their sons were permitted to visit Yangon infrequently. Torn between her family in England and her sense of political duty in Myanmar, she chose the latter. Even when Aris was dying of cancer in 1999, he was not allowed into Myanmar to see her, and she refused to leave Yangon in case the government never allowed her to return.
In the event, the government did not allow her to participate in Burmese political life, routinely restricting her movement and arresting her. Her earliest years of house arrest were especially hard. She had little money; she scarcely ate. She became so malnourished that her hair started to fall out and she developed spondylosis, a degeneration of the spinal column. She would roam her empty house at night and talk to a photograph of her dead father. But as she would later say, tapping her head: "They never got me up here."
Mr. Popham is rightly admiring of Aung San Suu Kyi, even gooey at times: "The whole world wants a part of Suu, wants to warn her, award her, co-opt her, write about her, possess her, exploit her, empathize with her, love her, be loved by her." She changed Myanmar, he writes, "by throwing open the windows of her stale and stagnant homeland, and letting the winds of the world blow in." She created an expectation among her fellow citizens that eventually democracy and freedom would come. She gave them a sense of a future without inept military dictators.
Outside Myanmar, Mr. Popham argues, Aung San Suu Kyi took up where Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King left off, insisting on nonviolent opposition against extreme injustice. But he makes the point that she has been foremost a moral leader. She has been steadfast against repression and terror and persisted in her nonviolent approach despite endless small humiliations, years of house arrest and outright thuggery.
But she has never shown herself to be much of a political strategist. She is brave and noble, but not especially crafty. Tomorrow she is expected to win election to Parliament, 22 years after she led her National League for Democracy to a landslide election win, which was promptly ignored by the military government. If this time, things are truly different in Myanmar, it will be fascinating to see how her skills sharpen and her role evolves.
—Mr. Delves Broughton is the author, most recently, of "The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life," to be published next month by the Penguin Press.
Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1-800-843-0008 or visit www.djreprints.com