Friday, June 19, 2015

Charlie instead of Concord

‘[Suu Kyi] came back after a hot trek in the sun to some village or other smelling strongly of cheap scent. It’s usual for enthusiastic ladies to spray Ma Ma with perfume [. . .] She said you know Ma Thanegi I’ve gone up in the world, they sprayed me with Charlie instead of Concord.’ This is part of a diary kept by Ma Thanegi, the personal assistant of Aung San Suu Kyi, during the early years campaigning for democracy in Burma. Later this year Suu Kyi, with her National League for Democracy party, will contest a general election, but, unless constitutional changes are enacted, she will not be eligible for the Presidency. Once considered an international icon for freedom, human rights and democracy, her image has become somewhat tarnished in recent years, at least according to widespread media articles celebrating her 70th birthday today.

Suu Kyi was born on 19 June 1945 in Rangoon (now Yangon). Her father, Aung San, was a revolutionary, nationalist, and founder of the modern Burmese army. In 1947, he negotiated Burma’s independence from the British Empire but was assassinated soon after. Suu Kyi grew up with her mother and two brothers (though one brother died aged eight, and the other, in time, became a US citizen). She was educated at the Methodist English High School, but when her mother was appointed Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960, she continued her studies at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School and Lady Shri Ram College, both in New Delhi, graduating with a degree in politics in 1964. She went on to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, gaining a B.A. degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1969.

After graduating, Suu Kyi lived in New York City, where she worked at the United Nations, primarily on budget matters. In 1972, she married Michael Aris, a Cuban-born Englishman and a scholar of Tibetan culture, then living in Bhutan. They had one son the following year, and another in 1977. The family relocated regularly, living in Bhutan, Japan and India, but settling mostly in England. Between 1985 and 1987, Suu Kyi was working toward an M. Phil degree in Burmese literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (and was elected an Honorary Fellow in 1990).

In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to see her ailing mother but soon became caught up in the country’s disaffection with its government: following the so-called 8888 Uprising in August, she emerged as a national icon and a leader for the National League for Democracy (NLD). Ma Thanegi, now a well-known writer, but then a painter collaborating with a politically-oriented painters’ organisation, soon joined Suu Kyi and worked as her personal assistant during the forthcoming campaign tours. Thousands of demonstrators were killed over the coming months, and General Saw Maung staged a coup to form a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Martial law followed, as did a change of name for the country - to Myanmar.

Nevertheless, the military government organised to hold free elections in 1990 - the first for 30 years. The NLD won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the military refused to cede power, and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home in Rangoon. That year she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the Nobel Peace Prize followed a year later. The military junta continued to rule until 1997, and then, as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), until its dissolution in 2011. Suu Kyi has said that while under house arrest she spent her time reading philosophy, politics and biographies sent her by Aris, played the piano, and, occasionally, when allowed, saw foreign diplomats.

Although Suu Kyi could have left the country, she would not have been allowed back; and, she has made clear, she preferred to stay with her people, despite the sacrifice of not being with her family. International condemnation of the Myanmar regime and Suu Kyi’s detention have been an ongoing news story for more than two decades. Finally, in 2010 she was released from house arrest. In 2012, she was elected an MP, and entered parliament. The same year she announced her attention to run for president in the 2015 elections, but the current constitution bars her from being eligible. Further information is available from Wikipedia, and from any number of articles celebrating her 70th birthday, many of which, though, draw attention to the fact that her image and reputation internationally is less than it once was, see, for example, Channel 4 (A painful metamorphosis), Deutsche Welle (An icon with a dented image), New Delhi Television (Accelerates political battle as she turns 70), The Telegraph (Is human rights heroine tarnished by her silence on persecution?), Huffington Post (Happy Birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi?).

As far as I know, Suu Kyi has not kept, or at least published, any diary. However, her personal assistant Ma Thanegi did keep a daily diary during their tours around Burma in 1989 and 1990; and extracts from these have been published in a biography of Suu Kyi by Peter Popham, The Lady and the Peacock, (Rider, part of Random House, 2011). Here is how Popham introduces, in his ‘Afterword’, this diary material: ‘There are many things about Suu’s life that are fascinating and instructive. It is extraordinary to observe a woman emerge from the comforts and duties of a suburban life in her early forties and take on a stature and role unimaginable even a year before. [. . .] Within months of accepting the leadership of the democratic movement she was already a legend throughout her country. But it never went to her head. I obtained proof of that when an acquaintance in London, who unfortunately I cannot name, gave me the diaries kept during Suu’s campaigning trips in 1989 by Ma Thanegi, her close companion. Suu’s radiant humanity shines out of those pages, along with her good humour, her stoicism, her appreciation of modern lavatories, and her frequent explosions of temper.’

Popham goes on to say that he met Ma Thanegi three times, and that when he told her he’d been given a copy of her diaries and planned to use them in his book, ’she did not demur’. He then explains how he believes he was betrayed by Ma Thanegi during an undercover trip to Burma in 2010, and how this led to his expulsion (before being able to conclude an interview with Suu Kyi). Ma Thanegi had spent three years in prison, and when released in the mid-1990s, had shown herself to be far more of a critic of Suu Kyi than a friend. Popham suggests she had been ‘won round’ by the country’s military intelligence.

Suu Kyi herself did not cooperate with Popham in writing the biography, and it is hard, therefore, to imagine the book would have had any publishing legs, as it were, without Ma Thanegi’s diaries, since they do provide a unique and substantial primary resource. But I, personally, wonder how come they really came into Popham’s possession, and under what authority/copyright arrangement he felt able to use them - at least until she herself ‘did not demur’.

The book itself can be previewed at Googlebooks, and online reviews can be found at Burma Campaign UK, The Globe and the Mail, London Evening Standard, Journal of Democracy, and New Republic.

The idea that Ma Thanegi should keep a diary during Suu Kyi’s campaigning trips, Popham says, came from Aris as a means for him to be kept in the loop given that he would have to stay home in England with the two boys. Later on, Popham notes that Ma Thanegi ‘seems more interested in recording the practical minutiae of the trip than the political discussions along the way.’ Indeed, many of the diary extracts quoted by Popham start with a detailed description of Suu Kyi’s dress! Unfortunately, unlike more academic biographers, Popham does not give full references for the diary extracts he uses, and so the vast majority of them are undated. Here, though, are several extracts from Ma Thanegi’s diaries as quoted in Popham’s book.

‘Gandhi is Suu Kyi’s role model and hero. Everyone knew it was going to be dangerous: some of the students had the Tharana Gon sutra chanted over them to prepare themselves for sudden death, a mantra recited in Buddhist ritual over the body of the deceased. Some became monks or nuns for a few days in preparation.’

‘Great harassment in Bassein, [. . .] armed soldiers barred the way out of the house we were staying in, only allowing us out in twos and threes to visit friends etc.’
‘An Australian senator came to see Ma Ma at 8am, [General Saw Maung had] told him elections would be held soon, after discussions with parties . . . Spent the whole night at Ma Ma’s place. Ma Ma up and down stairs whole evening, signing letters, seeing to papers, books. Dr Michael phoned after Ma Ma finished writing a letter to him.’

‘Left Rangoon at 4.45 am, fifteen minutes late. Ma Ma a bit annoyed. She was sleepy in the early part of the morning. I held her down by the shoulders on bumpy roads: fragile and light as a papier-mâché doll. Forced to stop unplanned at Pyawbwe . . . Ma Ma VERY annoyed. Stopped for sugarcane juice at Tat-kone: delicious! Ma Ma loved it. Lunch at Ye Tar Shay. People in the villages amazed and overjoyed to see Ma Ma. Ate lunch, fried rice ordered from Chinese restaurant next door.’
‘Ma Ma looked so wistful when I swiped chilli suace and onions from under her very nose. Later I relented and picked out onions sans sauce for her. Chilli sauce v. unhealthy stuff in Burma.’
11 February 1989
‘She wore green plaid longyi, white jacket, green cardigan with matching scarf and gloves. Got up (had to) at 4.30. Left for Loilam at 5.30, after I insisted she eat soft-boiled eggs.

At her request I borrowed a tape of Fifties and Sixties songs to listen to on the way, coincidentally the same we were listening to in Rangoon. I remember her singing along loudly ‘Love you more than I can say’ as she scooted upstairs. We sang along with the tape on the way: ‘Seven lonely days.’ etc.

Ma Ma v. annoyed at easy going plans. There was supposed to be a convoy on the road ‘for our protection’ but there was no one in sight. We reached Loilam without seeing any. Ma Ma hit the roof.’
‘Wonderful sight at Dukgo: as we entered the town the local NLD had issued red NLD caps and we marched in singing a democratic song which was also blared out from one car. We pushed in front of the MI’s videos and still cameras. Ma Ma had been saying for days how she was on the brink of losing her voice but it came on full, clear and strong as she started to talk at the NLD office, amplified out into the road, and she sounded darn mad.

While Ma Ma was talking, people crept up to listen at the side of the road. Police and soldiers told them to get back but we told them to come up and listen. Planned for Ma Ma to walk to jail to visit prisoners but when she came out of the NLD office such a large crowd followed her that we were afraid the police - who hurried to the police station and closed the gates - would say we were invading it and shoot us down. So many kids and women in the crowd that we decided just to pass the police station and jail by.

We walked out of town, crowds following, and I was afraid we would be walking all the way home. But at last, with the last goodbye, Ma Ma got into the car.

Had engine trouble all the way: water pipe broke late afternoon. Stopped for a while at Jundasar at a rice mill. Also we had to stop near a stream just before Dai-oo. Large pack of stray dogs - one of the boys shouted at them about 2/88. SLORC’s rule banning groups of more than five gathering together . . . [. . .]

Ma Ma sat in car and asked if I didn’t feel a sense of unreality about all we are doing. I said, dealing with stupid people can get us caught up in weeks of stupidity, no wonder it makes us all feel so weird.’
24 March 1989
‘Left Rangoon 6 am by boat [. . .] Reached Kim Yang Gaung in evening but no one came out of their houses. The whole place deserted, people peeping from deep inside darkened huts, only a few dogs going about their business. Learned that a local man who was democratic-minded was shot dead through forehead by army sergeant or corporal one week ago.

From there a long cart ride to Let Khote Kon. Easier to have gone on by boat but one of the NLD organisers felt we should visit that place and he was right. Ma Ma made speech in compound of a dainty little old lady named Ma Yin Nu. A very big crowd. I gave Ma Yin Nu a photo of Ma Ma . . .

Equally long cart ride back to boat, though it felt longer. Soon it became very dark. We never saw such large stars. As usual I pestered Ma Ma, telling her the names of my favourites. Halfway along our cart met a bunch of armed soldiers, five or six, who rudely called out to us, asking who we were, where we were going etc. There were about six carts in our caravan, our boys were travelling behind us but immediately they brought their cart up and parked between us and the soldiers. . .

Back on the boat at 8.30 pm and found out that we couldn’t leave because it was overloaded with people - NLD people from the villages we had visited had come along for the ride. Damn. And the tide was going out. We slept on moored boat, one corner partitioned off with two mosquito nets where Ma Ma and I curled up unwashed.’
‘Ma Ma getting to know well the Burmese character, the bad side. Said she is fed up to the teeth with pushy egoistic stupid people. She is getting to know the true Burmese character and is getting depressed by it. I have a feeling she is too idealistic and emotionally vulnerable. Easy-going as we Burmese are, we are totally selfish, ostrich-like in dealing with unpleasantness and very short-sighted.

When she is in a pensive mood I would search her face and feel a deep sorrow that so many burdens are on this frail-looking and gentle person. I think she needs to be more cynical to deal with the Burmese and of course hard-hearted to some extent. She feels hurt when people complain about the rudeness of our boys, I tell her politeness would not penetrate the thick skulls and dim minds of these people.

She came back after a hot trek in the sun to some village or other smelling strongly of cheap scent. It’s usual for enthusiastic ladies to spray Ma Ma with perfume that they all think is great, and the perfumes are either something called Concord or Charlie. Charlie is slightly more expensive, or Tea Rose, the scent of rose, and we are beginning to recognise these three. Ma Ma is more often sprayed with Concord and we hate this spray business. These ladies are not too careful where they aim the nozzle. Sometimes it gets into her face or her mouth, she has to be careful about moving her face or it would go into her eyes. She said you know Ma Thanegi I’ve gone up in the world, they sprayed me with Charlie instead of Concord.’

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