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Interview: Peter Popham on Profiling Aung San Suu Kyi, 'Warts and All'




Myanmar democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi greets her supporters wearing a traditional costume as she leaves after her speech in Lashio, the northern Shan state, on March 17, 2012. (Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi greets her supporters wearing a traditional costume as she leaves after her speech in Lashio, the northern Shan state, on March 17, 2012. (Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images)

The Lady and the Peacock is an exciting new biography of Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi by foreign correspondent Peter Popham of The Independent. Popham has reported undercover in Myanmar, also known as Burma, several times since 1991. Popham, who interviewed Suu Kyi in 2002 and met her again in 2011, uses a variety of new sources to retell the story of Suu Kyi, known among the Burmese as "The Lady."

On March 28, starting at 6:30 pm, Popham will appear at Asia Society New York in conversation with Asia Society Vice President of Global Policy Programs Suzanne DiMaggioFor those unable to make the event, tune into AsiaSociety.org/Live at 6:30 pm ET for a free live video webcast. Viewers are encouraged to submit questions to [email protected].

Asia Blog spoke to Popham by email.

You mention that when you first started writing this biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, you felt her “story demanded a fresh approach.” What was missing from existing accounts that motivated you to write this book?

In previous biographies, there were two main approaches: one was to depict her as a living saint, the other to depict her as someone whose stubbornness and alleged refusal to compromise had led to her long periods in detention, the destruction of her family and the stagnation of the Burmese economy because of sanctions. The first approach seemed to me inadequate, the second plain wrong.

Suu was depicted as a saint by early biographers and profile-writers partly because very little was known of her when she first disappeared into house arrest, when her party won the election of 1990 and when she won the Nobel Prize the following year. Part of my task as I saw it was to paint a portrait of the living person, warts and all. The depiction of Suu as a stubborn person whose political acts have yielded nothing but grief — Justin Wintle's approach in his substantial biography Perfect Hostage (2007) — was essentially a political one, informed by the belief that sanctions were a mistake and that the outside world should forget about political prisoners and get on with business. It's not a view that I share. 

In the book, you quote from the intimate diaries kept by Ma Thanegi, once a close companion and friend of Suu Kyi but later accused of being a traitor to the National League for Democracy (NLD). You voice your own suspicions that interactions between Ma Thanegi and Burma's Military Intelligence may have led to your expulsion from the country in 2010 and subsequent blacklisting. Have you been in contact with Ma Thanegi since 2010? Does this book exonerate her in any way? 

I felt it was very important that Ma Thanegi see the book, and I arranged for a copy to be sent specially to the British Embassy in Rangoon and for a diplomat at the British Embassy to send it round to her home by car. After she had read it she wrote me a number of abusive emails, but without actually refuting the charges I made in the book. I should stress that while I have strong evidence for her having been "turned" by Military Intelligence while in jail, my suspicion that she got me deported is only that, a suspicion, as I make clear in the book.

You cite differing views on sanctions and the tourism boycott as a key source of conflict between Suu Kyi and Ma Thanegi. Do you think the NLD, as a political party, is reconciling its internal differences on how to engage with the government, especially since Suu Kyi's release from house detention?

That's a good question but I don't know enough about the present debate within the NLD to give a useful answer. Some very senior figures were against the party standing for election under the present constitution, but I don't know whether they have changed their minds or are merely lying low.

How do you think the NLD will fare in the by-election on 1 April?

I believe Suu will win easily in her constituency and that the party will do well in the cities, probably less well in the country where the USDP has a tighter grip on the people.

You pose the question of whether Suu Kyi was “justified in supporting sanctions which could further damage the already miserable living standards of ordinary Burmese.” You also underscore the non-political, moral nature of Suu Kyi’s decision to remain in Burma, which prompted critics to accuse her of abandoning her family. Balancing political pragmatism and moral inclinations appears to be an ongoing dilemma in Suu Kyi’s public persona. How do you think this dilemma has shaped her development as a politician and leader? 

As Hillary Clinton spelled out at the Women in the World Conference at the Lincoln Center, it is much easier to be the leader of a protest movement than to have political power. Suu started out in Burmese politics with an unrealistically hard line but over the years she has steadily shown herself more malleable and willing to negotiate with her adversaries, culminating in the present, improbable and unpredicted budding allliance with the president. Nonetheless, none of the compromises she has been obliged to make to date compare with the tough choices she will face if she ever gets her hands on power.

With over two decades of reporting experience in Burma, what is your reaction to the wave of reforms since the new government came to power? Are they real? What are the key challenges ahead?

Very exciting and unexpected. Burmese regime heads wield enormous power, with little influence remaining to those they have replaced, and Thein Sein shows much more sincerity in his reforming urges than his closest rival as a reformer, Khin Nyunt. Whether he will allow Suu and the NLD to press ahead with the reforms they want to make to the constitution remains to be seen; at a certain point he risks the sort of reaction from within the military establishment that Gorbachev faced when the full effects of glasnost and perestroika became clear. 

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