Peter Popham: Aung San Suu Kyi Always 'Knew What She Wanted'

As Myanmar [Burma] prepares for its April 1 parliamentary by-elections, the international spotlight has been focused on democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).  Wednesday night in New York, Asia Society Vice President of Global Policy Programs Suzanne DiMaggio sat down in conversation with Peter Popham, a foreign correspondent for The Independent and author of The Lady and the Peacock, a new biography about Aung San Suu Kyi.

Popham, who has toured Myanmar as an undercover journalist several times and has met Aung San Suu Kyi twice — once in 2002, when she was first released from house arrest, and again in March 2011 — shared his experiences with and insights on Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Myanmar’s current reforms.

According to the author, Suu Kyi's political charisma is rooted less in any kind of "insider" knowledge than it is in her uniquely independent, unconventional personality.

"From quite an early age, she knew who she was, and she cultivated the will to achieve it," said Popham. Kyi took an unconventional path from the moment she left home to attend school at Oxford, switching out of her politics, economics and philosophy major twice once she realized she didn't enjoy it. Once, she tried to study forestry.

In fact, the narrative of Suu Kyi's life was markedly different from the typical trajectory of a Burmese woman sent to study abroad.

"An unimaginative, a dutiful daughter of that family would graduate from Oxford with a good degree and fly back to Burma and marry a suitable boy, or something like that," he said. Instead, once out of college, instead of returning home, she flew to New York and lived with a former pop singer from Rangoon, her hometown. "She was very much doing what she wanted," Popham observed.

It is this adventurous spirit that led Suu Kyi to become a symbol for democratic reform in Myanmar. However, her advocacy still has a long road ahead of it, according to Popham. Looking toward this weekend's elections, Popham said that Suu Kyi's key issue of constitutional reform for the Myanmar government will probably remain unresolved.

"Too many powerful people have a vested interest in that constitution," he said. However, he wanted to keep his fingers crossed. "Let's hope that [Kyi] knows something that we don't," he said.

Video: Highlights of Peter Popham's Asia Society discussion (7 min., 18 sec.)

About the Author

Profile picture for user Hanqing Chen
Hanqing is a reporter for Asia Blog. She is currently studying journalism and anthropology at New York University.