Peter Popham, the author of The Lady and the Peacock, a spellbinding biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, has great timing. Burma and Suu Kyi are in headlines, in large part because of Suu Kyi's compelling personal story and her party's electoral sweep in Burma's recent parliamentary by-elections. After the exciting events of the Arab Spring and their unsettling aftermath, this is a welcome narrative of good triumphing over evil, and of steely determination confronting military rulers determined to keep power.
The arc of Suu Kyi's story is well known around the world. She is the daughter of Aung San, assassinated hero of the Burmese independence struggle; an Oxford student who met and married her late husband Michael Aris and with whom she had two sons; the steadfast and courageous leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), serving multiple years of house arrest; the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights"; the woman who was unable to leave Burma to comfort her dying husband, and now a newly elected member of Parliament.
Popham's biography provides a complex and nuanced portrait of her on so many levels. He provides insight into her upbringing, her college years, her development and maturation as a leader and student of non-violence. Given current events, and the seemingly rapid openings in Burma, the book is as an invaluable guide to not just Suu Kyi, but to the country's politics and power structure, the role of religion and ethnicity in Burmese society and the decades long struggle of the Burmese people for a say in how their lives are governed.
The book reads like a novel and makes it easy for non-Burma experts (like me) to understand how and why the military rulers have been able to sustain their power, but also how Suu Kyi and her colleagues were able to effectively provide a counterweight to the generals. It also provides those of us who are not Burma watchers with a list of key players and their relationships with each other, a glossary of terms and a context within which to place this unfolding story.
The questions that arise are intriguing. Why did Burma and India take such different paths after British rule? What would have happened in Burmese history if Suu Kyi's father had not been assassinated? If she had not come back to care for her mother in 1988? Would history be different if these earlier, tumultuous events had taken place in an era when the Burmese had more access to social media and information? How will Suu Kyi and the NLD function now as a more traditional opposition party?
I also read the book as a professor (and student) of the women who serve as political leaders. In my class we focus on the small number of women globally who have overcome numerous barriers -- cultural, electoral, political -- to become political leaders in their countries. Suu Kyi defies many of the categories in which we place other women leaders, and perhaps that is because her life story, as told by Popham, puts her either in multiple categories or because she defies categorization.
In my class, we study the women who serve as prime ministers and presidents. Although Suu Kyi is neither, she is spoken of, and considered to be, one of these women. And even then she defies categorization. Women heads of state have taken one of two basic paths to power: serving as a representative of a deceased (often assassinated) male family member or climbing the ladder of the country's political and party systems. Suu Kyi has done both.
Popham vividly describes both Suu Kyi's loyalty to her father's legacy and the driving nature of that legacy. As Popham points out, her appeal to the Burmese at the outset had more to do with her name than principles of democracy. And her father's stature was something that the regime degraded in order to continue its hold onto power. Suu Kyi kept that legacy alive through her work, but also founded and chaired a political party, the NLD, which became the country's opposition to the military regime.
But despite her extraordinary background, stature and leadership qualities, Popham's book also notes that Suu Kyi's opponents underestimated her, to some degree because she is a woman, and also tried to use her marriage to an Englishman to undercut her legitimacy. But the book also reminds us that Suu Kyi is human, and the book also gives us a sense of Suu Kyi's human frailties, her disappointments, and sometimes contradictory actions.
Given the changes in Burma today, and the almost certain movement of Burma to a larger place on the world stage, Popham's book makes it easier for all of us to understand these momentous events, and this historic figure.