Review—The Lady and the Peacock

Burma has been in the limelight for the past few months. A number of reforms have been carried out by the quasi-civilian government led by reformist President Thein Sein, including the release of political prisoners and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy being entering Parliament.

The Lady and the Peacock by Peter Popham. (Photo: Rider)

The response from the international community has also been rather optimistic with the easing of economic sanctions by the United States and European Union. Many foreign companies including General Electric and Coca Cola have made moves to invest in Burma.

And, of course, when people talk about Burma, it is impossible to leave out Suu Kyi, who spent much of the last two decades under house arrest.

In Burma, people throng to listen to her speeches and to catch a glimpse of her visits. The Nobel Laureate’s picture is now regular features in Burma’s media—as if it guarantees increased sales—and also widely posted in social networks such as Facebook.

Wherever Suu Kyi travels, she is embraced with warmth, love and admiration—not only by Burmese people but also the international community. More than ever, she has become a global icon after being able to travel outside Burma for the first time to attend forums and officially accept her Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.

A number of books have been written about the 67-year-old and her role in Burma’s political struggle. The Lady and the Peacock by Peter Popham—the latest biography on Suu Kyi—takes on a more personal outlook of her life.

Popham includes journal entries of Ma Theingi who was Suu Kyi’s personal assistant and companion during her arduous election campaign tour of 1989 and with whom she later fell out. Those journal entries were recorded at the request of Michael Aris, Suu Kyi’s husband, and were made available to the author through an anonymous friend.

By dividing the book into five parts—Suu Kyi’s father Gen Aung San; her years growing up in India; her life in England; her involvement in Burmese politics from 1988 to 2002; and after 2002—Popham attempts to analyze Suu Kyi’s life and how her family background and the historical events in Burma have shaped who she is today.

He does a fine job of depicting the different stages of Suu Kyi’s life: from her formative years, to a student, then a housewife and finally an inspirational political leader for the Burmese people.

Many of Suu Kyi’s attributes are also excellently portrayed in the book: her sense of duty for being “her father’s daughter;” her strong morality regarding Burmese traditions and culture despite growing up in foreign countries; and her sense of discipline with her children.

Popham also describes her resolute determination and courage when sticking to her goals despite being subjected to physical and mental hardships—the house arrest for most of her years in Burma; the denial of a visa to her dying husband; the brutal attack on her life in Depayin in 2003 when many of her supporters were killed trying to protect her.

Through interviews and comments made by Suu Kyi’s close friends in Oxford, rare snippets about her are included. Like many others in life, she studied a course in which she was not interested at the insistence of her strict mother and ended up with an underwhelming third class degree albeit at prestigious Oxford University. Popham is such an accomplished storyteller that most people will be caught up in his description and narration about events in Suu Kyi’s life.

A list of references on articles and books, written about Burma and Suu Kyi, at the end of the biography indicates the level of extensive research Popham carried out. Yet, whenever he tries to provide an analysis of events in Burma, as a Burmese person myself, I do not feel that he possesses enough in-depth understanding about the myriad underlying issues in the country—the history of ethnic conflicts, national reconciliation and the reform process, to name but a few.

In contrast, Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written seven books on Burma and has reported on Burmese issues for over two decades, is able to give a concise and yet thought-provoking analysis in his offering Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s struggle for democracy.

Two critical points cast a black cloud over the credibility of Popham’s book.

First is a statement, included without any source, that now-retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe “admitted [to] ordering the massacre, with the aim of ‘eradicating’ Aung San Suu Kyi.” Never has such admission been recorded and it is unimaginable for Than Shwe to so brazenly make such a claim.

Second is Popham’s accusation that Ma Theingi was responsible for his repatriation from Burma during a visit. It seems that his close association with Michael Aris, who regarded Ma Theingi as being disloyal, clouded his view of her.

Without any credible proof, he agrees with accusations of Ma Theingi having “gone over” to the junta’s side after she became vocally critical about Suu Kyi and her party’s policies.

I also wonder about Popham’s intention to include an assumption by Suu Kyi’s friends about how she fell in love with a Pakistani student, who later worked in the Pakistani Foreign Service and who declined to be interviewed for the book, during her second year at Oxford. Was this just an attempt to sensationalize Suu Kyi’s love-life during her younger days?

He also seems as star-struck when he likens Suu Kyi, giving her first political speech to an audience while in her mid-40s, to a 17-year-old girl. Without a doubt, all of us will agree how youthful Suu Kyi appears even now. However, just from seeing Suu Kyi’s picture from that time, it is clear that comparing her to teenager is a gross exaggeration.

At times, the book tends towards being unnecessarily longwinded with exhaustive details about political events in Burma. Popham could have just included the concise versions of those events which are significant for Burma’s history and Suu Kyi, but then he would not have been able to fill up all those 398 pages.

For those who have read other books written about Burma or Aung San Suu Kyi, the only new or interesting material is the entries from Ma Theingi’s journal. Although the quotes provide readers with a rare glimpse of the intimate details into Suu Kyi’s life, it would have been better not to include quote-after-quote, containing a repetitive and sometimes trivial details like what Suu Kyi wore and what she ate, continuously page-after-page.

Popham states that his story on Suu Kyi is not “just the story of a courageous woman who challenged a military junta and lost”—an assertion that Suu Kyi herself never made—but of someone who has a more “complex and interesting” side.

No doubt that Ma Theingi’s journal entries and the chapter on Suu Kyi’s childhood years are interesting, enhanced by the good storytelling skills of Popham, and contain details other prior biographers have left out. Other than that, Popham might have been too presumptuous about his aims for his book and his understanding on his subjects—Suu Kyi and Burma.


6 Responses to Review—The Lady and the Peacock

  1. This is an excellent review of the book I read with great expectations that turned to disappointment once the pre-ordered Kindle edition downloaded to my iPad.

  2. A good review indeed. Peter Popham, a journalist from the Independent, just followed footsteps of profit-seekers like Ben Rogers who has made substantial profits out of Burmese crisis. This book is completely a crap. This guy, Peter, is from the same flock of the Burma Campaign UK. They all make money through different ways, writing books on Burma, campaigning for Burma etc. on the face, in reality, simply taking advantages. They are a handful of exploiters. I have full of doubt that they even hate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and this book is to humiliate and defame her by writing about intimate and private life of Suu Kyi such as her love-affair with so-called Pakistani student. Did she truly in love with that guy? This book is exactly the same like the regime’s usual character assassination attempts. Peter even claimed that the Pakistani lover eventually turned down Suu Kyi. Why, because Suu Kyi is nothing? Oh yeah, therefore, that Pakistani man dumped Suu Kyi and went for a White Lady from the West. At least, we learn that this flock of BCUK and associates are truly the No. 1 Enemy of Burma’s struggle for democracy.

  3. Is peacock in the cage now?

  4. Popham’s book is full of issues causing any knowledgeable reader of burma reason to pause. to list but a few, as i read it a year ago:

    1 – as alluded to in the review, ma theingi’s journal accounts are often less than substantive. the fact that a more thorough record was not kept speaks something of the ability of the camp to place their activities in historical perspective.

    2 – popham misguides the reader into thinking he covered such events as the saffron revolution, when in truth he went to mae sot, hardly a first hand account, surrounding himself of like-minded acquaintances.

    3 – some dates are misrepresented, such as the onset of the crackdown in 2007.

    4 – it reads less as a serious biography and more, as again alluded to in the review, as an eulogy and banner waving exercise.

    unfortunately, especially given the access popham had to his subject, unlike some previous biographers, ‘the lady and the peacock’ fails to add credible depth to the volumes of knowledge that already exist on the subject.

  5. Every one must keep it in mind that she is not Nelson Mandella.So she finally failed in tough exam.She said she does not know the nationality of Rohingyas.But her late father knew that & expressed that also.

  6.  Normally, I am always very happy to read books on Burma and encourage
    authors who research and publish books on Burma or Burmese people.
    However, I will take exception to this book, The Lady and The Peacock,
    because it has numerous errors which are too important to be ignored for
    the modern history of Burma.

    On Page 40, the author wrote: “Daw
    Khin Kyi’s (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother) appointment as Burma’s
    first-ever woman ambassador was a signal honour, and one she could
    hardly have declined. One can understand why General Ne Win wanted her
    out of the way in the run-up to his coup détat:” … “Despite remaining
    silent in public, Daw Khin Kyi’s disdain for Ne Win and his behavior
    were well known – which is why it suited Ne Win for her to be packed off
    to India.”

    However, Wikipedia wrote:
    “On 26 September 1958,
    he (U Nu) asked the Army Chief of Staff General Ne Win to take over as a
    “caretaker government”, and Ne Win was sworn in as Prime Minister on 27
    October 1958. In the February 1960 general election, U Nu’s “Clean”
    faction of the AFPFL won in a landslide victory over the “Stable”
    faction led by U Ba Swe and U Kyaw Nyein. U Nu returned to power forming
    the Pyidaungzu (Union) government on 4 April 1960.”

    Records show
    that Daw Khin Kyi has campaigned vigorously for U Nu’s party before the
    elections and she was appointed as the first female Burmese ambassador
    to India and Nepal in July, 1960.

    Ne Win staged a coup on March 2, 1962.

    Even
    though it would be dramatic as the author has written, the realty was
    different. It was U Nu, and not Ne Win, who appointed Daw Khin Kyi as
    ambassador.

    On the same page, the author wrote “She (Daw Khin
    Kyi) must have known the truth behind the rumour that on one occasion
    her husband, disgusted by Ne Win’s compulsive womanizing had ordered
    another officer in the Burma Independence Army to kill him. But the
    officer funked the task, for which, it was said, Aung San gave him such a
    ferocious kicking that decades later he still bore the scars.”

    It
    is puzzling and disappointing why the author quoted unsubstantiated
    rumors. It most likely has never happened. It is demeaning and an insult
    to accuse our independence hero General Aung San of ordering an
    assassination against his subordinate comrade.

    Page 304: “SLORC
    did not give up there. They had clearly learned from their numerous
    in-situ spies that Suu had taken up meditation, and was in general
    showing more signs of Buddhist piety than in the past. So in the same
    year (1991) they prevailed on a senior Buddhist monk called U Rewata
    Dhamma to visit Suu and request her on the regime’s behalf to leave the
    country.”

    Nothing is farther from the truth. U Rewata Dhamma went
    back to Burma only in 1994 for the first time in thirty plus years.
    Neither he nor anybody other than regime officials and maybe housemaids
    could talk to Suu in 1991 and U Rewata Dhamma never asked her to leave
    Burma, neither in 1991 nor when he met her in 1994 and 1995.

    The
    author went on to write that “it is a reflection of the great respect in
    which Suu held the monk that she did not turn down flat (to his
    proposal to leave Burma). Instead she agreed that she would indeed do as
    he proposed and leave Burma – on four conditions: the transfer of power
    to civilians; the release of all political prisoners; fifty minutes of
    broadcast time on government-run TV and radio stations; and, finally to
    be allowed to walk to the airport, a distance of more than ten miles.”

    I
    remember that it was then reported by Sweden born journalist Mr. Bertil
    Lintner in the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is married to a Burma
    born Shan woman and resides in Bangkok, Thailand. As the fact of the
    matter, U Rewata Dhamma didn’t talk to Suu in 1991 and Suu never
    demanded those conditions. The author explained in a note that Suu’s
    husband Michael Aris announced it with a sardonic twinkle in his eye to a
    press conference. What I remember was he totally debunked it and also
    told me so. Mr. Bertil Lintner must have an unreliable Burmese source
    who by no means could know even if it had really happened because she
    was placed under house arrest incommunicado.

    The author only
    grudgingly gave credit to U Rewata Dhamma for a mediation that he
    single-handedly carried out for a tête-à-tête dialogue between Daw Aung
    San Suu Kyi and the SLORC.

    “U Rewata Dhamma did not give up
    there. He realized the futility of trying to give her to depart, but
    understand the urgent need to get Suu and the regime talking. And it was
    thanks to pressure from him, as well as pressure from Japan and the
    world at large, that the two sides finally met, for the first time since
    the funeral of Suu’s mother in January 1989.”

    There were many
    others who wanted to mediate the Nobel Laureate and the SLORC. The UN
    Special Rapporteurs are also believed to have attempted to persuade the
    regime to talk to her but U Rewata Dhamma alone had a success.

    “In
    February 1994, I (US Congressman Bill Richardson) became the first
    non-family member permitted to visit Aung San Suu Kyi since her arrest. I
    urged the military junta leader to open a dialogue with her, and I
    volunteered to mediate.” (Source: Between Worlds, by Bill Richardson)

    He
    also said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi complained with him that she wasn’t
    allowed by the regime even to offer alms to Buddhist monks. His
    mediation attempt fell on deaf ears.

    The following is the abstracts of the report written by Sayadaw (Venerable) Dr. Rewata Dhamma.

    “In
    November of 1993, I went to the United States to lecture at Harvard and
    Columbia Universities. Whilst I was in New York, I went to see Mr.
    Francesc Vendrell who is the Director of Political Affairs for South
    Asia and Pacific countries in the UN and complained to him that when the
    two things which were being asked of the SLORC, the freeing of Aung San
    Suu Kyi and the transfer of power to the NLD were not granted, then the
    Western Governments cancelled their financial aid programmes for
    Myanmar and by doing so totally isolated themselves politically from the
    SLORC. The SLORC then turned to China, Thailand, and Singapore for
    business and trade. I then told him that according to the Buddhist way
    of doing things, if I were to ask another person to do something and if
    that person did not do what I asked then I ought not to feel angry or
    make any hasty decisions at first. Instead it would be better if
    initially I were to find out why the person cannot do as I had asked,
    what is his or her problem or difficulty. If I know this at the outset
    then a solution to the problem may be found. I then told him that an
    isolationist stance towards Myanmar is not a good policy to follow and
    that `friendly dialogue’ would be the best means to use to deal with
    such difficult and sensitive issues. Mr. Vendell then suggested I should
    express these views to the diplomats of the Western countries and the
    US Government.”

    Sayadaw U Rewata Dhamma then expressed his ideas
    and views to US State Department officials and diplomats from Australia,
    Germany, Great Britain and Sweden. They asked him if he, as a Buddhist
    monk, could find out the reason why the SLORC was reluctant to free Daw
    Aung San Suu Kyi and transfer power. He soon afterwards tried to get a
    visa to visit Burma.

    He continued to write that “It has been more than thirty years since I was able to return to the land of my birth, Myanmar. …

    “Shortly
    after my arrival on the 4th of May, 1994 I went to see the former Prime
    Minister of Burma, the Honourable, U Nu and we discussed his Buddhist
    works and publications. On the second day of my visit I met with the
    former President of Burma, Dr. Maung Maung and a number of retired
    generals.”

    Just before he left Burma he also met with Lt. General
    Khin Nyunt, Secretary of the SLORC, and told him that it was the rest
    of the world’s opinion that the SLORC should free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
    and hand over power to the NLD. U Rewata Dhamma wrote, “Having heard my
    comments General Khin Nyunt explained to me at length in confidence why
    the SLORC could not free Aung San Suu Kyi or hand over power to the NLD.
    Nonetheless, our discussion was quite amicable and cordial and he was
    careful to impress upon me that whatever the SLORC was doing was for the
    sake of establishing a Democracy in Myanmar.”

    In June, 1994 U
    Rewata Dhamma went to the UN in New York and gave an account of his
    discussion with Lt. General Khin Nyunt. In response to his report Mr.
    Vendrell and some other Western diplomats queried that if the SLORC
    could not free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and transfer power why then would
    they not talk to her at all.

    He returned to Burma on August 5, 1994 and was allowed on August 7 to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who invited him for a meal.

    U
    Rewata Dhamma wrote: “After lunch everyone including her husband
    Michael Aris who was at that time visiting her left the room and we were
    left alone to talk. She told me that she was not angry or hateful and
    added that `when you keep anger and animosity in your mind it is like
    keeping a cobra in your heart and this is very dangerous’. Another point
    she made was that she, herself did not need to be free as she was
    living in a very comfortable house but she wanted freedom to be granted
    to those people who had been detained in goals throughout the country.
    She also said that if she would be able to have a dialogue with the
    SLORC then her personal freedom was not a matter of necessity.

    “In
    the course of the rest of our conversation she also said that because
    her father had been the founder of the Burmese army she regarded all
    members of the military as her brothers.

    “After she told me of
    her feelings about the army I told her that even members of the SLORC
    regard you with respect because of your late father’s and your family’s
    strong links with the army. So whatever differences and problems you
    both have can indeed be solved as brothers and sister. She answered me
    saying that only the Burmese can understand Burmese problems and so
    whatever differences we have must be sorted out amongst ourselves and
    she added that she was willing to talk with people from the SLORC.”

    U
    Rewata Dhamma met with Senior General Than Shwe and Lt. General Khin
    Nyunt upon his return from her and told them about his conversation with
    Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The generals said that they would like to meet
    her in the very near future. Before he left the country he called on her
    to tell that the generals would be talking to her soon.

    However,
    while he was on a visit to New York early September, 1994 to talk to UN
    officials and diplomats the SLORC announced that the military
    government planned to meet her at the end of the year.

    “The
    overall reaction to this news abroad was one of great disappointment as
    it was thought that waiting until December was far too long to wait for
    such an important dialogue to take place. So I requested the SLORC that
    the promised dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi should take place as soon as
    possible,” U Rewata Dhamma wrote.

    The generals led by Sr. Gen.
    Than Shwe met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi twice on September 20 and
    October 28, 1994. With the help of U Rewata Dhamma, not only Dr. Michael
    Aris and two sons but also her mother-in-law could visit Daw Aung San
    Suu Kyi repeatedly. According to the sources of the regime, it was on
    the December, 1994 visit Dr. Aris brought malicious letters full of
    accusations and threats against their leader by exiled Burmese
    democratic forces and some Europeans who were bitterly against the
    dialogues between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the SLORC.

    On January
    22, 1995 on his return to England Dr. Aris held a press conference in
    Bangkok and issued a statement on behalf of his wife that she was not
    about to do any secret deals with the SLORC but that she would negotiate
    with them only after she had consulted with the senior members of NLD
    and the various prodemocracy movements. Her statement annoyed the
    generals, especially Sr. General Than Shwe who never met her again
    in spite of her numerous attempts later.

    There’s no hint that U
    Rewata Dhamma has ever thought of persuading her to leave Burma. It
    could well be that the author has consulted with wrong people who wanted
    to hide the truth. Due to obvious reasons Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was said
    not to have endorsed the book. Sayadaw U Rewata Dhamma has passed away
    some years ago and he couldn’t complain about the mischaracterizations
    in the book of his patriotic deeds. Unfortunate to the author, I have
    been involved in the whole project of face to face dialogues and
    couldn’t stay quiet about serious errors. Sayadaw even stayed for a few
    days with me in New York City during the project.

    Sayadaw U
    Rewata Dhamma visited Burma again in December, 1994 and met Daw Aung Suu
    Kyi for the second time but she has already changed her mind. He wrote
    that, “When, at last, I met with her on the 30th of January her attitude
    seemed to have changed significantly and she did not seem so eager to
    see me.”

    I was the first person to whom Sayadaw disclosed the
    imminent collapse of the talks as soon as he left Burma and arrived at the
    Bangkok airport on February 3, 1995.

    I was the first person to whom Sayadaw disclosed the
    imminent collapse of the talks as soon as he left Burma and arrived at
    the Bangkok airport on February 3, 1995.

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