Review—Aung San Suu Kyi: a Biography

By Tenna Amrit Gill 20 October 2012

As Burma emerges from a long period of political and social turbulence, with Aung San Suu Kyi apparently free at last to travel and even speak in Parliament, all eyes are turned towards the country. This is not least because of the abundance of nations, and their companies, waiting to pounce on its largely untapped natural resources.

Now, therefore, seems the perfect moment for a biography on the famous Nobel Laureate and leader of the democracy movement. And so Jesper Bengtsson, a Swedish journalist writing on Burma for more than ten years including two other books on the country, tries to deliver just this with Aung San Suu Kyi: A Biography.

As might be expected, the book is not a straightforward biography of Suu Kyi. The democracy icon’s life is inextricably linked with Burma, with her fame due to her uncompromising dedication to the fight for greater freedom in the country.

There is little doubt that the Burmese situation has been kept alive in world news because of the image of this beautiful and elegant woman enduring 15 years of house arrest under a brutal junta. Any biography of hers, given contemporary history, cannot really be separated from a political record of Burma itself, and so Bengtsson also follows this tried and tested path.

Indeed, his writing is best in the sections dealing with various episodes in Burma’s political history—like the 1950s in chapter six and U Nu’s newly formed post-colonial government—the ongoing struggle of ethnic minority groups, the role of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang in Burma’s Shan State and the opium trade, and the rise of military dictator Ne Win and his “Burmese road to socialism.”

Readers who are not familiar with these topics will find plenty to engage them here, as likewise in the section looking at the role of Western governments in supporting the Burmese military regime right from the days of dictator Ne Win—either directly, through drug eradication programmes, or indirectly through various companies and investments.

However, Bengtsson refrains from naming any of the players—like oil giants Total and Halliburton—although he does point out that after the last general elections in November 2010, and the installation of a “civilian” government, Western nations have been quick to call for an end to sanctions and the need to engage with the regime, despite Suu Kyi’s warnings to “wait and see.”

The author could have focused in far greater detail on these kinds of issues, given the already existing corpus of incisive writing on Burma, but he instead chooses a simplistic style akin to a magazine feature. Thus, the book tends to fall in the genre of popular writing on Burma, which chooses with a broad brushstroke to focus on “the repressive junta versus the freedom-loving Suu Kyi,” without allowing for a deeper understanding of the complexity of issues facing the country.

But rather more to the point, the style of the book is uneven and disorienting. The structure moves non-linearly down a timeline stretching from 1915 to the present, dealing with numerous political events that are clumsily intertwined with episodes from Suu Kyi’s life.

The reader, therefore, must often have to piece together certain events in their mind, like the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988 and the military coup which ousted Ne Win, or the role of China and the ongoing ethnic question. At the same time, the narrative lurches through Suu Kyi’s life, or as much of it as he has managed to include. A book with such a vast historical and biographical scope necessitates some ruthless editorial decisions to keep the content engaging and relevant.

The interview that Bengtsson conducts with Suu Kyi was also tacked on post-publication of the book’s first run. Here one cannot help feeling that he was unprepared to conduct a challenging interaction, and we are treated instead to the usual enquiries: why she is in a “good mood,” and her views on the “future.”

If the author’s time with her was limited, or Suu Kyi is naturally evasive, then he needs to make this known. Otherwise, there seems to be little point including an interview that does not add much to the existing work.

Other biographical sections dealing with various personal aspects of her life, like her courtship and marriage to Michael Aris, her years as a student in India, and her time in Oxford before moving back to Rangoon, are equally tedious, and obviously not quite the author’s forte.

The sense is that Bengtsson is somewhat ill at ease with the “personal” side of Suu Kyi’s life, and on a much stronger footing when he analyses her politics. In one of the more interesting parts of the book, he indicates Suu Kyi’s new focus on Buddhist traditions and the struggle for democracy, and suggests that her political ideology is centred around qualities of mutual forgiveness, equality, freedom, non-violence and spiritual development.

Bengtsson quotes from prominent journalist Bertil Lintner’s writings that her political thinking, post house-arrest, have in fact been influenced by mysticism and Buddhist thought, and that she would like to weave a questionable mix of religion and politics together.

However, the author fails to follow this up by asking The Lady herself what the implications of such a strategy could be—why, for instance, is her stance any different from Prime Minister U Nu’s in the 1960s, when he declared Buddhism the state religion and caused huge antagonism with the ethnic groups?

In this manner, several issues are raised but inadequately explored, such as Suu Kyi’s (and most Burmese people’s) unwavering adulation of her father, Aung San. Was he in fact the “perfect” liberation hero, or were some of his positions questionable, such as his decision to solicit the support of the Japanese in ousting the British colonialists?

Some of the details that he lets drop cry out for greater discussion and analysis. One suspects that Bengtsson might have fallen into a hagiographical trap himself—for example, although he criticizes Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), for not being more forceful in trying to assume power after overwhelmingly winning the 1990 elections, he carries on to find excuses for this “mistake.”

The book becomes more lively and interesting where the author is actually in Burma, writing in the first person and interviewing student activists like Zaw Zaw. Why did Bengtsson not, as a journalist, engage more with people on the ground, to add more intelligent perspective and color to his analysis of the recent 2010 elections, or the various issues plaguing the country—the historic suspicion of the ethnic groups towards the dominant Bamar (majority Burmese), the role of the military and the 2008 Constitution, the Chinese and Burmese military’s domination of the economy and Western interests in the country, as well as what is envisioned as the role of the NLD in the present situation, and that of rapidly mushrooming “civil society” organizations.

While the book is undoubtedly an interesting read, it does not provide any fresh insights into the life and mind of a woman who has been central to the democratic movement in Burma, nor does it allow one to understand the complexities of a country which has been governed by one of the most brutal military dictatorships in modern history.

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Biography was first published by Potomac Books Inc. in March 2012.