From the Archive

The Mother Who Was Overlooked

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 3 October 2013

In this article first appeared in July, 2006 print issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine, Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of the magazine (English edition), writes about the true inspiration behind the political ideals and acumen of Aung San Suu Kyi.

People who are acquainted with the name Aung San know of Aung San Suu Kyi. Equally, people for whom Suu Kyi is a famous name also know of Aung San. Aung San and Suu Kyi, father and daughter, share symbolic resemblances when it comes to Burma’s politics.

While the late Aung San is held as a symbol of the country’s independence, Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, who celebrated her 61st birthday on June 19, is regarded as a symbol of democracy. But this heritage could hardly have come directly from her father—she was just two years old when Gen Aung San, Burma’s founding father, was assassinated by political rivals in 1947.

“My father died when I was too young to remember him,” Suu Kyi wrote in a preface to her biography Aung San of Burma, published in 1984. So, who was Suu Kyi’s mentor and who inspired her to become a national leader of her father’s stature?

The answer can only be her mother, the late Khin Kyi, who was regarded as one of Burma’s most influential women of her time, although she never achieved the fame of her husband and daughter.

“Daw Khin Kyi made her children, from their earliest years, aware of their father’s heritage,” wrote M Than E in an article, A Flowering of the Spirit: Memories of Suu and Her Family, which was published in Suu Kyi’s book Freedom From Fear. M Than E, once a famous singer and retired senior staff member of the UN’s secretariat, is a close friend of Aung San’s family.

Some other close friends believe as well as being a conscientious mother, Khin Kyi was her daughter’s political and cultural mentor. “In front of her mother, Daw Suu looked like an innocent child, not knowing anything, including politics and things like that,” said the celebrated poet Tin Moe, who had meetings with Khin Kyi and Suu Kyi in the 1980s.

Khin Kyi was very well informed and knew a lot about Burma’s politics, although she rarely paraded her knowledge, said the poet.

When she talked about politics, she was very diplomatic—Suu Kyi must have learned a great deal about Burma’s politics from her mother, he added.

Tin Moe was often invited in the early 1980s to visit Khin Kyi at her lakeside home in Rangoon. Suu Kyi would be there, visiting from her home in London, and Khin Kyi would chat with them while gardening or sitting in the kitchen.

Although Khin Kyi never shared the fame of her husband and daughter, she was a successful woman in her field. She was a member of parliament from 1947-1952, became chairperson of the Women’s Association of Burma in the 1950s and a leading light in other social organizations.

In 1960 she became Burma’s first and only woman ambassador, representing her country in India and also taking special responsibility for Nepal. Her teenage daughter wasn’t neglected in this busy time—Suu Kyi studied diligently, took riding and piano lessons and dallied with such social skills as flower arrangement.

Khin Kyi’s achievements were rewarded with honors from the US, Yugoslavia and Thailand, while at home the Rangoon government awarded her the Maha Thiri Thudhamma prize, given for services to Burmese social and religious life.

Suu Kyi was the child of a happy union. Her father fell deeply in love with the senior staff nurse who treated him during his World War II campaigns and they married in 1942. Khin Kyi was the name of the beautiful young nurse.

Suu Kyi wrote of the romance in her biography of her father: “[Khin Kyi] handled Aung San with firmness, tenderness, and good humor. The formidable commander-in-chief was thoroughly captivated.

“Aung San had married a woman who had not only the courage and warmth he needed in his life’s-companion but also the steadfastness and dignity to uphold his ideals after he was gone.”

These ideals were clearly instilled in her daughter by Khin Kyi.

The respected 87-year-old author and poet Dagon Tayar noted a significant parallel in the thinking of father and daughter—“Whatever Ko Aung San said, he had one condition: ‘if Burma restores independence.’ Like her father, Daw Suu always has one condition: if Burma restores democracy.”  In a phone conversation from his home in Shan State, Dagon Tayar summed up Khin Kyi’s character in one word: “integrity.”

Suu Kyi decided to enter Burmese politics in 1988 when students initiated a nationwide pro-democracy movement against the authoritarian regime. She was then living in London but visiting Rangoon to look after her ailing mother. She decided instinctively that not only her mother needed her—so did Burma.

Khin Kyi had only months to live—she died in December 1988—but the poet Tin Moe believes Suu Kyi consulted her before taking up politics and obtained her mother’s approval. A huge crowd of mourners, estimated to number 200,000, gathered to pay their last respects at Khin Kyi’s funeral.

One large gap remains in this family story—a biography of Khin Kyi. Tin Moe says the ever-modest Khin Kyi turned down a biography proposal by one of Burma’s most popular writers. Perhaps the time has come for Suu Kyi to attempt the task—she is, after all, the person most qualified to profile a woman who so shaped her life and who has been overlooked by posterity.

A biography of Khin Kyi by her daughter would not only provide a fascinating version of the Aung San family story but also throw much light on the politics of post-colonial Burma.