Conversation With Aung San Suu Kyi
By John Pilger
---- As the people of Burma rise up again, we have had a
rare sighting of Aung San Suu Kyi. There she stood, at the back
gate of her lakeside home in Rangoon, where she is under house
arrest. She looked very thin. For years, people would brave the
roadblocks just to pass by her house and be reassured by the
sound of her playing the piano. She told me she would lie awake
listening for voices outside and to the thumping of her heart.
"I found it difficult to breathe lying on my back after I became
ill, she said."
That was a decade ago. Stealing into her house, as I did then,
required all the ingenuity of the Burmese underground. My
film-making partner David Munro and I were greeted by her
assistant, Win Htein, who had spent six years in prison, five of
them in solitary confinement. Yet his face was open and his
handshake warm. He led us into the house, a stately pile fallen
on hard times. The garden with its ragged palms falls down to
Inya Lake and to a trip wire, a reminder that this was the
prison of a woman elected by a landslide in 1990, a democratic
act extinguished by generals in ludicrous uniforms.
Aung San Suu Kyi wore silk and had orchids in her hair. She is a
striking, glamorous figure whose face in repose shows the
resolve that has seen her along her heroic journey.
We sat in a room dominated by a wall-length portrait of Aung
San, independent Burma's assassinated liberation fighter, the
father she never knew.
"What do I call you?" I asked. "Well, if you can't manage the
whole thing, friends call me Suu."
"The regime is always saying you are finished, but here you are,
hardly finished. How is that?"
"It's because democracy is not finished in Burma . . . Look at
the courage of the people [on the streets], of those who go on
working for democracy, those who have already been to prison.
They know that any day they are likely to be put back there and
yet they do not give up."
"But how do you reclaim the power you won at the ballot box with
brute power confronting you?" I asked.
"In Buddhism we are taught there are four basic ingredients for
success. The first is the will to want it, then you must have
the right kind of attitude, then perseverance, then wisdom . .
"But the other side has all the guns?"
"Yes, but it's becoming more and more difficult to resolve
problems by military means. It's no longer acceptable."
We talked about the willingness of foreign business to come to
Burma, especially tour companies, and of the hypocrisy of
"friends" in the West. I read her a British Foreign Office press
release: "Through commercial contacts with democratic nations
such as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experience of
"Not in the least bit," she responded, "because new investments
only help a small elite to get richer and richer. Forced labor
goes on all over the country, and a lot of the projects are
aimed at the tourist trade and are worked by children."
"People I've spoken to regard you as something of a saint, a
"I'm not a saint and you'd better tell the world that!"
"Where are your sinful qualities, then?"
"Er, I've got a short temper."
"What happened to your piano?"
"You mean when the string broke? In this climate pianos do
deteriorate and some of the keys were getting stuck, so I broke
a string because I was pumping the pedal too hard."
"You lost it ... you exploded?"
"It's a very moving scene. Here you are, all alone, and you get
so angry you break the piano."
"I told you, I have a hot temper."
"Weren't there times when, surrounded by a hostile force, cut
off from your family and friends you were actually terrified?"
"No, because I didn't feel hostile towards the guards
surrounding me. Fear comes out of hostility and I felt none
"But didn't that produce a terrible aloneness ...?"
"Oh, I have my meditation, and I did have a radio . . . And
loneliness comes from inside, you know. People who are free and
who live in big cities suffer from it, because it comes from
"What were the small pleasures you'd look forward to?"
"I'd look forward to a good book being read on 'Off the Shelf'
on the BBC and of course to my meditation .... I didn't enjoy my
exercises so much; I'd never been a very athletic type."
"Was there a point when you had to conquer fear?"
"Yes. When I was small in this house. I wandered around in the
darkness until I knew where all the demons might be . . . and
they weren't there."
For several years after that encounter with Aung San Suu Kyi I
tried to phone the number she gave me. The phone would ring,
then go dead. One day I got through.
"Thank you so much for the books," she said. "It has been a joy
to read widely again." (I had sent her a collection of T S
Eliot, her favorite, and Jonathan Coe's political romp What a
Carve Up!.) I asked her what was happening outside her house.
"Oh, the road is blocked and they [the military] are all over
the street . . ."
"Do you worry that you might be trapped in a terrible
"I am really not fond of that expression," she replied rather
sternly. "People have been on the streets. That's not a
stalemate. Ethnic people, like the Karen, are fighting back.
That's not a stalemate. The defiance is there in people's lives,
day after day. You know, even when things seem still on the
surface, there's always movement underneath. It's like a frozen
lake; and beneath our lake, we are progressing, bit by bit."
"What do you mean exactly?"
"What I am saying is that, no matter the regime's physical
power, in the end they can't stop the people; they can't stop
freedom. We shall have our time."
This article was first published by the New Statesman
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