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Post date: Jun 22, 2012 1:47:37 AM

Four lives of Aung San Suu Kyi

The Straits Times

22 June 2012


For the last two days, the corner of Oxford where I live and work has been touched by magic. The Lady, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, has been staying just across the road, at St Hugh's College, where she studied as an undergraduate almost half a century ago. On Tuesday, her 67th birthday, there was a joyful, informal party of family and friends; on Wednesday, there followed all the Latinate pomp of the university's annual honorary degree ceremony.

This whole five-country visit to Europe marks the turning point between what might be called the third and fourth lives of Ms Suu Kyi.

Her first life saw her growing up as the child of the Burmese independence hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated when she was two years old, but whom she nonetheless reportedly remembers binding flowers into her hair. She was raised under the decisive influence of her mother - first in Burma, then in India - with an education combining elements of both the Eastern, especially Buddhist, and the Western, especially English-language, traditions.

Her second life, which opened here at Oxford in 1964, spanned 24 years as a student, part-time academic, full-time mother, housewife and beloved wife of the scholar of Tibetan and Himalayan studies Michael Aris, a colleague and friend of mine at St Antony's College.

Here was a life full of everyday joys and sorrows, walked and bicycled under often grey skies, on these wide, drowsy streets with their tall, wisteria-clad, 19th century houses - streets that she was not to see again for another 24 years until this week's return.

Her third life began in spring 1988 with a telephone call to their Oxford home, causing her to return to Yangon to care for her sick mother. It was transformed when she accepted her compatriots' call to place herself at the head of that summer's uprising.

This life consisted, for large stretches, of simply holding out, alone, under house arrest in her mother's large, increasingly rundown villa on 54 University Avenue, Yangon, reading, listening to the BBC World Service, keeping the body fit and the mind mindful.

Somewhere between her release from house arrest in November 2010 and this triumphant progress across Europe, a fourth life has begun. Because the country's new President Thein Sein has - credit where credit is due - made a political opening that she finds credible, she has taken the gamble of engaging in parliamentary politics on terms still largely set by the regime.

In the years up to a general election scheduled for 2015, this will be a very difficult transition. Here is a country ruined by a half-century of misrule, be it in the economy, education or health care, with a still-entrenched military, an ethnic patchwork that makes Yugoslavia look simple, and ethno-religious tensions that have just erupted into violence in Rakhine province.

The fragile network of her National League for Democracy must be built up in record time. The country's mightiest neighbour, a nervous, authoritarian China, cannot be ignored.

So there will inevitably be compromises and disappointments. In historian Max Weber's famous distinction, the intellectual's 'ethics of conscience' will, at the very least, be commingled with the politician's 'ethics of responsibility'.

Like South African icon Nelson Mandela emerging from prison, like Czech dissident Vaclav Havel being catapulted to Prague Castle, the 67-year-old Ms Suu Kyi, known as Daw Suu, now faces a life sentence of politics, whether as opposition leader, president or elder stateswoman. Time, an almost unlimited resource under house arrest, is now sliced and diced relentlessly into 30-minute meetings and 30-second segments of face time.

So there will be years enough ahead to chronicle, assess and, if need be, fairly criticise the fourth life now just begun. For today, at this sunlit turning point, let us pause to honour that third life, those 24 years.

To honour it properly, you must first understand; and to understand what has already earned her an ineradicable place in the history books, I would highlight three things.

First, so much of it comes to us in her own words, penned under house arrest (on occasion, smuggled out from the University Avenue house written on the inside of a domestic helper's wraparound cotton longyi), and more recently, spoken.

The finest of her texts - the classic early 1990s essay Freedom From Fear, her BBC Reith lectures delivered by video link last year, last Saturday's Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo - stand in comparison to Mr Havel's best.

They convey a sensibility that is as much spiritual and literary as it is political. Though she argues in her first Reith lecture that political freedom can build on inner, spiritual freedom, in her fourth life, the balance between spiritual, literary and political will inevitably shift - as it did for Mr Havel.

Second, there is her courage, pure and simple, simple and pure. That courage, without which there is no freedom, is a virtue rare, precious and hard.

It was, by all accounts, particularly hard in the first years of house arrest, torn from her still-young children, isolated, not yet inwardly liberated by the mastered disciplines of Buddhist meditation. But, as she herself puts it, with almost Victorian English understatement: 'I have a stubborn streak.'

That brings me to the third and less often-noticed characteristic of her life and work: the blending of East and West.

The Nobel lecture, for example, had many old-fashioned, literary English, almost Anglican turns of phrase - 'other reaches of the earth', 'some of our warriors fell at their post', 'perfect peace is not of this earth'.

Yet in the next breath, she reflects deeply on the six great dukha (loosely translated as 'sufferings') identified by Buddhism, and their implications for both private life and politics. This is not just putting these two traditions side by side, let alone either one or the other; it is a genuine synthesis in one person.

In an address delivered in Latin, the historic language of the West, Oxford University's Public Orator presented her for her honorary doctorate as an eastern star (praesento stellam orientalem).

But in her own personal and moving response, she said that universities, at their best, teach 'respect for the best in human civilisation, which comes from all parts of the world'.

As a relatively declining West must learn to live with a powerfully renascent East, this has particular significance.

Rudyard Kipling, one of her favourite English authors, famously wrote: 'But there is neither East nor West... when two strong men stand face to face.'

In the case of the Lady, we must adapt this to read: 'And there is both East and West, when one strong woman faces the generals and the world.'

The writer is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.