At Lunch with Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi & Cherno Jobatey

At Lunch with Aung San Suu Kyi

There are political figures everyone adores like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu or the Dalai Lama. Most people might not know exactly what happened back then, but somehow pretty much everyone is pretty sure that they must have been on the right side of history. And without a doubt Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader of the East Asian country of Myanmar, is one of them.

The reason why “The Lady”, as she is known in her home country, is such a global celebrity probably has something to do with the fact that her life seems like a modern-day version of David vs. Goliath: somewhere in Southeast Asia, a small woman with a big heart and unlimited courage stood up against powerful military leaders. After winning an election in 1990 that was then stolen from her, she fearlessly banged the drum for democracy and freedom. She even managed to survive more than 15 years of on-and-off-again house arrest over the next two decades without having her spirit broken. That’s the stuff heroic stories are made of and everyone can immediately relate to that. For her fight against injustice in Myanmar she gave up a good part of her life, leaving her British husband and two sons behind in England.

Power Lunch

Aung San Suu Kyi enters the room. She is even more petite and fragile-looking than I had imagined. Her shoulder-length hair is parted sharply and tied together in a ponytail with a bouquet of white roses. She is wearing a silver-gray cloak with a circle pattern that wraps gently around her shoulders. She is 68 years old but looks at least two decades younger than that and time seems to come to a standstill when she arrives and everything turns silent. She smiles, she radiates and she comes up straight over to me, extending her right hand as she greets me warmly with an extremely soft voice speaking impeccable Oxford English.

Aung San Suu Kyi knows what people expect from her, and is not going to disappoint. She dives right into the issues of democratization and talks calmly, factually, and explains her arguments with pinpoint accuracy. “The Lady” answers every question sincerely and pushes for what she believes in. She explains her positions eloquently and finds matching examples from around the world. She recalls humorous moments she shared with her mother. While listening to her talk you can only begin to guess how determined Myanmar’s greatest heroine can be. You get a glimpse of how razor sharp she can be on the sides of her smile, a sharpness she needed for her struggle.

Aung San Suu Kyi attends one of those political meetings, which in capitals around the world are known as “Power Lunch”. Politicians gather with other political figures, business and media people at an informal level, to talk, or to simply get to know each other. These meetings are usually under some special rules of discretion, in this case the so-called “Chatham House Rules.” — or semi “off-the-record” in which the information can be used but the speakers not identified. These rules from the diplomatic world were made up to create a space that attendees can act and speak more openly.

Fighter by chance

To understand “The Lady” you have to travel back in time. Her father, Aung San, led the country to independence from British colonial rule. Shortly after the Second World War, when Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old, he was murdered by political opponents. She grew up as a diplomat’s daughter in India, studied at Oxford, worked for the UN in New York and married her college sweetheart — a British academic — with whom she had two sons.

In the tranquil and peaceful town of Oxford her life would probably have been nondescript as the professor’s wife, with some stays abroad, had she not visited her homeland in 1988 to care for her sick mother. At that time student protests raged against the military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi was swept away by the turbulent events, joined the opposition and soon became a face of the resistance.

It was a speech in front of 500,000 demonstrators that moved her into the focus of the world’s attention. The riots were quelled, but the 1990 election was won by her party. But the military would not accept the result, robbing her of her victory at the polls.

Aung San Suu Kyi stayed in her home country as a vociferous critic. She explained to Vanity Fair: “As my father’s daughter, the freedom fighter, I felt an obligation to get involved”. Quotations from her went around the world, such as: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” ;” I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons,”; “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone..”, or: “Humor is one of the best ingredients of survival.”

Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest. She could have left the country, to visit her terminally ill husband or to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But “The Lady” did not leave. She knew her influence in Myanmar would have vanished. The military leader would have deprived her of her citizenship almost certainly; there would have been no way back home.

Pop icon of the struggle for freedom

Aung San Suu Kyi became a global icon in 2001 when U2 wrote a song about her pro-democracy struggle called “Walk on”.

Actually it was her face that became an icon during U2’s world tours: While U2 played the song it appeared on a large screen, hundreds of extras with Aung San Suu Kyi masks entered the stage; tens of thousands of U2 fans did put on “her face” as well. “The Lady” became pop culture icon and as well-known as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Bishop Tutu and Martin Luther King.

Four years ago, there was a relaxation of the military rule in Myanmar and “The Lady” was released from house arrest. Even U.S. President Obama came to visit.

She made it into the parliament in the by-elections of 2012. That means: today Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician, i.e. a working politician mastering realpolitik. But now that she is getting down into the horse-trading of politics, criticism is rising. Human rights activists, for example, attack her for not speaking out decisively enough against ethnic persecution in Myanmar.

Inspiring aura

Despite her stone-filled journey of life Aung San Suu Kyi has an open mind and a friendly smile. Directly in front of me she speaks very quietly but very determinedly. You can’t help but sense her incredible power.

“The Lady” is an inspiring person and she is having a powerful effect on me after just minutes of our conversation. I think of the myriad compromises that I’ve made in my life, some small and some large. The compromises I felt obliged to make. How many times did we not get up and fought for what was right? How many times did we not speak up or shout our opinion? And somehow, somehow… in front of her I feel ashamed… just because of that.

Aung San Suu Kyi has given up everything in order to stand up for one thing — for democracy! She could have taken an easier route, just walk away from her house arrest in Myanmar and moved away from her country to a relaxed life in the academic world of lovely Oxford with her husband and sons. But she didn’t take the easy route. She wouldn’t give up.

The aura of “The Lady” impressed me and left a lasting impression. It taught me something: don’t dwell on the petty stuff that clutters your life and don’t get lost in the details of secondary issues if you want to achieve a bigger purpose. Always think of the bigger picture, plan for the long run, and don’t let yourself get sidetracked when the going gets tough. And above all: don’t be afraid to face down the enemy!

Everyone in the room is excited to listen to her softly spoken but powerful words. Her straight-forward style is the expression of a woman who won’t be bowed, of someone who can withstand any storm. That’s why she became a popular hero in Myanmar and almost a pop star in the West.

“The Lady” has been fighting since 1988 and we wish her to win. At 68 she looks like she’s just getting started. Aung San Suu Kyi is a symbol of hope and she might well become Myanmar’s president in the next election. The constitution would have to be changed for her to take the office. But those are only technical issues that can’t be allowed to get in the way of progress — that is the message from her expression.