The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham
Peter Popham’s book is probably the best-informed portrait of Myanmar’s leader-in-waiting we’re likely to get for some time
First I must admit to a possible conflict of interest. During the 1970s I lived in the same house in Bristol, UK, as Peter Popham. Two decades later I was invited to update and enlarge his guidebook to Japan, with the result that the second edition appeared under our two names. Since then I’ve had little contact with him, and feel I can assess the qualities of his new book, The Lady and the Peacock, with complete objectivity.
Popham’s qualities as a writer are clarity and accessibility. He’s essentially, like so many journalists, a popularizer, and his ability to present what might otherwise be complex material directly and lucidly is his distinguishing characteristic.
This is his first non-guidebook work since Tokyo: The City at the End of the World (1985). Since then he’s worked as a correspondent for the UK’s Independent, based in Delhi and elsewhere. Nowadays he lives in Milan.
We see from this book that Popham met Aung San Suu Kyi twice. The first time was in 2002 when she was first released from house arrest by Myanmar’s junta. He interviewed her for the Independent, and the interview is given full coverage here. He next met her in March last year, when this book was well under way. It wasn’t a formal interview, he writes, but rather a friendly conversation that was “by turns funny, teasing and illuminating.” She told him on this occasion that she didn’t like talking to biographers “lest she gave the erroneous impression that she was endorsing the content of their books.”
Popham writes that at the time he was “surprised and rather put out by her refusal to cooperate more fully with my project.” The fact that mutual friends had attested the book was supportive of her cause might have led her to feel she owed him “an endorsement of some kind.” But, he concludes, “after the life she has led Suu doesn’t owe anybody anything.”
The issue of how much access to Aung San Suu Kyi he had is important because he criticizes an earlier biographer, Justin Wintle, on the grounds that he “never actually met the book’s subject” (albeit adding “through no fault of his own”). It so happens that I’ve met Wintle as well, and a more astute and liberal man it would be difficult to find. Politics have become a major interest, as his excellent book Romancing Vietnam (1991) testifies. He seems to have put behind him his evocation of life in a Bangkok brothel, Paradise for Hire (1984), which, he told me when we met more than 10 years ago, he’d hoped would soon become unavailable.
Popham’s more serious issue with Wintle’s The Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi (2007) is that he sees the author as coming to the “eccentric conclusion” that his subject was herself responsible for her fate. Her captivity, he quotes Wintle as saying, was “in part brought on by her own intransigence.” Not having read Wintle’s biography, it’s impossible for me to assess his analysis and compare it to Popham’s. Even so, the fact that the two books take different views is itself interesting, and Popham’s complaint that Wintle never met Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t carry a lot of weight given the relatively brief nature of his own encounters.
Popham’s biggest claim to originality lies in his having got hold of some important documents relating to the period around 1989 when Aung San Suu Kyi was campaigning for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, effectively her earliest time as a major political player on the Burmese scene. These are the journals of her close associate in the National League for Democracy, Ma Thanegi. They amount to hundreds of pages, apparently, and were made available to Popham by “an acquaintance in London, who unfortunately I cannot name.”
Nevertheless, he subsequently met Ma Thanegi in Myanmar, one of three meetings between 2002 and 2010, and she agreed to his using the material in his book. But all was less straightforward than it appeared. His sixth visit to the country, late in 2010, was abruptly terminated when the authorities expelled him. He now believes this was Ma Thanegi’s doing — she’d been imprisoned, he writes, and during that time may have submitted to pressure from the intelligence service.
Five months later, “with a different identity and a substantially altered appearance,” he managed to re-enter Myanmar, and it was on this visit that he met Aung San Suu Kyi for the second time. He regrets, he says, that he didn’t take the opportunity to ask her about her current relationship with Ma Thanegi.
Things have moved fast since this book was completed. Nevertheless, it gives a thorough account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s life up to late last year — her birth as the daughter of the man who’d negotiated Myanmar’s independence with the British authorities, her marriage to the Oxford University academic and Tibet expert Michael Aris, her own career at St Hugh’s College in Oxford, her Nobel Peace Prize of 1991, her time in Bhutan (where her husband was for a time tutor to the royal family), the period she spent working at the UN, and so on. Inevitably the years she spent under house arrest in Rangoon were less eventful, but Popham analyses the political developments, such as they were, that took place during those times with aplomb.
The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi
By Peter Popham
By Bradley Winterton
13 March 2012
The Lady and The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham.
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