The Lady and the Peacock – The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by
Peter Popham; Rider Books
(Book Review) – Given the profile and popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, it is extraordinary that it has taken so long for this book to be written. Here, at last, is an accessible and engaging book about Suu Kyi and her part in Burma’s struggle for democracy.
Journalist Peter Popham has reported on Burma for two decades, and his first-hand experiences, including meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, is evident on every page. Nevertheless, while Popham clearly has great respect for his subject, he is not fawning or uncritical.
In The Lady and the Peacock, Popham concisely takes the reader through Burma’s recent history to the point where Suu Kyi returns to Burma to nurse her ill mother, and then swiftly transforms from an academic Oxford mother to a globally recognized political leader. Based on interviews with people personally involved in Burma’s history, key events are told in gripping detail.
A real coup was securing a copy of the diaries of Ma Thanegi, a close confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi in the late 1980s. Extracts from these diaries are reproduced in the book and provide a fascinating and sometimes surprising insight into Suu Kyi’s early years in the pro-democracy struggle. The text illustrates her bravery standing up to the Burmese Army, but also her frustrations with the challenges and privations of being on the road in Burma.
Also revealed are Suu Kyi’s frustrations in dealing with older more established politicians in Burma, some of whom presented themselves as genuinely committed to working together to bring change to Burma but in practice were assessed to be driven by personal agendas and ambitions. While the book makes for an ideal introduction for those wanting to learn about Burma and Suu Kyi, details such as the insights from the Ma Thanegi’s diary also make the book a worthwhile read for those who already know the story of Suu Kyi.
Further interesting details are accounts of negotiations with jailed former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and the chronicling of false dawns and broken promises over the past two decades. These episodes have a particular relevance now, with another president making promises of reform.
In telling Suu Kyi’s story, the book provides a good history of Burma for the past two decades, except in one regard. The Lady and the Peacock is a very Burman-centric history. Like most books on Burma, ethnic populations come into the book in terms of their inconvenience to kthe central government.
While events in 1988 and 2007 are covered in detail, there is scant reference to events affecting ethnic populations, such as the massacres following the Bogalay uprising in 1991, the mass exodus of Rohingya in 1992 and the forced displacement in Shan State in the mid-1990s – events which resulted in similar, or in some cases greater, loss of life than the fabled uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Of course, this is a book mainly focussing on Suu Kyi, but ethnic populations comprise 40 per cent of the population of Burma. Their history, and the abuses suffered, deserves as much attention as events in Rangoon.
The Lady and the Peacock – though comprehensive – is ultimately a story not yet fully told. Throughout the volume the reader gets a real feeling for the challenges, difficulties and frustrations still faced by Suu Kyi and those around her. They are up against a ruthless and powerful regime skilled at playing divide and rule and duping the United Nations and others into believing change is just round the corner. This compilation of the past 23 years puts into context the events and on-going struggle taking place today. It is a struggle that, sadly, looks like it still has many chapters yet to be written.
– Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK.