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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My last conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi

John Pilger recalls the last time he met with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

by John Pilger

New Statesman (October 04 2007)

As the people of Burma rise up again, we have had a rare glimpse 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".

That was a decade ago. Stealing into her house, as I did then, required all the ingenuity of the Burmese underground. 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. "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 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. I read her a Foreign Office press release: "Through commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles". "Not in the least bit", she responded, "because new investments only help a small elite to get richer and richer. Forced labour 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 miracle worker".

"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?"

"I did".

"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".

"Then how do you cope being alone?"

"Oh, I have my meditation, and I did have a radio ... I'd look forward to a good book being read on Off the Shelf on the BBC".

"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 her. 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 favourite, 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 stalemate?"

"I am really not fond of that expression", she replied rather sternly. "People have been on the streets. That's not a stalemate. The defiance is there in people's lives, day after day ... No matter the regime's physical power, in the end they can't stop the people. We shall have our time."


John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the fifty heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger", wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him".

Bill Totten


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