From the Archives: Visiting Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma

On July 20, 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for speaking out against the military junta that had come to power in Burma – renamed the “Union of Myanmar.” The government had imposed martial law and used force to silence any protests. From her home she continued to give speeches and helped lead the  National League for Democracy to victory in the next election. In 1990, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In July 1995, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and became the leader on the leader of the  National League for Democracy. Nearly one year after her release, PEN Canada representative Karen Connelly visited Suu Kyi at her home to discuss the wellbeing of two Burmese writers. In this piece, which originally appeared in the Summer 1996 newsletter, Connelly describes her conversation with Suu Kyi – Daw Suu Kyi as the Burmese refer to her.

A conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi on freedom of expression in Burma

Karen Connelly
Karen Connelly

When they speak of her in public, the Burmese lower their voices and call her, simply, and sometimes with great affection, The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. Though I knew about the outlawed and persecuted political party she heads (the National League for Democracy), though I’d heard her speak twice from the platform behind her gate, though I’d read and listened to hours of interviews with her, I was, in the end, unprepared to meet her.

I had done my homework, but it made no difference. It was not because she was intimidating. After her press secretary told her I was on her verandah, she came out to meet me, smiling, as beautiful as she always is, but smaller than I expected. She led me into a large, empty, high-ceilinged room with nothing in it except a television whose screen was turned against the wall. The air conditioner is acting up, she said, apologizing for the heat that did not seem to bother her. At first we talked very casually, happily, about simple things: India, poetry, certain pronouns of respect in Burmese, my desire to learn more of that language. But I was conscious of the time, and began, after a few minutes, to ask her questions about the political and human rights situation, specifically about Ma Thida, one of PEN Canada’s honorary members.

ma thida
Honorary member Ma Thida was released in 1999. She is now the head of the PEN Myanmar Centre.

Daw Suu Kyi told me the following: though Ma Thida has tuberculosis, it is under control and is being treated. Like the overwhelming majority of Burmese, her family is extremely poor, and her imprisonment places them under further financial constraints (all prisoners in Burma have to be fed, clothed, and provided with medicine by family or friends on the outside, otherwise they will suffer malnourishment and its related sicknesses.) She is still not allowed to read or write anything. The most recent events in Burma indicate, as well, that her sentence could be extended. Despite that, she is in good spirits and is maintaining her equilibrium through Buddhist meditation. (Ma Thida was released in 1999 and San San Nwe in 2001. In July 2013, a PEN delegation went to Myanmar, and met with 20 writers who became the founding members of the PEN Myanmar centre.) 

We talked of the other political prisoners still in jail, especially the young and unknown ones who are in the most danger of torture. Daw Suu Kyi mentioned Win Tin several times, the 66 year-old campaign advisor whose prison sentence has been extended by five years; he is in poor health and she is afraid he may die in prison. We talked at length about the massive censorship in Burma and the crude manipulation of the media. (Watching TV in Burma would be hilarious if it weren’t so depressing: you know that everything you are seeing is reconstructed, fabricated, enlarged, or minimized in some nasty way.) We talked of the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s bizarre mixture of barbarism and decadence, their crudity, their brutality, their lack of education. Daw Suu Kyi stated numerous times the NLD’s position that tourism and foreign investment in Burma feeds the military dictatorship directly. She sat upright the entire time, laughed, was indignant, was articulate, and was, never for a moment, fully relaxed.

The censorship and brutality which suffocates all the people of Burma also suffocates her. Every poet, artist, and intellectual I met spoke the names of writers as though they were deities. . . Half a dozen people said these exact words to me: “books are treasures here.” I had brought books, but not enough.

There was a portrait of her father on another wall, and a black and white photograph of her whole family when she was a child. (This photo appears in her book Freedom From Fear, and I was startled to see the original in front of me.) Once, looking at this image as she spoke, I lost track of her voice and could only see her as she was decades ago, a baby with large, open eyes, staring out at the world. Her father, to the right of her in the photograph, was assassinated just after Burma achieved the independence he’d fought so hard to win. I felt chilled, despite the intense heat, and when Daw Suu Kyi asked me to clarify the question I had just asked her, I had to think to remember what my question was.

When the meeting was over, I walked away from her house slowly trying to understand what was wrong. The censorship and brutality which suffocates all the people of Burma also suffocates her. Every poet, artist, and intellectual I met spoke the names of writers as though they were deities. Delicious meals, sweet tea, second and third cups of coffee: all disappeared while we talked about writers whose books they could not get: Chekhov, Ruskin, Berger, Amy Tan, Havel, Kundera, Lessing, Neruda, Carver, Chomsky, any writer who writes about Burma, poets and playwrights I had not heard of. Half a dozen people said these exact words to me: “books are treasures here.” I had brought books, but not enough.

“Of course. Of course I am afraid. I am not a brave man, I am a coward. But it is our duty. The people must know. And democracy must return to our country.”

One of my most compelling memories is of the doctor I met who so gratefully accepted the books I gave him, small political and economic papers produced in Bangkok by Burmese writers. Sitting at a large, unfinished wood table, he flipped through the books and said, “We will translate these. And then, right here, we will do what we did with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and Daw Suu Kyi’s essays. I will dictate and eight or ten of my students and friends will take the dictation. We write on carbon paper because it is too dangerous to make photocopies at a shop. Sometimes we use eight pages of carbon to make more copies! This we do! Ridiculous, to work this way, but we must, we have no choice. And then we will pass the copies around, give them to many people to read, and they will do the same.” I asked him if he was afraid, doing this kind of work. “Of course. Of course I am afraid. I am not a brave man, I am a coward. But it is our duty. The people must know. And democracy must return to our country.”

Karen Connelly is the author of ten books of best-selling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Much of her work explores linguistic and cultural immersion, dissident politics, and exile, though her recent book, Come Cold River, is a song in several movements about Canada. She has won various national and international awards for her books, which have been translated into a dozen languages. Her novel of Burma The Lizard Cage has been compared to the works of Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, and hailed as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.” She divides her time between an olive grove in rural Greece, travels abroad, and her home in Toronto.

Karen Connelly will moderate a conversation between anthropologist Wade Davis and writer John Vaillant at the Spring Ideas in Dialogue event at the Art Gallery of Ontario on May 22.

Photo credit: Photo of Aung San Suu Kyi in her home by AP Photo/Richard Vogel. Photo of Ma Thida from The Hindu. Headshot from KarenConnelly.ca