Symbols are tricky. And they can be misleading. We tend to see those people who embody a cause or a country as just black and white, often forgetting their humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi has been on my mind recently. Nobel prize winner, she is the symbol of the oppression in Burma, or Myanmar depending on whether you live in a country that recognizes the new name.
Even those least interested in politics know Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest in Burma, fighting the military junta that has purportedly been running the country or, rather, running it into the ground. This pretty, delicate woman, always with flowers in her hair, has been the voice of the opposition for over 20 years even when her voice was silenced. And it might be that her silence contributed to increase her standing. One couldn’t help but wonder how such a seemingly powerless woman could become such a threat to a de facto dictatorship.
A few months ago, after not so democratic elections took place, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally freed and she is now at the head of a fractured opposition party, trying to stay relevant and to find ways to help a nation out of poverty. But how does a cause become the sole raison d’etre of an individual, to the point of discarding everything and everyone else that one holds dear?
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the general who negotiated the independence of Burma from Great Britain and who died when she was three. Oxford educated, she fell in love with an Englishman, Michael Aris, whom she married and settled with in England. Two children now in their thirties are the offsprings of their union. Essentially, she was a well-educated stay at home mom.
In 1988, while in Rangoon to care for her elderly mother, an uprising took place. For the first time, Aung San Suu Kyi got involved in the politics which led to the series of arrests that have dotted her life.
In 1995, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Knowing that leaving Burma would signify not being granted re-entry, Aung San Suu Kyi, free at the time, chose not to return to England. Her husband died two years later, without his wife at his side. What did he make of his wife’s choices? Was he also the self-sacrificing type and did he understand her position? It mustn’t have been an easy choice to make nor to accept. Although not on record, it’s a known fact that her eldest son struggled with his mother’s decision to put politics before her family.
Nobody can be the judge of such complicated choices but it’s human to look for the reasons. Is it sublimation of a cause or is there a measure of ego involved in deciding, essentially, to become a symbol? In her particular case, being a devout meditator, it’s easier to believe that her ego has been put aside for the betterment of a nation. But what difference has her selfless act made? Burma is still under military control and, despite the accolades outside her house and the crowds at her speeches, the opposition party has not embraced her as a saviour yet, not to mention the years of isolation that left her out of touch. Again, it is not so black and white. No person’s life can be that defined, not even the life of a symbol.