Tuesday 31 March 2015

Q & A: Rena Pederson / The Burma Spring

The Burma Spring, by award-winning journalist and former US State Department speechwriter Rena Pederson, is a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi.  It offers a portrait of the woman herself, and also portraits of Burma, and of the Burmese people. (Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military government, but since this was not democratically elected, Western policy has often been to refer to the country as Burma. Rena adopts this policy too.)
Rena first became interested in Asia in 1983, when she was granted a Jefferson Fellowship to travel and study here. This enabled her to visit China, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan.  She later travelled to India and Vietnam as a journalist.  Through her travels, she became aware of conditions in Burma, and began to follow developments in the country with intense interest. She first visited in 2003, when against stiff odds she managed to gain access to Suu Kyi. She returned seven times over the next decade.  
Although Rena doesn’t speak Burmese, she developed a network of sources inside and outside Burma who could tutor her in the intricacies of the country’s politics, history, and culture.  When she began making repeated trips, she came to rely on a trusted guide who often served as a translator. Her local contacts and sources helped enormously when she came to write The Burma Spring.

So: over to Rena…

Why are you so drawn to Burma?
A newspaper story in 1991 first inspired me to learn more about Burma. It was about the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma.  At the time, she was being held under house arrest in Rangoon, cut off from her husband in England and their two young sons.  I found it intriguing that she played Bach and Chopin on the piano for hour after hour to stay occupied.
I went on to learn that Suu Kyi was Oxford-educated, spoke four languages fluently and read Les Miserables in French. She tutored her guards about Gandhi and meditated every day. She famously defied soldiers aiming to shoot her by walking straight into their line of fire without blinking.  It became clear to me that this was someone extraordinary.
What made this remarkable woman tick, I wondered? She looked like a Vogue model and had the guts of the American Second World War hero, General Patton. I became determined to find out more of her story.

How did you gain access to Suu Kyi? And how hard was it to gain such access?
I travelled to Burma in 2003 while I was Editorial Page Editor of The Dallas Morning News.  At that time, no press visas were granted by military authorities and journalists were arrested for interviewing activists.  I worked very quietly and carefully for nearly a year by long distance to arrange for a diplomat to escort me into Suu Kyi’s home to interview her.  Technically she was supposed to be free from house arrest at that time, but the reality was that she was harassed by soldiers or hired thugs at every turn and there was a barrier of armed guards in front of her home on University Avenue.  Access to her home was restricted, so I resorted to the subterfuge of accompanying a diplomat.
She proved to be the most impressive person I’ve ever interviewed, even more intimidating than British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and more charismatic than many of our American presidents.  We had a thoughtful exchange for more than an hour.  As I left, I asked her if I could do anything to help her. “Yes, shine the light,” she said. “Don’t let people forget us.”
Who could say no?  After that, I wrote many newspaper articles about the struggle for democracy and eventually began work on a book, which became The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation.
I interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi again in her home after her release in November 2010 and returned to observe her campaign for Parliament in 2012. During my trips to Burma over the years, I interviewed many of the people involved in the democracy movement, including the venerated journalist U Win Tin, former General and National League for Democracy stalwart U Tin Oo, 88 Generation leaders Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing, blogger Nay Phone Latt, a half-dozen monks involved in the “Saffron Revolution,” comedian-activist Zarganar, former movie star turned humanitarian Kyaw Thu of the Free Funeral Service, and many more.
In the US, I also interviewed former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush, all longtime champions of democracy in Burma.

Once you were face-to-face with Suu Kyi, how did you find her?
She was extraordinarily poised when I interviewed her, although she was under enormous pressure as she is now. She poured tea graciously and took care to be a proper hostess.   She has an impressive presence, a kind of calm charisma that many leaders strive for and do not achieve. 

I found her frank and forthcoming; uncommonly blunt for a political figure.  Unlike most of our American politicians, who stick to their talking points, she clearly was listening to my questions and providing thoughtful, spontaneous responses. Her sharp intellect was immediately evident.

She admits she has a quick temper and I could see flashes of irritation when I asked her something she did not want to talk about - such as the pain of being separated from her children, or past difficulties within the National League for Democracy.  She struck me as the kind of introvert who feels more at ease with books than people, but has to get involved in the “retail sales” aspects of politics to keep moving the democracy struggle forward.  I believe she genuinely feels uncomfortable having to serve as an icon or “poster girl” for the movement, because that image seems shallow compared to the difficult and necessary work she is actually doing. She is acutely aware that others are risking their lives, working as hard and are equally deserving of the limelight. Yet she understands the reality that her high profile helps make Burma visible to the world, so she dutifully subjects herself to interviews such as mine. 

One of the aims of The Burma Spring is to address people’s misconceptions about Suu Kyi. What was your own biggest misconception about her, before you started researching the book?  What did you learn that most surprised you?
I suppose I was a bit surprised how well informed she was, considering she had been held under tight restrictions in her home for so many years.  Even though her movements were restricted and she had limited access to the media, she was keenly aware of events around the world and inside her country.  She has a well-stocked mind -in conversation, she can quote easily from sources as diverse as philosopher Karl Popper and Prime Minister Nehru, to Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

But what really surprised me was her lively sense of humour. She is quite playful.  When I told her I had honed my questions to 20 in case our time was cut short, she laughed and said, “20 Questions? It sounds like a quiz show.”  At one point she had me take off my shoes to prove she was taller.  The story is told that when one of her colleagues – who had been arrested on his way to a meeting at her house – was finally released from prison years later, she greeted him at the door with “Uncle, what took you so long?”  She can seem quite formal in some speeches, but she has an impish side.

Likewise, what were your biggest misconceptions about Burma, and the Burmese people?
I don’t know that I had any misconceptions, but I was saddened by the extent of the poverty and the hardships that people endure.  It’s one thing to read that 75 percent of the people lack electricity – and another to drive for hours through the countryside and not see any lights in any of the farm houses along the way. Most villagers were still cooking over wood fires on the ground and did not have running water or plumbing.  It’s shocking to see the number of children working in tea shops or stirring scalding hot silk pots or raking through the rubble in mining areas.   I travelled to the Delta area that was devastated by Cyclone Nargis and talked with many people who had nothing left – not even a roof over their heads – and yet they were kind and hospitable and polite.

What about accurate preconceptions?  Did you have any of your own preconceptions confirmed, either about Suu Kyi, or about Burma, or about the Burmese people?
I knew that Aung San Suu Kyi was exceptionally brave and had walked through squads of soldiers who had their rifles aimed at her and her followers in 1988, but I was amazed to come across many more incidents where her life was in serious jeopardy.  For example, her car was battered by thugs with pipes and sticks more than once while she was travelling to campaign events.   During a brief period of release from house arrest in the mid-1990s, she was trapped several times in her car by soldiers for long periods - once up to nine days - without adequate food or water.  She not only kept her composure, but stuck to her principles of non-violence and kept going back out. That is true grace and grit under pressure.  She is even braver than many people realise. Even after scores of her supporters were beaten to death around her during the Depayin massacre in 2003, she still talked about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s extraordinary.

Because Suu Kyi's story is so remarkable, the stories of others who have stood up and spoken up for freedom are often over-shadowed, so I also took pains to include the stories of many others who have sacrificed much. This includes student activists like Min Ko Naing, monks such as U Gawsita and U Gambira, comedians such as the Moustache Brothers and Zarganar, labour activist Su Su Nway, and businessman Leo Nichols, who died in prison.  Their stories are equally deserving.

The Burma Spring mentions the recent sectarian violence against Muslims, such as the Royhinga, as well as the on-going attacks in ethnic regions that are largely Christian. Did you get a chance to discuss sectarian violence with Suu Kyi?
Much of the violence that has been in the headlines occurred after our interviews, but she made it clear in our earlier interviews that she is against religious discrimination of any kind and against violence. 

What do you personally think of her ambivalence to the Rohingya?
She has seemed to be hedging her bets politically by saying she doesn’t want to take sides because there have been offences on both sides.  I agree she could have done better.  But she has been consistent in saying she wants to promote reconciliation rather than take sides and place blame.  There have been some reports in the media that she has said nothing, when actually she has said several times she is against violence of any kind by either Buddhists or Muslims. She also has clearly spoken out against the proposals in Parliament that would limit religious conversion and ban inter-marriage.  So she has spoken out, just not always in a very effective way or the way some would have preferred.   

What do you think will happen after the election later this year?
It’s uncertain whether Suu Kyi will ever get to serve as President – that’s barred in the current Constitution in Section 59f, which prohibits someone from leadership positions who is married to a foreigner or who has children with a foreign passport, as Suu Kyi does.   But she will remain a power broker as head of her party or could possibly serve as Speaker in Parliament if her party gains more seats in the 2015 elections as expected.  Whatever role she plays, she will surely have to take more positions that will provoke more criticism.  Recent history in other emerging countries has shown that activists who have been the driving force for democracy find their reputations diminished by political infighting when they assume national office – such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa in Poland.  As Suu Kyi often points out, she is not a saint, she is only human – and a politician to boot, which means she will have to make compromises and decisions that will inevitably cost her popularity.

What do you think are the biggest grounds for worry about Burma’s future?
It is troubling that journalists are being arrested now and student protests are being shut down.  Land is still being confiscated.  There are legitimate concerns that powerful elements in the military are loathe to give up their control to allow for broader representation in Parliament and government positions.  Some believe that those authoritarian elements –“the hidden hand” – are behind some of the recent sectarian unrest and they are clinging to profitable relationships with business cronies.  That could lead to more violence and could result in elections later this year that are not as free and fair as they should be.  On top of that, there are serious outbreaks of violence along the border region that have exacerbated tensions with China.  It’s a fragile situation and 2015 will be a critical year.

What are the biggest grounds for optimism?
The investment that has been pouring into the country is providing needed new jobs and income for more people, which is like an infusion of oxygen.  By some estimates some 500 businesses have invested USD 50 billion since the economy was liberalised in 2011.  Many international non-governmental organisations are starting to provide health care services, mobile libraries, environmental expertise and more.  Organisations such as the National Democratic Institute and the Bush Institute are providing leadership training. Communication is improving – cell phone penetration has gone from less than five percent to 20 percent in just the last year or so.  The resulting information and social media connections will help inform the population.  Those trends are moving forward and will be hard to reverse, I hope.

What do you hope readers in Asia take from your book? In particular, what do you hope women readers here take from it?
If Burma can continue its transition to a market economy and more representative democracy without more violence, that will be a positive model for other countries struggling with the constraints of authoritarian governments.  The world in general sorely needs a successful example of dealing with religious and ethnic differences peacefully. Toward that end, Aung San Suu Kyi’s message of tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation are much needed.  That is what sets her apart from most political leaders.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been an inspiration for many other women in Burma –  such as Dr. Cynthia Maung, who provides medical care along the Thai border; the AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Thin, and new generation leaders such as Zin Mar Aung.   Women’s groups in Burma have been uniting more in recent months to combine their efforts on behalf of issues such as discrimination, sexual violence, and job opportunities. That’s a positive development since women and children have suffered greatly during the years of military rule.

Suu Kyi is living proof that one individual can make a difference if you stand up for your convictions.  Let’s face it, the world is full of problems caused by human beings.  We need more leaders who will speak up for the noble concepts of duty, honour, truthfulness, personal integrity, compassion, and service – and mean it.  Suu Kyi may not be a perfect leader, but she is a necessary voice and her message is one the world needs.