A Conversation With Aung San Suu
by John Pilger
As the people of Burma rise up again,
we have had a rare sighting 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, she said."
That was a decade ago. Stealing into her
house, as I did then, required all the ingenuity of the Burmese
underground. My film-making partner David Munro and I were greeted
by her assistant, Win Htein, who had spent six years in prison,
five of them in solitary confinement. Yet his face was open and
his handshake warm. He led us into the house, a stately pile fallen
on hard times. The garden with its ragged palms falls down to
Inya Lake and to a trip wire, a reminder that this was the prison
of a woman elected by a landslide in 1990, a democratic act extinguished
by generals in ludicrous uniforms.
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.
We sat in a room dominated by a wall-length
portrait of Aung San, independent Burma's assassinated liberation
fighter, the father she never knew.
"What do I call you?" I asked.
"Well, if you can't manage the whole thing, friends call
"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 [on the streets],
of those 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?"
"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
We talked about the willingness of foreign
business to come to Burma, especially tour companies, and of the
hypocrisy of "friends" in the West. I read her a British
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 labor 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,
"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
"You lost it ... you exploded?"
"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."
"Weren't there times when, surrounded
by a hostile force, cut off from your family and friends you were
"No, because I didn't feel hostile
towards the guards surrounding me. Fear comes out of hostility
and I felt none towards them."
"But didn't that produce a terrible
"Oh, I have my meditation, and I
did have a radio . . . And loneliness comes from inside, you know.
People who are free and who live in big cities suffer from it,
because it comes from inside."
"What were the small pleasures you'd
look forward to?"
"I'd look forward to a good book
being read on 'Off the Shelf' on the BBC and of course to my meditation
.... I didn't enjoy my exercises so much; I'd never been a very
"Was there a point when you had to
"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 the number she gave me.
The phone would ring, then go dead. 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 favorite, 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. Ethnic people, like the Karen, are fighting
back. That's not a stalemate. The defiance is there in people's
lives, day after day. You know, even when things seem still on
the surface, there's always movement underneath. It's like a frozen
lake; and beneath our lake, we are progressing, bit by bit."
"What do you mean exactly?"
"What I am saying is that, no matter
the regime's physical power, in the end they can't stop the people;
they can't stop freedom. We shall have our time."