Monday, 26 May 2008

The Lady and The Generals

Rangoon, July 1996

A Year after her release from house arrest, the military authorities in Burma were keeping a close watch on Aung San Suu Kyi

...The meal was nearly ended when she notices the elderly guest to my left struggling to remove some chillies from his food. His fingers are bent with arthritis and he wipes away ineffectually at the red peppers. Nothing is said but I am suddenly aware of her presence leaving my side and moving to where the old man is sitting. With a few deft movements of her hand the offending spices are removed. 'There you go Uncle,' she smiles, 'we must be careful of you stomach.' A few minutes later when the same old man is midway through a long rambling story about Burma's struggle against the British, her secretary appears that the door. He gestures at his watch and mouths the words 'Two O Clock. Meeting with the delegation.' She acknowledges the message but continues listening. I look at my watch and notice that it is already two o'clock. Yet the story continues and Aung San Suu Kyi continues smiling. Names and dates from the distant past are recalled. Her secretary reappears and is starting to look a little frantic. But she will not interrupt the old man, and when he finishes Aung San Suu Kyi waits for a moment before rising from the table.

Although most of our lunch had been taken up with discussing the latest political crisis it is the two exchanges with the old man that are embedded into my memory. For they represented the grace, patience and humility which are essential to any understanding of Aung San Suu Kyi. Most other political leaders of my acquaintance would have been far too preoccupied with their own business, or listening to the sound of their own voice to give him a second thought. But not the woman her supporters call 'the Lady.' For a short time on a stormy afternoon in Rangoon, she made him feel as if he were the only person in the room.

Those close to her admit to occasional feelings of exasperation at her willingness to give time and attention to the endless numbers of supporters and suppliants who come to her home by the lake. When I ask her about it she replies in a tone that seems almost mystified by the question. 'But every person is important. Isn't that what democracy is about, to listen to people? I am a Buddhist, this is a Buddhist country and we value human kindness and compassion,' she says...

Fergal Keane

Aung San Suu Kyi is facing the probable extension of her house arrest. I doubt this will come as a surprise. The Burmese authorities are still impeding aid workers in their work to relieve the depravation of cyclone victims. I have a friend, a priest who I studied with at Heythrop, working in Rangoon. It is not possible to say at the moment how people are faring in the area. There has been no contact via email or telephone. I know from past experience of being 'on the other end of the line', that things are always worse than the news is able to tell. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Burma, and for my friend. The attention that the military junta is receiving is causing them discomfort. Long may the international community keep looking, bearing witness to the human tragedy unfolding before their eyes. Long may they bear in mind Aung San Suu Kyi's thought, 'But every person is important. Isn't that what democracy is about, listening to people?'

No comments: