The Irrawaddy Literary Festival promises to be a seminal moment for Burma — a chance to assert its heritage of literature, culture and intellect. What makes it absolutely essential however, for me, is the chance to perhaps touch the hem (metaphorically speaking) of Aung San Suu Kyi’s garment. My understanding of her life was negligble, before. She was just a name in the occasional headline or U2 liner note. I recognised her face and knew she was from Burma, but nothing more.
Now, reading Freedom from Fear, a collection of her writings edited by her husband Michael Aris and first published in 1991, it is astonishing, and humbling, to realise what she sacrificed. At the time she was under house arrest and neither her husband nor her young sons, who Aris credits in his acknowledgements with having “witnessed and participated in much of the crisis with cool heads and a complete understanding of the role their mother has had to take”, had seen her in two years. Mercifully, they had no way of knowing it would be another 20 years before Suu Kyi was freed.
I cannot imagine, or even begin to understand what it must be like to be cut off from your husband, your children, and your whole life for two decades. Suu Kyi is a scholar, a writer, and a traveller. She lived in India as a child, studied at Oxford, lived in Bhutan as a newlywed, then made her home in England with Michael and their boys. When she became involved in the Burmese struggle for democracy she had everything to lose. And lost it. Yet continued to live with surpassing grace.
The brutal duration of her house arrest lends poignancy and prescience to a speech she gave shortly before it began:
Even though we don’t know what will happen, we need to carry on as best we can, without wavering along the correct path. Even though we don’t know what will happen, it is right that we take part in this struggle. Because we believe that it is proper, we have all joined in. If you ask whether we shall achieve democracy, whether there will be general elections, here is what I shall say: Don’t think about whether or not these things will happen. Just continue to do what you believe is right. Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own. One’s responsibility is to do the right thing.
Elsewhere, she writes:
Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endevour, courage that comes from the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions… grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.