By Shinta Maharani
YANGON, Myanmar — PEOPLE LINE up on the roadside whenever they hear she is coming and scream once she appears, giant smiles breaking across their thanaka-smeared faces. In a country where women usually stay in the shadows, 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi is a star – or maybe even more than that. Once, she was content to write books and care for her family in faraway Oxford. But in the last three decades, Suu Kyi has transformed from a scholarly wife and mother who liked to play Scrabble to a globally recognised icon of democracy who has stood firm in the face of soldiers armed to the teeth.
When she returned to Myanmar (then still called Burma) in 1988 to look after her ill mother, she probably had neither inkling nor desire to participate in her homeland’s politics. But pro-democracy activists apparently recognised that she could play a big part in bringing change to Myanmar, then under the iron grip of the military junta. She ended up heeding their wishes, staying in this country for what turned out to be years and years. In the meantime, oceans and continents away, her sons grew up without their mother and her husband eventually died of cancer without a wife by his bedside.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s revered war hero Aung San, who was assassinated during the nation’s infancy. No doubt, it was initially that fact that had Myanmar’s people gravitating towards her, almost by instinct, when she made her homecoming. But while her being her father’s daughter remains a vital reason why people look up to her now, it is also because she has been transformed by the public as The Lady whose grace and commitment to peace will help them achieve the freedom they have long desired.
“I see Suu Kyi not as a woman,” says Hlime Thit In Wai, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine. “She is a political leader.”
He also described her as a “national hero” because “she sacrificed for almost 30 years”.
Unfit to lead
The military authorities, of course, had attempted to portray her in less flattering light, using to their advantage the traditional image of women in Myanmar as docile beings who would and should never be above men. In her 2004 book Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear, Australian medical anthropologist Monique Skidmore writes that the most common way Suu Kyi is presented as being “unfit to participate in the political process in Burma…is as a woman”, with gender stereotypes “exaggerated in State propaganda to forever exclude women from Burmese political life”.
The dismissive characterisation of Suu Kyi as just a woman and therefore unsuitable and unqualified for any political role was sustained by the state especially during the mid-1990s. Skidmore says that another target of such a depiction was the head of the New York-based Burma Project, Maureen Aung Thwin. The junta categorised both Suu Kyi and Maureen Aung Thwin by their “feminine nature”, says Skidmore, which the authorities implied as being “inherently duplicitous and untrustworthy”. This characterisation of both women apparently appeared in the state-run media (Skidmore cites the New Light of Myanmar as one example), which even went on to depict Suu Kyi and Maureen Aung Thwin as using their “’womanly wiles’ to gain their objectives, objectives driven by greed, lust, and pride”.
Suu Kyi’s ties to the West – her having a British husband and her foreign education, among other things – were also used against her by the junta in its attempt to diminish her potential to have a role in Myanmar’s politics. Moreover, Skidmore reads at least one portrayal of her as a puppet of the West, by the New Light of Myanmar, as having sexual undertones. In a 1996 piece, the paper had called Suu Kyi “a traitor puppet who is blatantly betraying the national cause and dancing to the delight of neo-colonialists Leik and Kan”. The latter are references to the British and U.S. governments, says Skidmore, who sees the dance of the puppet as being “sexually suggestive, implying that Aung San Suu Kyi prostitutes herself before the ‘Leik-Kan’ secret alliance”.
Political analysts Claudia Derichs and Mark R. Thompson have also noted how the state-owned press used to like referring to Suu Kyi as “Mrs. Michael Aris” and “Ma Suu Kyi”, which means “Little Sister Suu Kyi”. According to the academics, these references signified “a degradation of status” for Suu Kyi.
But the junta obviously failed in their mission. Instead, the Myanmar public took Suu Kyi’s being a woman in a positive manner, with her “gendered attributes” successfully used by the opposition movement “to justify her fitness to rule”, writes Skidmore. Her regal and determined demeanor, softened by the ever-present flowers in her hair, thus earned her the monicker “The Lady”; her self-sacrifice was acknowledged, leading to her transformation into “Mother Suu”. Respect is inherent in both labels, but in Suu Kyi’s case power emanates from them as well.
It is probably the mother image that is appealing to some detained activists currently leading a hunger strike in Tharawaddy Prison. According to a November 16 report by DVB News, the jailed activists have been refusing food to push for the unconditional release of all of the country’s political prisoners since late October.
Three of the hunger strikers have since landed in hospital, but are still turning away offers of food. Shortly after Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide in the November 8 elections, though, two of the hospitalised leaders of the protest — both men — received a visit from Win Htein of the NLD; he had a message for them from Daw Suu Kyi.
DVB reported one of the hunger strikers as saying later: “I take it that the NLD is advising us what is appropriate to do at the given time and circumstance, and we must seriously consider (Suu Kyi’s) words.”
*) This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program raising a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Shinta Maharani is an Indonesian Journalist, working as the Yogyakarta based correspondent for Tempo Magazine, Indonesia.