The top of 50 Heroes of our time: Aung San Suu Kyi

 Aung San Suu Kyi

Heroes of our time – the top amongst 50

 

New Statesman

There was no doubt about our winner: Aung San Suu Kyi, who received three times as many nominations as even the great Mandela in second place. She has, as Richard Eyre wrote of her in a recent issue, “endured grief, danger and loneliness with extraordinary grace and courage, all the while inspiring resistance to the [corrupt Burmese] regime”.

A fitting winner, then, and a true hero of this or any other time.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi – Pro-democracy campaigner
Nobel Peace Prizewinner, under house arrest in her native Burma

The confrontation between Aung San Suu Kyi and the brutish military rulers of Burma (officially known as Myanmar) has the power of myth. At 60, Suu Kyi is still lovely and delicate, like the strings of scented jasmine always looped around her hair. The men in army fatigues and dark glasses who have oppressed her for so long may try to stamp out this flagrantly feminine opponent, but still she rises, unbowed and resolute.

Inspirational – yet worlds apart: there was no doubt about the victor in our readers’ survey to find the heroes of our time. But who could have predicted such strong support for Margaret Thatcher and the Queen? Jason Cowley on the winners and losers

 

When in our issue of 3 April I invited readers and contributors to nominate their heroes of our time, I thought I had a good idea as to who might feature in our final list of 50. In the event, your response was as surprising in its range and unpredictability as it was overwhelming. Who, for instance, could have predicted that Margaret Thatcher, scourge of trade unions and, more generally, of the liberal left, would be there in our top five as nominated by you? Thatcher, as Alan Quinn, a reader from Aylsham in Norfolk wrote, “brought a major shift in 20th-century politics. The cold war ended and state-controlled dictatorships crumbled. The free-market reduction of state-controlled economics released entrepreneurship and competition across the world. All this in a decade – remarkable!”

Another surprise, and in spite of the New Statesman‘s commitment to republicanism, was your considerable support for the Queen and Prince Charles. The Queen, wrote Jayne Fisentzides, a reader from Halesowen in the West Midlands, “has reigned through several generations, enduring personal and public difficulties, without once losing her dignity or being sullied by scandal”.

And what are we to make of the absence of Gordon Brown, especially when his old rival, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is in our top 20? Lists such as this may be arbitrary and entirely unscientific, and they may even be at the mercy of manipulation, but they are also indicative of a mood and a climate, and if I were Brown and I were, in the argot, seeking to renew the Labour Party, I’d be disturbed that not a single reader of this magazine considered my work and purpose to be in any sense heroic.

One of the more intriguing nominations was made by Ian Hargreaves, a former NS editor who, despite some reservations about the nature of our exercise, opted for Bob Dylan as his hero. The grizzled rock-poet had other supporters, too, and is the highest-placed artist in our list – if you exclude Bob Geldof, who is obviously not there for his work with the Boomtown Rats.

To recap, our definition of a hero: a man or woman whose actions have been in the service of the greater good and whose influence is national or international; someone who is prepared to act in pursuit of a freer, more equitable and democratic future, without recourse to violence. Though we asked you to consider only the living, Winston Churchill was among several of the great dead to receive multiple nominations, as were Jesus Christ and Marie Curie. Some heroes, it seems, never die.

Among those who just missed out from the final 50 were Roméo Dallaire, the stoical but unfortunate head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time of the genocide in 1994; Subcomandante Marcos, the philosopher-rebel and one of the leaders of the Zapatista liberation movement in Mexico; the CND activist Bruce Kent; the comedian and birdwatcher Bill Oddie; the young man who defied the Chinese during the Tiananmen Square revolt of 1989 – the “unknown rebel”, as readers called him; and, oddly, the American blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen. I was surprised that Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa did not make our top ten. He is such a brave and admirable man, whose sense of compassion and forgiveness are defined by his faith. But perhaps when people think of bravery and moral courage in South Africa they think first, and inevitably, of Nelson Mandela.

There was no doubt about our winner: Aung San Suu Kyi, who received three times as many nominations as even the great Mandela in second place. She has, as Richard Eyre wrote of her in a recent issue, “endured grief, danger and loneliness with extraordinary grace and courage, all the while inspiring resistance to the [corrupt Burmese] regime”.

A fitting winner, then, and a true hero of this or any other time.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi – Pro-democracy campaigner
Nobel Peace Prizewinner, under house arrest in her native Burma

Suu Kyi is the voice of yearning Burmese democrats. Her National League for Democracy party has majority support but is denied power by the military. She is held under house arrest and NLD members are beaten and killed by the junta’s thugs. She could seek refuge abroad, where adulation awaits her, but she chooses to stay, even to death.

Death has, paradoxically, been the making of Suu Kyi; it has stalked and claimed her loved ones and supporters. But each tragedy seems only to tighten her grip on life and her cause. The heady idealism of post-colonial liberation sustains her still. Her father, General Aung San, negotiator of Burma’s independence from the British, was assassinated by political rivals in 1947, when Suu Kyi was only two. One brother drowned when he was eight. In 1960 her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became the Burmese ambassador to India. There the young Suu Kyi was inspired by Gandhi’s credo of non-violent resistance. Her own ideas were developed at Oxford and later in New York, where she worked at the UN. In 1972, she married Michael Aris, a British scholar of Tibetan culture. They had two sons.

I first met her in 1974 at a dinner, where she gently criticised the North Vietnamese forces for their cruelty to prisoners. We anti-Vietnam war hippies were left feeling oddly soiled. Even then, Suu Kyi’s uncompromising principles provoked admiration but irritation, too.

Much later, in March 1988, she returned to Burma to nurse her dying mother, and was hurled into the furnace of political chaos and military tyranny. That July the dictator General Ne Win resigned. Popular unrest spread and thousands were killed. Suu Kyi formed the NLD. In September, the junta curtailed freedoms and announced an election. Suu Kyi was under house arrest and yet her party won. Since then she has been a de facto captive of the state, sometimes allowed no visitors for months. In 1995, her husband became ill with prostate cancer but was not allowed into Burma. She has not seen her sons since 1988. To leave would have been to break the promise she made to her people.

They may put Suu Kyi away, but cannot make her go away from the international stage. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she leads without armies, media manipulation or economic might. Naturally, she has her detractors. The junta brands her a foreign stooge, and now leader of a “terrorist” network. Ziauddin Sardar sees a modernised oriental woman who “triggers all the stereotypes associated with oriental sexuality buried deep in western consciousness”. Others have more credible reservations. Suu Kyi, like Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi before her, is the beneficiary of family privilege and power. If she had taken power in 1990, her appeal may have dulled by now.

Yet she remains in her tower, inviolate. In this increasingly grubby world of expedient and violent politics, the miracle is not that Suu Kyi survives but that she continues to matter so much. Not since Nelson Mandela’s long incarceration has a political prisoner drawn so much and such consistent support from millions the world over.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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