The Voice of Hope
by Aung San Suu Kyi with Alan Clements
Seven Stories Press, 1997
New York, NY
301 pages, $25 hardcover
When Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi defied her house arrest and set out for a meeting with a colleague, the ruling dictatorship showed just how badly they wanted her stopped: Armed soldiers physically lifted Suu Kyi's northbound car, rotated it with her still inside, and pointed her south again. Faced with imminent physical danger, Suu Kyi responded with her characteristic calm. She simply refused to move.
For 27 hours.
Finally, the weary soldiers gave in. The determined Suu Kyi got to see her ally in the democracy movement. [As YES! went to press, Suu Kyi was engaged in another car-bound standoff with SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) soldiers – this time, she had been in her car for over a week.]
This story exemplifies Burmese politics. For nearly a decade, the military junta known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), has attempted to reverse the progress toward democracy in Burma, just as they reversed the direction of Suu Kyi's car.
Alan Clements, whose incisive interviews with Suu Kyi make up the whole of the The Voice of Hope, knows firsthand the SLORC's repressive tactics. After the publication of the book, Clements was banned for life from Burma.
Clements, who lived in a Rangoon Buddhist monastery for five years, brings an interesting perspective to the book, allowing the reader a keen insight into the spiritual foundations of Suu Kyi's work. There are times when Clements' inexperience as an interviewer shows – he shies away from some of the tough questions – but his expertise in Burma's spiritual culture more than makes up for this reticence.
The Voice of Hope gives insight into the life and ideas of this remarkable woman, from her views on Burmese politics to Buddhist philosophy to the status of women in Burma and the world. Through these diverse topics, a portrait is painted of Suu Kyi that is at once inspiring and demystifying. It isn't just admiration we feel, but the sense that we, too, can inspire others through our actions.
Suu Kyi's forthright and eloquent responses seem crafted to serve this end. Rather than the intricacies of political change, most of her thoughts are related to personal change as a prerequisite for any fundamental transformation – a “revolution of the spirit,” as Suu Kyi puts it, rooted in the spiritual ideal of unity with humankind. And she lives her remarks: Though imprisoned six years by the Burmese dictatorship, Suu Kyi resolutely refuses to give in to bitterness. “I have never felt vindictive towards SLORC,” she says. “Of course, I have felt very angry at some of the things they've done. But at the same time I can sense their uneasiness – their lack of confidence in good, as it were. And I think it must be very sad not to believe in good.”
One could easily forgive her if she had become angry or lost her own faith along the way. Though Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won over 80 percent of the seats in Burma's parliament in the 1990 elections, her government was never allowed to take power. Instead, she saw the Burmese junta slaughter thousands of student demonstrators, imprison many opposition leaders, and rise to the top of Amnesty International's list of countries with the most human-rights violations.
However, Suu Kyi repudiates the notion of armed struggle. For her, not only is violence morally bankrupt, it is an ineffective strategy because it leaves out any possibility of personal advancement. Suu Kyi's Buddhist outlook urges her to encourage work on oneself first – her “revolution of the spirit” emphasizes preparing oneself for democracy as well as preparing the government.
The Buddhist concept Suu Kyi seeks is the advancement of metta or “loving-kindness.” Her brand of “engaged Buddhism” seeks to “make metta grow” as a force for positive change. For example, Clements tells Suu Kyi a story about a shopkeeper in Rangoon tearing up a letter Clements had photocopied in his store. The letter contained references to the NLD, and the shopkeeper was afraid of going to prison. Suu Kyi's response shows her philosophy on fear and metta:
“These things are happening because there is not enough active compassion. There is a very direct link between love and fear. It reminds me of the biblical quotation, that ‘perfect love casts out fear.' I've often thought that this is a very Buddhist attitude. ‘Perfect love' should be metta , which is not selfish or attached love. ... I think we need a lot more of this kind of love.”
And though Buddhism is central to Suu Kyi, she is far from exclusive in discussing how one's actions affect others. Her impassioned appeals to people in faraway lands not to forget the plight of Burma's people remind us of our “shared human status” with those who don't live next door: a remarkable achievement for any book.
Reviewed by Jeff Shaw. He has been involved in Free Burma campaigns in three cities over the last five years.