Original Post: “Date with History: My More Magazine Interview with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”
When people ask me to name the coolest person I’ve interviewed, it’s hard to choose: I’ve been privileged to interview heads of states, some with altruistic others with base motivations; survivors of disasters fighting for their communities; mothers who turned into pillars of strength for their families when told their sons had died at war.
Still, my More Magazine interview with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one of two instances where I feel I had a date with history:
- This woman has been detained by the military junta for most of the last two decades.
- She admits that her international fame, in part due to her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has protected her, unlike most political prisoners who live in deplorable, sub-human conditions.
- Her people continue suffering and need the international community, particularly China, to wield enforce political and trade policies that will pressure the military junta to embrace democratic reforms.
But in this post that introduces the article, I want to give you a “behind the scenes” peek, what happened before the edited final version went to print. Whether it’s a newscast, a magazine issue, or a wedding, the seemingly perfect outcome is a testament to hard work. More importantly, I want you to glimpse the humanity of a human rights icon.
After learning in November of 2010 that Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest following widely criticized elections, I thought, why don’t I call her and ask, what’s next? (Yes, this is exactly what I thought. Many windmills have lined the landscape of my imagination since I was a little girl. I grew up. My imagination didn’t.) I mentioned it to a dear friend who went to school with one of her lawyers, who in turn put me in touch with her point person in Myanmar, also called Burma by those who refuse to recognize the military junta’s rule.
More like walking a communications tight rope.
Imagine the worst experience of an AT&T iPhone user times 1 million:
Calls dropped, followed by hours of a busy signal.
The system was overloaded or jammed, by the junta?
While in California, I messed up my time zones (math has never been my strong suit) and woke up her trusted advisor in what turned out to be the middle of his night (DOH!).
Phone numbers just stopped working. This last option consumed me with anxiety: had she been placed, again, under house arrest? Have her closest advisors been thrown in the clink, the key thrown away forever and ever, amen?
I called for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“Hi Viviana, I’m Suu Kyi,” she said, quietly, warmly.
“Oh, hi, Dah Ahn,” I labored. “San Soo Chee, ” I held my breath, while I balanced a tape recorder, Flip Cam, laptop, notebook and pen all while I sat on a stability ball (don’t ask).
Did this Nobel Laureate hang up after feeling offended that I filleted her name? So much for practicing in front of the mirror in hopes that nailing it would be phonetic proof of my respect.
Her voice pierced through what turned out to be long distance delay, “Viviana,” she began to apologize with a proper British accent developed while attending university in the U.K. “I have to ask you in advance to pardon my voice. I’ve caught cold and am still congested.”
“No worries. I totally relate, ” I laughed. “I got the flu shot for the first time in my life this year and have already been sick with a flu and a bad cold.”
Then the conversation flowed, really a chat with a girlfriend.
I asked her if she was afraid that at any moment, she would be detained again.
She deflected immediately and spoke passionately about the plight of her people, the ones who are really shouldering the brunt of the military junta’s rule.
After being under house arrest the last 15 out of 22 years, has the cause been worth her extreme personal sacrifice?
Suu Kyi gently, but firmly asked, how can it be personal sacrifice, if she chose this path?
When I asked about her artwork, she apprehensively revealed that her paintings which few have seen, are reflections from her childhood. But her nature drawings which have been printed on cards and can be seen on the web, were really a way for her to learn how to use her computer!
“What kind of computer do you have?,” I asked.
“A MacBook Pro,” Suu Kyi answered.
“Get out! I do too, and I love it!,” I marveled as I looked down at the black keys set against silver sleekness. I wonder what her hands look like when she writes her sons as opposed to e-mailing, say, Bono.
“I’ve learned how to use this computer by myself. Imagine that, no teacher. Just me. And it’s given me great satisfaction,” said this 65 year old woman who refuses to allow tyrants or technology to intimidate her.
Then we said goodbye. Pure grace washed over me. I was blown away by a woman whose strength, power, and conviction doesn’t come from her fancy degrees and universities, her prizes, or her celebrity.
It comes from the depths of her people’s suffering.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s followers lovingly call her “Lady” and “Our Dear Lady.”
May I one day earn that much love and respect from those around me.
As the article appears in May 2011 issue of More Magazine:
To her devoted followers, Aung San Suu Kyi is simply “The Lady,” a powerful symbol of resistance. The leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, in near-solitary confinement, unable to communicate with the country’s people, who have been under military rule since 1962. When Suu Kyi’s party won 59 percent of the vote in 1990, the military junta nullified the election and quickly isolated her. Even after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi, now 65, was kept under house arrest, separated from her two sons and not even allowed to speak by phone with her husband as he lay dying. In November 2010—after a sham election that maintained military control—Suu Kyi was finally freed. But more than 2,000 remain in jail, and despite international sanctions, the country’s brutal regime is protected by China. Here, Suu Kyi talks about how she got through her darkest days.
➤ You’ve been under house arrest three times, for a total of 15 years. Did you ever feel psychologically broken down?
The first six years, I was very much alone in the house. In a way, they threw me into the deep end. That made me adjust very quickly to living alone. A lot of it has to do with how you discipline your mind. As I’m a Buddhist, I meditate. But it was also everyday disciplined living that helped me. I always remembered I was in my own home and that my colleagues in prison were having a much worse time. I felt I had to be strong for them.
➤ You’ve said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those that wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Have you ever feared for your life?
No. It is not something I’ve thought of very much, not because I don’t value my life; it’s not the sort of thing that weighs on my mind. I think of life as each day to be gone through, and whatever I have to do today is what I concentrate on. I don’t think about what might happen.
➤ You were released after the 2010 elections that kept the authoritarian regime in power. Now that you are free, what’s next?
What’s next is to make the whole world understand that what we need is an inclusive political process. I think the world needs to look hard at how the elections are conducted.
➤ How do you feel about the sacrifice of your personal freedom? Was it worth it?
I feel very embarrassed when people refer to my “sacrifice.” I chose what I wanted to do, so there is no reason why I should look upon that as a sacrifice. I am of course very, very gratified that people all over the world have responded to our cause with support.
➤ What did you feel when you found out you’d won the Nobel Peace Prize?
I had a radio, and I heard on the BBC News that I was on the short list. So it didn’t come as a total surprise. What I felt was, “Oh, so I did win it!” I know it sounds very low key, but it is very low key when you’re on your own. News like that somehow seems a little distant.
➤ Would you describe the condition of the people of Myanmar [formerly Burma] today and the condition of its political prisoners?
The basic needs of political prisoners are not met. By basic needs, I mean food, water, clothing and health care. The great majority of our prisoners come out with their health wrecked beyond repair. They are not fed even a fundamental diet. There is also injustice within the prisons. There is maltreatment. There is torture.
As for the people at large, the economic situation is very bad. And while there is a political move to blame it all on sanctions, international financial institutions say very clearly that this is largely due to [government] mis-management.
➤ Tell us about the drawings you did while under house arrest, which have been printed on note cards to raise money for your projects.
I did them on the computer—partly for fun, partly to familiarize myself with the computer. I had great fun trying out all sorts of things, and I learned that if you have good programs, you can do everything without a teacher!What has been your ultimate “get” and how did it feel?