(Oslo) Let’s face it. You can’t be objective about Aung San Suu Kyi. The woman is rightfully considered a goddamn saint, one who is flanked by Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in the Super Trifecta of today’s iconic political heroes.
This past weekend marked Suu Kyi’s first trip to Europe in 24 years—and her second outside Burma, where she was either imprisoned or under house arrest for more than 15 years following the National League for Democracy’s (the party for which she serves as general secretary) parliamentary victory in 1990. Since then the ruling military junta in Burma has granted her travel privileges, but Suu Kyi remained in Rangoon, fearing once out of the country she would never be permitted to return. Even when her husband, Michael Aris, was dying in London, The Lady, as she was called by supporters who dared not speak her name, stayed put, continuing her non-violent struggle for democratic reform that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. And this is precisely why she—and I—traveled to Oslo. After all these years, she is finally delivering her acceptance speech (her children accepted the award and the more than one million dollars that went with it on her behalf 21 years ago).
When VICE approved this assignment, I immediately began reaching out to Suu Kyi seeking a one-on-one interview. But e-grams and calls to her party were never answered. Even diplomats from Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were still in the dark about her itinerary less than a week before her arrival in Norway. Suu Kyi may be the only superstar around who doesn’t have a sophisticated PR machine behind her. In some ways it’s refreshing. It will be interesting to watch how long it will last.
When Suu Kyi was finally released in November 2010 the world’s press and leaders from around the globe hightailed it to her door, anxious to hear from her directly if Burma was serious about political reform. Economic sanctions were slowly lifted, and in April’s by-election, Suu Kyi and some 40 other members of the NLP handily won seats in the country’s parliament. With the sanctions disappearing, investors began serious prospecting. But Suu Kyi said Burma’s most critical need was establishing a mandatory system of secondary school education for its mostly rural and uneducated population. And that’s what she pointed out last month to The World Economic Forum in Bangkok, adding democratic reforms should be viewed with “healthy skepticism.” She welcomed investment but warned about possible corruption and stressed, in her view, that investment equals jobs. And jobs for many. In the past, she explained, only Burma’s elite profited from the infusion of foreign capital.
After she delivers her Nobel “lecture” here in Oslo, The Lady will visit Ireland, France, and Great Britain, where she will speak before both Houses of Parliament from Westminster Hall, an honor traditionally reserved for truly iconic heads of state. As London’s Daily Mail put it, “The Steel Butterfly will now outrank such figures as Ethiopia Emperor Haile Selassie, Nikita Khrushchev, US presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Regan, and French presidents Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy who were only received in the Royal Gallery.”
What I wanted to know from this remarkable woman was more personal. For years I’ve had a crush on Suu Kyi. What discerning male of a certain age wouldn’t? Esquire featured her in its 2010 “Women We Love” issue, calling her “One of the Sexiest Women Alive.” And frankly, I thought we might hit it off. For some 40 years I too have often put my life at risk in the noble pursuit of journalism to serve the public good. I still carry a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in my wallet; and was the Dalai Lama’s house guest for almost a week. I was all but certain given the right timing, Suu Kyi and I might actually find common ground. I could easily envision a casual evening of dinner and dancing, smelling the orchids in her hair as we slowly glided to the rhythms of a Cole Porter classic.
The 2012 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Victory Tour began in Geneva, where she spoke before the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency that seeks to eliminate the practice of forced labor, which is especially widespread in Burma. Later, visiting Bern, she briefly took ill during a news conference (aides blamed fatigue and jet leg). Meanwhile, I received an update from Norway’s Foreign Ministry informing me Suu Kyi’s visit would be mostly restricted and organized into a system of small coverage “pools.” It was obvious getting an exclusive for VICE would be highly problematic, entailing some fancy footwork and potentially hours of stake-out time at The Grand Hotel.
I don’t know what inspired Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch, to paint The Scream, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he once encountered the same authoritarian presence I did at the prime minister’s official guest house. Suu Kyi’s news conference there was listed as “open” to all media. We were told to report two hours in advance for the mandatory security check, but after presenting my credentials, which identified me as a legitimate member of the press, the Nazi manning the gate told me to wait while media meisters of the more mainstream news organizations were welcomed and ushered in. When I politely explained this was neither fair nor acceptable, a second storm trooper suddenly appeared and told me to step back. There were more than 350 journalists accredited to cover the Nobel laureate, and only 72 seats in the small ballroom. If there were space, I’d be admitted, along with a few other so-called “marginals” in the same predicament. But even when there was no one else to admit, we were still left cooling our heels. Luckily, a few spots remained and after finally getting the go-ahead I took a chair in the front row. It turned out to be my best break of the day. The young woman sitting next to me had spent the last year living in Burma shooting a documentary about Suu Kyi and knew the woman “as well as anyone can get to know her.” She had a treasure trove of Suu Kyi factoids; everything from the reason Ma Suu (Auntie Suu) always wore flowers in her hair (Suu Kyi’s father first threaded a flower there when she was a child) to explaining her complicated relationship with her oldest son, Alexander, who now lives in New York. “He sort of cut her off after Michael’s death. And he’s not even here to see her deliver her Nobel lecture. It’s all very bizarre.” B. (name withheld) agreed with a British diplomat who told me Suu Kyi was “dictatorial” in her own style and manner, does not buck opposition within the NLD, and has fired party officials who disagree with her. “But how the hell can you criticize her?” I asked rhetorically. “It’s sort of like criticizing… well, God. Truthfully, though, I have a tough time wrapping my head around how she could leave her husband to die alone… abandoned with her children. I mean, do you think she ever feels guilty?”
“She’s never talks about anything personal,” B. said. “She speaks only in the broadest of terms. She’s VERY calculated. Almost like a queen…”
“Like a queen,” I laughed. “Does she do her own hair and make-up?”
“She does. And another thing: She never wears the same outfit twice.”
“A clothes-horse, huh? And what about her love life?”
“What love life?”
“Never? Really! Married to the cause?” Here I explained to B. my secret agenda. “Do you think she likes Cole Porter?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” B. chuckled. I’d re-edit my film to include THAT footage.
A few moments later there was a discernible stir as Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, accompanied by the guest we had all come to see, entered the room. No matter how many times you’ve seen someone in photographs or on television, seeing that person in front of you brings forth a new emotion. And what struck me immediately as Suu Kyi took her place behind the lectern was just how frivolous—perhaps insulting even—were my reveries about meeting her socially. Suu Kyi obviously looked tired, but that fatigue didn’t compromise her sense of purpose. She was a commanding presence with charisma and attitude one could easily mistake as haughty if one didn’t know the years of suffering and self-sacrifice she endured. A week shy of 67 she was still stunning, but not the same drop-dead gorgeous beauty queen she must have been when she won the Nobel. She was obviously more mature. I could not begin to fathom what she must have looked like at 26, when she married Michael; but the word breathtaking easily comes to mind. She seemed more remote than Mandela and certainly the Lama, both of whom I’ve met on several occasions. Still, there was no doubt in my mind she belonged in that elite sphere. In short, this was indeed a woman fully vested in the cause to promote human rights and democracy in Burma, and nothing else mattered. Moreover, if she were calculating, I was convinced it was for the right reasons. It occurred to me the sobriquet Steel Butterfly probably fit, except it discounted the importance she placed on the essence of kindness, deeply engrained by her adherence to Buddhist tradition. It also struck me if I were producing her European tour I wouldn’t have agreed to such a ball-busting schedule. Physically, Suu Kyi is tiny and potentially frail. I actually found myself feeling somewhat protective of her overall well-being. As a journalist I have never experienced that sentiment before.
The news conference was not what you’d call a traditional free-for-all. A spokeswoman for the prime minister called upon four pre-selected reporters with some questions about Burma today that elicited the same replies she’d already given in Switzerland. Only when Steven Erlanger of the New York Times prefaced his question by reminding her of their last encounter together (with her husband) in 1989, did Suu Kyi seem startled. Erlanger then asked Ma Suu if after being muzzled during her confinement in Burma, she still felt somewhat muzzled during this trip out of a sense of responsibility to her people. "I've never felt muzzled at any time, even when I was under house arrest," she replied curtly. "Whenever I was in a position to send out messages, I said exactly what I thought I should say." The news conference lasted about 20 minutes. Afterwards I asked Erlanger if he’d gotten the sense her marriage was on the rocks in ‘89. “After all, how the hell can you desert a spouse on a deathbed?”
“I understand,” Steven said. “No, I believe they were still in love, but he understood her commitment. But, yes, leaving him to die… it’s kind of nuts. Of course, I believe they had an agreement.”
Later, during an interview with Scott Pelley of CBS, Suu Kyi said she was never tempted to leave Burma even when Michael was dying. “I think the country should be more important to every one of us than our own personal and private feelings,” she explained matter-of-factly.
I awoke early Saturday morning delighted breakfast was included with my room. Oslo is one of the most expensive cities in Europe (the night before a club sandwich, ginger ale, and coffee had cost close to 60 bucks). A pal at the Foreign Ministry had offered me a seat at City Hall where Ma Suu would deliver her Nobel speech, but as I waited for a taxi I suddenly felt faint. My knees actually buckled. At first I thought it was a momentary malaise, but it wasn’t. I went back upstairs and collapsed. An hour later, I was sure I couldn’t make it to City Hall and fired off an email of apology. The best I could do was tape the speech, which was being broadcast live on several international channels. Had it been anyone else but Suu Kyi I might have bagged the lecture completely and gone to sleep.
Clad in purple with a lilac-colored scarf, The Lady was wearing the fifth outfit I’d seen her in since her arrival less than 24 hours before. As usual, she was elegant and poised as Thorbjom Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, introduced her as a “moral voice for all… a precious gift to the world community,” and detailed her years of sacrifice to the audience. Calling the moment historic would not be an overstatement. It had taken Suu Kyi 21 years to get here and everyone—from the king and queen of Norway who were seated in the room to the Philippine porter in my hotel watching on a portable TV—knew they were witnessing something extraordinary.
Suu Kyi said she’d been asked many times what winning the Nobel Prize meant to her, as well as what “peace” means to her. She said today was the most appropriate occasion to answer fully. When she heard the news on the radio, she recalled, it did not seem real because she did not feel like she was part of the real world while under house arrest. But the Nobel Prize made her real again, drawing her into the wider human community, “and what’s more important,” she said, “the Prize focused the attention of the world on the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.”
“To be forgotten,” Suu Kyi said, “is to die a little and lose the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity.” By awarding her the prize, the Nobel Committee recognized that the oppressed and isolated in Burma were also part of the world, part of the oneness of humanity—it reinforced her conviction that concern for democracy and human rights transcends national borders. And so, she said, “the prize opened up a door in my heart.”
“Every day, everywhere, there are negative forces eating away at the foundations of peace,” Suu Kyi explained. “War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict… for suffering degrades, embitters, and enrages.”
Suu Kyi said during her years of isolation, she used her Buddhist training to ruminate about the concept of suffering and thought about prisoners of conscience and refugees, of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, “of that great mass of the uprooted of the Earth torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends, forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming.”
But she was fortunate, she said, “to be living in an age where concern for prisoners of conscience has become the concern of peoples everywhere…. an age where democracy and human rights are widely, if not universally, accepted as the birthright of all.”
She said she drew strength from reading and rereading the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that she quoted extensively. When asked why she is fighting for human rights in Burma, she said one only need read passages from the Declaration to understand.
And while she was cautiously optimistic about changes in Burma, she did not want to encourage “blind faith” because there are still prisoners of conscience in her country. “I am standing here because I was once a prisoner of conscience,” she said. “As you look at me and listen to me, please remember the often repeated truth that one prisoner of conscience is one too many!” She then urged everyone to remember those prisoners and to seek their immediate and unconditional release.
The Lady briefly outlined Burma’s history since it declared Independence in 1948 and acknowledged the ethnic tensions and killings that continue to this day. While hopeful that recent changes might improve the climate for peace, she said “the international community’s role is vital to insure development and humanitarian aid, bi-lateral agreements and investments should be coordinated and calibrated to insure they promote social, political, and economic growth that is balanced and sustainable.”
More eloquent than most other speakers I have ever heard, Suu Kyi conceded “absolute peace in our world is an unattainable goal, but one towards which we must continue to journey; our eyes fixed on it as a traveler in a desert fixes his eyes on the one guiding star that will lead him to salvation.”
Finally, she reflected on the value of kindness. “Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me there could never be enough of it in our world. To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. The briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people. Norway has shown an exemplary kindness in providing a home for the displaced of this earth, offering sanctuary to those who have been cut loose from the moorings of security and freedom in their native lands… ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace. Every thought, every word and every action that adds to the positive and the whole sum is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.”
As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi again thanked the Nobel Committee and the people of the world for their support, the standing ovation in Oslo’s City Hall was even longer and more thunderous than the one she received when introduced. Her Nobel acceptance speech was 21 years late, but a magnificent tour de force. And it got me thinking: To hell with the gonzo shit about getting a date. Just being in the same room with her was a privilege.