The Most Impressive Woman I Ever Interviewed
By Rena Pederson
(Rena is sharing her thoughts with us today exclusively here and her voice is so amazingly caring and powerful, I am so excited for you all to be reading this and to be inspired by the life of Suu Kyi!!)
I would say she is the bravest woman I ever met, but there are brave women struggling in difficult situations all over the world, so perhaps it’s better to say she is the most impressive woman I ever interviewed. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi and she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to the long-suffering people of Burma. She’s sometimes called “The Titanium Orchid” because she is tough and resolute and fearless. Although she has been on the cover of Time magazine seven times, most people do not know her story, so it is my honor to share it with you.
How did an editorial page editor in Dallas, Texas, end up interviewing a heroine on the other side of the world? The newspaper stories about her Nobel Prize in 1991 inspired me to go to Burma — and to keep going back. At the time, Suu Kyi was being held under house arrest in Rangoon by military dictators, cut off from her husband in England and their two young sons. To stay occupied, she played Bach and Chopin on the piano for hour after hour, alone.
I immediately sensed this was someone extraordinary. Suu Kyi was Oxford-educated, spoke four languages fluently and read Les Miserables in French. She tutored her guards about Gandhi and meditated every day. She famously defied soldiers ready to shoot her by walking straight into their line of fire without blinking. It was only one of many times she has risked her life for freedom.
What made this remarkable woman tick, I wondered. She had the looks of a Vogue model and the guts of a general.
To find out, I traveled to Burma in 2003, which by then had been renamed Myanmar by the ruling generals. At that time, no press visas were granted by military authorities and journalists were arrested for interviewing activists. I worked very quietly and carefully for nearly a year by long distance to arrange for a diplomat to escort me into Suu Kyi’s home to interview her. Technically she was supposed to be free from house arrest at that time, but the reality was that she was harassed by soldiers or hired thugs at every turn and there was a barrier of armed guards in front of her home on University Avenue. Access to her home was restricted, so I resorted to the subterfuge of accompanying a diplomat to meet “The Lady.”
She proved even more intimidating than British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and more charismatic than many of our American presidents. We had a thoughtful exchange for more than an hour. When I asked if she had been scared by a recent attempt to kill her, she replied with an arched eyebrow, “Scared? If that’s their goal, they haven’t succeeded.”
Courage is in her DNA. Her father fought for independence from the British before he was assassinated. Her mother became ambassador to India. Young Suu Kyi was taught to do her duty to her country at all costs. And she has.
As I left, I asked her if I could do anything to help her. “Yes, shine the light,” she said. “Don’t let people forget us.”
Who could say no?
At the time, 75 percent of the people lacked electricity. Journalists were routinely imprisoned in what were called “dog cells.” I went back over and over again for the next decade to bear witness to things that tourists don’t get to see: children working in tropical sweatshops, lepers with little hope of help, motorcycle couriers who zoomed out of the “Golden Triangle” drug fields at dusk carrying bags of full of heroin. The more I saw, the more I understood why Suu Kyi’s mission is so important. I wrote many editorials about the democracy struggle and now have compiled my research into a book, “The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation.”
I discovered dozens of incidents where Suu Kyi’s life was in serious jeopardy, but she would not give up, she would not let go. More than once, her car was battered by thugs with pipes and sticks while she was travelling to campaign events. During a brief period of release from house arrest in the mid-1990s, she was trapped several times in her car by soldiers for long periods – once up to nine days -- without adequate food or water. She not only kept her composure, but stuck to her principles of non-violence and kept going back out. That is true grace and grit under pressure. Even after scores of her supporters were beaten to death all around her during the Depayin massacre in 2003, she still talked about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s extraordinary.
Finally freed from 15 years of house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi promptly won a seat in Parliament. Western investment is now welcome, so companies like GE, Coca-Cola and Ford have joined the Gold Rush. Because of that, many people mistakenly assume Burma is a success story.
But there is no happy ending yet.
Generals still control the government. Corruption is systemic. Journalists are still being arrested — one was beaten to an unrecognizable mass recently and shot to death. Students protests for academic freedom are being shut down by brute force. Christian crosses are torn down and Christian populations attacked. Deep-seated prejudice against Muslims is masked as patriotic nationalism. Fighting in ethnic areas continues. Women are raped by soldiers with impunity.
The United States and other Western nations eased sanctions in 2012 after the transitional, quasi-civilian government began a series of economic reforms. More than 500 corporations have rushed in to invest more than $50 billion. Ford, Coca-Cola, Heinken, Gap, Hilton hotels, and even Kentucky Fried Chicken are setting up shop.
But now reforms have stalled and it’s becoming clear that human rights are in serious jeopardy again. This year is a “hinge moment” as Burma prepares for general elections in November. The world needs to keep up the pressure on the government leaders – all former generals – pick up the reform pace. More concessions should not be made until benchmarks are met. For example, constitutional changes must be made to reduce the 25 percent of seats guaranteed to the military in Parliament. Restrictions must be removed that block Suu Kyi from serving as president.
Aung San Suu Kyi is not a perfect person, but she is a necessary person to keep reforms moving the right direction. Yes, she can be impatient and lose her temper and yes, she can be stubborn, but usually about the right things — the need for nonviolence, religious tolerance and rule of law. She is the heir to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela when it comes to non-violent change. Without her example, much of the change that we are seeing in Burma would not have happened.
A truer transition to democracy in Burma this year would send a powerful message of possibility to others living under authoritarian rule in Southeast Asia. It would inspire more women in male-dominated societies to raise their voices for justice and opportunity. Not everyone can go to Burma to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, but we can all be inspired by her to be bolder for our beliefs.
Rena Pederson is author of “The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation.”