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Aung San Suu Kyi's Politics of Virt

Subject: Aung San Suu Kyi's Politics of Virtue

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Aung San Suu Kyi's Politics of Virtue

The voice of Hope: Conversations with Alan Clements, by Aung San Suu Kyi,
Penguin, 240 pp. £7.99

Reviewed by Mary WARNOCK 
The Observer

Aung San Suu Kyi was, briefly, a pupil of mine when she was reading for the
honors school of politics, philosophy and economics at St. Hugh's College,
Oxford. When she arrived as an undergraduate, she had been preceded by her
fame as the daughter of Aung San, a Myanmarese national hero, who had
dedicated his life to Myanmarese independence from colonial status, and who
had been assassinated when Suu (as she was known in Oxford and by her
friends thereafter) was 2 years old. She was unlike any undergraduate I had
taught before or have taught since. She was highly intelligent and
articulate, though quiet and enormously polite. In the '60s, most of her
contemporaries al St. Hugh's (or, at least, those of them who were my
philosophy pupils) were largish, ill-dressed girls, conscious that they
lived in a lib erated and modern world, but not quite sure how to make use
of this new freedom. Suu, by contrast, was small and elegant, with an
amazingly erect carriage, beautiful and beautifully dressed in a lovely
lungi, with a fresh flower every day in her fringed and pony-tailed hair.
She was totally untouched by the sexual aspirations of her friends, naive in
a way, but sure-footed and direct in all her dealings. She was also
extraordinarily easily amused and found many things hilarious, not least her
philosophy tutorials.

She had been brought up severely by her mother in a Buddhist tradition. I
never knew how religious, in the ordinary sense, she was. Once in the course
of a very standard tutorial on personal identity, starting from the text of
John Locke, we (she, I and her tutorial partner) were considering the
proposition, put forward by Locke, that one is the same person only as that
person whose past acts one can remember. Suu said: "But I am my
grandmother." Her partner and I fell upon her with questions about how she
knew this. She smiled, with a look of incredible mischief, and refused to be
drawn out.

The same humorous, enigmatic, private certainty characterizes this book. It
is a book essentially about virtue. For her, there can be no distinction
between morality and politics, and morality consists in aspiring to the
traditional Buddhist virtues, especially loving kindness and honesty. She is
a living illustration of the truth that to be moral entails essentially
wanting to be good, rather than bad. Her mother, she tells us, taught her
that goodness was simply better than badness (rather as Kingsley Amis
propounded the important truth that nice things are nicer than nasty things).

>From 1988 when she founded the National League for Democracy (being in
Myanmar to look after her mother in her last illness), she was deeply
committed to politics, going round the country addressing meetings and
preparing for a general election, which in fact took place in 1990. In that
election, there was an overwhelming victory for the NLD, over the military
dictatorship SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). Aung San Suu
Kyi was, however, already under house arrest, and despite the landslide
victory of her party, no attempt was made then or thereafter to hand over
power to the victors. She was freed in 1995, but her position remains
precarious, and her communication with her family (English husband and two
sons) is confined to a telephone call once a week.

Despite having more than once faced hostile armed soldiers, Suu denies that
she is courageous. And although one may properly dispute this, her
conspicuous virtues are indeed other than courage. For her life is based on
the principle that one must strive to become better; and that there is no
real damage one can suffer except the damage of behaving badly. In her case,
behaving badly would include, among other things, having recourse to
violence. But just as she was lightheartedly tolerant of totally different
philosophical traditions as an undergraduate, so she is now not inclined to
condemn students, for example, who take up arms against the State Law and
Order Restoration Council in the name of democracy. It is simply not her
way, though it may be theirs.

On account of the Buddhist emphasis on self- improvement, there is what may
seem, both to protestants and existentialists, remarkably little in these
conversations about choice, the concept central to Western moral philosophy
at least from the age of Kant to that of R. M. Hare. This is the more
remarkable in that, for most people, the choice to remain in Myanmar after
her mother's death and take on the role of democratic leader, thus leaving
her husband and sons indefinitely, may seem like a central, agonizing
existentialist moment in Suu's life. Moreover, once she was subject to house
arrest, the choice had to be renewed time and again. For SLORC offered her
the freedom to return to her family at any time, provided she never came
back to Myanmar.

Many people, I for one, would have persuaded myself that my duty lay with my
husband and children, even that I could do more good by mobilizing public
opinion from outside Myanmar than as a virtual prisoner, cut off from all
possibility of communication inside. But for Suu, this would have been bad
faith; deeply she would not have believed it. And to act against her
beliefs, to be other than sincere, is something that, reading this book, one
has to realize is impossible for her. Her commitment to democracy (and
truthfulness in political dealings) is by far her most important passion,
equally a moral and a political ideal.

These conversations are, inevitably, somewhat unstructured and repetitious.
Alan Clements, himself a Buddhist and a perceptive interlocutor, was never
certain when he would be thrown of the country, so each conversation had to
be conducted as possibly the last. But the effect is perhaps all the greater
for being cumulative.

Superficially, it is hard to feel much hope for the immediate future of
Myanmar, despite the book's title.  But Aung San Suu Kyi is hopeful,
because of her conviction that in the end the good, and especially the
truthful, will prevail. But she believes that for truthfulness, as for all
virtues, one has to work.  Nothing will happen for who simply sit and wait.
Whatever the future of Myanmar, a possible future for politics itself is
illuminated by these conversations.

The Japan Times 
June 24, 1997