Almost everyone seems to need heroes. There may be a few excessively rational beings who think they don’t or people who can never help noticing the clay about the feet of even the noblest. But the rest of us long for some incarnation of goodness and courage.
For most of us, it is genuinely inspiring to know that we are alive at the same time as someone who behaves outstandingly bravely and nobly in the face of great fear and hardship; that such people are not only characters of myth and legend, but flesh and blood and clay like us. They might make us better; they remind us of better things. At times when people feel oppressed by their own cynicism, they are signs of hope.
Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma is undoubtedly one of the world’s great heroines. In the past few terrifying and inspiring days in the streets of Burma, her name and her example have been on everyone’s minds, though she herself is not free to join the people in their marches: she has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years. So I was sorry to discover that several young adults I know had never heard of her. It is rather as if they had not heard of Nelson Mandela.
It was not easy to explain quickly what is remarkable about her. To me the most astonishing thing is that of her own choice she sacrificed living with her much loved husband and two sons in England in favour of life – a half-life for nearly 20 years – under house arrest in Rangoon.
She could have seen her young boys grow up, she could have been with her husband during his last illness and death, she could have had an interesting and happy life in the West among friends and fellow academics.
This ought not to seem more poignant just because she is beautiful – she dresses exquisitely in the Burmese longyi, often with an exotic flower in her hair – and talented – she plays Bach in her captivity – and delicately charming. But because of the clay in our nature, it does.
She made this terrible sacrifice knowingly and deliberately and modestly for her people in Burma. As she said in 1988, when she first went back to Burma from family life in England, “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent.”
Her father was Aung San, a leader of Burma’s struggle for liberation from colonialism. He was assassinated when she was only two, and afterwards she lived and studied abroad for many years, being much influenced by Gandhi’s ideas of ahimsa and satyagraha – love for everyone, including one’s opponents, and nonviolent opposition – exactly what the Buddhist monks have demonstrated in the streets these past few days, until they were violently suppressed.
Aung San Suu Kyi came back to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother and was immediately drawn, her father’s daughter, into politics. She headed a political party, the National League for Democracy, which won a general election with an enormous majority, but other leaders were jailed and she was put under house arrest. Otherwise, she would rightly be the prime minister of Burma. Instead it is run, or rather being destroyed, by a vicious group of genocidal, incompetent militaristic kleptocrats, backed by China and Russia.
What is particularly heroic is that Aung San Suu Kyi could have gone back to her family and to freedom at any time. The generals did not dare kill her. They only dared isolate her in her house, and she feared that if she left Burma they would never let her back in.
So the years have passed, with her children’s youth, her own youth, her husband, and all for something uncertain and fragile. It is all for the idea that truth and love and peace have overriding power against evil, and will prevail without violence. Truth and love and peace will set her country free.
This is difficult stuff for the western sceptic. All around the world, now and in the past, it seems that violence does indeed prevail, and turning the other cheek is, to say nothing harsher, distinctly quixotic. Tilting at windmills may be admirable, in a way, but it is futile. There is a big gap between Asian and western thought on this. Only yesterday Maung Zarni of the Free Burma Coalition published an article in The Times under the headline “‘Loving kindness’ will beat the generals”, and spoke of a new dawn on the Burmese horizon.
He wrote proudly of his Burmese great-grandmother who told him of a bloody encounter in the 1930s in Mandalay between the forces of the British Raj and some peaceful, unarmed Buddhist monks and nuns who – just as today’s “loving kindness army” of monks and nuns – stood up to them on behalf of Burma’s poor. Just as today they were shot and beaten down in pools of blood, unsung heroes but heroes nonetheless.
My response to that story is that the British Raj did not leave because of this noble protest, but for all kinds of other, unrelated reasons, many economic. One was the loss of the will to power, which had much more to do with necessities in Britain than with protests on the spot. The British wanted and needed out of empire, so voluntarily they left and then freedom didn’t follow anyway. Strictly speaking, I suspect, the brave Buddhists died in vain. The monks weren’t winning then, and I am afraid, despite the hopeful comments of Maung Zarni, and the long sacrifice of Aung San Suu Kyi, they aren’t winning now.
I don’t really believe that peace and love will prevail over the evil generals in Burma. I don’t really believe that the forces of heroism prevailed in South Africa, or in Northern Ireland, though they must have made a mark, where they were not ignored, forgotten and generally unsung. What brings change finally are political and economic forces. No amount of heroism will bring peace and plenty to Darfur, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, and the worst of the African states. The only thing that might is the clout of foreign powers, and even that is doubtful. So with Burma.
I don’t mean to sound entirely pessimistic. Aung San Suu Kyi, and heroes and heroines like her, remind us of all that is best. They remind us what real courage is, and encourage us towards it, and that alone is enough to make them truly heroic.