Sunday, 22 September 2013

Review: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

                                  Aung San Suu Kyi, the key note speaker of the 17th Forum 2000 
                                 Conference opening ceremony on September 15, 2013, in Prague,

 This book is a collection of letters written for a column in a Japanese newspaper. It was written during the first year after the end of Aung San Suu Kyis first period of house arrest. I know very little about Burma, I vaguely remember my headmaster presenting an assembly about Aung San Suu Kyi and I read some essays about Burma written by John Pilger ages ago, so I was looking forward to reading something written by a Burmese woman.

I really enjoyed this book. A lot of the letters are obviously very political but there are also lots of descriptions and explanations about food, culture, festivals, the natural world, religion, social relationships and customs, so I learnt a lot of things I didn't know and that helped me understand the political relationships better. She also writes a lot about how the  totalitarian military rule is damaging and changing the social and cultural landscape of Burma.

She doesn't talk a lot about gender politics but when she did the passages jumped out at me. When writing about the birth of a friends granddaughter she says:
  In societies where the birth of a girl is considered a disaster the atmosphere of excitement and pride surrounding my friends granddaughter would have caused  astonishment. In Burma there is no prejudice against girl babies. In fact, there is a general belief that daughters are more dutiful than sons.
This was interesting to me as Burma is pretty much sandwiched between India and China, both countries which are known for their widespread negative attitude to the birth of female children

 Her party seem to advocate a form of compassionate capitalism. When I first read that she advocated a free market economic policy I was surprised because I associate  free market economics with  entirely unregulated consumerist capitalism that rides roughshod over peoples needs and rights. But later on in another letter in the book she writes of  foreign businesses who are looking to invest in Burma: .

 Perhaps they do not know of the poverty in the countryside, the hapless people whose homes have been razed to make way for big vulgar buildings, the bribery and corruption that is spreading like a cancerous growth, the lack of equity that makes the so - called open market economy very, very open to some and hardly ajar to others, the harsh and increasingly lawless actions taken by the authorities against those who seek democracy and human rights, the forced labor projects where men, women and children toil away without financial compensation under hard taskmasters...If businessmen do not care about the numbers of political prisoners in our country they should at least be concerned that the lack of an effective legal framework means there is no guarantee of fair business practice or, in cases of injustice, of reparation. If businessmen do not care that our standards of health and education are deteriorating, they should at least be concerned that the lack of a healthy, educated labor force will inevitably thwart sound economic development.
There are many letters detailing the detentions, imprisonments and sometimes deaths of her colleagues and friends. It is obvious how stoic and brave and determined the members of her political party and their supporters are when they know they could be removed  and punished at any time, imprisoned for decades and possibly killed but they do the work they are doing because of their commitment to democracy and truth.

This book was published in 1997 and a lot has happened in Burma and in Aung San Suu Kyi's life since them so when I get a chance I am definitely going to check out her later writings and other books written by women from Burma

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