Like mother, like daughter

Nic Dunlop

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Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Nic Dunlop/Panos Pictures

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi
Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen
Silkworm Books: 2018
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On 8 November 2015, general elections were held in Myanmar. It was the country’s first national vote since a nominally civilian government had come to power four years earlier. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won enough seats to form a government after fifty years of military domination. Less than two years later, in 2017, a million Rohingya refugees were forced to flee Myanmar in what the UN described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The elections were supposed to usher in a new era. So what went wrong?

The elections are the starting point of The Daughter, a timely biography of Suu Kyi by Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen, who attempt a nuanced portrayal of Myanmar’s crises, where Suu Kyi is the focal point. The past focus on Suu Kyi, as the book makes clear, has almost always lacked an understanding of the country’s social, cultural, religious and political culture, opting for a simplistic narrative that made little sense in the context of the country as a whole. As Zöllner and Ebbighausen write, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s biography reflects recurring themes within Myanmar’s political culture: the strong, if not dominating, influence of Buddhist thinking in politics; the focus on eminent personalities; and a weak culture of compromise.”

Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the country’s national independence hero and a revered figure among the majority Myanmar. Considered the father of the nation, he was also the founder of the Myanmar military. He was assassinated on the eve of independence from Britain, before he had a chance to govern. His venerated position comes in part from this unfulfilled legacy. Suu Kyi’s first political speech, at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, in 1988, was filled with references to him, the struggle against colonialism and the desire for democracy. On the stage where she spoke was a large painting of Aung San. A new struggle for his legacy was born.

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