Aung San Suu Kyi. At Home With Burma’s Hope.
Reflections on tea with the Lady.
Waiting is often the hardest thing and this has been a long wait – almost three years to be precise since we started this project. But with the Lady under house arrest for so much of this time the opportunity has of course only been there since November 13th last year. We had already made the decision not to fly straight to Rangoon when she was expected to be released, knowing that the world’s media would be there along with numerous well-wishers as well as the vultures circling in the sky determined to get their own piece of the action and press their agendas upon Burma’s great hope. It was hard to sit back and watch the moment of history from afar as the crowds surged down University Avenue knowing I could have been there experiencing the momentous occasion, but in the back of our minds we knew the moment was not right for me to go in just yet and that our waiting would go on a bit longer until we could be distanced from the maddening crowds. Personal desire takes second place to making sure this all works the way it should. These aren’t my stories – I’m just telling them.
54 University Avenue, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home that has also been her prison
Fast forward a couple of months and the timing is now right as not only has the media long gone but also the cover stories of fantasy car chases has passed and all eyes are firmly back on Naypidaw as a new government is about to sit. Unlike previous trips this one required a more meticulous approach due to the number of people we planned to meet and the obvious risks to them. The last few days were spent lie-ing low in our border office away from the heat in both senses of the word, going through final checks and meetings before making one last call to confirm our date with destiny. The next thing I know a soft eloquent voice, speaking perfect English, is on the other end of the phone. Whatever it is you do in life they say you always remember your first time and this will be a moment that stays with me forever (despite what is to come – ed). The aura of the Lady is infectious and the reality of what we hope to achieve these next weeks with so many people inside Burma hits home in a sense of excitement and anticipation. The funny thing is the filming we’ve been doing for the past few days of interviews and getting ready missed the funniest moment that would have been my face when I realised who it was I was talking to. But words mean everything and those spoken to me by my good friend and colleague Ko Myo as he dropped me off to catch the night bus back to Bangkok resonate still in my heart and head as much as those of the Lady. Loaded with phones, cameras and plenty of cover stories, this may be a mission, but it’s no more important or different from every other one both us and others do every single day that thankfully go unnoticed by Burma’s authorities. I’m only hoping this one does too.
Aung San Suu Kyi at home with her pet dog Tai Chi Toe bought for her by her son Kim
The welcoming party in Rangoon took me by surprise but thankfully it was not for me – you can read all about it here in a previous post (chronology of this Burma trip is not published in date order for obvious reasons). One decision that we made in planning this trip that went against the grain was to do the most high profile thing first and thanks must go to the General Secretary, San San (mine and the one and only) for suggesting and ensuring that this happened. Logic would dictate that you should do the thing that has the most chance of you being caught last of all on your trip, preferably the same day you are leaving, thereby ensuring a swift exit from Burma with perhaps nothing more than being followed by military intelligence. But with so many people to meet there are risks everywhere and putting the Lady first would mean that at least we could get the one the world would know about should we be caught after seeing her or at any other time. So after a day spent being a tourist and buying postcards from young vendors outside Bogyoke Market, finally the day arrived to meet the Lady.
As the taxi turned into University Avenue my mind was cast back to my first visit here many years ago, standing alone outside the famous gates (then a faded green) of number 54 whilst Burma’s most famous political prisoner sat alone inside. I dreamt then that one day both I would be able to walk in and that more importantly the Lady would be able to walk out. As we pulled up to number 54 the big yellow gates were opened and we drove through into the the famous compound, a sense of excitement and disbelieving inside me mixed with a nirvana of memories and stories that have been shared with me over these past years by those former Tri-Color students and other NLD members who spent so much time here working and looking after the Lady. I had to pinch myself that I was really here, standing in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, closing my eyes imagining what it might have been like to be standing behind these gates with thousands cheering outside as the lady delivered her speeches back in those heady days of the late 1990’s let alone just being here at any other time over the past 20 years.
Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue. For years Aung San Suu Kyi stood at these gates giving speeches to thousands gathered outside
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Burma’s political prisoners:
The house is now a hive of activity with building work and restoration ongoing and meetings being held on the front lawn looking out across the beautiful Inya lake. A warm smile and welcome from many that I already knew and others just recognised and I sat down inside, facing the beautiful huge portrait of General Aung San, waiting for his daughter, the democracy icon of Burma and hero to us all to walk through the doors. It really doesn’t get any better than this. Trust me.
Aung San Suu Kyi at home in Rangoon
“The Lady is coming” said U Nyi before exiting to allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to walk into the room. My heart missed a beat as in she walked and with her an aura that is simply indescribable. Everything anyone has ever said is true. And then some. Dignity, grace and beauty personified, I was completely captivated by her and in awe to be in her prescence, which may well sound contrived or over the top but to meet the Lady is more than just a lifelong dream and personal ambition, it is a truely incredible experience, made more so if one has more than just a passing interest in Burma or are here just to get your story. To do so here at her home in University Avenue is a great privilege and all the more memorable. We chatted and shared tea for some time (hours in fact) and whilst a few short sound files can be listened to here (actually from our second meeting the following week) our conversation roaming from politics and prisoners to pianos remains personal as I had already made a conscious decision not to sit there with microphone in hand armed with a barrage of the same old questions just asked in a slightly different way. I left that for the journalists with editors to please and newspapers to sell as this meeting was personal and personally one to be cherished – a chat and afternoon tea with the Lady and I think secretly she enjoyed the alternative approach as smiles and laughter around ensued.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on democracy and the new government:
Aung San Suu Kyi on the front steps at home with Tai Chi Toe
The time came for ‘the photo’ and it took no time at all and for better or worse as usual I made do with what we had – we shared a good laugh when I said all I had and needed was my Leica. A smile came over her face perhaps reminiscing of other more elaborate shooting requirements. With the large portrait of General Aung San as a backdrop, what could be better. For now the photo remains embargoed along with all the others from this trip inside Burma, including NLD leaders and dissidents, for the book which I’m hoping will be out at the end of the year. Stay tuned and i hope you can all join me in Rangoon for the launch. We then decided to shoot some more with Tai Chi Toe, her pet dog given to her by her son Kim. The VOGUE magazine article leads with one of the images I managed to capture before Tai Chi Toe decided it was time to chase imaginary rabbits in the garden and so I took the opportunity to take a few portraits of the Lady at home. It was no surprise when she adopted her now famous pose so beautifully captured in my friend Nic Dunlop’s powerful black and white portrait from 1996. I showed him the images soon after out of guilt that I had somewhat inadvertently re-created his classic moment in time, but his sincerity in response was re-assuring. But perhaps it also shows something much deeper, that nothing has changed in Burma and that this Lady is still as strong and relevant to the country’s future as she has always been. The Generals and many foolhardy world leaders, academics and businessmen would do well to take note. Before I knew it, it was time to leave and step back into the real world once more, or rather the very unreal world that the people of Burma must face every day. We joked about the not so secret service watching and waiting outside before saying our goodbyes. With everything hidden and also already on its way out I took one last look around this magical place before tightening my longyi and driving away through the bright yellow gates. No frantic chase, no flying market stalls. Maybe nothing achieved other than personally. Only Time will tell.
A final message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on helping Burma:
The hardest thing about it was that I could be here at all when my beloved and so many of my very close friends and colleagues could not. For them just returning to Burma let alone the chance to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not an option. A swift return to Insein is what the regime would provide should they try. But they were with me here in spirit – every single one of them and like the Lady herself continues to re-iterate, as do I, it’s not about us. It’s about the political prisoners. This whole long journey has been possible because of them and I owe everything to everyone of them, both those incarcerated and those freed. It is their story, not mine. I’ve just had the privilege of trying to tell it and one day I hope we can all enjoy sharing it over tea with the Lady.