So Long a Letter
to Aung San Suu Kyi
(ahng sahn soo chee)
Prisoner #1 of Thousands and
From Alice Walker
In a Country With its Own Afflictions
The United States of America
February 15, 2009
Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,
Two weeks ago my partner, Garrett Larson, and I were in Rangoon, on your street, and passed by your gate. We looked over the barricade, constructed of wood and bamboo and barbed wire, at an upper story corner of one of your buildings. We noted the sentries manning guard-posts in the street on either side of your entrance, blockading your compound. We wondered where you were. I especially wanted to see you. Not even to say hello, but simply to see that you are well. It has been almost twenty years since you were really free, though the Junta appears to let you out from time to time, simply to see if you have learned to behave. You haven’t.
We had been in your country for a couple of weeks, traveling as pilgrims, bringing aid to those most harmed by Cyclone Nargis. We traveled also with Jack Kornfield, a teacher of Buddhism, who studied Burmese Buddhism in South East Asia many years ago. Jack is a member of my Women of Color sangha and a personal friend. Until recently he was the only non-black person, the only male. He is a marvelous teacher, great storyteller, and, as shown by his willingness to sit with us for nearly ten years, a courageous human being. It was on his invitation that we traveled to Burma. Our group of fourteen visited numerous clinics, hospitals and schools; we visited even more numerous monasteries and pagodas. I had no idea such treasures, for the inspiration and reassurance of humanity, existed.
On the way to Burma I had stopped in Washington D. C. for the inauguration of our new president, Barack Obama. And while there, co-hosted a program for radio and television called Democracy Now: The War and Peace Report. The goal of this show is to explore what is happening to democratic movements around the world, with emphasis on the challenges faced. It’s host, Amy Goodman, had said to me when I mentioned going to Burma, that the Junta had refused to let your British husband, Michael Aris, visit you during the last years of his life, and that when he fell ill with prostate cancer you could not go to him in England because this would have been used as an excuse to expel you permanently from your country. He died without seeing you and without your having a chance to hold him close in gratitude for what he meant to your life. I hadn’t known about the cruelty of this separation, nor had I understood your decision to sacrifice the years you might have had with your children, who were young when you were detained in the Eighties, and who are tall and handsome young men now. And yet, entering Rangoon, I began to see. And that is why I had to come to where you are. You are invisible in the streets – though my partner and I joked that some day Burma will be awash in Aung San Suu Kyi tee shirts – and you are everywhere.
We had been warned not to mention your name. Not because of what could happen to us – expulsion would likely be the worst of it, but because of what might happen to whomever we were talking to. As you know, your country is a place of spies and intrigues and sudden arrests and disappearances and is perhaps the most notorious country on earth for arresting peaceful demonstrators, torturing them, and forcing them into slave labor, building roads and bridges and edifices the Junta thinks will increase profits from its tourism scheme. It is also known for its illegal government’s mowing down of peaceful, loving people, including students, monks and nuns, who object to the rampant rape and pillage of the country and the Gestapo like atmosphere that stifles all freedom to follow paths of creative activity and thought. Burma, with its fifty million incessantly monitored inhabitants is sometimes referred to as the largest prison in the world. Not mentioning your name was difficult; but I accepted it as a practice. Having read that you lived on a lake, I noted two lakes on the ride in from the airport. I wondered if your house was across the water I was seeing and if you, that very moment, might not be gazing out on it too. Later I would see photographs of the part of your house that faces the lake and see that enormous rolls of barbed wire physically cut you off from it. As we drove down the streets of Rangoon I thought of you walking there, many years ago, when you were little, and going places with your brothers, or with your mother, Daw Khin Kyi. I was very moved to learn of how you returned to Burma, from your quite pleasant life in England: Daw Khin Kyi became ill, and would later die. You went home to be with her. I loved my own mother very much, and supported her during her declining years, but I never went back to the small country town where she lived to stay with her. A part of me will always regret this and see it as a failing; which makes what you did all the more remarkable to me. And then, Life caught you there. The Burmese daughter who’d strayed to democratic India and then to the West, never dreaming that in your country’s time of greatest trial and need, you would be the one called to the test.
The Junta has changed the names of places: Rangoon is now Yangon. Burma is now Myanmar. At first I thought I was resisting these new names because I encountered Burma, as a student, in the fiction of George Orwell, when Burma was Burma and Rangoon was Rangoon. But then I thought of other dictatorships, for instance in the Congo, when for a brief period it became Zaire; the need to blot out or cover over centuries of horrific murder and theft by changing the name of the place as if this then changed what had transpired. I was glad to understand, during our visit, that the people of Burma, not having been consulted about the change of names, tried to avoid using them, as most of us in our group did as well. I was struck by something the Junta hasn’t changed: your father’s tomb. You will understand that, as a visitor being driven through the streets of Rangoon I rarely had a clue what I was looking at. Still, the small statue of your father caught my eye. I thought: who is that figure? Why does he seem so solitary, here where the Buddhas might be taller than a house, and where sometimes, as in the Shwedagon Pagoda there might be whole families of Buddhas. Your father in life, as in death, seems to have been of a bravely independent spirit, impatient for an independent and unified Burma. He was an Aquarian, like Abraham Lincoln and other leaders eager to live in a future that is at least fifty years away. When he was assassinated, along with six of the other top leaders of the country’s movement for unification and freedom from British colonial rule, your country was dealt a blow as severe as that felt by your mother and her children. Though you were only two when this happened, I imagine you could feel the loss through your mother’s workaholic sadness and heaviness of spirit. That she kept going in spite of her loss, that she refused even to weep in public, says a lot about your parents and what they were willing to endure for you.
When I think of Burma now, having returned home to the United States, I am overwhelmed by the fact of its existence. It is such an unusual experience, being in your country, that there are almost no words for it. And of course we traveled in what I consider the best way: putting ourselves at the service of those most in need, meditating at least once a day in circle, visiting farmers and fisher-people and listening to the stories of their lives, enjoying their kindness and the deep humanity in their eyes, visiting monasteries and hearing teachings from abbots and monks, and of course, shopping! I had not expected such huge amazing markets in which everything imaginable is on display. Being westerners we gravitated toward the clothing: old, colorful pieces made by the hill tribes people. So beautiful we were reminded of our own Native American and African roots. Some items, like the silver coin helmets the women wear, so striking we could not fathom – assuming we bought them – on just what occasion we might put them on.
I will just tell you of a few profound moments for me: the first was in Mandalay. Mandalay is a word most Westerners recall from having read Kipling a hundred years ago. But Daw Suu Kyi, as you well know, it is real and it is still there! We had a room just above a moat that surrounded a thick stonewall that enclosed the ruins of a palace. One day, leaving this idyllic perch – the moat is broad and green and a mile long on each of its four sides – we went to visit the over seven hundred pages of the Buddha’s teachings. Each page, nearly as tall as I am, carved in stone, and in its own pagoda. So, hundreds of identical white pagodas! I think it was here, walking into one of the unlocked pagodas, and running my fingers over the Pali script carved in stone, I felt who the Burmese people are. A people who deeply value the Buddha’s teachings, and hundreds of years ago made the decision to leave his precise words of wisdom for coming generations, ensuring guidance for all those, sure to show up eventually, clueless and in need of help. Ah, I said to my friend Jack, who appeared to explore an open pagoda with me, the Burmese people are a people of devotion. In a group like ours, from all walks of life and from many kinds of trials and suffering, there was always somebody shedding a tear; this was my moment. My own connection with ancestors is one of my most treasured relationships – it is always my sense that, to the best of their abilities, they are looking out for us. To see this tender concern carved in stone, this blatant and enduring love for generations of spiritual descendants to come, got to me. I recognized myself as one of those provided for.
And then there was the visit to the countryside by way of the Irrawaddy River. Leaving our boat we trudged along a sandy track to the homes of local farmers who live in houses made of bamboo. First of all, imagine. We were a troupe of strangers, the majority of us white, suddenly appearing in their front yards. I tried to imagine my own response if such a group showed up at my door. We stood around looking at everything, speaking through our Burmese guide (who thankfully had arranged our visit, I learned later) and admiring their drying crop of peanuts – a favorite nut of mine – and their exquisitely beautiful cows! Each household had at least one cow and a bullock, used to pull the bullock cart that stood nearby. A cart artfully carved along its sides and with lovely spoked wheels that seemed unchanged since the Buddha’s day. I rode back to the boat in one of these, marveling at the spontaneous gift of a single peanut a young girl had given me, when she saw my admiring glance at the peanuts, as they dried in huge circles on the bare ground in their yard. I had not been so happy to see one of our group scoop up a whole handful and eat them, as if these farmers, so resembling my own family who were farmers, could easily afford to lose whatever he took. It was a Western moment, when our lack of awareness and even more of home training shows itself. I had noticed that Burmese people in general are very thin, but did not yet know that many are starving, or subsisting on one meal of rice or one glass of rice milk a day. My partner and I spoke with joy about the sense of presence we experienced in the cows. They were self-possessed; indeed, they appeared thoughtful and curious, sleek and vibrant and well cared for as they are. Their owners too seemed sincerely appreciative of them: a farmer when asked to pose with his team aligned himself next to them with pride. I was enchanted by their look of dignity and calm. We do not have cows like that any longer in my country. The cows here have all heard of hamburger and the billions sold. They’ve experienced the rush to become huge and saleable, they know about the slaughterhouses in action around the clock. May all sentient beings be free from fear, hunger, cold, and maltreatment of any sort: so the Buddha taught . And so we witnessed the contentment and sense of family human beings might have with the non-human animals, who share, and benefit, their lives.
It is sometimes difficult, enjoying an experience while traveling, and at the same time critiquing it. We were up very early one morning to go hot air ballooning over one of the most astonishing places on earth: the ancient city of Bagan. In four gigantic balloons, operated by Englishmen, we gently floated up into the sky as the sun was coming up, gasping at the splendor of temples and pagodas in their thousands revealing themselves below us in the morning mist. First over a community of small bamboo houses, the people in them just waking up, glancing up at us and waving, then north toward the flat, blue, Irrawaddy river, the people’s gardens stretched out along its banks: corn, peanuts, squash, maybe eggplant. Again I thought: how happy would I be to have strangers floating over my house, over my head? My honest answer: Not very. I said to my partner how odd it seemed that the community over which we drifted had not a single pagoda; how worrisome, actually, that this should be so. One would ideally want the ancient ruins to be surrounded by people: children, goats, ox carts, houses, the works. Separated, both the people’s community and the historical monuments seemed deprived of life. This was before I learned the Junta had forcibly removed the people from around their holy sites, to make the ancient city, many of whose shrines were built in the 11th century, more scenic to tourists.
I thought of Mexico and it’s Day of the Dead, a time when attention is deliberately turned on the ancestors; and what they have accomplished is celebrated. I thought of the nights spent in the cemeteries, eating, drinking, praying, making music, being with one’s dead. Showing by one’s remembrance that one lives in perpetual gratitude. I would want this someday for the people of Bagan. That even a Junta so greedy and unfeeling as the one they endure not separate them forever from a major source of their inherited strength. Part of inherited strength is knowing who one is, whether the news is bad or good.
Imagine, Daw Suu Kyi, if you knew nothing of your father’s heroism, your mother’s fortitude.
The inauguration of our new president was glorious. It was also very cold. It would amuse you to hear of some of our trials getting into various balls, changing from warm clothing to ball clothing (I am not a ball gown kin
d of woman) in a tiny bathroom, not being able to find the right door of the building for the Green Ball and thereby missing my chance to introduce a wonderful man and writer, Van Jones, who has written a book called The Green Collar Economy . A book that is of major importance in getting our own failed economy on its feet, and, as I traveled through your country, I thought it might well have relevance to Burma. Your economy as you know is in ruin, as is ours, and has been for an even longer time. People need meaningful work; the country itself needs restoration and restructuring. The soil and water need protection. There isn’t likely to be petroleum to fuel any of this. That leaves sun and wind. Water. The mighty Irrawaddy. When you are free, you will no doubt face this crisis, which Jones demonstrates is, in fact, an opportunity. I would send you a copy of his book if I knew how. We were happy to arrive safely at the Peace Ball, and it was wonderful to see so many faces of the US Peace movement still glowing after all these years. You will know of Joan Baez, who was there, still singing beautifully. Sweet Honey in the Rock, of whom you probably don’t know, a favorite black women’s group of mine, also sang. Harry Belafonte was there and Dick Gregory. I did not see Pete Seeger, the grandfather of the Peace Song, but maybe he was there. It’s possible that none of these names will ring a bell, but these people and dozens more, have carried the flag of peace, through song and story, art, poetry and activism for many, many years. I felt honored to be among them.
Our new president is beloved by many, as you are. We know he is a mere human being, though a singularly courageous and sensible one, and not a magician. The United States is in serious trouble. It is not, however, in more trouble than much of the world has been in for a much longer time. One of the things I like about Obama is that he has lived in many places and he knows this. Which means he also knows the resiliency of humans, their ability to move when they have to, their courage to deal with dangers known and unknown. There are so many things to love about our country, though because of its racist and fascist past it has been hard to see them. Like millions around the world my partner and I watched Obama and his family with much tenderness on that day of his swearing in. It has been a long haul for African-Americans, as for you Burmese. And it is not over, just because an African American is president. In fact, walking by the bay near my own neighborhood in California days after returning from Burma, I encountered my first racist verbal assault on the West Coast. It was so unexpected I had walked on several paces before I truly heard it. In a neighborhood not far from mine a young black man was shot to death by a white policeman while lying face down, helpless, on a public commuter train platform. In Texas, white men with whom he had been drinking dragged another black man to death. Which is to say racist behavior is alive still in the United States. In some ways, because we are of different colors, there is a greater sense, I think, of knowing what we’re working with. I can only imagine the struggle it must be to endure rabid, sadistic, sociopathic abuse by people who are Burmese, just like you, and claim to be Buddhist as well.
Because we had stayed in Washington for the inauguration, we missed our group’s experiences in Rangoon. By the time we arrived in Rangoon, they were already in Mandalay. One of the places my friend Jack had not wanted us to miss was the Shwendagon pagoda, where, in 1988, you announced your political party’s candidacy for leadership of your country. (Later, when your party won the election, you and its leaders were arrested.) However, so much travel, so many time zones, and so much winter chill had left me with no energy to see it, except in the distance. That and Scott’s market were crossed off the list! However, on our return, and just before leaving Burma, we once again had an opportunity to visit this place. And that is where I saw some of what I think you see when you look into the faces of your people. Our people, for I would claim them too. With its sixty tons of gold for a roof, (which I suspect the Junta will try to steal some day) it’s hundreds of Buddhas, its giant tree that guards the inner sanctum of the shrine, the Shwendagon Pagoda is best described as a dream. I did not remotely imagine such a place existed. Could exist. Nor will I attempt to describe it further (and of course you know it well) except to say it was as if all the temples one has read about or visited in all the ancient lands on earth were still fully functioning: people walking, meditating, praying, gazing at the Buddhas, bowing. Some people lying prostrate, their foreheads touching the floor. I will always remember Jack disappearing for a few minutes and then returning with an armful of roses, to offer to the innumerable Buddhas, each with a distinctly different face. You are so right to love your people and your country, Daw Suu Kyi. Both are beautiful and rare and completely worthy of your sacrifice.
And then, returning home, and reading your words: You do not consider what you are doing – holding the light for democracy in Burma at such cost to yourself – a sacrifice. You consider it a choice! You know how, when reading someone, you begin to cherish him or her? That has been happening, as I read you. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Amma, Fidel Castro, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchu, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela among others, you are a tremendous mentor and teacher for this time. I must not leave Che Guevara off the list, because, until the Aung San Suu Kyi tee shirt comes into prominence in Burma, tee shirts with his likeness appear to hold a liberated mental space for Burmese youth. We saw them everywhere. I imagine it will be a matter of time before the Junta recognizes Che’s face as a signal of resistance, and perhaps will jail wearers of these shirts. It was also a delight to us to receive the elation, high fives and smiles, at the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. If we had brought Obama tee shirts they would have been donned immediately. Just as my partner and I immediately donned, on arrival in Mandalay, the Burmese longyi, the wrapped and folded cloth kilt or skirt that Burmese men and women wear. I had a couple of hilarious efforts getting mine to hang right: I thought the opening was in back, not in front. My partner on the other hand wore his with dignity and grace from the very first. Because he is Eurasian he blended in quite well, in Burma, until he began to blow his trumpet one day at the tiny, dusty airport in Bagan, while we were waiting for it to open and our plane to arrive. There is something so American, and black, about the trumpet, especially when one is a lover of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bepop in general and improvisational jazz, as he is. Our musical trio, that included a singer and guitarist, stopped the locals in their tracks. Frowning sometimes in wonder or bewilderment, their enchanted faces made us smile.
For a factual, easy to read, overview of your life I’ve studied Aung San Suu Kyi, Fearless Voice of Burma , by Whitney Stewart. I was glad to have the photographs of you and your brother as children and the handsome photo of your parents at the time of their marriage. They were incredibly good looking. The courage you so gracefully exhibit as you confront the dictatorship is seen in the way your parents sit. The second book I’ve read, going back many times to immerse myself in its spiritual wisdom, is The Voice of H
ope: Aung San Suu Kyi, Leader of Burma’s Struggle For Democracy: Conversations with Alan Clements . I congratulate you on collaborating with Clements, a monk who has lived in Burma, someone deep and confident enough himself, and well versed in Buddhism, to draw from your depths a thoroughness and clarity that makes your conversations flow with political and spiritual nourishment. Every leader on the planet should read this book at least once.
On the radio this morning I heard the voices of Burmese refugees in India calling for your release and that of the thousands of political prisoners in Burma. Recently, as you know, the Junta sentenced peaceful protesters to as many as forty-five years in prison. In response to the urgency in the refugees’ voices, I decided to send this part of your letter now, since it is already quite long. I will send a second part later. There is still so much to “discuss” with you: why, for instance, do you not consider yourself a feminist? (I consider myself a “womanist,” or feminist of color). What must humanity do with the recently acquired information that four percent of the human race is born without a conscience and is therefore incapable of feeling compassion? Do you agree with me that some of these people become the world’s most brutal dictators? What is the remedy for the “hungry ghost” syndrome that is behind the raping of the planet; people who cannot, no matter how much they consume, feel they have enough? What role does the eating of curry play in a country that has at times very little food? This last may seem a frivolous question but I sense it is not, and made sure to be told how to make a good Burmese curry while I was in Rangoon, by a young man who drove us between hotel and airport.
I also hope “Daw” is the appropriate word to use in addressing you. I understand it is something akin to “Madame” or “Lady.” And is a title of respect. I trust this is correct. We are nearly the same age, you are one year younger; it isn’t likely, if we ever met, we’d call each other “Madame” or “Lady” but let’s hope Life gives us the opportunity to see what we would do.
You will win your struggle for democracy and freedom, because you must , and in the process teach the world the useful, highly desirable, political and spiritual truths you have found, and that world leaders, especially, need to know . In the second part of my letter to you, I will focus more closely on your spiritual and political thoughts, which are priceless.
In gratitude and solidarity,
Reading Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning is the most elegant way to bring most English speaking readers up to speed on the ongoing situation in Burma. It is masterful, wise, sometimes outrageously funny, while remaining serious as a heart attack.
©2009 Alice Walker