By Daniel Opacki
Several weeks have passed since I’ve read another duplicated criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi and her slipping/cracked/falling/lost/melting/peeling/oxidized/rusting/tarnished/shrinking/low-hanging halo.
The metaphor of her “lost halo” and coming soon no doubt, her quest to reclaim it, may one day be akin to searching out the Holy Grail. We may see a Buddhist version of the movie The DaVinci Code. In a movie Tom Hanks, or Jackie Chan, will run around jailbreaking the mysteries and symbolism on the temples of Bagan in a movie called The Teashop Codes. It could end with The Lady’s halo found in the valley below Golden Rock at a geometrically perfect position on Google Maps inside of a grass basket filled with tomatoes. Who knew?
With nothing better to do, I googled “Aung San Suu Kyi + halo,” and got 65,800 hits. I also queried my unmonetized, unadvertised, quiet website, “Bamboodazed” and discovered a miserly, yet oddly generous, 1,350 hits. Combined, a search for, “Aung San Suu Kyi + Bamboodazed” sputtered an unsurprising pittance of 274 blags. What does it all mean? Not much I suppose, and I could care less.
All I know is that the journalist Bertil Litner, with his expert knowledge from years-long and deeply burrowed insight regarding Burma, didn’t start the trend of the Lady and her halo. Nevertheless, Litner’s 2016 article, One Year On In Myanmar, Is Suu Kyi’s Halo Slipping?, is one of a respectable few articles on Suu Kyi’s halo worth the time to read.
As to Suu Kyi’s mystical headlining halo’s haranguing happenstance, once hailed high, it’s now hanging hitched near to kaput but not yet passé. For goodness sake!
As far as I can tell, it began with The Economist online in 2013 titled, Aung San Suu Kyi, the halo slips. Indeed.
These days too many blame everything wrong with Myanmar on The Lady. Though, I may join the bandwagon begrudgingly and with a clenched-teeth mention of her indivisibly creaky and mythical appendage – the halo.
My belief though, for what it’s worth, is that Aung San Suu Kyi deserves more credit than unstoppable bandwagon blame and fierce criticism. The Lady was not a shooting star. She was under house arrest for years while millions of Myanmar’s people suffered under one of the worlds most brutal and kleptocratic military dictatorships. She could have easily cut and run back to London faster than the British gave up Singapore during World War II. Instead, she’s earned her current position admirably and won the right to help pave the way for her nation’s future. I say let’s not wag her down so fast, and let’s do dispense with the halo nonsense.
The focus on criticizing Suu Kyi portends mere words from her these days can do no more justice than harm. Mistaking her support of Myanmar’s military actions, and Myanmar’s outdated and unprincipled colonial era laws, as capitulation instead of calculation, is short-sighted.
Public skepticism and doubt of politcians are necessary forms of dissent in a Democracy. Surely, Suu Kyi deserves no more or less than any other politician. It was her choice to join the racket. But the West benighted Suu Kyi with a halo long ago, and the international focus on Suu Kyi probably saved her life at one point. But watching the herd of formerly adoring Western supporters peck off her supposed halo is unpleasant.
Possibly, the take down of Suu Kyi’s halo has more to do with western supporters bothered that their expectations amounted to disappointment. But the constant criticism can only drive her to seek unity with some very crafty fellows.
As expected reforms occurred, an opening to build a better future for Myanmar appeared. Today, cranes reach skyward everywhere in and around Yangon. Shopping malls and massive developments have emerged while traffic has increased beyond the capacity of existing infrastructure. It’s all a mess, but it’s a mess that most of Myanmar’s people have accepted with enthusiasm.
People are working while small business owners and entrepreneurship flourish. Private and non-profit education centers, schools, and training options for those unable or unwilling to attend state Universities have increased. Every Myanmar person I’ve asked has said they like the changes, the chaos, the bustle, and even taxi drivers prefer traffic jams over no traffic at all.
Opportunities exist for many as never before in Myanmar. I’ve met former students working as managers in service call centers, operating an online shopping store, and even a former student from the Cultural Impact Studies Club is an Advertising Sales Representative for a major media company. She’s raking in the big Kyats and studying at night. Five or six years ago, that would not have been possible as she was without much money. Her ambition when we met in 2010 was Democracy activism while she learned English and considered an option to work as a Public School Teacher earning a wallet bulging salary of 120,000 Kyats per month.
Oddly, joining in the criticism of Suu Kyi recently was one of Myanmar’s billionaires, who I assume amassed his fortune during the golden days of the Dictatorship. He complained that the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi was failing on the economy. What’s the joke? The plight of billionaires is, what, exactly?
Was Myanmar’s economy so good when the NLD won the government that they shot the golden duck? Some may think fine of billionaires not doing as well as they were when millions of people huddled in squalor by roadsides, near overgrown shrubbery, or on any vacant spot of ground near a wall or inside a dark alley. Not long ago, when electricity was doled out for two or three hour stretches between midnight and four in the morning, it must have been billionaire heaven and, ahhh, the good ol’ days.
One government official recently said Myanmar gladly sought trade opportunities through exports. He added Myanmar was not interested with increased imports in many sectors. The reason has to be that imports of products and services will compete with the well established inbred monopolist cronies on top of the totem pole.
A stroll inside of any mall reveals a repeat of mostly the same retailers keeping money flowing uphill to the usual benefactors. I’ve checked out some brand name stores seen in the United States, just to inspect the products within. First off I saw some serious quality limitations with the products. The word “knockoff” came to mind in a matter of seconds. I may be wrong, but the difference in quality is obvious.
Even the world’s well-known money mover, Western Union, is almost impossible for foreigners to use in Myanmar, unlike in most countries. I attempted to send a few hundred dollars to a Myanmar friend in emergency need while on holiday in the United States. Following three days of searching for a single Western Union location in a bank that would help me, I was allowed to send the money out of the Myanmar. However, that happened only because the money was going to a Myanmar national. The recipient was made to submit a passport copy, disclose three names and phone numbers of relatives, and furnish a note from a current employer. THEN, I was allowed to send money out of Myanmar. Get the picture? I suppose I could blame Suu Kyi’s cracking halo. Or maybe I’ll send her some Gorilla glue so she can fix that Western Union oddity.
The real issue Western media and civil society have with Suu Kyi’s halo is not about the economy. It’s that she will not amplify the atrocities in Rakhine State. Her muted reaction to the military persecution of the Rohingya is understandably troubling to many people. However, at times, not taking a stand publicly is an option if it will avert renewed and newer conflicts.
Pragmatically, Suu Kyi knows unbalanced speech or generating a perception of bias, if only to appease western proclivities or activists, will create further division in Myanmar society. Truly, that is opposite of what is needed. I know former Rakhine, Rohingya, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi, and Christian students who whose views differ on many issues. But international and social media driven propaganda campaigns, and the West’s constant intent to force use of unsettling verbiage can cause wider divisions without offering ideal solutions.
Last year in a restaurant in Sitwe I was listened to a self-titled expert on the Rohingya issue. His purposefully loud voice in the cavernous hall, and his vulgar comments and gross insults directed at The Lady made me wonder if he was trying to provoke fisticuffs with locals. He was a fool. He even suggested some unpardonable acts, and his Myanmar fixer sat nodding all the while as he shuffled beer bottles around the table without saying a word.
I’ve since learned the “expert” has a self-engorged bias on the issue and for me to call his work “journalism” is a stretch I’m unable to make. Now, I’m not a journalist, nor an expert on the situation in Rakhine State, but I know Western journalists whose misguided ethics that lead them to propagandize a volatile issue in exchange for some notoriety, “likes” or a few bucks, is unconscionable.
As was inevitable, Aung San Suu Kyi has seemingly disappointed so many now that she’s proven to be a staunch pragmatist with her mind set on democratizing Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has made that crystal clear to anyone listening to all of her words rather than listening only for what they wished to hear. She is working to solve the issues, and according to precedent, she will not be pushed by the opinion of force or by adverse international judgment.
If one knows anything at all about Myanmar, one knows to have patience in all matters. If the Generals couldn’t move her away from her home on University Avenue, critics will not influence how she manages Myanmar’s long, slow, troubling move from the hell of a heartless Dictatorship to what may (or may not) become what is called Democracy.
I had the privilege to meet Aung San Suu Kyi half a dozen times or so between November 2010 and some time in 2012. There were more invitations I turned down. Although we briefly spoke I was at first tongue-tied when I had the chance to gush on about my admiration for her courage and bravery, and so on and so forth. Instead, on such occasions, I deflected my precious time with her onto her students, her peers in the Democracy Movement, the NLD, and other supporters who were ex-political prisoners in the room.
One day I also realized, what the hell could I say to her that hasn’t already been said by some guy from the birth city of Abbie Hoffman besides, “Stop the War.”
I might have added, “It’s wicked hot out, eh?” Or, “How about the Sox this year?”
I also lacked a need to begin a profound conversation with a woman whom I barely knew. Once though, in June 2011, I felt like I was in the scene in Oliver Stone’s movie, The Doors, when Andy Warhol handed a gold phone to Jim Morrison and told him, “Here, it’s God. But I don’t have anything to say.”
When we met that time, we smiled as we shook hands. We both enjoyed the excitement of my students who wisely used their opportunity to speak with their hero and beloved leader. Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the worlds most revered people, happens to be as down to earth and as cool a person I’ve met.
During that June 2011 meeting, there was a critical message Suu Kyi shared with my students. The last thing she wanted was for student’s and protesters to get shot down in the streets, yet again. Suu Kyi said there must be more than just opposition. She relayed that a cooperative transition to move Burma forward would take many years. However, she said, (paraphrasing) the only chance for Democracy to take root was to work under the laws in place and to seize opportunities to improve them when they arise. Observing the Rule of Law, like it or not, was the most promising way forward no matter how unpopular a tactic it might be. That was a halo moment.
Suu Kyi told the young students that her actions would reflect what she believed would be best for changing Myanmar. She spoke about how waves of uncertainty and criticism would swarm over her with rising voices of impatience. Suu Kyi also said she would not cater to what the people of the world wished for unless it was helpful to Myanmar. She explained insightful, well thought, provocative – and long considered ideas that she had plenty of time to examine.
That day she spoke to my students not as a de-facto President, or a world leader accepting a Nobel Prize, but as an isolated leader and formerly released political prisoner of Burma’s Democracy movement. She still carried a rather tired and unhealthy appearance. It was the same as I’ve seen on many of the newly released prisoners I met and interviewed during those years. Her words, sincere, faithful, and from her heart and mind, were absorbed by her supporters. Her predictions have come to pass the test of time. I believe she has not wavered one bit since then, even though, understandably, many think she has failed. Suu Kyi has made mistakes. All politicians do. But failed? Not at all.
The final time we spoke, brief as it was, she walked over to me and said with a grin, “No doubt, we’ll meet again.” I smiled and agreed. It was a pleasant moment. The joy she got from her young admirers was evident – their hope, excitement, and fresh ideas energized her. They represented Burma’s first digital generation. Their questions and comments represented the new challenges and possibilities for Burma. I remained quiet and watched and listened as plans were made to seek peace, reason, and harmony between all generations of activists. The long struggle to overcome the Dictatorship was then, and is today, very much in play. In the room were students from all faiths, ethnicities, and class. They represented all of Myanmar.
When I first met Suu Kyi, I watched her emerge from a cloud-like white chariot that resembled a 1980’s Toyota Camry with some rust spots. I was awestruck with the immaculate vision. Though, I failed to notice her halo. She was wearing a longyi, with bright yellow flowers in her hair, and as she walked, she did seem to hover as if in a mesmerizing Spike Lee Joint movie scene. She was smiling and happy. Fondly looking back on that day, I think maybe she kept her halo inside her purse while in the company of friends. If there was a halo, I missed its glow.
The period preceding 2012 was one of labyrinthine uncertainty, and according to Suu Kyi, she had not even received an invitation to visit the heralded U.S. Embassy American Center School, which at the time was the epicenter for student driven political activism. I did ask her to speak at a proposed Leadership Symposia in 2011. However, the immediate period before Ambassador Derek Mitchell arrived, the U.S. Embassy Assistant Public Affairs Officer charged with managing the American Center, along with the Director of the American Center, squelched any such worthwhile undertaking. Their fear of making a mistake outweighed a quest for triumph in support of Democracy in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi might have spoiled their careers. Go figure.
One day at one of the private events where The Lady appeared, the French Ambassador noticed me as the only other foreigner in the room. His assistant asked me to greet him, and the handsome French Ambassador gladly introduced himself. We met, shook hands, and followed it up with a chat. The Ambassador wore an elegant suit, and I was in faded jeans, a sweated button shirt, greasy hair, and sandals. His curiosity about me gained him the insight that my students in the Cultural Impact Studies Club were some of the event organizers.
When Aung San Suu Kyi finally appeared, the crowd buzzed with excitement and the ex-political prisoners in the room, which was just about everyone, cheered. Even the famous Myanmar comedian Zarganar was there at the Ashoka Monastery with his shiny bald head, thick glasses, and winning smile, taking it all in. I’ll be damned if, during all of the excitement, I missed observing her halo yet again.
I suppose, in the presence of deities, a heroic General’s daughter no less, one should always notice the accouterments of her assumed pretentious holiness. Anyway, Aung San Suu Kyi is, well, a very polite and unpretentious lady. I just never saw the halo.
Alas, I am a distinct failure when it comes to putting people on a pedestal, or with joining bandwagons. I’m rebellious that way. I didn’t even watch the movies The Titanic or Pearl Harbor until at least three years following their release.
Finally though, while rummaging through Google hits on Suu Kyi’s halo, it became to me so glaringly obvious that I must be the one missing the point. I have to admit, after all, due to a hive-like collection of hundreds of bright yellow Chinese buses parked at the mall on Pyay Road in Yangon, where the scene of Shwe Dagon Pagoda once was. I can no longer see my favorite view of Shwe Dagon. I must attribute that fact to Aung San Suu Kyi’s slipping halo.
I happen to know that Yangon bus riders are not looking forward to sitting on comfortable bus seats in an orderly fashion without sweating and suffocating from lack of air conditioning. They don’t want to ride buses packed without tired and sweaty human bodies whose exposed wet armpits emit stink into the air as the arms attached to the pits dangle from broken plastic holsters on high. They don’t want to ride buses free from exhaust fumes, or humidity and rain. They obviously love their dampened warm bodies smashed together during monsoon season, and to get jostled about on the unsteady old buses as if they were a bag of prawns getting dumped into a hot oiled wok. Nope, Yangon bus riders, I am sure, are not looking forward to riding on new buses, nor do they desire any change in comfort levels with public transportation. Someone ought to take charge of those casino-chip buses and get them on the road or send them back to China.
These days when I see my taxi driver or my Myanmar friends inside my cab pray with cupped hands as we glide by Shwe Dagon, I wonder if they are praying as usual. Or, I wonder if they’re adding an extra prayer for those buses to hit the road so that they can see Shwe Dagon.
Surely there are worse things I can use to shame and blame you, Aunty. After all, you are a politician, and politicians take heat for many reasons. I worry not about you though. If there is one thing I learned about you is that you are one tough cookie. And please don’t mind my Americanism. If there’s one thing a pre-millennial American understands, it’s the phrase he or she, “Is a tough cookie.” It may not be politically correct in the modern world, but then, neither am I. To those who don’t get it, I don’t mean literally an old cookie like those found expired in boxes on the shelves at City Mart.
But Aunty, if you do have a halo, you must also walk on water. And if you can walk on water, would you mind to please walk on over to Pyay Road during this very wet season and move those buses away from the single greatest sight in any city in all of South East Asia? You can wave your magic wand, or give a swoosh of your magical hand, stomp your left foot three times and open up the view for all to see. No doubt when doing so, your tough cookie will glow!