Myanmar: When Hillary met the Lady
AFTER the rounds of making nice with government ministers at the ghastly new capital of Naypyidaw, Hillary Clinton and her team jetted down to the former capital Yangon (previously Rangoon). Vibrant, ramshackle, crowded and enjoyable, Yangon couldn’t be more different from the austere and lifeless guilded cage that Myanmar’s secretive generals have created for themselves at Naypyidaw. It was also in Yangon that Mrs Clinton was due to meet another woman probably even more famous than herself, Anug Sann Suu Kyi. This doesn’t happen too often to Mrs Clinton, I imagine, so expectations were soaring.
After all, apart from the two particular women concerned, this was also the first visit by such a senior American official for 50 years (the last being John Foster Dulles), and the most high-profile visitor to Ms Suu Kyi in Myanmar since anyone could remember. The two had a private dinner on the evening of December 1st, which afforded nothing more than a brief photo-opportunity. But it was the meeting at Ms Suu Kyi’s own house on the morning of December 2nd that was billed as the highlight of Mrs Clinton’s visit, and the stars and their aides did not disappoint.
Ms Suu Kyi’s compound, set idyllically on the banks of one of Yangon’s more scenic lakes, has become almost as iconic as the Lady herself. This is where she has endured many years of house arrest. It is also provides the images by which much of the outside world remembered her during those years—peering over the high front-gate occasionally to wave and speak to cheering supporters.
The house has a special significance to the Burmese too. It was given to Ms Suu Kyi’s mother by the state in the 1950s for the martyrdom of her husband, Aung San, in the struggle for independence. He and several other independence leaders were gunned down in 1947 in circumstances that have still not been explained. The family of each “martyr” was given a house. Thus Ms Suu Kyi’s home is in itself a valuable symbol of the traumatic birth of a nation, just as she owes a great deal of her fame and support to the fact that she is the independence leader’s daughter.
For Mrs Clinton’s visit, the place had been spruced up a bit. Cyclone Nargis inflicted terrible damage to the compound in 2008, felling about 30 Mango trees in the garden and damaging the roof of the house. Since then the porch, where the Lady and her guest were to pose, has had a fresh lick of paint. Fresh flowers lined the garden footpaths. More vexing recent additions were in evidence too. A new razor-wire fence was erected only two weeks ago on the lake side of the garden, a precaution, I was told, on account of Ms Suu Kyui’s new accessibility and the changing times in Myanmar.