Speaking during her recent trip to India, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked what she thought of the Burmese military. She was opposed to military rule, and to arbitrary action by men in uniform, but not, she said, against the army itself. How could she be, when the Burmese army was founded by her father, Aung San? She hoped the military would return to the principles laid down by her father. The Burmese army should work for the nation, not against its peoples.
Hearing Suu Kyi speak in praise of her father, I was reminded of a morning I once spent in the waiting room of the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi. This was in January 1989. After more than a decade of army rule in Pakistan, elections had recently been held, and Benazir Bhutto had been chosen prime minister.
I knew I would have to wait an hour or more for my visa interview, so had taken a book along. However, the security staff asked me to leave the book at the gate itself. So, while waiting for my appointment, I made do with the printed materials lying about the room. These were some magazines in Urdu and some pamphlets in English.
Since I do not read Urdu, I picked up the pamphlets. These consisted entirely of speeches by the country’s new prime minister. She had been in power a mere two months, yet had been speaking everywhere. One of the talks, I recall quite clearly, had been delivered to the Rawalpindi Golf Club, that is to say, to an audience composed almost entirely of men in uniform. In every speech Benazir spoke mostly of her father, about his vision of a democratic and strong Pakistan and how she was determined to fulfil it.
Benazir worshipped her father. He had initiated her into politics early, taking her to the Simla Conference when she was merely 17. He encouraged her to campaign (successfully) for the presidentship of the Oxford Union. He wished her to enter politics, to succeed him, although he thought this would not be for some time yet, since, when he was elected prime minister in 1971, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hoped he would be in that job for several decades at a stretch. As it turned out, he was unseated by an army coup in 1977, and hanged in 1979. Ten years later, when his daughter finally came to follow him as prime minister, she lost no time in promoting the cult of her martyred father. It is a testimony to the love she had for him, and to the energy with which she communicated it, that in a mere two months of her taking office, Pakistani embassies were flooded with reams and reams of paper praising Z.A. Bhutto as the greatest Pakistani since M.A. Jinnah.
Among Z.A. Bhutto’s less salutary achievements (which his daughter did not dwell on in her speeches) was his total support for the brutal crackdown by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan in 1970-71. In this conflict, Bhutto and General Yahya Khan stood on one side; Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the other. Ironically, in later years, Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, emerged as a sort of Bangladeshi Benazir Bhutto. Like Benazir, Sheikh Hasina took part in student politics. When her father, mother, and three brothers were murdered in 1975, Sheikh Hasina was on a tour of Germany, otherwise she would have been murdered too.
The men who killed Mujib were (like the men who killed Bhutto) army officers. Fearing for her life, Sheikh Hasina chose to stay on in exile, returning to Bangladesh only in 1981. She then took up the leadership of her father’s Awami League. For 15 years, she and her party were in opposition, while the military (or politicians backed by the military) were in power. In 1996 she was eventually elected prime minister. She served one five-year term, but was defeated in 2001 by the party of her great rival, Begum Khaleda Zia (herself the widow rather than daughter of an assassinated prime minister). In 2008, Sheikh Hasina came back to power. As prime minister, she has sought (like Benazir) to keep the army at bay, and (like Benazir again) to promote a cult of her martyred father.
Benazir and Sheikh Hasina had been the first women to head the governments of their country. Preceding them in this respect was Indira Gandhi of India; and, preceding her, Sirimavo Bandarnaike of Ceylon. In September 1959, Sirimavo’s husband, S. W.R.D. Bandarnaike, then prime minister, was assassinated. After the government collapsed several months later, Bandarnaike’s apolitical widow was brought in to unify the factions of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party. In July 1960, Sirimavo led the party to victory in the general election, and was sworn in as prime minister for the first of three terms in this office.
Sirimavo was emulated, three decades later, by Sonia Gandhi. Had it not been for her husband’s assassination Sonia Gandhi would not have entered politics either. Indeed, her aversion to public life was so intense that it took a full seven years for the Congress to break down her resistance. Of course, once she became Congress president she threw herself into the job with gusto. In spite of not becoming prime minister in 2004, Sonia Gandhi controls the ruling alliance in spirit and in deed. And, even more so than Sheikh Hasina and Benazir, she has used her years in power to promote a cult of her husband and her mother-in-law, who — like Bhutto, Mujib and Bandarnaike before them — had met bloody and premature deaths.
This is indeed a striking and bizarre South Asian phenomenon: the entry into public life, at the highest levels, of women after their husbands or fathers are murdered by terrorists or by army officers. That said, the case of Aung San Suu Kyi stands out from the others, and for several reasons. For one thing, her father was assassinated in July 1947 (by rivals in the army), whereas his daughter entered politics a full 40 years later, when a visit to see her ailing mother coincided with a popular uprising against military rule. For another, her sons have made their lives outside Burma. Even if Suu Kyi were to become prime minister, it is highly unlikely that one of them will return to become a Rahul to her Sonia or a Bilawal to her Benazir.
The third reason why Suu Kyi stands out is that she started at the bottom, not the top. She has spent the bulk of her time in politics in prison or under house arrest. On the other hand, Sirimavo, Benazir, Hasina, Khaleda and Sonia all inherited party organizations that were well-developed, and well-funded — these, in turn, propelling them to power within months or years after their entering politics. It was in the last week of August 1988 that Suu Kyi made her first political speech; twenty-four years later, she is a mere MP in a parliament and government still tightly controlled by the military.
Compared to these other female successors to male martyrs, then, Suu Kyi’s path has been much harder. Her suffering has strengthened her, physically and morally, as have her years in opposition. Unlike Benazir, Hasina et al, she does not have a sense of entitlement. If she ever becomes prime minister, she will do so not because she is Aung San’s daughter, but because, through her own selfless and steady work, she has become the symbol, the rallying-point, the main leader, of a mass struggle for democracy in Burma.