Listening to Aung San Suu Kyi on Desert Island Discs was, for me at least, a surreal experience. It wasn’t the song choices that produced this sense surreality, although I had been expecting more post-punk metallic hardcore and at least one Dr Dre track. Rather it was how Daw Suu Kyi presented herself. The show usually offers revelatory and occasionally touching insights into the guests’ lives and, although it usually just confirms my prejudices, from time to time I come away from listening to the show liking some celebrity a bit more than before. But with Daw Suu Kyi, I’m not sure that I had really learnt any more about her than I already knew. The version of Aung San Suu Kyi that was broadcast was very much ‘The Lady’, serene and aloof. A display of almost unearthly self-possession. If there was a particular aspect of her personality that seemed to be projected most clearly it was her self-control. If there was little of the personal to be gleaned, the political message was clearer: she is her father’s daughter and a pragmatic politician.
To some less familiar with Burmese politics her expressions of fondness and love for the military, her father’s army as she called them, might have come as a surprise. She responded to Kirsty Young’s question about how she felt being in parliament surrounded by former generals responsible for the systematic use of child soldiers and rape in warfare with the old adage that if you love someone, you love everything about them, good and bad. On a more banal, mundane level, she recalled how she had baked her son a tank birthday cake. Combined with her disingenuous claims that it was best for to stay out of the events in Rakhine last year, representing the Rohingya population as equally guilty for the unrest rather than as the overwhelming victims of racist violence that they were, there should have been enough material in the show to puncture her saintly image. The message being sent was that she was not a threat to Burma’s security and unity. She might want a democratic Burma, but she was still a patriot and a good Buddhist. I suppose in Burmese politics downplaying war crimes and ethnic cleansing is all part of claiming the much coveted political ‘middle ground’.
It was the combination of her stoic, philosophical response to undoubted personal sacrifice with her open admission of political pragmatism and ambition that gave the programme its surreal edge. Simultaneously she presented herself as uncompromising in her personal decision to dedicate herself to the democratic cause and yet she was evidently willing to compromise in the political sphere. This is perhaps why she is so palatable a political figure in the West. She appears revolutionary in her zeal, but is reassuringly reformist in her politics. John Lennon’s Imagine, the last song of her selection, chosen by her youngest son, was thus bizarrely appropriate. Despite its pseudo-revolutionary lyrical content decrying nationalism, religion and capitalism, it is endlessly appropriated for any number of inadvertently ironic events (for instance, the London Olympic’s closing ceremony in the centre of a Union Jack) because it sounds uplifting and soothing. Daw Suu Kyi is the opposite. She sounds revolutionary, but the content of her politics is banally liberal and socially conservative.