Review of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi and Why the Dalai Lama Matters

Hozan Alan Senauke
1 November 2008

Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience
By Justin Wintle
Skyhorse Publishing, 2007; 464 pp., $27.95

Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World
By Robert Thurman
Atria Books, 2008; 232 pp., $24

Two Asian liberation movements captured the world’s all-too-brief attention over the last year. In September and October of 2007, the monks of Burma responded to decades of oppression, and a precipitous rise in government-controlled commodity prices, by leading the first nonviolent mass movement against the ruling junta since the violent suppression of a similar movement in 1988. The monks’ main message was metta—loving-kindness—but within days the Burmese military and its civilian partners struck back fiercely. Thousands were beaten and imprisoned, hundreds probably killed, and monasteries emptied and shuttered. And so it remains today.

In Tibet, public demonstrations began on March 10 of this year, the forty-ninth anniversary of the 1959 revolt against Chinese occupation. Mostly (but not entirely) nonviolent protests quickly spread across the country, with monks, nuns, and activists leading demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners, the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and an end to China’s systematic destruction of Tibetan culture and society. As in Burma, Tibetan demonstrators were put down with guns and clubs. Chinese security forces killed and wounded hundreds of Tibetans and closed many of the country’s main monasteries.

Then Burma made the headlines again in May. Cyclone Nargis cut through the Irrawaddy Delta, killing at least 138,000 people and leaving another two million in desperate need of food and shelter. With its xenophobia and customary unconcern for its own people, Burma’s generals held the world’s best intentions at arm’s length and allowed tens of thousands to perish needlessly.

Two compelling figures represent these nations’ liberation movements. While conventional, self-serving political leaders trade in blandishments and threats, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet advocate political change rooted in nonviolence, dialogue, and a deep faith in principles of morality that are both Buddhist and universal. The world clearly recognizes their gifts: the Dalai Lama was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989; Aung San Suu Kyi received the Peace Prize in 1991. Yet each in their own way suffers an exile that cuts them off from the daily life of their people.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s patriotic hero, Gen. Aung San (1915-47), returned to Burma from England in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. But she quickly found her voice as the leader of Burma’s democracy movement. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won 80% of the seats in Burma’s 1990 general election, but the junta simply refused to recognize the result. Aung San Suu Kyi has lived under house arrest in Rangoon, largely incommunicado, for much of the last twenty years.

The Dalai Lama’s exile began after Chinese troops suppressed the 1959 Tibetan uprising. The Dalai Lama escaped to India, where he established the Tibetan government-in-exile, and he has not been allowed to set foot in his own country for nearly fifty years.

Two new books, quite different from each other, highlight the vision, principles, and practical policies of these two Asian exemplars. Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience is an extensive biography of “the Lady,” meticulously researched and compellingly written by the English journalist and author Justin Wintle. Why the Dalai Lama Matters is a meditation on the prospective future of Tibet and China by the widely known Buddhist scholar and Tibetan activist Robert Thurman. Thurman’s loose-limbed book emerges from his close friendship and work with the Dalai Lama, making a strong case for what this “simple Tibetan monk” means to the future of Tibet and China. Thurman argues further that successful reconciliation between Tibet and China would directly enhance the world’s capability of resolving conflict without war. One question smolders at the heart of both these works: How will nonviolent social change come to Burma and Tibet?

Nonviolence unites the policies of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Dalai Lama’s unshakeable commitment to nonviolence flows directly from the depths of his Buddhist understanding. In an October 2001 speech to the European Parliament, he said:

The promotion of a culture of dialogue and nonviolence for the future of mankind is a compelling task of the international community. It is not enough for governments to endorse the principle of nonviolence without any appropriate action to support and promote it. If nonviolence is to prevail, nonviolent movements must be made effective and successful.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi advances a kind of nonviolence that actively turns toward conflict, meeting it without violence or retaliation. Before her extended house arrest, she echoed the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a 1989 speech at Rangoon’s Sule pagoda:

What I mean by defying authority is the non-acceptance of unlawful orders meant to suppress the people. There’s nothing violent about it. It’s no more violent than is necessary in banging the keys of a typewriter.

Nonviolence is both spiritual practice and political strategy. As a matter of spirituality, it simultaneously creates and depends on transformation, as does Buddhist practice itself. Gandhi wrote: “Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.” The Dalai Lama embraces Gandhi’s vision of personal transformation and broadens it to include the heart of a renewed Tibet. Thurman quotes a 1994 speech:

Tibet shall stand for the benefit and well-being not only of itself but also of its neighboring countries and the whole world. Based on the principles of nonviolence, it shall be a free, social welfare-oriented, federal, democratic polity, based on principles of the Dharma. It shall ensure full protection of the environment and form a zone of peace.

People around the world honor both these leaders for the strength of their principles and courage, and as exemplars of nonviolence in the modern world. On the other hand, their strict adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence in Tibet and Burma faces strong challenges as a political strategy. Will nonviolence “work”? Will it have sufficient power to unlock the political stalemate in these suffering countries? The Burmese junta and the Chinese government have carefully blocked serious efforts at dialogue with democracy advocates in their respective nations. From time to time these governments arrange for meetings with the Dalai Lama’s representatives or send a low-level general to talk with Aung San Suu Kyi, but this is simply window-dressing for the outside world’s benefit. Nothing of substance has come from such empty dialogue. Aung San Suu Kyi continues to live as a hostage in her mother’s crumbing home in Rangoon, and His Holiness is still in exile in Dharamsala.

Meanwhile, inside Tibet and in all regions of Burma, masses of people suffer; they grow angry, restive, and frustrated with nonviolent approaches. Armed insurgents from Karen, Kachin, Shan, and Karenni groups have been fighting with Burma’s military for five decades. Sporadic violence against Han Chinese during Tibetan demonstrations last March suggests that, despite boundless love and reverence for the Dalai Lama, there are some who are impatient with a nonviolent response to China’s harsh oppression and tacit policies of ethnic replacement. Yet armed uprising, guerrilla war, or acts of terrorism in Burma or Tibet would be a disaster. It would invite a violent repression beyond anything we have seen so far.

It is clear from Wintle’s and Thurman’s books, and from the unfolding story of Burma and Tibet, that despite controversy Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have fully earned their people’s reverence. Yet they remain actually or functionally in exile. Focusing single-mindedly on these two leaders emphasizes the “great man” (or “great woman”) vision of history, which is not how social change actually happens. If nonviolent change is going to come in these countries, I think we have to look to the monks and nuns. (It is worth noting that although monks vastly outnumber nuns, in both countries nuns have demonstrated great heroism and deep understanding of the dharma.)

In Burma and Tibet, monastics represent the most enduring and intact base of cultural and religious stability. They are numerous—400,000 in Burma, and at least 50,000 in Tibet. Although they reside in temples and monasteries, monks and nuns live in intimate connection with their communities, often dependent on them for food and support. Living in accord with the Buddha’s precepts, they strive to embody the Buddha’s prime directive—non-harming—consonant with the views of the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. Monastic practice is a highly disciplined life. It is also a tradition that has deep roots of open discussion and decision-making. Despite the widespread political repression in Tibet and Burma, monks and nuns have created religious orders that express the intertwined reality of spiritual and social liberation, and the moral authority of monastic orders suggests they are uniquely placed to oppose oppression and to renew society. This is a rare opportunity. Clearly His Holiness and Aung San Suu Kyi are both devoted to the Buddhist monastic community and aware of its potential. The devotion is mutual.

On September 20, 2007, as demonstrations roiled in Burma, a large delegation of monks was allowed to approach Suu Kyi’s house on Rangoon’s University Avenue. She came to the gate to receive their blessings. Wintle writes: “…the ‘widow of Rangoon’ emerged from her crumbing colonial villa, advanced toward the monks, some say with tears streaming down her face, and joined them in prayers for the betterment of Burma, with an emphasis on metta—loving-kindness.”

Thurman and Wintle offer necessary glimpses of these heroic figures and icons of nonviolent politics. We need to know about the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi—what they think, how they act—because we share a planet with them. Their fates are intertwined with ours. But it is important to honor, as well, hidden heroes in the streets and prisons, born and to be born, who sooner or later will liberate Burma and Tibet. Remember them. Through their efforts and sacrifice we may yet see Aung San Suu Kyi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama walking with joy and sorrow in their native land.

If you would like to know more about the philosophy, practice, and history of nonviolent social action, I suggest these four books:

• Gandhi on Non-Violence, edited and with an introduction by Thomas Merton
• The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, by Jonathan Schell
• A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall
• Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th-Century Practice and 21st-Century Potential, by Gene Sharp

Hozan Alan Senauke

Hozan Alan Senauke

Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center in California, where he lives with his family. As a socially engaged Buddhist activist, Alan has worked closely with Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists since 1991. In 2007 he founded Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change in Asia and the United States.