The freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi has reminded me – and others – of the power of the human voice, and in particular of the resonant and compelling quality of her impeccable spoken English. During the first period of house arrest (1989-95), reporters with cameras and videotape were able to interview her in person, and telephone interviews with the media outside Burma have also been published. She also sent out statements, including the keynote address to the NGO Forum at the U.N. International Women’s Conference in Beijing in August 1995. However, although free at the time, she chose not to collect her Nobel Peace Prize in person in 1991, and instead she was represented by her husband and two sons, Kim and Alexander. Alexander Aris gave the acceptance speech on her behalf.
Since 1999 there have been two further periods of house arrest and during these long years her supporters in Burma and the rest of the world have only heard her speak very occasionally. Burma’s authoritarian rulers are all too aware of the power of her voice. As John Simpson writes, in an article that appeared on the Telegraph website today describes the lengths to which the BBC team went to protect the tapes:
When we interviewed Dr Suu Kyi last Monday, our main concern was obviously to hold onto our tapes. The four of us – two cameramen, a producer and me – divided into two groups. We left her headquarters at the same time; two headed left while the others turned right. One of the cameramen and I jumped into a taxi and headed off, an orange moped close behind. At a big intersection we paid, jumped out, ran through the traffic, and jumped into another cab in the street at right angles to the avenue. As we crossed the avenue I spotted the orange mopedist at the lights, completely wrong-footed.
Our other team, who were carrying the main interview tape, had a harder time. Several policemen were following them, so they split up. The cameraman, who kept the tape, texted us to say he was having problems getting rid of his tail. At one stage he made his taxi-driver, who was extremely nervous, drive round a roundabout three times. Finally they stopped at a market and the cameraman vanished through it and out on the other side in a different street.
After her release on 12 November, Aung San Suu Kyi said that one of the objects that had most impressed her was the mobile phone. Indeed, mobile and internet technology have revolutionised the world since she was last freed.
What struck me, again, was the beautiful diction of her English. That, too, seemed to date from a time before Blair, before internet, and before regional accents overtook our spoken world. Aung San Suu Kyi was married to Michael Aris whom she met while she was at Oxford University (1964-67); later she lived with her husband in London and Oxford about fifteen years. That explains the beautiful English: hers is a voice that is cultured, polished, and easy on the ear (without any of the nasal qualities of more recent British politicians). This is the interview she gave to John Simpson last week in which she shows her extraordinary inner strength and her quiet but resolute conviction.
As a former student at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), where she studied for an MPhil in Burmese Literature in 1988, there is an excellent page of information, interviews and articles on their website.