Interview with Justin Wintle

This post is part of New Mandala‘s series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies.  These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.  Justin Wintle is the author of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, and a widely published writer on a range of other topics. 

Nicholas Farrelly: Justin, thanks for agreeing to take part in New Mandala‘s interview series.  We have now undertaken a dozen or so interviews with prominent writers and academics who shape debates in Southeast Asian studies.  Can you tell us something about your background, and how you came to write about Burma?

Justin Wintle: I am flattered to be included in the New Mandala interview series. My formal background is not so entertaining. Safe and privileged — an English public school (Stowe) and Oxford University (Magdalen College).  Since then I have made out (on a good day) as a freelance author, journalist and editor. My father had haemophilia, which restricted his movements. ‘You must do my travelling for me,’ he told me when I was still in my teens. While it would be an exaggeration to say that I have been on a mission ever since, I like to think that I have fulfilled his wishes, at least in that regard. Perhaps just because there was so much security in my childhood, an unrequited boyish thirst for adventure built up. At Oxford I had a Japanese-Hawaiian girlfriend who awakened what became an enduring interest in the Far East, though my first trip out there did not occur until 1978. Before then I had to make do with Italy, and the oriental charms of Venice. But as I came to know the peoples of S.E.Asia, so I began concerning myself with their politics. Inevitable really, given that at university I read history. And perhaps it was also inevitable that sooner or later my attention would turn to Burma, though in the event that was on the rebound of a somewhat fruitless trip to Laos. In the early 1990s I published Romancing Vietnam, a travel adventure that is still in print. I thought I could repeat its success in another of Indochina’s communist countries, but when I got there Vientiane was little more than a UNDP theme park. Good for the denizens of Vientiane, but less good for an investigative author. So instead I went back to Thailand and started visiting the refugee camps along the Burmese border.

Nicholas Farrelly: And what about your informal background?

Justin Wintle: The informal background consists of friendships. I have been undeservedly fortunate in the number, variety and quality of the friends I have had — individuals from all walks who have continued my education, and added to the richness of being alive. In the past, the historic past, we attached more importance to friendships than we do now, no doubt because of the stresses of today’s globally competitive society and working environments. One of the advantages of working for oneself is that it’s easier to uphold that invaluable tradition.

Nicholas Farrelly: Over the course of your career you have taken on an eclectic range of projects.  Everything from New Makers of Modern Culture and Furious Interiors: R.S. Thomas, Wales and God to The Rough Guide History of Islam and The Vietnam Wars has been the subject of your attention.  What has been the most satisfying?  Are you moving closer towards your ideal topic?

Justin Wintle: You are not the first to comment on the eclecticism of my output. There are two aspects to this: the need to keep oneself gainfully employed, and a compulsion to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. When it works the two things dovetail. Again I’ve been fortunate, though it’s not a very sound authorial strategy. The way to get rich writing books is to write the same book again and again and build up a loyal readership. Very often I’ve had to seek out a new readership for a new project.  But job satisfaction is always a primary consideration, otherwise I would have become an accountant or estate agent or bond dealer. If I had to single out one title, then it would be Romancing Vietnam. I was a young man when I wrote it. I spent three months journeying what was then (1989) still very much a closed country with an entourage of official minders who enabled me to meet the likes of Vo Nguyen Giap and Le Duc Tho. But it was the ordinary Vietnamese who won me over, my charming minders included, and nothing I have done since has given me such a sustained ‘high’. The ideal topic of course would be perpetual youth, experientially validated.

Nicholas Farrelly: Turning to your experience of writing about Burma – at the start of Perfect Hostage you clarify that ‘just how unwholesome Burma is only became apparent to me when, in 1998, I began visiting the refugee camps in Thailand.’  The ‘unwholesome’ side of life in Burma can, of course, come as a shock.  Was that your key motivation for writing the book?  What compelled you to keep going as you built up material for this very full length biography?

Justin Wintle: Yes. The sheer scale and persistence of the inhumanities perpetrated in Burma presented the challenge. As a secularist historian I believe there is a sublunary explanation for pretty well everything, so I wanted to know how such cruelties came about. I don’t believe in evil per se, but I know darned well how evil can spring into being given half a chance. We overlook the animal within us at our peril. Initially I wanted to write an account of the sufferings of the Burmese minority peoples especially, as well as the contribution to Burma’s woes made by their insurgent armies, but my then agent suggested that a substantial biography of Aung San Suu Kyi would have more impact. There was nothing heroic about its completion. Random House gave me a contract, I did the research, and the book got written.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a review published by the online news source Mizzima, Lemyao Shimray notes that your book ‘is more to do with Suu Kyi’s country rather than her personal life and more detailed narration of her father’s life than hers. But with great details of her father’s story, and, vitally, the story of the Burmese people at large, Wintle lays bare the ambiguities which nourish a tragedy that is national as well as personal.’  This is, in many ways, an interesting approach to any biography.  Was it an easy approach to take?  What other ways of telling Suu Kyi’s story did you consider before settling on the published narrative?

Justin Wintle: I never really considered any other approach. An intimate or authorised biography was out of the question for the most obvious of reasons. More than usually happens I stuck to the synopsis I gave the pubisher at the outset, though of course my take changed in detail as I learned more about Burma and Suu Kyi herself. As I said, I’m a historian, which means understanding the present by revealing the past. Suu Kyi’s remarkable story is not properly tellable without knowing what went before. One would have to say that her significance is precisely as a public figure in the Burmese context. She’s hardly an international socialite famous for destroying cocktail parties with a cut-glass dagger, the way (for instance) Dewi Sukarno is. We have, however, changed the book’s subtitle for the new, updated Arrow paperback edition, from ‘A Life of Aung Suu Kyi’ to ‘Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals’, which is a fairer summary of its contents.

Nicholas Farrelly: Like Aung San Suu Kyi, you attended Oxford in the 1960s.  In fact, I am led to believe that you even overlapped at Oxford but that you didn’t know each other. Writing of the turbulent early period of that decade in Perfect Hostage you note, ‘Oxford might be known as the home of lost causes, but, like other universities, its political temperature was rising, spurred on by the polemics of the avowedly Marxist historian Christopher Hill.’  Your book spends a fair amount of time teasing out the intricacies of Suu Kyi’s life as an undergraduate at Oxford, and later as a housewife, employee and doctoral student in the UK.  As somebody who shared her experience of Oxford in the 1960s, how influential do you feel Aung San Suu Kyi’s years as an undergraduate were?            

Justin Wintle: My Oxford experience was quite different from Suu Kyi’s, even though, as you say, we overlapped. I liked the party scene, consumed a fair amount of alcohol and enjoyed the odd stick of marijuana. She didn’t go in for any of those things, though she did learn how to punt. Neither of us was overly involved on the political front. Christopher Hill’s methodology as a historian was by any measure suspect, so I didn’t pay much attention to his ex cathedra pronouncements. By her own admission Suu Kyi would have preferred to read literature, not PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), but as ever duty toward her country prevailed (prompted no doubt by her somewhat formidable mother, Daw Khin Kyi).  But I am sure Oxford – whether as a university, or as the city where she lived so long — was a big influence on Suu Kyi, partly because of what she learned in the lecture halls, but also because of several enduring friendships she formed there. With Ann Pasternak Slater, for instance, or Sir Robin Christopher, or Shankar Acharya, or Malevika Karlekar — all of whom offered strong support when, later, she encountered so many difficulties back home in Burma. And then there was her marriage to Michael Aris, who became an Oxford don.

Nicholas Farrelly: You dwell at some length on the class of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Oxford degree.  This is a point that at least one reviewer has criticised you for.  You tell readers that ‘Exactly how or why she did so poorly in her degree examination is a matter of more than academic curiosity.’  Given the high regard with which St. Hugh’s College holds its most famous graduate why do you feel this is an issue worthy of attention?  Do you have an as yet unspoken theory for her relatively lacklustre academic performance?

Justin Wintle: J.R.R. Tolkein got a fourth at Oxford. R.S.Thomas got a 2.2. at Bangor. And so on. You don’t have to shine at college to shine after college. That’s the basic point — to encourage young people who may be (let us say) late developers. It’s also a question of telling the truth, not fudging it. Sure, Suu Kyi is St Hugh’s most prized alumna. But she only became that once she received the Nobel Peace Prize. As for her poor degree performance, I subscribe to no particular ‘theory’. Maybe she wasn’t yet really up to it. Or maybe it was just her time of month. I remember well some Oxford undergraduettes putting themselves on the pill a couple of months before the exams just to make sure they weren’t caught out that way. Managing the female calendar, it was called. But Suu Kyi would never have done that.

Nicholas Farrelly: The discussion in Perfect Hostage of some of the major figures in “Burma studies” is particularly interesting.  Professors Robert H. Taylor and Michael Aung-Thwin, both of whom have been interviewed by New Mandala, have taken you to task.  In response to Taylor’s critical jabs at your book you have argued: ‘But when it comes to being “badly flawed”, I do seriously wonder whether Taylor arrives at that view of my book because I am not inclined to repeat parrot-fashion allegations made against Aung  San Suu Kyi in the Burmese state media.’  And then, on Aung-Thwin’s assertion that you had never contacted him, you replied that ‘what he has said about me to New Mandala is one hundred per cent disingenuous.’  Both Taylor and Aung-Thwin are widely regarded as controversial figures in the broad church of Burma studies.  And both play small cameos in Perfect Hostage.  Are there other people in the field who have also reacted strongly to the contents of your book?  Do you have any idea about how Suu Kyi herself has received news of Perfect Hostage?

Justin Wintle: Bob Taylor and Michael Aung-Thwin may think they have taken me to task, but in fact they haven’t.  Taylor called my book ‘badly flawed’, but didn’t explain why he said that. Unforgiveable, really. Normally I don’t respond to reviewers and critics — that’s the convention –  but I made an exception in Taylor’s case because I felt he was using his position to punch below the belt. But that’s water under the bridge now, and as I said to New Mandala previously, he’s a companionable enough bloke. There have been other ‘strong reactions’ — more often positive than negative — but usually these have been argued. As for Suu Kyi, she most certainly knows about my book, since it’s been discussed on BBC Burma Service, which she listens to. We’ve tried to smuggle a copy to her, but I have no idea whether it got through. I fear she might not like it much, as I question her political skills (as opposed to her exemplary moral fortitude). Also, being a good Buddhist, she’s agin anything remotely resembling a personality cult.  But she would know and appreciate better than most that if you set yourself up as a leader, or permit yourself to be shoe-horned into that role, then commentaries all sorts will follow, not just mindless hagiographies. What we share is a total commitment to freedom of expression, as a means of political and social accountability. Without such licence, no other human right can be secure.

Nicholas Farrelly: On New Mandala in 2007 you also argued that ‘the field of Burmese studies and commentary is (to put it mildly) notoriously fractious. No two individuals will be found who agree on all points, just as no two individuals will disagree about everything. Too often, however, the upshot of disagreement, healthy in itself, becomes venomous in the extreme.’  Why do you think this is the case?  As something of an outsider to academic ‘Burma studies,’ how do you think the field can be improved?

Justin Wintle: Generally yes, the world of Burmese studies and Burmese commentary can be venomous — though it’s hardly unique in that respect. People become territorial about their specialist areas of interest. And it’s not just academe, it’s the activists and political refugees as well, even some journalists. I recall how, in March last year, I participated in a seminar in Bangkok, attended by, amongst others, a soi-disant Burma-hand. The guy glared at me from the moment go. Even though he had yet to read a word of what I had written I knew instantly that at least one unfavourable review would eventuate. Sure enough, a rancorous notice appeared in The Irrawaddy — having beforehand been spiked by at least one London broadsheet.  In sharp contrast, at the same symposium I struck up an immediate and lasting friendship with Larry Jagan, the most active and prolific of current Burma-watchers. More generally, where acrimony exists I think it has much to do with the failure of the Burmese democracy movement to make significant headway. It’s when things go wrong, or don’t pan out, that people bicker among themselves. What struck me during the period of my research was the marked divergence between academics and activists.  By 2005, if not before, academics were asking searching questions about the efficacy of sanctions and so forth — at least in the dozen or so seminars I attended, at SOAS and elsewhere. Not so most activists, prepared to stick to the sanctions line come hell or high water. And — at least with regard to the British political establishment — it’s the activists who still carry the day. Sanctions are a way of being seen to do something, of satiating righteous anger, even if they achieve nothing, or are counter-productive. All of which is simply to say that under adverse circumstances particularly, academics and activists have sharply differentiated agendas. It might help if there were more (and I know there are some) opportunities for the two groups to interface. I would also urge academics and activists alike to spend more time looking at the whole East Asian region and its history — Burma’s real context.

Nicholas Farrelly: And on the topic of academia, at one point in Perfect Hostage you provide an unusual counterfactual.  You write: ‘One can see it now.  The kids grown up, her doctoral thesis completed and accepted, Aung San Suu Kyi’ slowly becoming not just an authority, but the authority on all matters Burmese, perhaps at Oxford, perhaps at SOAS, perhaps at some other university, side-by-side with Dr Aris the prince of Tibetologists.’  Do you think that this is what Suu Kyi would have wanted?  As her biographer, do you think that such an academic life would have satisfied her?

Justin Wintle: I like ‘counterfactual’, though I call it ‘asking what if?’ Asking ‘what if?’ is one way of adding depth, the way draughtsmen add perspective lines to their drawings.  Eventually an academic life, especially an Oxford academic life, might have satisfied Suu Kyi. She was beginning to make good progress in that direction when she returned to Rangoon, in 1988. Perhaps if the democracy movement had succeeded without her she might have felt no need to become so politically involved. Who knows? You would have to ask her. I recall infuriating one of her staunchest admirers by saying that ideally Suu Kyi should become Rector of Rangoon University. ‘Oh no! he cried. ‘She must become president!’ But a Burma in which Suu Kyi was able to become Rector of Rangoon University would be pretty much the Burma she seeks, and maybe such a position would fulfill both those two aspects of her character.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a review of Perfect Hostage for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the prominent journalist on all things Burmese, Bertil Lintner, made the point that ‘She [Suu Kyi] may be a saint, but she is not a shrewd politician. That also seems to be the main message of this book, which is bound to create a fierce debate not only about Ms. Suu Kyi’s personality and role in Burmese politics, but also how the outside world should approach the seemingly never-ending Burmese imbroglio.’  Was your goal to actually spark such a debate about Suu Kyi’s political personality and role in Burmese politics?  From your perspective, how should the world approach her, especially in light of the popular uprising of September and October 2007?

Justin Wintle: I certainly didn’t set out to provoke, though I knew, if I addressed the actual issues involved, that a debate that had already begun would escalate. Because of the multitude of sensibilities involved, it was an unusually difficult book to write. I tried not to tread on too many toes. One exception was BCUK’s unfortunate campaign against Lonely Planet, for publishing a guide to Myanmar, which I see as an unwitting campaign against media freedom. So I allowed myself a swing at BCUK, pace all the good work it has done in keeping Burmese affairs to the fore.  More generally, and as a historian, it would simply have been irresponsible of me to brush anything under the carpet. In his summary of my conclusions, Bertil Lintner was spot on — as one would expect of someone so deeply immersed in Burmese affairs. But remember publication of my book coincided with the publication of Thant Myint-U’s River of Lost Footsteps, which reached similar conclusions, and Thant Myint-U has been far more pro-active than I in challenging the efficacy of sanctions and so forth. It’s his country, after all. As to how the world should approach Aung San Suu Kyi, the world doesn’t have too many options just now. The regime has succeeded, if it has succeeded in anything at all, in turning her into a sainted icon. How well or badly she would perform were she to come power is necessarily an imponderable. In a curious way, keeping her under house arrest may be in the Burmese peoples’ longterm interest. For generations to come they will carry an unsullied and inspirational image of her in their hearts and minds. Conversely, the failure of last year’s saffron uprising’ sadly points to the wider failure of the democracy movement itself, at least thus far. Personally I abhor violence, but as a historian I do recognize that a more forceful kind of insurrection sometimes wins the day. The velvet path of non-violence — advocated by Suu Kyi, and also by the Dalai Lama — is wholly admirable, but isn’t guaranteed to deliver the goods. Look at what’s going on in Tibet. But then my views may be coloured by what I witnessed in Vietnam. There is something about a revolutionary who has taken up arms in a just cause that reduces the rest of us to milkmen. Ironically, Bogyoke Aung San — Suu Kyi’s father — was just such a man.

Nicholas Farrelly: Before we finish up I would like you to speculate, briefly, on the future for Suu Kyi.  She is younger than most of the current batch of very senior Burmese military figures.  She also probably keeps herself in better health.  Do you expect to see her outlast them all and triumph (personally and politically) in the end?

Justin Wintle: As things stand there is scant room for such optimism, even though Senior General Than Shwe is slouching toward his grave. His subordinates are busy jockeying for position. I imagine another military strongman will take the helm, probably Maung Aye. Nor does it appear Suu Kyi is in particularly good health. Whenever she’s allowed to meet UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari she puts on a brave face, but the few photographs of their meetings tell another story. Her arms are chopstick thin. But if I’ve learned anything as a historian then I’ve learned to be economic with prediction. Just at the moment, the tensions in Burma / Myanmar are close to breaking point, stoked by horrendous economic mismanagement. Almost anything could happen. Nor should we overlook the Spanish model. Franco’s fascist regime wasn’t overthrown, but tapered out as the technocrats took over. The same could happen in Burma — as good a reason as any I suppose for us to at least contemplate policies of constructive engagement. But that would be a gradual process, and time may no longer be on Suu Kyi’s side.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you for your patience.  I have just two final questions: Do you have any plans to continue writing about Burma, or other Southeast Asian countries?  And what is on your agenda for the rest of 2008?

Justin Wintle: It is you who have been patient, not I.  Romancing Mandalay? I can’t see myself writing another whole book about Burma. I like to move on. Life’s short. I have yet to write something substantial about Thailand, the Southeast Asian country I know and love the best. Thaksin Shinawatra interests me –a true original.  I also have a particular take on secularism as a global phenomenon, but for that especially I’d have to find a university department to support me.  More immediately I have a China project on the boil, but what that is I am not yet ready to disclose. One way or another though I anticipate I’ll stick with East Asia, which has afforded me so much in personal terms. And of course, anything to get away from the humbug of Brownite Britain!

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you, Justin, for taking the time to answer New Mandala‘s questions.  It has been a pleasure to have you involved.

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