Aung San Suu Kyi (henceforth ASSK) is at once a person, a politician and a sanctified symbol of democracy. Media representations of “The Lady” differ within and outside Myanmar as various players seek to portray her activities, her product and her legacy in ways conducive to their own interests. French director Luc Besson’s biographical film The Lady (2011), which dangerously simplifies Myanmar’s problems, contains one such representation. This series of two articles seeks to briefly respond to and delineate this representation.
The first article below focuses on ASSK in contemporary Myanmar and criticises The Lady for its simplified renderings of that nation’s history and politics. The second article, to follow next week, deals more specifically with the film’s representation of ASSK. In that piece I draw on Shohat’s application1 of Said’s Orientalism2 in order to argue that The Lady depicts Aung San Suu Kyi through a Western paternalistic gaze that is steeped in colonial condescension. These pieces work towards the conclusion that The Lady is contradictory: it is deserving of praise for cinematically rendering one of modern Myanmar’s most momentous stories, but the problematic fashion in which it does so deserves only disappointment.
Aung San Suu Kyi then, Myanmar today
There can be little doubt that ASSK has been an instrumental political player in dictatorial Myanmar for the past twenty-five years, and that she has suffered vast injustices as a consequence3. Her usually vocal dissident rhetoric, often utilising the grand themes of freedom4 and courage5, has died down considerably since she became an MP in April 2012. This is because Myanmar’s ostensible democratisation is altering ASSK’s position in Myanmar in ways inconceivable even four years ago. Her ultimate legacy and that of her father’s, therefore, is also adjusting accordingly.
Before entering politics ASSK had a privileged, varied and cosmopolitan life. The daughter of Khin Kyi, a diplomat and public servant, and Aung San, the assassinated popular figurehead of Burma’s independence movement, ASSK was educated in India and the United Kingdom to postgraduate level. She worked for the United Nations in New York City6 and as a Visiting Fellow at Kyoto University in Japan, as well as living for over a year in Bhutan7. She married young to U.K. citizen Michael Aris and the pair had two children before ASSK resettled to Myanmar in 19888.
Her return to Myanmar, originally intended to be only brief, came during an exciting but dangerous time for the country’s citizens: a time when state power was being tested, unravelled and renewed. Tumultuous political uncertainty manifested in mass protests, government and private sector strikes, monetary devaluations and political shuffles, culminating in severe state-sponsored, country-wide violence against the civilian population9. Amidst this agitation ASSK joined a newly-formed opposition party, the National League for Democracy, becoming its General Secretary, public face and primary articulator. However, she was soon detained for “attempting to destroy military unity” and placed under house arrest10. When much-desired national elections were carried out in May 1990 the National League for Democracy prevailed regardless, but was prevented from assuming governance by the military11.
For the next twenty years ASSK was periodically freed and reimprisoned by the military regime12. Unable to affect change through Myanmar’s institutions, she instead focused her political opposition on advocacy work, drawing international attention to the lack of democracy in Myanmar. The regime did not take this lying down: they actively commissioned hundreds of articles and at least five books in attempts to discredit ASSK13. In other words, until 2010 ASSK was the military-ruled pariah state’s most public critic, and she suffered for it.
However, the denounced elections of November 201014 and the transfer of power to a nominally civilian government began processes of change that are turning Myanmar into something substantially slipperier. Released from house arrest a week after the elections, ASSK is adjusting her relationship with the shifting state apparatus appropriately. This article does not seek to comment at length on Myanmar’s reforms: it suffices to say that great steps forward – and backwards again – have been taken in a range of areas15. Most importantly for ASSK, the National League for Democracy managed to convincingly win a by-election in April 2012.
ASSK now sits as an elected Member of the Opposition, validating and cooperating with the regime that oppressed her for so long. By entering politics proper in Myanmar after all her tribulations ASSK has validated her father’s sentiment that “it is not politics which is dirty but, rather, the persons who choose to dirty it (that) are dirty”16. Although a large proportion of Myanmar MPs may have “dirty” pasts, ASSK seems to place faith in the country’s political framework as the best way to facilitate change. However, by working within this system ASSK is compromising her two decades of outspoken idealistic human rights and democracy rhetoric.
This is most obvious when crises hit and attention on the Myanmar government increases. For instance, the country’s ongoing anti-Muslim violence has been widely condemned17, with many criticising the Myanmar state, military and President Thein Sein for their inaction over or inflammation of the crisis18. The fourteenth Dalai Lama even wrote directly to ASSK to express his concerns in 201219. Three years ago when under house arrest ASSK would have undoubtedly published a condemnation of the violence, but as an MP she has stayed conspicuously silent, becoming irritated when called out on it20. This silence is attracting genuine, well-grounded criticisms that draw attention to her role as a politician rather than as a saintly, oppressed advocate of humanitarianism21, and analyses of ASSK’s ongoing adjustment to politics are becoming more common in light of her lack of interest in the Rohingya and anti-Muslim issue22.
In other words, the sanctified binary of ASSK vs. The Generals is being eroded, and with it ASSK’s long-held charismatic flame in Myanmar is waning. It is in this context that contesting representations of ASSK – such as those found in films – have even additional power, bolstering or weakening ASSK’s exemption from real scrutiny as a political player. Andrew Selth has noted23 that “all movies about Burma are a kind of propaganda” and it is in this context that the most recent studio film about Myanmar, The Lady, should be received.
The Lady stands as the first and only biopic about ASSK, in contrast to her many print biographies24. The biopic film genre streamlines the messy material of a subject’s normal life into a cohesive, two-hour long essence and in doing so unavoidably manipulates this life unto its own ends. In this way biopics, by focusing on certain life events and disregarding others, convey a subjective and usually celebratory interpretation of a person’s life narrative. In addition, biopics’ representations of their subjects differ in weight to those of films with fictional characters not based on real people. A biopic therefore is a political statement which often seeks to portray some kind of message about its subject, in contrast to a written biography which often has aims or claims to thoroughness, objectivity and impartiality.
Levy has pointed out25 how biopics commonly feature the twin themes of Great Work, or the struggle for the protagonist to achieve their defining goal, and Great Love, an enduring central romantic interest: these are the two “structuring fantasies of contemporary life, the things we strive for every day and hope to achieve before we die”. This observation holds true for The Lady, which focuses on ASSK’s Great Work (bringing democracy to Myanmar) and her Great Love (for Michael Aris). In utilising these themes the film aims for maximum emotional effect: the fact that ASSK was separated from her husband and unable to see him before his premature death seems from a distance to be the most tragic aspect of her (public?) life. The prioritisation of this content in the film, and the slow pace at which it unfolds, labels The Lady firmly as a melodrama.
Although The Lady is the first biopic to focus on ASSK, it is not the first Western film to highlight the oppressive machinations of the Myanmar military regime. Rather, 1995’s Beyond Rangoon26 claims this title, followed by Rambo27 and Largo Winch II: the Burmese Conspiracy28. These four films constitute the third wave in major Western cinematic representations of Myanmar. The first wave came before World War II and includes exotic dramas such as Road to Mandalay29 and The Girl from Mandalay30. The second wave came during and after WWII and generally focused on the Allied war effort in the China-Burma-India theatre, with films such as Objective Burma31 and Never So Few32. This movement culminated in Merrill’s Marauders33 in 1962 and no further Western feature-length films set in Myanmar were produced until Beyond Rangoon in 1995.
Hollywood films about Myanmar routinely simplify the country’s problems34. European films such as Largo Winch II, borrowing Hollywood conventions, do exactly the same, suggesting the problem is with Western cinema more generally. The Lady fares no differently, simplifying Myanmar for entertainment purposes, as evidenced by its hagiographic tendencies35 and conflation of ASSK with democracy as the solution to all of Myanmar’s problems.
Aung San’s death in the opening sequence prefigures this portrayal. In it Aung San talks persuasively about participation and democracy before being betrayed by his guards and callously gunned down. The film in this way associates his death with the immediate end of democracy and the beginning of military rule in Myanmar; this is false. Furthermore, in a later scene ASSK is approached by several Rangoon University academics, wise men with words of weight, who claim that she is “the only person who can lead Burma into democracy”.
The Lady validates this assessment in its stylistic glorification of ASSK whenever she takes public political action. For example, the use of slow motion and a soaring string soundtrack (echoing Aung San’s slow death earlier in the film) accompany ASSK’s many public speeches and political campaigns, and ASSK on-screen seems to be always surrounded by either those who overtly love her or those who overtly oppose her. ASSK’s magnanimity of spirit is further amplified by her apparent taming of the household guards; implying that anyone who spends a length of time in proximity to her will soften, or be “democratised”.
To compound this sugar-coating, the sequence where ASSK campaigns in the Myanmar countryside (the vast majority of which was then and still is mired in poverty) presents a common, clichéd and harmonised representation of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Tai Yai (Shan), Palaung, Akha and other people dress in their traditional costumes to receive ASSK, their clothes bright, shiny and without a gun or a speck of dirt in sight. ASSK for her part assures one group that “we are here to ensure that you, the people, finally have a voice”, implying that by giving ethnic minorities a vote all of their problems in the Union will be over. Of course, the reality is far, far more complex, and the discontent of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities is probably the least likely issue to be resolved simply through the application of democracy. The Lady ignores this by glorifying ASSK as the Burman saviour from the city who will bestow agency unto Myanmar’s essentialised minorities.
Another simplification in the The Lady shines through the film’s substantial focus on the 1988 Uprising, an event taking up over a quarter of the flashback narrative (see Figure 1). The 1988 Uprising in Myanmar consisted of a complex web of events that are still, at the top levels of power, mostly opaque. Several scholars have attempted to explain the failure of the popular uprising, coming up with analyses that give responsibility not to one single factor but rather to perfect storms of events36. In The Lady, however, brutal and violent coercion by the state is shown to be the sole determinant of the movement’s failure and protesters are never seen to be engaging in destructive or violent resistance. The violent crackdown and other decisions made by the Burma Socialist Programme Party and military in The Lady are in turn predicated entirely on General Ne Win’s superstitious whims, colouring him as an ignorant, irrational buffoon who supposedly keeps power by default.
Early in the film the character of Uncle Leo attributes the beginning of the entire 1988 Uprising to the monetary devaluation in which denominations other than nine were banned, to which ASSK sarcastically quips “well nine is his (General Ne Win’s) lucky number”. In this way before the audience has even been introduced to Ne Win’s character on-screen he is suggested to be a capricious tyrant: “All this, just because of the superstitious whims of a madman”, Uncle Leo pontificates. This prefigures Ne Win’s first meeting with ASSK’s minder who reports that ASSK will stay for “as long as she needs to” at immigration, cueing the audience to interpret Ne Win’s response not as thoughtful – but rather as paranoid.
This is soon vindicated in a scene where Ne Win consults a fortune teller about ASSK’s visit to Myanmar. He removes his shoes upon the seer’s insistence and is dismissed at the consultation’s end, displaying the seer’s and by extension the supernatural’s power over him. Ne Win claims to be “surrounded by adversity”, and is soothed by the fortune teller’s prediction that the ghost of Aung San, “an ancestor”, is haunting him in the form of a spirit woman. Ne Win asks if he should eliminate her, to which the seer proclaims, “a spirit is even more dangerous if it becomes a ghost”.
Ne Win decides to publically resign (but not give up power) on the back of this advice. However, his move fails to prevent ASSK from assuming political activities, so Ne Win orders the seer to be shot – but crucially still adheres to her overall advice, telling his men that killing ASSK would only make her a martyr, a dangerous ghost rather than a spirit. The execution of the seer while on the surface undermining, in reality only strengthens the film’s representation of Ne Win as superstitious: he is not beholden to one woman only, but rather to an entire world of ethereal concepts, spirits and ghosts, mediums of which there are many and expendable.
The supernatural motive is taken to its most extreme when Ne Win hosts Sein Lwin and Than Shwe in his office to discuss how to deal with the strengthening National League for Democracy. Than Shwe requests to be put in charge of ensuring ASSK is “forgotten both here and abroad”. Ne Win, instead of considering Than Shwe’s plan on its merits, isn’t interested in the details and instead draws Than Shwe into a card game of chance. Than Shwe “mystically” wins and therefore earns the job.
Ne Win is even alluded to as being responsible for the brutal future Myanmar is yet to endure under Than Shwe. The scene in which Ne Win callously shoots one of his underlings for threatening ASSK’s life is framed as educational: “It’s time for you all to learn a lesson”, Ne Win says while looking directly at his successor. In this way The Lady suggests that Ne Win made Than Shwe into a tyrant through a kind of nurturing, putting responsibility for his subsequent cruel rule on Ne Win’s shoulders, and therefore on the supernatural motive.
We can see these two examples of simplification – ASSK as democratic world-changer and Ne Win as superstitious tyrant – as existing on an Orientalist spectrum. Matthew Bernstein notes37 how “Western filmmaking seductively and persuasively limits our perceptions and understanding of the many cultures it purports to represent”, implying that with the reduction of complexities comes both a manipulation and glossing in the representation process. For instance, the opening sequence of The Lady depicts an exotic Orient so familiar to Western film located firmly in Said’s38 imaginative geography.
The viewer is first introduced to Myanmar through shots of the picturesque pagodas of Bagan, a delightful rural riverside sunrise, and wild tigers and elephants. This montage is accompanied by Aung San describing pre-colonial Myanmar to his daughter as “blessed with great forests of teak and ebony … sapphires as blue as the bluest sky and rubies redder than your cheeks”. Aung San finishes the tale by claiming the British “came and stole all our precious things” in what would appear to imply an anti-colonial agenda for the film. However, the opposite is in fact the case – this very brief initial admission that “colonialism was bad” appears intended to serve primarily as an attempt to exonerate the rest of the motion picture.
For in fact, The Lady is a firmly regressive, colonialist film, representing Myanmar and its people through Western eyes (in this case Britain, the former colonial master), just like most other Western feature films about Burma that came before it.
Luke Corbin has recently completed a Master of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Australian National University
- Shohat, Ella (1997). “Gender and Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema”, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film ed. Bernstein, Matthew and Studlar, Gaylyn. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, p19-68.
- Said, Edward (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage.
- See her many biographies:
- Bengtsson, Jesper (2012). Aung San Suu Kyi: A Biography. Dulles: Potomac Books.
- Popham, Peter (2012). The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. London: Random House.
- Victor, Barbara (1999). The Lady: Aung San Suu Kyi: Nobel Laureate and Burma’s Prisoner. New York: Faber & Faber.
- Wintle, Justin (2007). Perfect Hostage: The Story of Aung San Suu Kyi. London: Hutchinson.
- Silverstein, Josef (1996). “The idea of freedom in Burma and the political thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”, Pacific Affairs 69 (2), p211-228.
- Palmer-Mehta, Valerie (2012). “Theorizing the Role of Courage in Resistance: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘Freedom From Fear’ Speech”, Communication, Culture & Critique 5 (3), p313-332.
- Phadnis, Aditi (2012). “Much warmth, some restraint at Manmohan’s meeting with Suu Kyi”, Business Standard May 30. Online at http://business-standard.com/india/news/much-warmth-some-restraint-at-manmohans-meetingsuu-kyi/475788/, accessed August 22, 2012.
- Burma Campaign U.K. (2012). “A biography of Aung San Suu Kyi”, Burma Campaign U.K. Online at http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/index.php/burma/about-burma/about-burma/a-biography-of-aung-san-suu-kyi, accessed August 22, 2012.
- Steinberg, David (2010). Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p88.
- For more on the events of the 1988 Uprising:
- Burma Watcher (1989). “Burma in 1988: There Came a Whirlwind”, Asian Survey 29 (2), p174-180.
- Ferrara, Federico (2003). “Why Regimes Create Disorder: Hobbes’ Dilemma during a Rangoon Summer”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution 47 (3), p302-325.
- Lintner, Bertil (1990). Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy. Bangkok: White Lotus.
- See note 8, Ibid.
- See note 8, p92.
- See note 7, Ibid.
- Kyaw Yin Hlaing (2007). “Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar: A Review of the Lady’s Biographies”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 29 (2), p359-376.
- For denunciations of the polls see:
- Burma Campaign U.K. (2010). “Burma Briefing: Burma’s Fake Election & the Post-Election Structure”, Burma Campaign U.K. Online at http://burmacampaign.org.uk/images/uploads/5-burmas-fake-election.pdf, accessed August 27, 2012.
- Freedom House (2010). “Freedom House Denounces Burma Election as an Elaborate Charade”, Freedom House November 5. Online at http://www.freedomhouse.org/article/freedom-house-denounces-burma-election-elaborate-charade, accessed August 27, 2012.
- Voice of America (2010). “Obama: Burma’s Government Steals Election”, Voice of America. Online at http://www.voanews.com/content/obama-says-burmese-government-stole-election-106881289/130098.html, accessed August 27, 2012.
- Two useful summaries of the political situation:
- Kyaw Yin Hlaing (2012). “Understanding Recent Political Changes in Myanmar”, Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 34 (2), p197-216.
- Min Zin & Joseph, Brian (2012). “The Democrats’ Opportunity”, Journal of Democracy 23 (4), p104-119.
- Aung San (1972). “Document 16”, The Political Legacy of Aung San ed. Silverstein, Josef. Ithaca: Cornell University.
- See reports such as:
- Amnesty International (2012). “Burma: Abuses against Rohingya erode human rights progress”, Amnesty International July 20. Online at http://www.amnesty.org.au/news/comments/29265/, accessed August 29, 2012.
- Brady, Brendan (2013). “Burma’s Rohingya Muslims Targeted by Buddhist Mob Violence”, The Daily Beast June 27. Online at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/27/burma-s-rohingya-muslims-targeted-by-buddhist-mob-violence.html, accessed June 28, 2013.
- Human Rights Watch (2012). The Government Could Have Stopped This. Online at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/31/government-could-have-stopped, accessed July 1, 2013.
- See reports such as:
- Human Rights Watch (2012). “Burma: Government Forces Targeting Rohingya Muslims”, Human Rights Watch August 1. Online at http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/31/burma-government-forces-targeting-rohingya-muslims-0, accessed August 29, 2012.
- Kurlantzick, Joshua (2013). “Despite Democracy, Myanmar’s Muslim Minority Still Suffering”, Council on Foreign Relations June 27. Online at http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/despite-democracy-myanmars-muslim-minority-still-suffering/p31033, accessed June 28, 2013.
- Murdoch, Lindsay (2013). “Myanmar violence trials one-sided, say Muslims”, The Age May 22. Online at http://www.theage.com.au/world/myanmar-violence-trials-onesided-say-muslims-20130522-2k0d5.html, accessed June 29, 2013.
- Sullivan, Tim (2013). “Muslims Trapped in Ghetto after Clashes in Burma”, The Irrawaddy July 1. Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/38934, accessed July 1, 2013.
- United Nations News Centre (2012). “Myanmar: UN official concerned over rights violations in Rakhine state”, United Nations News Centre July 27. Online at http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42575&Cr=Myanmar&Cr1, accessed August 29, 2012.
- Phayul (2012). “The Dalai Lama expressed concern over violence in Burma to Suu Kyi”, Phayul News August 23. Online at http://phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=31974&article=%e2%80%98The+Dalai+Lama+expressed+concern+over+violence+in+Burma+to+Suu+Kyi%e2%80%99, accessed August 27, 2012.
- Wallace, Bruce & Tin Aung Kyaw (2013). “Aung San Suu Kyi downplays anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar”, Global Post June 28. Online at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/groundtruth-burma/aung-san-suu-kyi-downplays-anti-muslim-violence, accessed July 1, 2013.
- For instance, see:
- Adams, Brad et al. (2012). “Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority”, CBC Radio: The Current August 23. Online at http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2012/08/23/aung-san-suu-kyis-silence-over-the-plight-of-the-rohingya-muslim-minority/, accessed August 31, 2012.
- Gecker, Jocelyn (2012). “Suu Kyi’s Silence on Rohingya Draws Rare Criticism”, The Irrawaddy August 16. Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/11671, accessed August 29, 2012.
- Taylor, Jerome (2012). “Burma’s Rohingya Muslims: Aung San Suu Kyi’s blind spot”, The Independent August 20. Online at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/burmas-rohingya-muslims-aung-san-suu-kyis-blind-spot-8061619.html, accessed August 31, 2012.
- For example:
- Ibrahim, Azeem (2013). “The Rohingya of Burma — Betrayed by Aung San Sui Kyi”, The Huffington Post Blog May 17. Online at www.huffingtonpost.com/azeem-ibrahim/aung-san-suu-kyi-rohingya_b_3287191.html, accessed July 1, 2013.
- Wade, Francis (2012). “Aung San Suu Kyi’s shaky moral high ground”, Al Jazeera August 30. Online at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/08/20128288459877109.html, accessed August 31, 2012.
- Selth, Andrew (2009). “Burma, Hollywood and the politics of entertainment”, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23 (3), p322.
- See note 3.
- Levy, Lisa (2002). “Storytelling: Great love and great work in the biopic”, Radical Society 29 (2), p101.
- Boorman, John (1995) dir. Beyond Rangoon. VHS, Columbia Pictures Corporation.
- Stallone, Sylvester (2008) dir. Rambo. DVD, Millennium Films.
- Salle, Jérôme (2008) dir. Largo Winch II – The Burma Conspiracy. DVD, Wild Bunch.
- Browning, Tod (1926) dir. The Road to Mandalay. 35mm, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
- Bretherton, Howard (1936) dir. The Girl From Mandalay. 35mm, Republic Pictures.
- Walsh, Raoul (1945) dir. Objective, Burma! DVD, Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Sturges, John (1959) dir. Never So Few. DVD, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
- Fuller, Samuel (1962) dir. Merrill’s Marauders. DVD, Warner Bros. Pictures.
- See note 23 and:
- Mirante, Edith (2004). “Escapist Entertainment: Hollywood Movies of Burma”, The Irrawaddy 12 (3). Online at http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=932, accessed August 29.
- See reviews:
- Covert, Colin (2012). “Burmese political hero deserves better treatment in ‘The Lady’”, Star Tribune April 12. Online at http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/movies/147203375.html, accessed August 31, 2012.
- Ide, Wendy (2011). “Home truths for the Lady: Luc Besson’s biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi is a snore of a movie”, The Times December 30, p9.
- The Independent (2011). “Silence is golden”, The Independent December 30, p6.
- Woloschuk, Curtis (2012). “Movie Review: The Lady isn’t worthy of Aung San Suu Kyi”, WestEnder April 26, p1.
- See note 9b and:
- Fink, Christina (2009). Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Publishing.
- Schock, Kurt (1999). “People Power and Political Opportunities: Social Movement Mobilization and Outcomes in the Philippines and Burma”, Social Problems 46 (3), p355-375.
- Bernstein, Matthew (1997). “Introduction”, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film ed. Bernstein, Matthew and Studlar, Gaylyn. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, p14.
- See note 2.