First we had Margaret Thatcher as the “Iron Lady”. Now we have the “Steel Orchid”, as Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is sometimes called. For decades, she was one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience. Virtually a modern-day saint, she is certainly a democracy icon. An embodiment of courage, grace and determination, she is a symbol of hope and freedom for her people.
But a warning is needed: If you watch The Lady — the sumptuous biopic and celebration of Suu Kyi, starring Michelle Yeoh — bring a towel. I had to make do with my shawl to wipe the tears streaming down my face. It’s a very moving film and my own emotions were heightened due to the parallels I saw with Indonesia, as well as my deep empathy, as a woman, for Suu Kyi plight.
The Aug. 8, 1988, “8888” uprising in Myanmar was reminiscent of the May 1998 riots in Indonesia, when violence erupted across the country. These were a reaction to skyrocketing prices of basic necessities, food shortages and mass unemployment. They plunged Indonesia into the worst economic crisis since Soeharto took charge in 1966.
I remember the days before and after Soeharto’s resignation on May 21, 1998, following decades of oppression. I was overcome by a gamut of emotions: Elation and jubilation, of course, but also grief at the violent destruction and the toll of human lives, coupled with a deep apprehension about Indonesia’s future. Many in Myanmar must be feeling the same way now.
And as an activist who took to the streets in 1998 with the Voice of Concerned Mothers, participating in the first public demonstrations on Feb. 23, I know how scary it is to face the threat of arrest by the military. Suu Kyi’s courage, however, knew no bounds. She once even single-handedly faced down a line of armed soldiers trying to stop her holding a party meeting ( a heart-thumping scene in the movie ).
Suu Kyi ( then 43 ) had until 1988 been living in Oxford, a devoted mother to her sons Alex ( then 15 ) and Kim ( then 11 ), and a loving wife to Michael Aris, a leading authority on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan cultures.
Returning to Myanmar to visit her ill mother, she was catapulted onto a tumultuous political scene, emerging as a vision of hope for a people at the mercy of a brutal military regime for decades. It was inspiring to witness Suu Kyi fight back, guided by her Buddhist philosophy and “Gandhian” principles of peaceful resistance.
The Lady is also the story of Suu Kyi‘s heart-wrenching choice between love and duty. The Myanmar general who offered her passage back to the UK told her she was “free to choose” between family and country. “What kind of freedom is that?” she retorted.
There are several poignant scenes in the film where Suu Kyi has to explain to her children why she is remaining in Myanmar, including when her husband was dying of cancer. Suu Kyi remained steadfast, even though it meant not seeing her beloved Mikey one last time.
Telephone calls — albeit made unreliable by Myanmar authorities — were the family’s lifeline. Luc Bresson’s camera captures minute and telling details of Yeoh’s facial expressions during these calls: Her quivering lips and welled-up stare. In this era of SMS, emails and Skype, we forget the joy of receiving a spontaneous phone call from a faraway loved one — the next-best thing to being there in person.
My late husband Ami Priyono ( 1939–2001 ) was terminally ill for several years. I know only too well the sorrow of witnessing a once active, creative, charismatic man deteriorating into a ghostly shadow. Ami, like Aris, to use Suu Kyi’s words, was “one of the most indulgent husbands who ever lived”, selflessly supporting me in my studies ( away for years in the UK and Holland ), and also in my activism.
While it’s painful to see your husband die, it’s even more painful not to. Suu Kyi almost faltered, but even on his deathbed, Aris told her not to return to England. I was luckier than Suu Kyi. I was by Ami’s side during his dying days — indeed years. In the end, he died in my arms. I’m not sure I could have made the sacrifice Suu Kyi made for her country.
The film could not have been released at a more opportune moment, as Myanmar seems on the brink of democratic reform and Suu Kyi has even managed to get a parliamentary seat. The Steel Orchid’s struggle is, however, far from over. Indeed, her party is a tiny minority with internal divisions and no power in the legislature. It also has limited technocratic expertise and few clear policies beyond “democratize”. It faces a real risk of being marginalized, or worse still, failing.
After 14 years of Reformasi, Indonesia’s struggle is also far from finished. In fact, Besson’s film about Myanmar left me wondering whether May 1998 was worth it for Indonesia. Sadly, no Steel Orchid emerged from our political hothouse. We now lack even a single national leader who can claim real moral authority. The result is that Reformasi is fast becoming “Deformasi”, as we slide back into the very same corrupt, power-mongering ways that Suu Kyi is trying to stop in Myanmar.
Let’s just hope her supporters don’t see Indonesia as their model for political transformation!
The writer ( www.juliasuryakusuma.com ) is the author of State Ibuism: The Social Construction of Womanhood in New Order Indonesia.