Burmese Nobel Laureate after 21 Years
The author recalls her time in Burma just before the military coup that kept Aung San Suu Kyi from accepting her Nobel Peace Prize for two decades.
“Absolute peace in our world is an unattainable goal,” the diminutive woman in lavender said softly. “Even if we do not achieve [it] on earth… common endeavors for peace will unite individuals and nations in trust and friendship and help to make our human community safer and kinder.”
Hearing the words of Aung San Suu Kyi as she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize 21 years after it was awarded to her was a wonderful moment. After more than two decades under house arrest in her Rangoon residence, the 67-year old woman with flowers in her hair who forfeited family life in order to inspire her nation toward democracy was free. Now a member of parliament in the newly emerging Myanmar (formerly Burma), she is often compared to Nelson Mandela. Hopes persist that this modest, dedicated woman may one day head her country.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Aung San Suu Kyi, in part because of her courage and dignity but also because she reminds me of my time in Burma, and of a western-trained physician, Buddhist and quiet humanitarian named Daw Kin Tar Tar who became my friend.
I went to Burma in 1988 just as the trouble that led to Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest was beginning. On a brief USAID-funded public health mission, I had ten days to learn all I could about the country’s health infrastructure as it impacted women and children. I never would have succeeded without the aid of Daw Kin Tar Tar, who taught me about her beloved country.
She did this in several ways. One was to take me at daybreak to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda about which Somerset Maugham wrote, “all about, shrines and pagodas were jumbled pell-mell… They had been built without design or symmetry, but in the darkness, their gold and marble faintly gleaming, they had a fantastic richness. And then emerging from among them like a great ship… rose dim, severe, and splendid, the Shwedagon.”
There, in this timeless spot symbolizing a country rich in the tradition of charity, patience and familial obligation, I saw a culture struggling to emerge from a troubled history with all the grace it could bring to bear on its efforts, and its oppression.
I can still recall the quiet bustle of activity at 4:30 in the morning as flower vendors dispensed fragrant offerings, shopkeepers opened their stalls, and children rubbed sleep out of their eyes. Shoeless, we climbed the stairs to the pagoda’s terrace, mothers smiling at us as they nursed their babies. In the dreamlike darkness of early morning amid a sea of smaller pagodas, I felt like I was entering an Asian fairytale. Yet ordinary life was woven into this tapestry of ancient ritual and prayer. People dozed, wrapped in shawls against the morning chill. They ate noodles from bowls warming their palms, dogs and cats underfoot. They knelt in silent prayer while a man chanted through a loudspeaker. A solitary monk moved soundlessly as women scurried to place rice and vegetables in his bowl. A palpable serenity enveloped the scene.
As we circled the massive stupa of the Shwedagon, Daw Kin Tar Tar interpreted the pervasive symbolism, including a gilded Buddha said to work miracles, Bodhi trees adorned with flowers and flags, and the Maha Gandha bell, famous for surviving the British attempt to pilfer it in the early 19th century.
Another day, Daw Kin Tar Tar took me to a rural health center in Syriam, a district reached by crossing the Irrawaddy River by ferry. On the journey we shared stories of our lives and families in the way that women who like each other do. We spoke of Buddhism and of history, treading carefully on political issues. Then, in the rural countryside, I again experienced the orderly chaos that is Burma. It was market day and the thoroughfare was jammed with people and donkey-drawn carts. Vendors hawked their goods, women in sarong skirts and delicate blouses swayed gently as children frolicked. Teenagers smiled their secrets to each other. And in the midst of all this activity, again a kind of serenity prevailed.
On our return crossing one scene kept my full attention. A shriven old woman, surrounded by her children, sat in a torn canvas chair, her chest heaving noticeably. Her daughter fanned her, casting worried glances at a husband or brother. The woman was clearly going to die, possibly before they reached the hospital in Rangoon. The devotion of her family moved me, but what sticks in my memory is the calm acceptance and grace of the dying woman. I remembered something Daw Kin Tar Tar said when we visited the Shwedagon; that nothing in this life really belongs to us, that patience is not only a virtue but a necessity, and that filial duty is its own reward.
Which brings me back to Aung San Suu Kyi, who embodies all that is patient, calm and graceful in the hearts of the Burmese people. She had understood in her long, lonely confinement that her life did not belong only to her, that her patience was necessary if her people were to survive yet another occupier of their souls and their land, and that filial duty—to her famous father, an independence hero assassinated in 1947 when his daughter was two—had its own rewards.
Shortly after I left Burma its armed forces seized control in a military coup. From that coup, and its violence, Burma is now recovering. I never saw Daw Kin Tar Tar again, and I’ve never met Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet, because of these two brave women, I experienced Burma. For that, and for their inspired lives, I am truly grateful.
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