The Corner

Unpronounceable but Wonderful

Today on our homepage, I have an article about Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy heroine in Burma, and the 1991 Nobel peace laureate. (My new book is a history of the peace prize.) She has spent most of the last 20 or 25 years under house arrest. This month, she has reemerged to triumph (once more) in free elections.

Here in the Corner, I’d like to answer some questions about her. First, how do you pronounce her name? Best approximation: “Awn Sahn Soo Chee.”

A related question: How are you supposed to refer to her, in a shorthand way? “Suu Kyi”? “Aung San”? Frankly, it should really be the whole enchilada: “Aung San Suu Kyi.”

She is one of the most famous women in the world, but it’s possible she would be even more famous if more of the world could more easily pronounce her name. Years ago, Roger Kimball said that Walter Bagehot’s fame was limited because no one knows how to pronounce his name. Therefore, they are hesitant to ask for him in bookstores — we used to have bookstores — and to recommend him to their friends. I believe the same is true of the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989).

(It’s BADGE-it and “SHA-sha.” In the latter name, the “a” sound is as in “pop.”)

Another question about Aung San Suu Kyi: The Burmese dictatorship has always been willing to let her leave the country; it’s just that they would not let her back in. And she has preferred to stand her ground, even under house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi refused to go to Oslo to pick up her Nobel prize. Okay, most can understand that. But she would not go abroad to see her dying husband either. So, the question: Is there something slightly inhuman about ASSK?

Honestly, I have read about, interviewed, and written about human-rights heroes for many, many years — and they are different from you and me. There’s a streak of strangeness in virtually all of them. I say this uncritically, believe me.

Aung San Suu Kyi married a young man she met at Oxford, Michael Aris. He was a scholar of the Himalayas. Tutor to the royal children of Bhutan! During their courtship, she wrote to him, “Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment.” Before they married, she made him take a vow before the vows, so to speak: that he would never stand between her and her country.

I should have mentioned, at this point, that Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San — who was assassinated when ASSK was two.

Aung San’s daughter married Michael Aris on New Year’s Day 1972. Aris died in 1999, on his 53rd birthday. He had last seen his wife at Christmas 1995.

Two more questions: Is it rude to say that the cause of Burmese democracy has been aided by the fact that ASSK is one of the most beautiful, as well as one of the bravest and most admirable, women in the world? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it untrue. And the last question is, not a question, but a statement: ASSK is a political woman, true. But mainly, she is spiritual. A spiritual person and a spiritual leader. She insists on the dignity and inviolability of man.

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