Existential Dilemma in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma

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Existential Dilemma in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma

By – Mrs. V. Lalithambigai, Vol.III Issue-XXIV January 2017

 Introduction to the Author: 

Mrs. Lalithambigai has completed her MA and M.Phil, English Literature. Her area of interest is cultural study and she has written many papers in this area. She is an assistant professor at SFR College for Women, Sivakasi.

            Some cities, localities, or even nations in the world are associated in the human consciousness with violence, unrest, disorder, chaos and struggle for survival on an everyday basis. The Myanmarese civic life is acknowledged to be one such social condition.  The everyday life happens to be a perennial struggle.  The Burmese life as explored in the letters by Aung San Suu Kyi offers a potential area for applying the existential theory in everyday Burmese life.

Existentialism is the philosophy which concentrates on the questions about the essence of existence. It became relevant especially after the World War era when human life was betrayed and the world was no more a safe place to exist. The system was no more any guaranteed form of government of people. The philosophy undermines the traditional assumptions of human life and questions the propriety of every establishment.

Letters from Burma is written in a journalistic style. Here day-to-day events surrounding important events of Burmese history are reported and narrated from the point of view of a politician and intellectual, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Letters offer a unique point of view towards the Burmese life. The point of view is unique not only in perpetuating the strain of struggle in everyday existence in Burma, but also in highlighting why an alternative becomes essential. Being the spearhead of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s perspective on Burma is a representative opinion of an alternative social existence. Each of the letters focuses on a piece of Burmese life. The narrative is organized in such a way that for each difficulty portrayed in the  letter, the causes, dynamics and consequences are portrayed. In addition, the rule of the junta is criticized together with the presentation of a possible way out promised by NLD.

The most prominent voice heard in the letters is the regression experienced by the Burmese civil society. In the first letter, “The Road to Thamanya,” Suu Kyi talks about the journey of ordeal which she and her companions undertake to Thamanya. The text says, “the road was bordered by fields dotted with palms and every now and then n the distance could be seen the white triangle of a stupa wrethed in morning mist, tipped with a metal ‘umbrella’ that glinted reddish gold in the glow of the rising sun. I was travelling in a borrowed Pajero: . . . I had to keep myself from bouncing too far towards the roof by holding on grimly to the headsets of the front seats.”( Letters 4)

The roughness of the above journey is accentuated by the poor condition of roads. Suu Kyi mentions clearly how the civic conditions become poorer and poorer when one travels away from Rangoon. She writes, “The road had become worse as we travelled further and further away from Rangoon. In compensation, the landscape became more beautiful” (4). This is an instance of regression in contrast to the progressive civic amenities found in developing countries.

There is succinct but undoubted reference in the text about the hampering of growth and development by the military junta. However, Suu Kyi leaves no chance away to put it clearly how the traditional minds of Burma are more capable of efficient ruling and administration than the junta. For example, Suu Kyi is in admiration of the Hsayadaw. She describes that “he displays astonishing knowledge of all that is going on throughout the country. He combines traditional Buddhist values with a forward-looking attitude and is prepared to make use of modern technology in the best interests of those who come under his care”(12 – 13). Her trust on traditional people is thus an evidence against the rule of the junta, and in turn it is an existentialist attitude. “Distrust in the present and pinning hopes towards the past is an essential exhibit of existential attitude”( Kruks 59).

The reference about the seventy-fifth anniversary of National Day is a serene but poignant episode. Suu Kyi mentions the significance of the pinni jacket. The reader may get a glimpse of Burmese legacy here. The promise made by Nagani club or the Red Dragon is made a specific reference.  “The name of the club became closely identified with patriotism and a song was written about the prosperity that would come to the country through the power of the Red Dragon. . . . beneath the light-hearted merriment ran a current of serious intent. The work of our national movement remains unfinished. We have still to achieve the prosperity promised by the dragon. It is not yet time for the triumphant dance of the peacock”(21).

The state of affairs in the country is not aimed completely towards the welfare of the country. This is the inference that can be possibly made after reading the above lines. The collective will is yearning towards further development and comparatively more freedom and ultimately democracy in its pristine form.

Family, as a unit of society, finds a significant celebration in most of the letters. The junta regime is so powerful that it has wielded its presence in all layers of society. It interjects the feeling of terror and awe in the minds of people of all ages and status. Apart from the overall climate of suppression, the families of people who are involved or alleged to be involved in anti-governmental activities are prone to further probing and fracturing.

“A number of political prisoners who were put in jail for their part in the democracy movement were kept there without trial for more than two years. For this time, they did not see their families at all. . . When the parents are released from prison, it is still not the end of the story. The children suffer from a gnawing anxiety that their fathers or mothers might once again be taken away. . . They have known what it is like to be young birds fluttering helplessly outside the cages that shut their parents away from them”(24 – 25). These emotionally charged words go a long way in exhibiting the existential problem of even the children under the junta regime. This again makes the junta regime less supportive to the existence of the Burmese and points fingers at an alternative form of government.

There is also reference about how the regime has influenced a change in the food habits and pattern of household expenditure. The iron-rich Burmese breakfast of fried rice has been replaced by an “anaemic” hue for many families(46).  This portion of the text reinforces the following  aspect of existentialist philosophy. “Each and every aspect of personal life comes under the scanner and nothing seems to make meaning in an existentialist’s attitude”( Guignon et al 34).

The festive season is ultimately a season of joy and hope. The natural, fiery spirit of the Burmese, according to Suu Kyi, gets asserted during the occasion of festivals, especially during the New Year’s Eve. Suu Kyi identifies that in the consecutive years of the recent past, the assertiveness of the Burmese to celebrate the festival has increased and according to her, “because of the repression and injustice to which they are subjected, the Burmese have a remarkable capacity for extracting the maximum amount of fun from the opportunities offered to them during our traditional festivals”(105).

The letter on “Repairing the Roof,” is requisite with succinct beauty and narrative glides. The references made here are both literal and figurative. She compares repairing the roof of the building with a few other things in her life and society.

“There is a Burmese saying to this effect that if the roof is not sound, the whole house becomes vulnerable to leaks . . . if soundness is lacking at the top, there are bound to be problems all down the line to the very bottom”(111).  She identifies the power of the homebound, domestic women, who play a very great role in strengthening and motivating the men folk of the nation and thus help repair the roof of our nation”(113).  Through her existence as a supporter of her home and colleagues, she is capable of being empathetic towards the faceless lot of women who are silent supporters the making of the nation. They are unseen bricks and building blocks who support the roof of the nation.

Letters from Burma addresses divergent aspects of Burmese society, politics, history, and domestic life. In all letters the question at hand is treated with diligence and in a panaromic angle. The twentieth century question of existentialism finds expression here while treatment of the Burmese social existence. The inevitable, gigantic challenge is the political instability in which the NLD tries to figure a way out. This political instability pervades all walks of life. Suu Kyi identifies the root cause and registers the small role which she plays in dispelling darkness.

Works Cited

Guignon, C., and D. Pereboom eds. Existentialism: Basic Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999.

Kruks, S. Situation and Human Existence: Freedom, Subjectivity, and Society, London:

Unwin Hyman. 1990.

Suu Kyi, Aung San. Letters from Burma.  London: Penguin, 2010.

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