The Lady's Destiny
Frayn, Rebecca, Newsweek
Byline: Rebecca Frayn
Aung San Suu Kyi gave up her husband, her children, and 22 years of her life to fight for democracy in Burma. With elections just weeks away, filmmaker Rebecca Frayn reports on this woman's long story of sacrifice as it reaches an extraordinary climax.
As the jubilant crowds surged around Aung San Suu Kyi on her release from house arrest in 2010, I couldn't but think of David and Goliath. How had such a fragile figure of a woman singlehandedly managed to withstand the might of one of the world's most brutal military regimes for the past 22 years? She has had three particularly close brushes with death at its hands: in 1989 she faced down the guns of hostile soldiers who had been ordered to shoot her where she stood; a few years later she survived a hunger strike intended to get her fellow party workers released from prison; and more recently still, in 2003, she miraculously escaped an assassination attempt while on the campaign trail. Her resolute determination to establish democracy in Burma has rightfully earned her a place alongside Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Yet behind Suu Kyi's apparently unshakable courage lies a story of immense personal sacrifice. For during her long years under house arrest in Rangoon, her two sons were growing up in England without her, while her husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris, died in 1999 without ever being allowed to say goodbye. Few of us could imagine being asked to choose our country over our family, as she has effectively had to do. Fewer still could imagine living so stoically with the ongoing consequences of that choice.
My fascination with Aung San Suu Kyi was triggered when I visited Burma in 1991 with my then boyfriend, now husband. We were trying to decide whether to get married, and why we thought a country with such a dire human-rights record was the place to go to resolve that question, I'm at a loss to explain now. As we passed signs instructing us to "Love the Motherland" and stating that "Only When There Is Discipline Will There Be Progress," accompanied at all times by a government minder, it often felt as if we had tumbled headlong into Orwell's 1984. And wherever we went, the Burmese would sidle up, anxious to share with us the depths of their misery and despair. Despite our minders' attempts to control what we saw, it was apparent that this country--once the richest in Asia--had been reduced to abject poverty by the generals' iron rule.
Though Suu Kyi had by then been under house arrest for two years, she had won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, and you had only to whisper her name for people's faces to light up. Suu Kyi is the only daughter of a great Burmese hero, Gen. Aung San, who is celebrated to this day for his role in negotiating independence from British colonial rule in Burma and founding the modern Burmese Army. He was assassinated in 1947, six months before independence came to fruition. Though Suu Kyi was only 2 years old when he died, she grew up surrounded by the mythology of the great Aung San and his unfinished political mission, and many Burmese view her as his reincarnation. I couldn't but be deeply touched by the sense of hope her unseen presence offered these profoundly demoralized people, and in the long years that followed I often thought of them waiting for Suu Kyi to step from the wings like Aslan in Narnia. And so four years ago I set about writing a screenplay that has now become a feature film, The Lady, directed by Luc Besson and starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis. The film is about to open in the U.S., but pirate copies are already causing something of a sensation on the streets of Burma.
In order to research the project, I contacted as many of Suu Kyi's friends and family as I could. And when I discovered from them how tirelessly her husband, Michael Aris, had worked to support her behind the scenes, it quickly became apparent that here was my film--a poignant love story that has all the ingredients of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. …