Essay: Reading ‘Les Miserables’ in Myanmar–Lessons in Nationalism with Aung San Suu Kyi

by Nilanjana Sengupta

angsuukyiI was fortunate to be a part of the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival – the first of its kind Myanmar has known in perhaps half a century. It was organised at the Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon in February 2013. Winter and early spring are the traditional seasons for literary talks, or sarpay hawpyawbwe in Myanmar. This particular morning was cool, the air having lost its chilling bite and indolent, white cotton-ball clouds were reflected in the blue waters of the Inya Lake. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived amidst unprompted and seemingly unending applause – she was the festival patron and was to participate in two of the panels.

During the course of discussion she confessed to her lack of admiration for the character of Ulysses and in the same breath declared Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean to be an all-time favourite. This was greeted with surprise and the possible reason for her rejection of the cultural icon of individual self-assertion over a petty French convict, jailed for his 40 sous theft, whose climactic act of heroism consisted of carrying his former enemy through miles of Parisian sewers, was debated at length. I too wondered… till late into the night, the thought going round in slow, concentric circles in my mind even as I kept a wary watch for the gecko I had spotted crawling the walls of my lonely hotel room. Uff, I will think of it tomorrow, I finally decided, why does everything in Myanmar have to be so complicated?

That tomorrow came after many days and months, even as I read Suu Kyi’s writing – her speeches, her columns, essays, letters, heard the numerous speeches delivered with the same unwavering confidence at numerous forums. And by the time my translators were beating a hasty retreat when they saw me approach and my husband was willingly choosing a rerun of I Love Lucy over me, I saw the first rays of light dawn!

Both Ulysses and Les Miserables (of Jean Valjean fame) are tied together by the same theme – the relationship of the central protagonist with the community that surrounds him, a community that by turn sustains him and confines him and which not surprisingly, in both classics is largely unfavourable, at best unfamiliar and pejorative. To understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s thoughts on this bond that binds a man with his community or to expand that thought a bit further, a man with his nation, we would have to rewind back a few years to a time when she wrote her first essays on Burmese nationalism. Literature and Nationalism in Burma and Intellectual Life in Burma and India under Colonialism – both written in the 1980s while she retained an outsider’s view of Myanmar and nurtured dreams of becoming an author and academic.

I would think in both essays Suu Kyi’s aim remains the same: under the discussion of past history and contemporary literature there is an urgent desire to find answers, to probe the rationale behind Burmese society as it has evolved and understand individual responses which have given Burmese nationalism its particular flavour. In doing so she takes a closer look at selected pieces of Burmese literature, pieces which have come to be a part of the nation’s literary canon, that pantheon of valorised and legitimised texts which every educated individual is expected to be conversant with. And what does she discover? In U Latt’s much loved novels, she finds a strong nostalgia for Burmese monarchy, in Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, despite the poet’s strong emotional bond with the youth, a disconnect with the modern political ideology embraced by his young thakin followers and in the historical writings of Pagan U Tin or Hmawbi Hsaya Thein a blind need to revitalise racial pride rather than any “scientific spirit of enquiry”. She even criticises the widely read radical journalist Thein Pe Myint with some intrepidity for the “heavy handed” political messages with which he layers his literary writing.

Arguably in both essays, even as she looks through the lens of popular literature, Suu Kyi finds a society where nationalism is interpreted as an unquestioning loyalty to a set of pre-conceived values, where patriotism is not only all-pervasive but a compulsion as well, where the lack of nationalist feelings is treated with little tolerance. Individual thought or endeavour, a natural corollary to liberalism, takes second place. And consequently she holds up in positive light the more inclusive nationalism of Tagore and the gentle and moderate Nikhilesh of Tagore’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World). But what is perhaps more relevant to the Burmese context, in both essays she writes of the avant-garde khit-san writers, Theippan Maung Wa, Zaw Gyi and Min Thu Wun, with some fondness. She writes of the renaissance spirit they brought to Burmese literature, admires their gentle humour, their free from Pali (read classical flourish) style and applauds them because, “Their nationalist spirit was expressed in terms of their efforts to inject new vigour into Burmese language and literature by adapting them to the modern situation rather than overtly political writings.”

For me Aung San Suu Kyi’s future political credo and the nationalism she preaches now is founded on this single comment: the importance of the individual response.

She speaks of individual response when she narrates anecdotes from her father’s life, in her references to Gandhi or to U Vinaya and U Pandita, the revered Buddhist saya-daws, or in her frequent citing of Buddhist Jataka stories while she addresses the Burmese masses. Thus, to illustrate her point, in 2013 in a weekly column that she writes for the D-hlaing Journal she refers to the story of Zaneka in the context of her father. Zaneka, a former existence of the Buddha who embodied the viriya parami or the quality of energy, diligence and sustained effort and who as a young prince sailed the high seas in search of his royal kingdom. When he was in mid-ocean a violent storm arose. But even as the ship sank and the surging ocean turned crimson with the blood of his shipmates devoured by sea monsters, Zaneka climbed to the highest mast and with a tremendous spring overleapt the circle of monsters and resolutely swam across to the distant shore. Thus, while others were overwhelmed by the urgency of the moment, Zaneka swam across with resolve and mindfulness, fuelled by both physical and mental energy. And when he appeared before his new subjects, he was as perfectly balanced in his viriya as a perfectly tuned lute which needs to be played with energy which is neither deficient and nor in excess.

And similar is her re-reading of the old Buddhist tale of Padasari – a woman driven to near-insanity with the loss of her children and family till she found sanctuary in the Buddha. It is a story which has found multiple literary references and yet while others see it as a story of finding spiritual gratification at the feet of the Buddha, Suu Kyi sees in the old tale only the supreme joy of victory – the victory of an individual over self and personal destiny. Thus while the characters remain the same, the emphasis shifts from the Buddha to the individual and the sanctity of her journey.

It is this individual who lies at the centre of Suu Kyi’s philosophy, an individual who eventually determines the kind of community he builds around him. And it is this individual who helps her in her reinterpretation of Buddhism or of the political credo which is the blessing and bane of our times – democracy. Rather than a top-down, authoritative, state-driven set of directives which these concepts often devolve into, she presents them as non-coercive philosophies driven by and meant for the sustenance and growth of the individual.

But then where does this leave the community and the nation? Isn’t that where we had started our journey even while I tried to capture reader attention by speaking of geckos and drifting clouds? Well to explain that we will need to remember her emphasis on ‘reflective viriya’ ie., an individual who is equally driven by physical endeavour and intellectual prudence and add to that yet another of her favourites, ‘active myitta’ (loving kindness) and then blend them together to arrive at the concept of inter-dependent co-arising as preached by Engaged Buddhists.

Now now before you sigh in exasperation and reach for the delete button, let me quickly explain that. Inter-dependent co-arising is a concept wherein no individual or society is deemed free of the shared matrix of values and systems to which it belongs. Or to put it in other words, no individual can be absolved of his social role in the kammic web of which he is a part. And according to Suu Kyi for an individual to be able to assume the role designated for him in the social web (or nation), there is need to personally adopt the twin themes of ‘active myitta’ and ‘reflective viriya’, qualities which will nurture an empathy for a wide sweep of cultures and interests, as well as a will to bring in judicious change as displayed by the khit-san poets of yore. As Suu Kyi explains more prosaically, “It’s no use standing there wringing your hands and saying, ‘My goodness, my goodness, this is terrible.’ You must try to do what you can. I believe in action.” But again, the action she speaks of is not only the physical act of doing a good deed or a mindless act of patriotism (or non-patriotism) under popular pressure. It is equally a non-passive non-acceptance of convention. Zaneka displayed this by climbing the high mast of the ship, the khit-san writers by reinventing poetic lyricism.

So to go back to our initial question: why Jean Valjean and not Ulysses? Isn’t Ulysses, an old man who has seen many wars and yet when confronted by a “still hearth” dauntlessly resolves to seek a new path, the very epitome of viriya? No, in Suu Kyi’s logic: for in his disdain for his “aged wife” and weariness in governing a “savage race” is expressed a selfish urge for self-actualization at the cost of country and people. It is the impractical rebellion of an old man against a deemed bourgeoisie conformity. In contrast, Jean Valjean’s journey is one of the spirit. After his long and hard life at the galleys, as he re-enters society he expresses little urge to escape or rebel. Instead, he learns of the redemptive powers of love and remains willing to seek out what is good. Unlike in Ulysses, there is no negating of his social role or the kammic web here.

I wish I could end the essay here, leaving a rosy picture of a community of perfect individuals ready to drive change in a pliable society. One is tempted to do so particularly with the NLD sweeping the polls in the recent elections and everyone speaking of a Myanmar poised for change. But unfortunately it is hard to ignore the voice of sceptics to whom Suu Kyi’s beliefs might appear quixotic. Frankly, the thought crossed my mind too, more frequently than I care to admit. So perhaps at this point we could stop to examine some of the policies which she has outlined over the past years – policies on education and the ailing economy which if implemented can give her philosophy a practical outreach. The higher education policy for example conceived by the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) in which Suu Kyi and members of the NLD played an active role and which uses as its fulcrum decentralisation and an enquiry-based development of cognitive skills. Or the NLD’s experimental foray into micro-credit schemes which could counter the abysmally low outreach of the banking sector and allow individuals easy access to formal financial services. Or her change of stance in 2012 towards Total SA and Chevron, partners in the Yadana Gas Project, keeping in mind their investments in capacity building and skill transfer projects. In each case the focus is on a decentralised, bottom-up skill building as a further step towards individual empowerment.

If there is the proverbial fly in the ointment, it is in Suu Kyi’s consistent interpretation of the Burmese national identity in terms of a restricted Burman-Buddhist identity. If she refers to Zaneka and Padasari, she forgets they are pertinent only to Burmese-Buddhist values, if she criticises Kodaw Hmaing and Pe Myint, she forgets they are relevant only to the Burmese literary canon and if she refers to the Thirty Comrades founded by her father she forgets it was the nucleus of the Burmese army still perceived as an agency of persecution by minority ethnic groups. The need remains to acknowledge the centrality of the minority question and minority voices.

Aung San Suu Kyi had started in the 1980s by speaking of a compulsive nationalism which enshrouded Myanmar. Today as the nation stands at a vital crossroad, perhaps there is need to tread with caution: her own apparently empowering philosophy should not become a straitjacket for some, her party magazine should not become a propaganda machinery of an empty democracy and her postulations on her father should not devolve into a manipulation of collective memory.

* Parts of this essay taken from my book, The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi (Cambridge University Press, 2015, ISBN: 9781107117860)