It was no way to treat the lady who plays The Lady. Michelle Yeoh, known to worldwide audiences as the Chinese spy who loved James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies and the gravity-defying martial artist Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has been working with French director Luc Besson on a biopic of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The actress dined with the Nobel Laureate in Rangoon last December, a month after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in the wake of the country’s first elections in 20 years. But Suu Kyi’s liberty, like the apparent exercise of democracy that preceded it, is largely illusory. The Burmese authorities thwarted Yeoh’s attempt to pay a return visit to Suu Kyi on June 22, holding her on arrival at Rangoon and then bundling her on to a plane leaving the city later the same day.
If they hoped to divert attention from the forthcoming movie, they failed utterly, triggering instead a gathering avalanche of advance publicity. Nor does the subject of the film show any signs of moderating her message for fear of losing the limited freedoms she has been granted. Instead, Suu Kyi worked covertly with the BBC in early June to record two Reith lectures (named for the British broadcaster’s first director-general) under the umbrella title Securing Freedom. The first, on liberty, was played to an invited audience in London on June 27 and followed by a live question-and-answer session with Suu Kyi, calling in from a cellphone in Rangoon. The lecture and Q&A were broadcast on the BBC the following morning; a second lecture, on dissent, is scheduled for broadcast on July 5.
The first lecture contained few surprises. Suu Kyi is known for her consistency; her critics—not only among the junta she challenges but democracy campaigners who question her strategic approach—call it obstinacy. That consistency/obstinacy/tenacity saw her exercising every day in captivity (“keeping fit [is] one of the first duties of a political prisoner,” she said). And although her core beliefs remain unaltered, for a woman who has lived in isolation in an isolated country, she has kept remarkably abreast of a changing world. It is in the communications technologies that helped her to do so and that have played such a significant role in the Arab Spring that she sees the greatest cause for optimism:
The similarities between Tunisia and Burma are the similarities that bind people all over the world who yearn for freedom. [But] the outcomes of the two revolutions have been so different. The first dissimilarity is that while the Tunisian army did not fire on their people, the Burmese army did. The second, and in the long run probably the more important one, was that the Tunisian revolution enjoyed the benefits of the communications revolution and this not only enabled them to better organize and coordinate their movements; it kept the attention of the whole world firmly focused on them.
Those looking for signs that Suu Kyi is changing with the changing world will have noted her response during the debate after the lecture on the question of violence. Suu Kyi argued that her tactics in opposing the junta, including non-violent resistance, have been “best for the country.” Might she ever be persuaded to support an armed struggle? “I have said in the lectures I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons but practical and political reasons,” she said; even Mahatma Gandhi held “that between cowardice and violence he would choose violence any time.”
Suu Kyi seems as unlikely as ever to choose either. She believes in the power of communication, and as the past weeks have shown, her message is not easily stifled.