Q&A: Golden Parasol Author Wendy Law-Yone on Gauging Dictators and Burma’s Reforms

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Wendy Law-Yone

This month, Burma marks 25 years since the student-led 8888 democracy uprising — named after Aug. 8, 1988 — was brutally crushed by its former ruling military junta. That this downtrodden Southeast Asian nation was allowed to mark the occasion at all is a testament to how dramatic recent reforms have been. But if those thousands of innocent lives lost are to be properly commemorated, then how popular rule was first lost though a coup in 1962 must likewise never be forgotten. This is the story acclaimed author Wendy Law-Yone weaves in her new book, Golden Parasol.

Far from being a staid history, this is a personal recollection throughout which amusing anecdotes and enchanting characters abound. Her father Edward was founder and editor of Burma’s newspaper the Nation and one of the country’s most celebrated journalists. His bullish, droll and uncompromising personality naturally caused friction with dictator General Ne Win, a neighbor and onetime family friend, and he spent years as a political prisoner before fleeing Burma to continue the fight for democracy from exile. Law-Yone herself was also briefly detained trying to leave the country and eventually settled in the U.S. where she wrote her acclaimed novels The Coffin Tree, Irrawaddy Tango and The Road to Wanting. Here she tells TIME what it was like to finally write her family memoirs and discusses unfolding events in her homeland.

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Why did you decide to write Golden Parasol now?
As it happens, aspects of this book — Burma’s earlier experiment with democracy, my father’s role in championing a free press — have a certain resonance now that the country is in transition. But I can take no credit for the dovetailing of Golden Parasol with, for example, the dramatic easing of censorship and media restrictions that came into effect earlier this year. With the lifting of the ban on private newspapers, people were free for the first time in half a century to start up their own dailies from scratch — the way my father had done.

In terms of material, how much came from your memories and how much from documents or the testimony of family and friends?
From the very outset, when the book began to take shape in my mind, I knew what I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to write a biography of my father. I wanted to write a memoir, my own version of his life. And having chosen that path, I wasn’t obliged to interview people who had known my father. But in the end, it was a solo flight I was attempting. If I crashed, I crashed alone.

Were there any particular shocks or revelations that emerged from researching the book?
If I say none, it might give you some idea of the unusual transparency of my father’s character. He was a man without secrets — or if he had any, he kept them even from himself. He was true to his most blatant self, a classic extrovert. The surprises had to do with joining up events of his life as they related to other larger events of history — and maybe with certain things I had carelessly overlooked, or been in denial about. The simple fact, for example, that just because he never expressed doubt didn’t mean he never experienced doubt.

[Lord Louis] Mountbatten expressed sympathy, and assured the [heavily bandaged] patient that he and his people were now safe because the British Army was back.
“Ask him what Japanese did this and when,” he said to Dad.
Dad asked, and through the muffled mouth came the reply. “It was no Japanese. I had a fight with the guy next door. His wife and I… well, you know…”
Lord Louis was hard put to understand what it was that had reduced his interpreter to such helpless laughter…

Did you find the writing process cathartic or did it simply reopen old wounds?
Both. The wounds reopened in the writing of this book, however, were mostly my parents’. Revisiting their hardships was more painful than the licking of any personal wounds.

Your father was an ethnic Kachin but considered himself Burmese above all and aligned himself with the Rangoon elite. Do you think he was disillusioned by the failure of ethnic rebel groups to put aside personal differences and rally around the common goal of ousting Ne Win?
No, I don’t think his beef was with any of the minority rebel groups. His frustrations were with the leadership he himself was part of. There were many reasons why the movement failed, and the inability of the multiple factions — the [majority] Burman as well as the ethnic minority groups — to cohere as an effective front was certainly one of them. His disenchantment was with the Burman-led party he represented [while in exile], not the minorities. And it was the failure of this very elite to follow through on the initiative to oust Ne Win that galled him.

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Ne Win is introduced as an almost benevolent character that deteriorates into a monster. Is this simply an example of “all power corrupts” or was there always something malevolent inside the man?
My father was a quick study when it came to judging character, and I believe he had Ne Win’s number from the start. But as a newspaperman it behooved him to see politicians as human beings, with all their good and bad sides. Having sussed him out, I suppose he thought he could deal with Ne Win through the modus operandi of keeping his enemies close to him. That strategy is fine so long as the enemy is not certifiably mad, as Ne Win turned out to be.

You father had a variety of jobs throughout his life. If he was still in Burma today, do you imagine him returning to journalism or taking a more political role?
I simply can’t imagine my father in Burma today. That said, if by some sleight of logic I were to imagine him back in his homeland now, I’d see him working not as a journalist or as a politician, but as a teacher. Toward the end of his life, reduced to penury and exile in rural North Carolina, he was offered a guest professorship at a small liberal-arts college. How he charmed and engaged his students! They gathered at his home for seminars, hung on to his every word, then polished off every scrap of the Burmese dishes he plied them with. Yes, I think teaching would be the only profession that might make sense to him now — taking a new generation in hand and opening their eyes to forgotten or buried aspects of their history. Feeding them as well, no doubt.

“Nobody ever reported any such thing [as a deteriorating relationship] to me, Mrs. Law-Yone,” was [Burma’s first Prime Minister] U Nu’s mild reply. “But you only have to look at your husband to see how bad-mannered and offensive he is. In those days his manner was such that one disliked him on sight.”

As the 25th anniversary of 8888 passes, some have called for those responsible for the crackdown and related abuses to be brought to book for their crimes. Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has emphasized the need for restorative rather than retributive justice. Where do you stand?
Time and again I hear parroted a comforting refrain about the willingness of the victims of abuse by the Burmese military regime to forgive and forget. Buddhism is said to account for this benign amnesia. I don’t believe a word of it. The sublimated rage of Buddhists exploding into violence is everywhere in evidence — in Burma, in Sri Lanka. But vengeance aside, restoration and/or retribution aside, the human need for accountability, for the truth of past wrongs to be outed and adjudicated, is present in every society, Buddhist or Baha’i. And memory, anyway, is not as malleable as all that. Forgetting on demand, as an act of conscious choice, is no less tricky than remembering on demand. We have to wonder, as the philosopher Avishai Margalit asks, whether personal memory is “involuntary, like the muscles of the heart, or voluntary like the muscles of the hand.” I believe memory is closer to the heart than the hand.

Suu Kyi has come in for criticism recently for perceived reticence regarding sectarian violence involving the Muslim Rohingya minority and a glowing description of the military. Do you think this criticism is justified?
One of the hardest things to accept is change — especially change in people we think of as bedrocks of uncompromising conviction. But as Burma is going through a transition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s role is also in transition. She is no longer a die-hard dissident; she serves as a member of parliament and is treated like a head of state. It’s difficult to imagine how she could express herself in the same language of protest and defiance now that she is part of the establishment. Many a saint has had to succumb to the devil’s pact of political compromise.

Your father comes across as a no-nonsense man who did not mince his words. What would his primary concern be about the current reform process?
I doubt it would be very different from the concerns that preoccupied him whenever a seemingly grand and commendable project turned out to be yet another excuse for corruption, venality, greed and ill-gotten gain.

Burma has seen a great deal of changes over the past two years or so. How positive are you about the future of the country?
I’m more positive about the present where Burma is concerned. It’s exhilarating to witness the initiatives, large and small, enlivening the social and economic landscape all across the country — and this despite formidable obstacles and challenges of a political and practical nature. Reform — even imperfect reform — is always a positive sign. But the future? The future is not what it used to be.

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