A Title Befitting a Lady

Burma’s junta has freed Aung San Suu Kyi. Now they just have to decide how to refer to her.

When Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in public for the first time in seven years over the weekend, she behaved with all the aplomb one would expect from ‘The Lady.’ It’s an apt title and in many respects hard-won. It also makes life a little easier for headline writers.

But the marvellous irony lies in the circumstances surrounding the nickname’s initial bestowing. Nobody’s exactly sure when and by whom it was created, but most suspect it was the junta who initially (and dismissively) referred to the Nobel laureate as ‘The Lady.’

Long-time Burma hand and American journalist Philip Bader suggests this was probably done by the generals to minimize her identity while she racked up 15 of the last 21 years in prison or under detention.

But it was then picked up as a moniker by her supporters, whose sense of humour helped them travel the difficult road of dealing with an imposed constitution, rigged elections and the arrests of more than 2000 political dissidents.

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One prominent Burmese journalist, who declined to be named, said she, her brother and sister grew up calling her ‘Aunty Suu.’ She recalled fondly how she was just 11 years-old when Suu Kyi gave her first speech at the famed Swhedagone Pagoda.

‘We grew up calling her Aunty Suu—that’s pretty much what her student bodyguards and supporters called her at first and perhaps in the rural areas, Daw Suu. I think—and this is a feeling not fact—that either the junta started it because they don’t want to say her name, or as a Western construct.’

It seems to be a bit of both.

In the West, there’s been an international exhibition and a play by Richard Shannon The Lady of Burma, a book titledThe Lady, and a Google search will throw-up more than 1.7 million results for The Lady plusBurma.

But to this day, Burma’s military ruler Than Shwe won’t have The Lady’s name uttered in his presence.

During one assignment in Rangoon a few years back, it became obvious this mindset had spread a little. As if mimicking their general, state-appointed taxi drivers and fixers would turn their noses up at the mere mention of Aung San Suu Kyi and preferred tags like ‘Miss,’ ‘Missy’ and ‘She’when referring to Daw Suu.

It’s happened before. The junta initially dubbed their government SLORC, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. Perhaps heeding advice, it was later changed to a less sinister sounding acronym SPDC, the State Peace and Development Council.  

Regardless of how she’s known, Suu Kyi has won enormous and widespread respect. Dialogue and reconciliation have always been her trademarks, despite the outrageous and illegal treatment she has faced at the hands of Than Shwe. Now, following her release, it appears talks with Burma’s military are again on the agenda.

So how to address her? ‘The Lady’ would be inappropriate, ‘Miss,’ ‘Missy’ or ‘She’won’t do. Perhaps they could start things off on the right foot by just using her name.