Why Suu Kyi favours Jean Valjean over Ulysses

I was fortunate to be a part of the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival - the first of its kind Myanmar has known in half a century. It was held at the Inya Lake Hotel in Yangon in February 2013. The air had lost its bite and indolent clouds drifted in the blue waters of the lake. Ms Aung San Suu Kyi arrived amid unprompted and seemingly unending applause - she was the festival patron.

During the course of discussion, she confessed to her lack of admiration for the character of Ulysses in Tennyson's poem and instead declared Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean to be a favourite. This was greeted with surprise, after which people debated at length the possible reasons for her rejection of Ulysses, the cultural icon of individual self-assertion, and preference for Jean Valjean, a petty French convict jailed for his 40-sous theft. I too wondered, though the answer took many months to come.

To understand Ms Suu Kyi, maybe it would be wise to wind back to two of her earlier essays, Literature And Nationalism In Burma and Intellectual Life In Burma And India Under Colonialism - both written in the 1980s, by which time Myanmar had spent a couple of decades under military rule.

In both essays, a picture emerges of Ms Suu Kyi's understanding of a society where nationalism is interpreted as unquestioning loyalty to a set of Burmese-Buddhist values, where patriotism is not only all-pervasive (influencing politics as well as literature and thus, popular thinking) but a compulsion as well, since the lack of nationalist feelings is treated with little tolerance. Individual thought or endeavour, a natural corollary to liberalism, takes second place.

She writes of traditional Burmese (by implication Buddhist) education that does not encourage speculation but instead encourages unanimous acceptance of the view that "Buddhism represents the perfected philosophy". That, in turn, and despite the "essential tolerance of Buddhist teachings", has led to religion in Myanmar being "monolithic" with "broad but inflexible boundaries".

A scene from Les Miserables shows Hugh Jackman in the role of Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway in the role of Fantine. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

One wonders if it is as a response to this that the philosophy that Ms Suu Kyi has since taught is emphatically individualistic. It is not difficult to deduce the connecting lines she would draw between such a culture and Myanmar society as it has evolved, with little space for diverse opinion and what appeared to her at certain times to be an uncritical acceptance of the political status quo.

Thus in numerous speeches and columns, she refers to stories of individual endeavour, stories drawn from the Burmese cultural pantheon, rich in popular appeal. She writes of Padasari - a woman, driven to near-insanity by the loss of her family, who finds sanctuary in the Buddha, an old Buddhist tale with multiple literary references. Yet while traditionally it speaks of finding spiritual gratification at the feet of the Buddha, Ms Suu Kyi sees in it the supreme joy of an individual's victory over self and personal destiny. Thus in her reinterpretation, emphasis shifts from the Buddha to the individual and the sanctity of her journey.

Ms Suu Kyi (above) picks Valjean over Ulysses despite Ulysses being the epitome of individual endeavour. 

Similar to that is her reference to Zaneka, a story culled from a former existence of the Buddha. It is the story of a young prince who 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 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, it was individual endeavour, fuelled both by physical energy and mental prudence, that came to his rescue.

Similarly, in Ms Suu Kyi's iconic essay, Freedom From Fear, while Burmese kings and political leaders alike have upheld nibbana (nirvana) as their ultimate political aim and emphasised their own role in helping the subjects achieve that safe nibbanic haven, in her vision, there is no promise of lending a hand to the swimmers of samsara. The responsibility lies with the individual, the oppressed, who aspire to be "free men". It is a vision rooted in Buddhism, where followers are urged to take responsibility for their own kamma (karma).

It is such an individual who forms the nucleus of her philosophy - one who is not a divisive personality but an individual citizen conscious of his power in the social web of the nation and who eventually determines the kind of community he builds around him. It is this individual who helps Ms Suu Kyi in her reinterpretation of democracy as not a top-down, authoritative, state-driven set of directives but a non-coercive structure driven by and meant for the sustenance and growth of the individual.

With this in mind, over the years her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has outlined certain policies which, if implemented, can give her philosophy a practical outreach. The higher education policy, for example, conceived by the National Network for Education Reform, uses as its fulcrum decentralisation and an inquiry-based development of cognitive skills.

Or the NLD's experimental foray into micro-credit schemes, which could 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 skills-building as a further step towards individual empowerment.

So to go back to our initial question: Why Jean Valjean and not Ulysses? Isn't Ulysses, an old man who dauntlessly resolves to seek a new path, the very epitome of individual endeavour? Not in Ms Suu Kyi's logic, for in his disdain for his "aged wife" and weariness in governing a "savage race", she finds expressed a selfish urge for self-actualisation at the cost of country and people. It is the impractical rebellion of an old man against a deemed bourgeoisie conformity.

By contrast, Jean Valjean's journey is one of the spirit. After his long and hard life in the galleys, as he re-enters society, he expresses little urge to escape or rebel. There is no negating of his social role here and in the final analysis, he is too colossal for conventional law to chain down.

As Myanmar stands at an important crossroads, it remains to be seen how much of such a philosophy would be eventually implemented.

•The writer is the author of The Female Voice Of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit To Aung San Suu Kyi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Why Suu Kyi favours Jean Valjean over Ulysses'. Print Edition | Subscribe