It’s 6.30am on a December morning and Kirsty Young is enjoying the most delicious coffee and pastries she’s ever tasted, which is a surprise as she’s sitting in an airport lounge on the outskirts of Rangoon.
Suddenly, the atmosphere becomes electric. A petite woman, immaculately dressed in an embroidered coral top and a long broderie anglaise skirt, strides through the lounge, closely followed by an entourage of attendants. Her back is poker-straight and her posture defines her status. The trademark fresh flowers in her hair immediately identify her as Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson and General Secretary of Burma’s national League for Democracy.
“She is very tiny, very slim and very delicate but, despite her size, she has amazing stature and real grace,” explains Young, who had flown to Burma to interview the pro-democracy leader for Desert Island Discs. “I said ‘Elizabeth Taylor — the glory years!’ as she swept past.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi delivered her nobel Lecture last June, her opening statement was: “Long years ago, sometimes it seems many lives ago, I was at Oxford listening to the radio programme Desert Island Discs with my young son Alexander. It was a well-known programme — for all I know it still continues...” When Kirsty and the series producer, Cathy Drysdale, were told this they were ecstatic.
“We all punched the air,” says Young. “To get the Queen to appear is, perhaps, the only comparable guest on the DID wish list.”
And so Gwyneth Williams, the controller of Radio 4, sent a personal request to Aung San Suu Kyi, asking her to appear as a castaway. Thus began six months of negotiations. “The interview fell through two or three times and it wasn’t until I was sitting opposite her with a microphone that I actually believed it was going to happen,” says Young. “I’d been swotting for this interview like I was doing an exam. Up until the point when she walked in the room and sat down I could not allow myself to believe that it was happening.”
Suu Kyi was flying to Naypyidaw when Kirsty Young spotted her in the airport. “Naypyidaw is the capital city but it’s deserted. There’s a vast parliament building, enormous sculptures dotted about and huge road systems where there are three or four lanes to drive along but barely any cars. It’s so grand, but it is a city built for politicians and their apparatchiks,” says Young.
Amid all this was Aung San Suu Kyi’s relatively modest house. “When we arrived, we were welcomed by her assistant and set up the recording equipment. About 30 minutes later she joined us. She’s very, very attentive and with no sense of grandiosity. This woman has travelled through the fire of notoriety and come out the other side, intact. That takes great strength. She has, by her own admission, a steely determination and, like all politicians, a sliver of ice in her heart.”
Her musical choices are intensely personal. “Most of her choices are for family reasons: connections to her childhood, to her own children.” While she was held as a political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi’s British husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He attempted countless times to get a visa to visit her but each time he was denied. They never got to see one another before he died. “She speaks very poignantly of the torment she went through. It was emotional torture for her, but she refuses to self-aggrandise and plays down her personal suffering.
“There are some people who rise above the throng. She’s been through hell and back and yet she remains a woman of humour, intellect and dignity. She’s a showstopper!”
Desert Island Discs is on Sunday at 11:15am on Radio 4 - and will then be available here