There is nothing more annoying than an interviewee who keeps you waiting. The start time for this one has been agreed by phone, email and again by phone, yet when 11.30am comes and goes, this busy woman’s people tell me she’s running late. I call back as suggested half an hour later. Then another 15 minutes. And another ten. Her people are very apologetic. My guest is stuck in traffic, apparently. I’m not annoyed in the slightest. My guest, after all, is the one and only Maggie Philbin.
No, not really, although I wouldn’t be annoyed if Maggie got stuck in traffic either. Maggie Philbin was the code name used for Aung San Suu Kyi by the producers of this year’s Reith Lectures. They used the name in all communications until the two lectures were safely recorded, such was their concern that news of their amazing booking should leak to a rival media organisation, the Burmese authorities or, worse still, John Simpson.
Preparing to interview the world’s most famous democracy campaigner, there was general relief that they could freely use Aung San Suu Kyi’s real name. And how could I begrudge a traffic-induced delay? The woman had been under house arrest for years. Being stuck in traffic must be quite fun?
She laughs heartily when I suggest this to her. “I don’t think it’s ever fun to be stuck in traffic, even if you’ve been under house arrest for years and years and years,” she tells me from her home in Rangoon. “It’s always slightly boring. But it gives me time to look around and peer into the little shops and find out how much poorer people are.”
And what did she see on today’s journey through the streets of the Burmese capital? “I think the drainage system needs to be overhauled because it’s been raining and the roads are flooded in many parts of the town. And I keep noticing how poor people seem to be… the general shabbiness. Somehow, seven years ago, before I was placed under my last term of house arrest, people did not look so shabby.”
Here is a woman who can measure her life by periods of house arrest. Returning to Burma from the UK in 1988 to look after her dying mother, Aung San Suu Kyi responded to popular calls that she lead the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory in the election of 1990 – except the military junta refused to hand over power. Since 1989 she has spent a total of 15 years under house arrest – the most recent period ended only last November.
Her stoicism in the face of everything the Burmese authorities have thrown at her only enhances her standing among many Burmese, and around the world she is regarded as a hero for our times, showered with international honours she can’t accept in person. Her name is dropped in the same reverential tone as Gandhi, Mandela and, now, Philbin.
Her Reith lectures on freedom touch on many of the issues that are important to her. She tells me she had a general idea of what she wanted to say and approached the project in fits and starts. She makes mention in one lecture of the special meaning the BBC World Service has for her. Especially during her periods of house arrest, it helped her feel as if she wasn’t cut off from the world, and she suggests that her forced isolation heightened her listening pleasure.
“We listen to the radio much more than the average person who’s not under house arrest and we listen much more carefully because that’s really our only line to the outside world. And because we listen so carefully, I think we pick up the nuances that normal people – that is to say, people who are not under arrest – don’t notice.”
I ask her about the cuts at the World Service, anticipating a supportive quote that they could print in letters ten feet high and hang on the front of Bush House. At first I think that’s where she’s going, but she ends up in an area even the redoubtable BBC Press Office couldn’t spin.
“I feel very sorry about that. But I think the World Service has changed since my first bout of house arrest, which was from 1989 to 1995. Then I remember there were so many more different programmes on the service. But now, perhaps I’m not getting onto the right programme or perhaps I don’t listen at the correct times but the programmes don’t seem so varied. Am I wrong? Or have I been listening at the wrong times?”
I suggest there have been changes that make it more of a news service and perhaps less varied than some listeners would like. “Well, exactly. The first six years [under house arrest] the BBC… I could be in touch with everything. With culture, with art, with books, with music. You know, I haven’t heard any music on the BBC World Service in a long time. Maybe I’m listening at the wrong times. But not one single piece of music.”
What should they be playing? “I don’t mind what they play because I used to listen to all sorts of different programmes, not just classical music. Er… I can’t remember what the name of that programme… er… Dave Travis? Was it? Was there somebody called…”
Dave Lee Travis?
“Yes! Didn’t he have a programme with all different sorts of music?”
I tell her yes. In fact, Mr Lee Travis presented the request programme A Jolly Good Show on the World Service for 20 years until 2001. So Aung San Suu Kyi enjoyed the Hairy Cornflake? And now he’s not on? Quack Quack Oops, BBC.
“I would listen to that quite happily because the listeners would write in and I had a chance to hear other people’s words. It made my world much more complete. But now I don’t hear any kind of music on the BBC.”
I suggest to her that while many people around the world struggle trying to balance the competing demands of family and work, her life is a little different – the conflict is between family and country. Would that be a fair summary? “Well, yes, in the sense that my country is also my work and my work is my country. So I think you could put it like that.”
Her work is indeed her country. Even before she married her British husband, Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, in 1972, he knew that there would be three parties in their relationship. In the foreword to the book of her writings that he edited (Freedom from Fear), he quotes from letters she sent him in the months before the wedding.
“Again and again she expressed her worry that her family and people might misinterpret our marriage and see it as a lessening of her devotion to them. She constantly reminded me that one day she would have to return to Burma.”
Michael’s academic career took them to Oxford in 1976, and their two sons, Alexander and Kim, were both born in the UK. Under house arrest, she was not allowed to see them for many years. I suggest to her that hers is more of a calling than just work.
“Yes, I suppose so. One’s country can’t be just work. It can be your work but it’s also more than just work. Because it’s part of you. I think people are shaped to a great extent by their surroundings, by the culture in which they grew up. By the country where they were born.”
Does she remember writing to Michael: “I only ask one thing. That should my people need me you would help me do my duty by them…”
“Yes, I do remember, and Michael certainly did help me to do my duty by them.”
There was a period in her life that appears to offer definitive proof of the cruelty of the Burmese regime. At 52, Michael was terminally ill with prostate cancer and the authorities refused to issue him a visa. He died in March 1999. Although Aung San Suu Kyi had had the option of leaving to go to his bedside, she chose to remain in Burma. She feared that while the generals were happy to let her leave, they might not allow her to return.
Thinking of her conflict between family and country, how much did she wrestle with the choice she made when Michael was ill? “It wasn’t such a wrestle because Michael knew what I would have to do and he helped me to make the decision as well. And to make that decision firmly.”
And his support was crucial in that?
“It was very important. I can’t say it was crucial because I think I would probably have chosen duty anyway. But I would have done it very, very unhappily if he had not acted in the way in which he did, which was really totally selfless of him.”
What did she think at the time? It is almost unimaginable wrestling with an issue like that.
“As I said, if Michael had taken a different line it might have made it very difficult, but we both knew what my decision would be from the very beginning. And he helped to make it easier for me.”
But how did she know that was her decision and would always be her decision?
“Well, I think one knows oneself to a certain extent, or one should anyway, otherwise one would be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t one?”
Isn’t that an enormous degree of certainty? “No, not an enormous degree of certainty about everything, but there are some things about which you have to be certain.”
And she didn’t really ever consider going?
“No, I wanted him to come to visit me instead, which was a possibility, and he also wanted to do that. But he was not given a visa.”
You didn’t at any stage think, should I go and visit him and risk not coming back? That was never an option in your mind?
“No, it was never an option.”
When I ask whether she would like to lead Burma, she doesn’t say no, but argues that she never thinks of it in those terms. She wants more influence so that she and her colleagues can change things in Burma. “How much more can be done for the country? I think that is the sort of thing that all dissidents talk about.”
What would she have done differently in life, I wonder?
Quick as a flash: “Well, you know, I think I really would have paid a lot more attention to my piano teacher.”
I start to laugh and Aung San Suu Kyi tells me not to.
“This is true! You mustn’t laugh. It’s very important because if I had only paid more attention to my music teacher, I would play the piano much better than I do now. And I would get a lot more pleasure out of it because this is the one thing that really helps me to relax and stop thinking about work.”
How bad is she at piano playing? I’m suddenly thinking of Les Dawson.
“I’m bad. I’m not being modest, you know. It’s not false modesty. I’m bad. But I enjoy trying to improve myself.”
And when people hear you play, do they say, “Stop that noise!”
“No, no, no. They’re all too polite and, besides, it’s my house and they can’t come into my house and just say stop that noise!”
Whether she likes it or not, a lot of people – presumably people who’ve never been within earshot of her piano playing – regard her as a living legend, a saint. She doesn’t like it. “I wish people wouldn’t think of me as a saint – unless they agree with the definition of a saint that a saint’s a sinner who goes on trying. I certainly go on trying,” and she laughs again.
As proof of her unsaintliness I demand to know whether she has a bad habit. She says there are many, but when pushed only comes up with an inability to go to bed in a timely fashion. As our conversation comes to a close I’m wondering whether she has been free to talk – or could someone have been listening in?
“I do think that there’s a possibility that someone is listening to our conversation, but what I’m saying to you is nothing private anyway, because it’s going to come out. But if I were to be talking to you about something private and personal I think I would worry rather, and probably I would not say all the things that I wanted to say.”
I wonder whether she can say whether or not she’s happy. Her father, who negotiated Burmese independence, was assassinated in 1947 before she got to know him. One of her brothers drowned, aged eight. She barely saw her husband and wasn’t there when he died. Her sons are overseas. She has spent large parts of her adult life unable to leave the house, and her beloved Burma is still not free.
Is she happy? “Yes, I think so. Because I don’t feel unhappy. The thing about happiness is, I think, that you don’t know when you’re happy – that’s what people say. So I think I’m happy because I certainly don’t think I’m unhappy.”