The following is an interview with Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma:
Question: Why did you decide to write a memoir of your father’s life as opposed to a more conventional biography?
Wendy Law-Yone: A conventional biography would have required scholarship and research of the kind that simply wasn’t possible when I set out in earnest to write about my father’s life. Like a great many Burmese exiles of my generation, I was barred from returning home to Burma for such a prolonged period—33 years in my case—that I had pretty much given up hope of ever going back, much less of being allowed to investigate my father’s past in situ. But I never wanted to write a biography in any case, so that was not even in the equation.
The question was what to do with his memoirs, which had been collecting dust for years, for decades. What eventually supplied me with the courage – and the necessary interest—to give them the airing they deserved was the decision to tell his story from two perspectives principally: his and mine. My version of his life—and the ways it impinged on mine—would act as a gloss on his version. Anyone can write a biography of my father, I thought; but I alone can write a memoir. It was the one unique contribution I could make.
Q: What was the importance of The Nation, the paper your father edited, to Burmese society from the late 1940s to the early 1960s?
WL-Y: My father founded The Nation in 1948, the year of Burma’s independence. For the next fifteen years, throughout the post-war era of parliamentary democracy, the newspaper rose steadily in circulation and influence to become the leading English-language daily, with an international reputation. In 1963, following a coup that brought in a military dictatorship, his newspaper was shut down and he spent the next five years in prison.
When he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism in 1959, his citation read: ‘More than any other paper in Burma, The Nation has taken the role of a social conscience, speaking energetically against restrictive press laws, waste, inefficiency, and intolerance, and censuring “apartheid” and racial discrimination …’ The role he himself took on in the public sphere has few equivalents in modern journalism – he appointed himself both watchdog and blood hound.
When he died in exile in 1980, his obituary in the New York Times described him as “the first independent newspaper editor of free, post-war Burma, and also to date the last.”
Q: What role did your father play in the movement to overthrow the military government of Ne Win in the early 1970’s
He instigated the movement, organized it, masterminded it, and watched it die in its infancy. He must have hatched his plans in jail, because the minute he was released, he went into action. He convinced the deposed minister U Nu to spearhead the resistance he envisioned, then fled Burma to set up a government-in-exile in Thailand. The movement was soon joined by prominent politicians from Rangoon, as well as armed dissidents already operating in the border regions. He lobbied key members of the Thai government to provide a safe haven for the former Burmese prime minister—and to turn a blind eye to his subversive activities. He went on an international fund-raising tour with U Nu, banging the drum loudly on three continents. Then he returned to Thailand to engage in more diplomacy and conspiracy, shuttling between jungle camps along the Thai-Burmese border, vetting mercenaries and other would-be supporters of the cause, negotiating with Thai government officials increasingly fed up with the Burmese troublemakers they were harboring.
The movement fell apart within a year or two of its founding. But brief though it was, the coalition it brought together – of a central Burman government and an alliance of ethnic minority armies—was without precedent. It was the first and last bid for the restoration of democracy in Burma—until Aung San Suu Kyi and a new generation of dissidents came on the scene some fifteen years later, in the ‘8888’ uprising.
Q: What do you think your father would make of the political situation in present-day Burma?
WL-Y: I’ve often thought that if my father were still alive, he might well wonder whether he’d died and gone to hell. The hell of eternal stagnancy. He’d find the fate of the country still in the hands of military rulers, as before—only a less educated generation. He’d find all the evils he took on as a journalist and a patriot—corruption, greed, inefficiency, prejudice, hypocrisy, inhumanity—in patent profusion. I doubt he’d see even the dramatic changes of the past couple of years, changes made possible by recent reforms in the economic and political spheres, as changes for the better. I often wish he were around to ridicule and rail at the human condition in today’s Burma, as only he could. The country needs more patriots like him. By patriot I mean the kind defined by Edward Abbey, the iconoclast and anarchist American writer: “someone who is prepared to defend his country against his government.”
Q: Your father spent the last years of his life as an exile in America. How did he adjust to that life?
WL-Y: Throughout his newspaper days, my father was known for his pro-American bias. He had served with the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime intelligence agency of the United States) toward the end of World War II, and formed lasting friendships with his cohorts. He loved Americans for their generosity, their irreverence, their self-reliance. America offered refuge for him and his family. But visiting friends and being fêted in America as a famous newspaperman was not the same thing as being forced to live there as an impoverished immigrant. Whatever the bitter realities of exile, however, one ailment he was never afflicted with was boredom. He read, he wrote, he lectured at colleges, he testified in Congress on Burma’s opium problem. He opined sardonically on the political and cultural manifestations of American weirdness: Watergate, of course. But also musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar. In America he had the time at last to indulge his greatest recreational pleasure: fishing. The day before he died of a heart attack, he went fishing at the home of a friend in Virginia. Afterwards, he thanked her for “the happiest day of my life.”
Q: What are your own hopes and aspirations for Burma today?
WL-Y: One of the most heartening discoveries on my travels to Burma in recent years was seeing how much books and newspapers still mean to people across the country—people of every age and economic bracket. The hunger for the printed word is like nothing else I’ve come across anywhere in the world. I believe this is what spells promise for the country’s future. Heine’s famous quote about people who burn books being the sort of people who end up burning human beings holds true in reverse, I’d like to think. I mean: how can a book-loving public like the Burmese inspire anything but hope for the future of humanity?