'Your voices are the future - the voices of reason, equality
When the final leg of U2360° opened in Denver a new video made its debut, a message, as Bono put it, ‘that would have been inconceivable a year ago.’
Speaking from the home where she has been under house arrest for most of the past 21 years, the film features Aung San Suu Kyi thanking U2 fans for campaigning for the freedom of Burma.
Her release from house arrest last November underlined the power of ordinary people to deliver political change but Burma is still under military rule and thousands of people remain locked up for their political views. That's now the focus of Aung San Suu Kyi - and this is the story of how U2 made a film with her for the show.
(Words by Martin Wroe, Photos by Eoin McLoughlin)
‘Of course you can take a photo with me,’ says Aung San Suu
Kyi, laughing. ‘Otherwise people might not believe you have been here. In fact I didn’t think you were going to arrive, so I was taking it easy!’
The radiant face of Aung San Suu Kyi has featured high on the screens above the U2360° stage ever since the tour opened in Barcelona in 2009. And the story of Burma’s pro-democracy leader
and Nobel Peace Laureate is familiar to anyone who’s been to a U2 show in the last decade. But it’s still a little unreal to finally sit and drink tea with her in the living room of her home in Rangoon, the place where the military rulers of Burma have kept her under house arrest for most of the last 21 years.
‘People here are strengthened by any interest shown in us by
people across the world,’ she explains. ‘They may not have heard of U2 – some will have – but they really appreciate that a famous band is thinking about them.’
It was in late April that a small but perfectly formed U2360° team arrived as arranged to make a short film with ‘Daw Suu’ for the tour. But nothing is straightforward in Burma. Your cell phone doesn’t work when you arrive in the country, your emails are monitored and - you’re advised - someone might be watching you. Communications to and from ‘the lady’ are routinely censored and often don’t reach her. Such inconvenience for the visitor is nothing next to the brutality meted
out to the country’s citizens but Daw Suu hadn’t received confirmation of our visit so when we showed up at the front gates of the
dilapidated colonial mansion that has been her detention centre for so long, she was upstairs playing the piano. Music, she says, is a big part of her life and the piano, part of her daily ritual.
‘During my years of house arrest I‘ve often wished that I
were a composer because then I could have spent my time composing.’ she tells us. ‘Music is much more universal than words.’
As Editor of U2.com I rarely do first-person writing on the
site but it was the band and Show Director Willie Williams who asked me, Eoin the U2360° videographer and Sam, Willie’s producer, if we’d travel to Burma to make a short film with Aung San Suu Kyi for the show. Although released from house arrest last year, her
movement remains closely monitored and she rarely leaves except to visit the offices of her political party the National League for Democracy (NLD). But a line of communication had been set up with the NLD and we got word that she was very happy for us to visit.
Flying in to Thailand and filling our cameras with tourist shots - for our ‘cover-story’ - we secured our Burmese tourist visas in Bangkok and three days later took off again for Rangoon, capital of Burma.
Burma was once the second most prosperous nation in
south-east Asia but after years of military dictatorship and corruption, it’s become the poorest. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 82% of the seats in elections held in 1990, when ordinary people rejected military rule. But the generals rejected the will of the people, refusing to transfer power to elected leaders. The country’s ruling elite is notoriously brutal, spending billions of dollars on the military while much of the population is denied access to proper healthcare, education and even food. Many people live in fear.
In a taxi, taking a reccie of Rangoon, it was half an hour before the driver decided we were trustworthy and confided, ‘we all secretly support ‘the lady’’. People dare not say this too openly, he explained, a neighbour might report them, with arrest and prison to follow.
But despite the confusion when we arrived at Daw Suu’s gates, within a few minutes we’d set up a makeshift studio in the living room and taped a bright green bedsheet to the wall. (In the event of us being apprehended, one of us was going to slip it on and claim it was a sari…) The sheet was our ‘green screen’: filming Daw Suu against this backdrop allowed Willie’s content team (in this instance animator and filmmaker Run Wrake) to add graphics and other visual treatment during post-production, before the piece premiered.
‘After many years I am finally able to speak to you…’
Fluent, articulate and graceful Daw Suu proved a natural in
front of the camera.
‘You who across
such distances sent such support to Burma, we thank you: students, teachers,
workers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, music fans - U2 fans like me.
'When you raise your voices we hear them in our country and
around the world, they are louder than any rock band, than any army, than rocket fire or fighter jet…'
As we talked between takes it became clear she was very
familiar with the work of the band and fans down the years in joining forces with Amnesty International
and the Burma Campaign
to help secure her freedom. On
smuggled-in video, she has seen volunteers at U2360° shows wearing masks of her own face, making a slow vigil around the stage each night, ringed by a circle of luminous lanterns. She has watched as the band perform Walk On, the song inspired by her and dedicated to her.
‘You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom
Walk on, walk on
What you've got they can't deny it
Can't sell it, can't buy it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight..’
Aung San Suu Kyi could have flown away from Burma many times but then she wouldn't have been allowed to return and the people would have lost their inspiration on their journey to freedom.
Eight years ago, in an earlier period when her house arrest was lifted, she narrowly escaped murder in a government-backed attack which left 70 dead. She chose to stay with the people
even when her husband in the UK was dying of cancer and the authorities wouldn’t allow him to visit her. But for all the sacrifices she
would rather the spotlight is turned on others.
She wants the world to know that there are still more than
2,100 political prisoners in Burma and that despite sham ‘elections’ last year, condemned by the international community, none of the repressive laws allowing the dictatorship to detain people without trial and restrict other freedoms have been repealed. While she has a degree more freedom than previously, the people of her country do not and her focus is on strengthening the NLD, even while so
many of its leaders are in prison – some facing 65 year sentences.
At one point she looks around the room
at her NLD colleagues and observes that everyone else here has been in prison for their beliefs. As she says, ‘A lot of our people could have chosen not to go to prison if they had given up working for the movement for democracy.’
Filming done, gifts exchanged, Aung San Suu Kyi has a message for Bono which captures her indomitable spirit, her certain conviction that freedom is coming for the people of Burma.
‘Thank you very much for all that you have done for us and
what we really have to do is to get together sometime. I hope that soon you will be able to come to Burma and have
a great big rousing concert to celebrate democracy in Burma…’