12th October 1997


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Book Review

A voice in the wilderness

Letters from Burma

Reviewed by Kishali Pinto Jayawardana

Breaking up for lunch one day during a study tour in Singapore recently, I could not help joining in an animated conversation between a Singaporean dean of communication studies and a fellow delegate from Tokyo. The latter had been a colleague of Aung San Suu Kyi’s British husband Dr. Michael Aris in Oxford, and she chuckled as she remembers the Burmese freedom fighter.

"She was then the perfect wife and mother, you know. She kept an immaculate house, and was a good cook. That was all a long time ago, of course. "She still keeps in touch, such contact as is allowed by the Burmese military authorities who maintain a strict watch over the doings of the woman referred to by many as Burma’s conscience. The Singaporean academic was in the middle of reading the collection of articles originally written for a Japanese newspaper by Aung San Suu Kyi titled Letters from Burma, and was inspired by it.

"Suu Kyi has always impressed me by the manner in which she has exposed the wrongs of the military junta. It is all so non- confrontational, there is no great fanfare about it... she just goes out and does it. Such persistence is bound to win at the end" she points out. The manner in which Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have been drawn into the freedom struggle now convulsing Burma is itself a unique story.

Her return to Burma from England in 1988 to care for her dying mother had coincided with the outbreak of a spontaneous revolt against twenty six years of political repression and economic decline. She had quickly emerged as the most effective and articulate leader of the movement, and the party she founded went on to win a resounding election victory in May 1990. In July 1989 she was put under house arrest and the military junta that now rules Burma refused for six years either to free her or to transfer power to a civilian government as it had promised. Upon her release in 1995 she immediately resumed the struggle for political freedom in her country. Her leaving the country even for a brief while to see her family is hampered by the most certain knowledge that she would not be allowed in again.

I cannot help but question the practical reality behind such an immense personal sacrifice in this day and age of quick compromise and short memories. Yes, Gandhi and Mandela do come to mind, but the circumstances are surely different in each case. Despite the Nobel Peace Prize, despite the many other prizes awarded for her efforts, would the Burmese people appreciate it, would the personal and family trauma be worth it in the end? "It is not an easy path to take. But, the people are behind her because they know her sincerity and her worth. Such persistence is bound to win out at the end" my conversationalists say.

My curiosity being stirred by the exchange, I pick up the book which contains her fifty two articles from the nearest bookstore, and begin reading. An answer to my question is provided almost immediately in the introduction to the book by Fergal Keane, one of BBC’s most well known correspondents. Keane describes his impressions upon travelling to Burma soon after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

"I asked numerous people - teachers, peasants, monks, even a few off duty soldiers why there is such a well spring of feeling for her." Keane says.

"After all, she has been actively involved at the forefront of Burmese politics for less than a decade - nothing like the political struggle of her fellow Nobel prize winner Nelson Mandela. Perhaps, the most eloquent answer to my question came from an old man, standing drenched to the skin outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house on the day after her release, who said that they come there because they know that they are the most important thing in the world to her, she cares about them," he points out, adding that to a people who suffer continually the brutality of one of the world’s most odious regimes, the notion that a leader might actually care about them and compromise her own freedom to fight for theirs is indeed unusual. Browsing through the book, one is at once struck by the matter of fact manner in which instances of disappearances, death and torture are dealt with.

I remember my Japanese colleague remarking at the time of our conversation that the manner in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s spirit is sought to be broken is not to touch her physically. The international furore would be too much for that. Instead, her friends and colleagues are intimidated, tortured, and spirited away in the dead of the night. She deals with three such instances in moving detail, going on to remark that the price of liberty has never been cheap, and in Burma it is particularly high.

Even in the midst of brutality her idealism stands out strongly. "Some have questioned the appropriateness of talking of such matters as metta (loving kindness) and thissa (truth) in the political context. But politics is about people and what we have seen... proved that love and truth can move people more strongly than any form of coercion." she explains in one letter.

Of particular poignancy is her account of the suffering that young children go through when their parents are put behind bars for espousing a political cause. In Burma, those who are held to endanger state security can be arrested under a section of the law that allows detention for a maximum period of three years. Prisoners who are not tried are not allowed to see their families, that privilege is allowed to them only after they have been sentenced. Such visits are permitted only for a period of fifteen minutes.

"Political prisoners have to speak to their families through a double barrier of iron grating and wire netting so that no physical contact is possible. The children of one political prisoner would make small holes in the netting and push their fingers through to touch their father. When the holes got visibly large, the jail authorities had them patched up with thin sheets of tin. The children would start all over again trying to bore a hole through to their father. It is not the sort of activity one would wish for any child," she remarks.

Meanwhile a tragicomic incident is related with much humour. In Burma, strangers in any house have to be reported to the local authorities.

If not, both the guest and the host are liable to a fine or imprisonment upto six months. Since 1988, the case of prison sentences meted out to unreported guests have increased hugely. In one instance, a young man caught spending the night as an unreported guest was taken to court together with his host. The court handed down a prison sentence of six months to the guest and two weeks to the host. The host, a hospitable man with a long experience of paying fines for his unexpected and unreported guests, involuntarily clicked his tongue against his teeth in astonished disgust. The acting magistrate heard the loud click and promptly changed the sentence on the host to one month’s imprisonment for contempt of court. In Burma, hospitality is indeed no longer simple.

What lessons do Letters from Burma offer to Sri Lankans? In both countries where the people are crying out for higher standards in democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation, the continuing call to spiritual, mental and non-violent action by this Burmese freedom fighter is both inspiring and strengthening. For those of us who are sick to the teeth of the tired cliches trotted out by most of our political leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi’s book makes good reading.

Where to get what

Hands on Colombo

By Peter A. Kamps

"Hands on Colombo’, a consumer’s guide to the city was released in mid-August and provides the reader with an intelligent guide to goods and services available.

In his foreword to the book, publisher Peter Kamps says one question he found frequently asked was "many things are available in Colombo, but how can I find it?" So he set about providing unbiased information, note not promotional information, on where to get what. All entries, he hastens to add, refer to goods or services of a high standard and are listed free of charge.

Charge d’ Affaires of the Netherlands Embassy in Colombo Alphons Hennekens says the book guides the consumer through a maze of possibilities in the city. "A quick glance before you shop might save you a tank of petrol, keep the family happy and prevent frustration," he writes in the foreword.

Contents are listed alphabetically such as religion , restaurants and sarees, but some sections do have sub sections. Religion, for instance, has kovils, churches and mosques while restaurants run into Chinese, continental, fast food, Korean, Indian, Japanese etc. Shopping for instance, begins with chicken and chocolate, giving you where to purchase these two foods and then progresses to list the numerous shopping centres and malls, before venturing into the Pettah and giving a street by street guide of goods on sale in what the writer terms Colombo’s ‘warehouse’.

The author has chosen an innovative way of getting the reader’s attention by inserting a how to use guide to the book, plus other interesting and more importantly useful notes such as the table of street conversions which lists the new name, the old name and sector of the many Colombo streets that have changed with the times. The book is not without its troubles. It could do with some judicious editing and could have been more comprehensive. Under international schools for example, the British School, Overseas Children’s School and Elizabeth Moir School rate a mention with Colombo International School being extensively written about but others like Stafford, Wycherley and the Asian International,are not included.

But the book is being revised and in a move to increase the 125 subject headings and over 1,100 references it now has, the publisher has included a ‘response card’ that requests readers to send suggestions as to goods and services that may have been inadvertently excluded from the 1997 edition.

Coming in a reader friendly format as it does, ‘Hands on Colombo’is a useful addition to any home or office.

Where elegance, simplicity reign

Law of Evidence in Sri Lanka Relating to Criminal Cases - by Gunasena Thenabadu

Reviewed by Chandradasa Nanayakkara

Although people had an opportunity of receiving education in Sinhala with the introduction of Sinhala as the official language of the country, legal education particularly at the Law College of Sri Lanka till about 1974, was mainly in English.

Despite Sinhala becoming the medium of instruction in schools as a sequel to the introduction of Sinhala as the official language only a handful of important and essential law books have been published in Sinhala during the last few decades.

Even that handful of books has been written in highly legal and technical language. As a result, the people preferred to use the books written in simple English rather than the books written in difficult, highly legal and technical Sinhala.

Therefore, at a time when there is a dearth of important and essential books written in Sinhala on law, Mr. Thenabadu deserves the praise and gratitude of readers for bringing out this book in Sinhala on the law of evidence.

The Law of Evidence is one of the most complex and intricate subjects, but in this work the author has presented the complex legal principles and concepts to the reader, in clear, lucid and summary form.

As regards the layout and the content of the book, it is well structured and contains 14 chapters running into 286 pages, including the table of cases. The book is intended to be an introductory survey of the subject. In this work relevant legal principles have been classified and defined under separate headings including: circumstances under which statements and confessions can be proved: when expert opinion becomes admissible and relevant: character evidence and facts which cannot be proved, each of them under different chapters.

A noteworthy feature in this work is that the author has included at the end of each chapter, a list of model questions and answers which will help the readers to develop their interests in the appropriate areas to promote assimilation of the subject.

In a way, this book is different from many other books written in Sinhala on law in that the author has deviated from the traditional legal style of writing, and adopted a simple and elegant style of writing which enables the reader to enjoy reading and grasp the contents effortlessly.

Another special feature in this work is the inclusion of a chapter on computer evidence. The use and implication of high technological equipment and processes upon the law have been profound and tremendous and has raised many important and challenging legal issues.

This review however is incomplete without a word about the author. Mr. Gunasena Thenabadu, who devotes himself to academic pursuits is a Senior Superintendent of Police, and he should be congratulated for bringing out this valuable publication, inspite of his manifold duties as a Senior Police Officer. He holds an L. L. B. Degree and M. A. Degree from the University of Colombo and was recently sworn in as an Attorney-at-Law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. He holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Criminology awarded by the London School of Politics and Economics of the University of London.

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