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Desert Island Discs: Aung San Suu Kyi

Wednesday 23 January 2013, 15:50

Cathy Drysdale Cathy Drysdale

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Editor's Note: On 18 December 2012 Kirsty Young travelled to Burma to interview Aung San Suu Kyi for Desert Island Discs at her home in Naypyitaw. Desert Island Discs Series Producer, Cathy Drysdale, tells the story behind the recording.

See a gallery of pictures from the trip here

Listen to the programme here


Aung San Suu Kyi with Kirsty Young At Aung San Suu Kyi's home in Naypyitaw, Burma

When I saw Aung San Suu Kyi and Desert Island Discs being talked about on Twitter, I couldn't work out what was going on. Astonishingly, Aung San Suu Kyi had begun her Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech with this sentence (full text)

"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) ..."

Happily Radio 4 isn't a place which lets such an opportunity slip out of its grasp and Gwyneth Williams, (Controller Radio 4) immediately wrote a personal invitation to Aung San Suu Kyi which was hand delivered by Fergal Keane during Daw Suu's emotional visit to the UK.  A few months later Gwyn appeared in our office to pass on the amazing news that Aung San Suu Kyi had agreed - in principle - to appear on the programme. I embarrassed myself by actually jumping up and down on the spot. 

As a figure of world renown, Aung San Suu Kyi is spoken of along with Gandhi and Mandela and from the start I was certain that we should interview her in her home in Rangoon where she'd been so isolated but was now free. However as Burma is only just opening up to visitors I knew the whole production would be difficult to pull off. A key figure was my colleague Nick Springate, a Senior World Affairs Producer with BBC News, whose long experience of working in Burma meant he has unrivalled knowledge and contacts and was a brilliant 'fixer'. 

We did get our visas and a date for the interview only to be bumped by President Obama - who was to visit Daw Suu in Rangoon (and was clearly enraptured by her). Luckily we got another date.  1630 on Tuesday December 18th at her home in Rangoon.  Kirsty and I set about preparing (research, risk assessments, jabs, cancelling pre-Christmas plans).  5 days before we were due to travel, Nick rang to say Daw Suu would be in Naypyitaw, Burma's administrative capital city, rather than Rangoon.  My heart sank as we'd all been keenly anticipating experiencing being inside her famous home.  But of greater concern was the complete absence of any musical choices.  I felt the whole enterprise was hanging by the slimmest of threads.  Then on the Friday morning Nick rang sounding really cheerful.  He had her music choices!  I suddenly felt more able to breathe. 

When Bob, Kirsty and I met up for a pre-flight drink none of us could really believe what we were about to do:  we were all conscious that we were about to fly into Burma on official visas in a way that had on many occasions been denied Aung San Suu Kyi's husband and children.  To add to the sense of unreality, the next day, as we - bleary eyed - were checking in for the connecting flight to Naypyitaw, Bob said, "eyes right" and a frisson of excitement swept across the room as Aung San Suu Kyi herself arrived to board our flight. Incredibly I found myself sitting right behind her and could admire the beautiful yellow roses she was wearing in her hair at very close quarters.  By this stage Kirsty and I had descended into silence.

Naypyitaw is a strange place.  Not only was the shiny new airport empty, but so too was the eight-lane highway to our not-quite-finished hotel.  En route it occurred to me that the road was in some ways a metaphor for Burma (Myanmar) today - to the left huge, concrete buildings which will become international hotels, to the right women in straw hats were sweeping the road and the fields were being tended in a way that will have remained unchanging for centuries.

After reviewing and refining the programme structure, questions and music, Kirsty and I had a brief bite to eat and a 15 minute power nap before heading off with Nick and Bob to Daw Suu's house.  Unlike her home in Rangoon, it's an anonymous house on what feels like a new housing estate still in the process of being built.

She was running late but that she'd phoned ahead and asked for us to wait inside.  Bob rigged the mics, Kirsty ran through her introduction and I had a quick look around the room, noting that two portraits of her father, General Aung San, a hero of the Burmese independence movement in the forties who was assassinated when his daughter was just two, hung on the walls.

And then there she was - resplendent in a beautifully embroidered coral outfit.  As we'd experienced at the airport, you sense her presence even before you see her, such is the aura around her.  She is beautiful - very composed, with frighteningly good posture - she sat still and erect throughout the 80 minutes we had with her - and has a very direct gaze.  We knew she was a very private person, capable of intense steeliness and were expecting her to be formidable but people who knew her privately also reported that she had a playful side too.  We were hopeful that the brilliant format of Desert Island Discs would perhaps allow her to show more of her personality than is usually possible in straightforward political interviews.

We had been told we'd have no more than an hour with her so had planned to play a minimal amount of the music as we recorded. In the event, Daw Suu was listening with such attention, and was so obviously moved by what she heard, that we let the music run.  The time flew by:  re-reading the notes I took at the time is one word that stands out - I'd written "surreal" in capital letters.

As soon as we'd finished, we took a few photos and then she was gone, leaving us with huge relief that after all the planning, travelling, preparing and worrying, we had actually recorded a programme.  As we left for the inevitable celebratory refreshment, we were all struck by how much thought she'd given to the interview and impressed by her humility, charmed by her sense of humour.  We felt privileged to have met her and we are just so grateful to Aung San Suu Kyi for giving us her time and sharing her story with us so generously.

A correction has been made to this blog post since it was originally published. 


Related Links: 

Desert Island Discs - Aung San Suu Kyi
Desert Island Discs - Homepage

Kirsty Young's preview interview in the Radio Times

Politicians and Nobel laureates in the DID archive:
Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher - UK's first woman Prime Minister
Rt Hon Baroness Boothroyd - first woman Speaker of the House of Commons
Wangari Maathai - first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize
Rt Hon Mo Mowlam - former Northern Ireland Secretary

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Although there are the abundancies of so many others, people like Aung San Suu Kyi occur hardly ever, and disquietly, as if out of some besetting order of things; but not a more elemental other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Why does the article start by saying 'at her home in Naypyitaw'?
    Her home is in Yangon. I was there in November, and visited her gates, a few days before Obama arrived. She maybe forced to have a residence in Naypyitaw, the new Capital.
    Isn't it time the UK started to call Burma Myanmar? The political situation is slowly changing for the better, maybe it would be a gesture of good will?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "Isn't it time the UK started to call Burma Myanmar? The political situation is slowly changing for the better, maybe it would be a gesture of good will?" -

    Tell that to the families of the Kachin men women and children killed in military air strikes last week. If those shells were landing in Rangoon I doubt the international community would be so quick to heap praise upon Thein Sein's "reforms".

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I suppose it was too difficult to record the programme in UK during her visit to these shores. Just seems an amazing cost to the licence payer. It must have been cheaper to record the interview in London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "Aung San Suu Kyi is spoken of along with Gandhi and Mandela" ... Careful now. She may well be but she is also a Buddhist populist who is being very slow to stand for all Myanmar people NB. Rohingya, if to do so risks Buddhist votes in 2015.

    "Burma is only just opening up to visitors" ... Er ... No ... Myanmar has been very easy to visit for the last twenty years or so. 28 day visas cost £14 and take 48 hours to get from the London embassy.

    "her father, General Aung San, a hero of the Burmese independence movement in the fifties" ... Er ... General Aung San was assassinated in 1947.


  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Brilliant DIDiscs, what an amazing lady, must have been an honour to interview her. Incredible picking a track suggested by another person, so humble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I have just listened to Aung San Suu Kyi, on DID.. What a Lady. I have tears still in my eyes.

    I know this programme is a special, but could we have more International people on the series

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    This extraordinary woman is stepping very difficult path. Her clarity, mindfulness and compassion are inspiring. She is not an easy person to listen to as she cuts through our preconceptions with her knife like honesty. It is a great opportunity to reflect on our own lives.
    Thanks to the producers of Desert Island Discs to give us the opportunity to listen to her.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    As an aged long term expatriate I have listened to Desert Island Discs for some 50 years from short wave to modern media technology and in dozwns of countries.
    In my opinion the bradcast was handle perfectly by Kirsty Young and the whole presentation was a credit to the BBC. Aung San Tuu Kyi is remarkable and I am a little sad to see comments with political overtones , however I realise that today's generation [and going back some years] feel impelled to be negative.
    Thank you for the best D.I.Discs I have heard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    In the early 1960s, the World Bank did a survey of Asia. Burma and the Philippines ranked top as star economies. In the event, Burma did not realize its potential because of a military coup that was to put the country in cold storage for close to sixty years. Let's hope Aung San Suu Kyi can lead the country out of the limbo in the near future. Burma is extremely rich in natural resources. All it needs is a good and dynamic leader; it's hard to think of a better person than Aung San Suu Kyi.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It moved me much - though, perhaps, I anticipated it to much. Such a woman! Practician, indeed. I think the West will never quite get how patrician she is. She honours her countries history and is honoured by it. As it were, a family dispute - a mistake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I saw this advertised and having not listened to Desert Island Discs for sometime, thought it would be interesting. It was better than I thought and I am with RobertofAyelo, it was absolutely the most refreshing and honest interview I've heard for a very long time. For once I do not begrudge paying the license fee; this was educational whilst not seeking to explain the entire history (impossible in the timeframe) , but said enough about human spirit and resolve to show what good can be achieved peacefully. "The Lady" is as described.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Peter Stokes: Perhaps you should read the article before commenting on it!

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Bulcotecowboy- did you go to Burma in the last 20 years? Just after the revolution in the 80's is was difficult to get a visa, and it stayed this way for at least five years. You were monitered as a tourist, you had to spend at least X amount of dollars ( customs checked you had the cash on the way in) and you could only stay in govet approved hotels. You had to carry a piece of paper around as your tourist paper which was stamped at every guest house and hostel. It was forbidden for locals to talk to you.
    I had several friends there, having met them during a cafe visit, on two occasions. They disappeared, taken of the streets by the SLORC, just for talking about the black market. Pepole watched me from behind newspapers. I was followed. Another woman disappeared after she'd talked to me about Ne Win. The people back then were terrified. Once I lost my tourist paper and the hotel manager freaked out. He'd have to throw me out. Eventually I found it, but in that time, he'd stressed out so much I almost thought he was going to have a heart attack. This is the "easy" you're talking about. Easy for these people after the revolution and it being a just broken open country?
    Don't say it was easy. just keep reading your Lonely Planet guides, Mk pal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Here is a response from Cathy Drysdale:

    Thank you so much for all the lovely comments in response to the programme – we’re delighted so many of you enjoyed listening to what Aung San Suu Kyi had to say. In response to some of your specific queries/comments:

    Peter Stokes is right when he says that it was too difficult to record Aung San Suu Kyi while she was over in the UK last summer. Indeed not only was her schedule packed but the invitation was only passed to her during that visit and we don’t know of any plans for her to return here in the near future. Given that her devotion to her country is such a part of her story we felt that it would be desirable to record in Burma. We were very conscious of the fact, as we sat in her home in Naypyitaw, that we were only able to be there because she is now free and an elected member of parliament. In addition to being broadcast on Radio 4 (Sunday 27th Jan and Friday 1st Feb) it was also transmitted to a global audience on the BBC World Service so we believe that overall, given the number of listeners to the programme, the recording represented good value to the licence payer.

    My apologies to bulcotecowboy - ‘the fifties’ should indeed read ‘the forties’. This has now been corrected.

    Regarding Justin’s remarks that her home is in Rangoon (Yangon) that is indeed her long-standing home and where she spent her years of house arrest. However since she became an MP in April 2012, she also has a home in Naypyitaw where she stays when she is attending the Parliament there and that is where we did the interview.

    With regard to the queries about why the BBC doesn’t call Burma, Myanmar, the BBC’s position is explained in this blog http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2012/06/burma_whats_in_a_name.html written by BBC World News editor Jon Williams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Am just listening to the programme, very moving. I've rarely been moved to tears like this. Thank you so much for a wonderful hour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    How many more major league narcissists can Kirsty bag? First Sister Wendy, now Soo Kyi. Next up Madonna, perhaps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    This programme is up to usual high standard, interesting & relaxed interview giving some insight. I think there should be a rose bush named after Aung San Suu Kyi, but I don't know how or who breeds & names rose bushes, does anyone at BBC know? I doubt even modern scientists could grow one with daily changes of colour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I've just heard the interview for a second time and I was struck how clear she is in her thinking about the path she has chosen and how straightforward she is without any kind of ducking or diving as most politicians tend to play. Daw Suu provided a breath of fresh air and simplicity and answered all the awkward questions thrown at her by Kirsty Young in her usual gentle and unruffled way. I also loved the fact that she directly involved her sons and others in her life to choose the particular pieces of music. I was moved to tears by the end. What a shining example for all of us. Well done the BBC!


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