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Walk On & Aung San Suu Kyi: Story of a life in song

Thursday 17 May 2012, by Florian pour U2 France

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Those of you who followed the international news last week will understand that this article was not written by accident. This April 1st - and that was no April fool like we could have believed still two years ago - Aung San Suu Kyi easily won a parliamentary seat in her native country of Burma. U2 fans, you must know this woman even though her name might not ring a bell: she’s the heart of Walk On, a U2 song which echoes the story of that great Lady.

Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: ©Christophe Lovigny - Abaca)

By Pauline, translated by Florian

The Lady of Rangoon

Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June, 19 of 1945 in Rangoon, Burma. The political situation of her country and the commitment of both her parents left its mark on Aung San Suu Kyi and turned her into a woman close to Burma’s issues, who would end up working for improving the condition of the Burmese people.

Her father was the general who negotiated the independence of Burma and paid the price of it only a few months before the declaration of independence of the country in 1947. As for Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, she was an ambassador of Burma in India in the sixties, after spending several years making her way into politics.

Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi only engaged into politics at the age of 43 when she moved back to her native country in order to take care of her sick mother. Before this, she was living in England where she studies, got married and gave birth to two children. When she came back to Burma ion 1988, the country’s situation began to change:  the Burma Socialist Programme Party which ruled the nation lost the power. The Burmese junta (military force) took the power and established a dictatorship, punishing every pro-democratic gesture. After this political turnaround, Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) which worked for democracy-today she’s still serving as General Secretary.

In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi became the impersonation of a thirst for political freedom that most of the Burmese people share. At that time she suffered a series of arrests, imprisonments and administrative retentions led by the Burmese junta which couldn’t stand the dangerous political position represented by the one that would now be called "The Lady Of Rangoon". In 2003, the Burmese junta attempted to get Aung San Suu Kyi killed, an operation which failed but caused the deaths of several NLD supporters.

A woman against repression

During the past 20 years, it’s been very hard for Aung San Suu Kyi to lead her political activities from her secured residence, from which she couldn’t get out at all. her courage, her commitment and most of all her determination will end up overcoming the military junta and make it hold elections, as well as let Aung San Suu Kyi get out of her residence - a temporary decision, as there was always a good reason to get her back to house arrest.

In 1990 the military junta was forced, regarding the pressure from the Burmese people, to hold elections. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party easily won them with almost 59% of votes, which gave the NLD 392 out of 492 seats and Aung San Suu Kyi the role of Prime Minister. But as the junta wouldn’t accept it, the elections simply got cancelled. Following this event, Aung San Suu Kyi’s international supporters began to raise their voices, and a year later she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

New elections would only be held again in November of 2010, but the NLD refused to participate as they knew for sure the results would be fixed. As it were, the Burmese junta would have been given 80% of the seats at the Burmese Assembly. Europe and the United States questioned this election and doing so increased their support to Aung San Suu Kyi as well as their pressure on the junta. Six days later Aung San Suu Kyi got released from house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi’s recovered freedom meant a first victory for both the NLD and the Burmese people, who could go to jail when expressing support to the democratic party.

New elections were held at the beginning of the month of April 2012, they were eagerly awaited by the Burmese as they represented the first real elections since 20 years, and a great chance for the National League for Democracy to conquer seats. 45 districts were subject to vote during this election (matching the number of seats to renew), the NDL stand in 44 of them. With great success, as the party end up being victorious in 43 districts, conquering 95% of the available seats-enough to make any of our French politicians jealous. On April, 23 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi will then become a member of the Burmese parliament’s lower house.

Despite this success, the victory has to be put into perspective as the election was only about 45 seats, when the Burmese Parliament counts 664 of them. It remains nevertheless a positive change for Burma, as the country can now hope for more democracy after an experience of 24 years of dictatorship and dream of a new victory for the upcoming elections of 2015. Maybe is it, to quote Aung San Suu Kyi, "the beginning of a new era".

When Irish rock stars discover a heart-rending life

U2 didn’t know about Aung San Suu Kyi’s life before they attended the Freedom of the City of Dublin ceremony on March, 18 2000. This event acknowledges famous people and anonymous citizens for their heroic actions. On that very day, the four members of U2 got awarded with a Freedom of Dublin City award, along with Aung San Suu Kyi. As the Lady of Rangoon was not there because of her house arrest, the Irish rockers got curious about her story and decided to learn more about her.

Bono would immediately get moved by Aung San Suu Kyi’s life, regarding her dedication to her country as well as because of the hard choice she made not to see her husband and two children anymore. When she got back to Burma in 1998-initially for a short visit as she wanted to take care of her mother-her husband and two children stayed in England. But the sudden changes in Burma led Aung San Suu Kyi to extend her stay as she decided to act for the people by creating the National League for Democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi has certainly not planned she would be put on house arrest by the Burmese junta and that she would live apart from her family. The military power tried to take advantage of this situation: in 1995, she got freed and allowed to go back to England (the junta could then count on one opponent less on its ground) if she agreed to take a one way ticket. Aung San Suu Kyi then realized that if she decided to go back to her family, she would have to give up her battle for democracy in Burma as there would be no coming back. She chose not to leave, and never got to see her husband again as he passed away in 1999.

Walk on: all that Aung San Suu Kyi left behind

According to Bono, the choice Aung San Suu Kyi made is one of the bravest acts of the twentieth century. The story of the Lady of Rangoon gave Bono such inspiration that it became the subject of the song U2 was looking for in order to close their album: Walk On.

Niall Stokes explains, "

« Bono a d’abord essayé d’écrire la chanson en adoptant le point de vue du mari et du fils : rêver de ce qu’aurait pu être leur vie commune, s’inquiéter de ne rien savoir d’elle, pas même si elle est toujours en vie. » At the end Bono left this idea behind and liked better the idea of a love song about the one who left aside her love and family life to go fight for her country.

Bono dit de Walk On : « C’est une chanson sur la noblesse d’âme et le sacrifice personnel, sur ce qu’il est bien de faire, même si votre cœur vous dit le contraire. L’amour, au sens noble du terme, est la seule chose que vous pouvez toujours emmener avec vous, dans votre cœur. » Such an idea explains the logo chosen for the album’s tour, the Elevation Tour, which represents a suitcase with a heart in its center. The same heart that gave the tour’s catwalk its shape (U2 really thinks about it all!).

Bono poursuit : « A la fin du morceau, il y a une litanie d’ambitions et d’achèvements (NDLA : vous pouvez lire les paroles et la traduction de Walk On dans nos ressources). C’est un bûcher de vanités et vous pouvez tout envoyer au feu. Quoi que vous désiriez plus fortement que l’amour, cela doit disparaître. C’est une bonne question à poser : quelles sont les choses que vous désirez encore plus que l’amour ? » To Aung San Suu Kyi, the answer seems to be freedom for her native country.

Walk On is somehow a goodbye song to loved ones, like other tiles such as Kite and Stuck In a Moment (both tracks appearing on All That You Can’t Leave Behind). This farewell from Aung San Suu Kyi when she leaved Oxford for Burma inspired the front cover of U2’s album as well as video clips from it-the recurrent image of an airport as a symbol for departure. The front cover was taken in Paris at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle’s airport, on the same spot where the video clip of Beautiful Day was shot. As far as Elevation, Stuck in a Moment and Walk On are concerned (only for the international version of the last two), they all start with the image of a plane in the sky.

So Aung San Suu Kyi’s story inspired the song Walk On, which itself inspired the album and tour’s artwork as well as the album’s name : ’All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is a lyric taken from the song Walk On-echoing Aung San Suu Kyi’s choice.

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"Home… I can’t say where it is but I know I’m going home : that’s where the hurt is."

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