The Lady And The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi
In April 1988, Suu Kyi returned from Britain to Burma to nurse her sick mother but, within six months, found herself the unchallenged leader of the largest popular revolt in her country's history. When the party she co-founded won a landslide victory in Burma's first free elections for thirty years, she was already under house arrest and barred from taking office by the military junta.

Since then, 'The Lady' has set about transforming her country ethically as well as politically, displaying dazzling courage in the process...
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3rd May

Elizabeth Warren profile: published in The Independent, 3 May 2014


Peter Popham



Will Hillary Clinton be the next President of the United States? For a long time she has been viewed as the Democratic Party’s best prospect for 2016. The lady herself has yet to declare; she regularly deflects the question, which insiders say is neither coyness nor strategy but because she genuinely has yet to make up her mind. Her four-year stint as secretary of State left her exhausted. If elected she would begin her tenure aged 69. There are plenty of reasons to think long and hard.

And suddenly, running up on the inside very much as Mr Obama did in 2008, comes another woman: a grandmotherly professor trailing clouds of liberal credibility, with a passionate belief in her mission to restore justice and fairness to a system which has “chipped, squeezed and hammered” the middle class.

Elizabeth Warren, who launched her political career in 2012 by thrashing Scott Brown, the Republican magpie in the Massachusetts senate seat, is not running for president. She has said so many times and on many occasions. Furthermore she is a huge admirer of Hillary, the “presumptive nominee”. “I think Hillary Clinton is terrific,” she says. Hillary is “one of the coolest women on the planet.”

But Hillary Clinton is also mortal. She has not made up her mind. And suddenly, despite all the poker-faced denials – “I am not running for president: ask me any way you like” – Elizabeth Warren’s possible challenge is the talk of America.


If you were to design the perfect cv for a liberal presidential contender from the ground up, you could not do better than her life story.

Today aged 64 she sits fair and square among the great and the good: the first woman to sit in the Senate from Massachusetts, a law professor at Harvard, former Special Advisor to the Consumer Protection Bureau, champion Democratic fund-raiser. And she looks and sounds the part with her conservative suits, her timeless blonde bob, her frameless spectacles.

But no such outcome would have seemed very likely when, as 13-year-old Elizabeth Herring from Oklahoma, she began waiting on tables to help support her family. The Herrings had already lost the family station wagon after her father Donald, sometime carpet salesman, maintenance man and janitor, suffered a heart attack; now the family home was at risk, too.

At 19 she married a NASA engineer then began teaching handicapped children in a special primary school. When she subsequently gave birth to the couple’s first child and stopped working to raise her daughter at home, it would have taken a shrewd judge of character to see any special glory in her stars.

But Mrs Warren, who had already gained one university degree, clearly saw that her life was destined to hold more than housework. She enrolled in law school, took summer work with a law practice then after the birth of their second child and divorce from Jim Warren, supported her family by working as a lawyer at home, writing wills and negotiating mortgages.

After a second marriage to a Harvard law professor called Bruce Mann, she rose through the profession till reaching the same revered law school as Bruce. And along the way her ideas began to change.

A Republican voter in her earlier years, it began to dawn on her that the dice were increasingly loaded against her own kind, what she calls “the ragged edges of the middle class.” A turning-point came in 1995 when she was asked to advise a body called the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. She fought long and hard to give consumers the biggest possible right to file for bankruptcy; her failure to overturn the power of the big business lobbies opposed to that taught her a lesson in what the common American man and woman were up against.

Through a steady stream of books, lectures and interviews she became known as a consumer advocate, but her rise to national prominence was sudden. After the Wall Street crash of 2008 she was appointed chairwoman of the congressional committee appointed to oversee the use of the vast sums which the government had poured in to big financial institutions. She was not impressed, and in a series of televised challenges that were forensic in detail but quietly passionate in intensity – not unlike the parliamentary committee performances of our own Margaret Hodge – she set the bankers and their political defenders squirming. The word went around that the ordinary Joe had a vigorous new champion. YouTube did the rest.

Under her persuasion President Obama set up a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and she was the favourite to head it. And when, under massive Republican pressure, Obama chose a candidate less likely to test the bureau’s powers to the limit, Warren did an about-turn and headed for the Senate.

She came very late to politics, which makes her impact all the more impressive. In Massachusetts she raised more than $40 million for her campaign, more than any other Senate candidate. And although her oratorical style is meat and potatoes compared to Obama’s, it has inspired a huge following of Democrats convinced that America is in need of radical change.

“People feel like the system is rigged against them,” she told the Democratic Convention in 2012, “and here’s the painful part: they’re right.”

By setting out her stall on the issue of chronic and growing inequality, she has hit a nerve. “Billionaires,” she told the same audience, “pay less tax than their secretaries…People don’t resent that other people make more money – we’re Americans, we celebrate success. We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”

On the stump in Andover, Massachusetts, it was put to her that forcing the rich to pay more tax was “class warfare”. Her improvised reply – another YouTube smash hit – was perhaps the most succinct rebuttal of the Tea Party’s anti-government dogma ever made.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” she said. “You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate…You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…You built a factory and it turned into something terrific. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

It’s a simple, timeworn message. But as Americans digest the sombre message of French scholar Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-seller Capital in the Twenty-first Century – proving that economic inequality is growing out of control – it resonates powerfully.

A Warren candidacy would have a gale of popular support behind it: professor, senator, economic policy wonk, for the grassroots she is above all a passionate activist. In her just-published memoir A Fighting Chance she recalls a dinner in 2009 with Lawrence H. Summers, then President Obama’s top economic adviser. “Larry offered me some advice,” she writes. “…I could be an insider or an outsider…Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them.”

Insiders listen to Elizabeth Warren, but it is as a potent outsider that she is prized. Could that potency survive a run for the top job?


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25th Apr


Peter Popham



Going by the book, Pope John XXIII should have had to wait for a second miracle to be proved before being elevated to the sainthood. It is a sign of the new mood in the Catholic church – as well as the mood that has always surrounded that particular pontiff, described by one papal historian as “the most beloved pope in history” – that no-one has made a big fuss about this bending of the rules.

John Paul II, the Polish pope, has been bustling towards the company of saints since the crowds in St Peter’s Square roared “Santo subito!” (“Make him a saint at once!”) at his funeral in 2005. John XXIII, who died 42 years earlier, has been waiting in the non-speedy boarding line all these years. So it was imaginative of the new pope, Francis, to bring their fans together, to turn the Polish pope’s big day into a carnival for the church as a whole: conservatives and liberals, heirs of the permissive 1960s and those who have set their face against all such deviations, thrown together, obliged to share each others’ joys. It’s the act of a man with a sense of humour, and possibly a grain of sadism. Also – in his nonchalant waiving of the rules – with a keen sense of his own regal power, and a willingness to use it.

One seasoned Italian Vatican observer said of Francis’s decision to bump John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli before his elevation) to the front of the queue, “He wanted to make someone he really likes a saint.” That rings true. They are popes out of the same box. When Francis came onto the balcony of St Peter’s after his election and said “Buona sera” – as if meeting a family of church-goers in the town piazza after Mass, rather than presenting himself as the freshly-crowned monarch of an institution one billion-strong – the resonance was already clear to the liberal Catholics who have been waiting since 1963 for some good news.

Angelo Roncalli, the fat pope, the good pope, the smiling pope, was also the pope of surprises. On his election it was explained that this obscure and harmless Vatican diplomat, deep into his retirement job as Patriarch of Venice, would mind the shop for a few years, allowing the Church to get its breath back after the long, controversial reign of Pius XII, widely denounced for not standing up to Hitler. But it seems that however much the cardinals in conclave brood, plot and pray, they never know what will become of a common-or-garden cleric once he dons, Clark Kent-like, those papal robes. Who could have foreseen the way John Paul II tore around the world, turning himself into the first celebrity pope? Who could have imagined that his subtle, self-effacing doctrine-chopper Joseph Ratzinger would turn out to be such a serial blunderer once installed as Benedict XVI?

The shy, devout child of poor farmers from Bergamo who shared the ground floor of their home with the cows, Roncalli was apparently a lovable man all his life. His long diplomatic service in bastions of Islam and the Orthodox Church allowed him to see the church as it was seen by others, and not to be blinded by its grandeur or its claims to unique truth. Although Bergamo is a byword for northern Italian enterprise and business sense, he was more like an Italian from the south. He had a genial sense of his limitations which could easily be confused with laziness; he smoked cigarettes, the first and perhaps the last pope to do so, he clearly didn’t diet with any success. When it was pointed out to him that half the people on his staff seemed to be taking it very easy, he shrugged and smiled. “What can I do?” he said. “I am only the pope!”

And then he stunned the world by calling a General Council, summoning thousands of bishops to Rome, as well as senior Protestants and members of the Orthodox churches, to thrash out Christianity’s duty in a world that was changing fast. The Vatican’s officials were appalled by the idea, did all in their power to stop it, and once that failed tried their best to turn it into a bureaucratic stamping exercise, a reiteration of the church’s established positions. But Roncalli was having none of it: despite his advanced age he insisted in seeing good things in the way the world was changing – in the decline of imperialism, the improvement of working people’s conditions and the higher profile enjoyed by women – and was in no doubt that the church was in need of bringing up to date. Although he died years before Vatican II, as it is called, reached its reforming conclusions, his was its guiding spirit.

Of course non-Catholics, not to mention non-Christians, have every right to laugh up their sleeves at the Vatican’s saintly assembly line: getting into the company of saints is becoming a posthumous papal perk, rather in the way that ex-government ministers at Westminster ascend to the House of Lords. It doesn’t necessarily mean much, except for the million or so expected to turn up at St Peter’s on Sunday, for whom it will mean a great deal. It certainly doesn’t mean these men were infallible during their lifetimes. Let the good pope have the last word on that: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly,” he once said, “and I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”


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23rd Apr

Published in The Independent, 23 April 2014


Peter Popham


U Win Tin, who died on Monday 21 April at the age of 84, was one of Burma’s leading journalists, a towering figure in the democracy movement and a founding member of the National League for Democracy.

Handsome and charismatic, he devoted his life to the struggle to liberate his nation from military rule. As vice-president of the journalists’ union in 1988, he was one of the intellectuals who persuaded Aung San Suu Kyi to throw in her lot with the surging democracy movement. The two remained close to the end despite serious disagreements on strategy. She visited his bedside in a Rangoon hospital last week when he received dialysis treatment for kidney failure. After his death she described him as “a great man”. “It’s a great loss,” she said, “but it’s also not a loss because he can’t be lost to us. His thoughts, his words, his example will stay with us.”

Win Tin was born in the town of Gyo Pin Gauk north-east of Rangoon on 12 March 1930. At age 13 he followed the path of most Buddhist children and was ordained as a child-monk. He appreciated the simplicity and orderliness of monastic life, and although not overtly religious as an adult, his style of living remained monastic: he never married and lived in a two-room house in Rangoon with few possessions. “I am a single person,” he said, “I have no family life. Most of my life I have lived for my work as a politician and journalist. That has consumed my life. Since the age of about 19 I have lived as a public man. By that I don’t mean as a well-known person; I mean that my life belongs to society, and society is my life.”

After taking a degree in English literature, modern history and political science at Rangoon University, he worked as a translator while also doing shifts as night editor for Agence-France Presse. Later he won a scholarship to train as a journalist in the Netherlands, hitch-hiking around Europe during the holidays.

These were the chaotic early years of Burmese independence and Win Tin received regular accounts of events back home. Aware that many of his fellow expatriates would be starved of news, he bought a typewriter with the Burmese script and began typing up and cyclo-styling four-page newsletters and posting them to every Burmese living abroad whose address he could obtain.

On returning to Burma in 1957 he was involved in setting up several newspapers and was soon identified by the authorities as a trouble-maker. In 1968 he was banished to Mandalay, where he continued to write and edit, doing his best to dodge the increasingly oppressive censorship. But as revealed in a forthcoming book by Rosalind Russell (who as ‘Phoebe Kennedy’ was The Independent’s Rangoon correspondent), he had a unique asset: his improbable connection to General Ne Win, the military strongman who had seized power in 1962.

“Ne Win had an intellectual side,” Russell writes, “and sought out the company of the original, free-thinking Win Tin.” Whenever Ne Win came to Mandalay he summoned Win Tin into his presence. Win Tin had no special respect for Ne Win or his policies but appreciated the utility of the relationship. “It was a great safeguard for me,” he said. “Because the authorities knew of my contact with Ne Win, they didn’t dare to be too harsh.”

In 1988 the government sparked a major rebellion by recklessly demonetising three currency notes, pauperising much of the population at a stroke. Win Tin was involved in the months of demonstrations that followed, and with fellow journalists and intellectuals persuaded Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s murdered national hero, who was in Rangoon caring for her mortally ill mother, to participate.

On 26 August she made her grand debut, addressing a crowd at Shwedagon pagoda that Win Tin estimated to be a million. “As far as I knew she had never done any public speaking,” Win Tin recalled. But she spoke “very convincingly…For a normal person it is not so easy to talk to such a huge crowd, a sea of people. And she talked so wittily: we saw at once that she was a born leader – ‘a star is born’, something like that.”

The following month Win Tin, Suu Kyi and a handful of others launched the National League for Democracy. One of Win Tin’s tasks was to prepare Suu Kyi’s speeches for publication. “It was never necessary to edit the speeches, they were always perfect,” he recalled. “One of the things I admire about her is her ability to talk to the people and cut through to what is important.”

Thanks largely to Suu Kyi’s barn-storming campaign tours across the country, the NLD grew exponentially through the early months of 1989, attaining a membership estimated at 3 million and frightening the new military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC, into locking up the party’s entire central command. Win Tin was arrested on 4 July 1989 and brutally beaten before his court appearance. His upper teeth were knocked out and he had black and purple welts across his body.

He was sentenced to three years’ jail for “spreading anti-government propaganda”, but new charges were repeatedly added and in the end he spent more than 19 years inside, most of it in solitary confinement, some of it locked into a tiny enclosure called the Dog House as a special punishment. In one period he and other “politicals” succeeded in producing pamphlets on politics and current affairs from their cells, but eventually the material was discovered.

He was finally released on 23 September 2008, one year after the “Saffron Revolution”. On learning of his discharge he refused to change out of his sky-blue prison shirt, and continued to wear only shirts of that colour for the rest of his life – in solidarity, as he said, with those still inside, and because Burma was still one big prison.

Win Tin was always on the radical side of the party. He disagreed with Suu Kyi’s decision to fight a by-election in 2012, and was unimpressed by her willingness to have dealings with the military. “Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal,” he said in 2013. “She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake” (in central Rangoon). But he remained steadfastly loyal to her. “When people like me were released,” he told me in 2010, “it was like pouring water in a flower pot. But if Suu Kyi is released, it will be like the coming of the monsoon.”

U Win Tin, journalist and politician, born Gyo Pin Gauk 12 March 1930, died Rangoon 21 April 2014


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20th Apr


Peter Popham


He will certainly be missed. Paolo Bonaiuti, whose departure from the rapidly thinning ranks of Berlusconi loyalists was reported this week, was the minder’s minder, the tireless Jeeves to Berlusconi’s Bertie Wooster, ever on hand to clear up a mess, to proffer a plausible excuse, to save his master’s bacon.

Tall but obsequiously stooped, with an undertaker’s air of total discretion, his value during his 18 years of service to the master became most obvious when he was not around.

In the summer of 2003 Boris Johnson, who was then editor of the Spectator, obtained an interview with Berlusconi at the premier’s seaside palace in Sardinia, later to become notorious for his ‘bunga-bunga’ parties.

“For three hours we have been in his presence,” Johnson wrote in The Spectator. “We have sat at a table in his drawing room, Berlusconi at the head, nipples showing through his white Marlon Brando pyjama-suit…It has been, says Valentino, his charming interpreter, the most detailed and generous interview that the leader has ever given…there is no stopping the balding, beaming, bouncing multi-billionaire.”

It was one of only a handful he ever granted to foreign journalists, and it was a disaster. In the course of it Berlusconi claimed that Italian judges were “deranged by nature”, prompting the legal profession to go on strike, and that Mussolini’s was “a much more benign dictatorship” than Saddam Hussein’s. The left-wing opposition and Italy’s Jewish community hit the roof.

The only reason this disaster was allowed to happen was because Paolo Boniauti was on the other side of the world, crossing the Pacific in a small boat. Had he been in place, micro-managing the boss’s schedule as usual, it is inconceivable that Johnson would have got in the front door. And now Bonaiuti has left Forza Italia, the party Berlusconi created from nothing. “It was a difficult, painful decision,” he said this week, “one I have delayed for a long time, but fully motivated by political differences and personal incomprehension that have deepened in the past year.”

Say your piece, Paolo: no-one believed a word you said when you were Berlusconi’s spokesman, so there is little reason to start now. Like the rest of his gang of flatterers, floozies and pimps, it was all too obvious why you were so loyal. In 1994, as deputy-editor of the Roman paper Il Messaggero you thundered against Berlusconi for sacking the legendary founder-editor of Il Giornale, the daily he had recently purchased. Two years later you were lucratively in harness.

With the boss condemned to the humiliation of a community service sentence in an old people’s home, the Berlusconi roadshow is disintegrating spectacularly. His Sicilian college friend Marcello dell’Utri, co-founder of Forza Italia and the alleged lynch-pin between him and the Sicilian  Mafia, fled the country before the Italian courts could hand down a verdict on the charge of Mafia association, but was arrested in Beirut and remains in jail.

The flood of local councillors and regular members pouring from Forza Italia into the new party formed by Berlusconi’s former dauphin, Angelino Alfano, tells its own story.

One of the few who have remained loyal is Sandro Bondi, a former communist politician who became one of his most trusted cronies. Six months ago he said of Forza Italia, “This story has finished badly. In all these years we have constructed nothing humanly or politically solid, capable of surviving the decline of Silvio Berlusconi.”

For 20 years Berlusconi and his money dominated Italy’s political story. But now that story’s over, and when Forza Italia finally expires it will leave barely a trace. There’s a moral there for other billionaires who dream of hijacking democracy.


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11th Apr

published in The Independent, 11 April 2014


Peter Popham


We are living in increasingly interesting times. In eastern Europe, Russia seems intent on re-running the early days of the Cold War. A whole new generation is discovering the tingling of hairs on the back of the neck that you get when nuclear-armed nations start playing bad-tempered hands of poker.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, brace yourselves for a re-enactment of the event that set the Cold War in motion – war on the Korean peninsula, as the US and South Korea tomorrow [Friday] embark on their biggest ever aerial war games. The twice-yearly Max Thunder exercise, running to 25 April, coincides with two other ongoing exercises which have already provoked the North into a new bout of missile testing.

Two weeks ago, north and south traded fire across their maritime border, and there is a strong likelihood of further escalation before the fun and games are over. Remember, although the Korean War ended more than half a century ago, the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty, and its tempestuous young leader has torn up what frail agreements did exist, declaring that the North is in a state of war with both the US and South Korea, and warning of his intention and ability to hit targets as far away as the continental US. It would be nice to treat Kim Jong-un, as a bizarre Korean joke; nice, but unwise.

The British response to this, if reports are to be believed, is to provide the regime with episodes of Teletubbies, Dr Who and Top Gear. Efforts to persuade the BBC to launch a dedicated Korean language World Service radio service to provide this actuality-starved population with real news have so far got nowhere.

Besides earning the corporation a few extra groats, it is hard to understand what sense there could be in bombarding the North Korean population with yet more incomprehensible fantasies, this time dreamed up in W1A. What passes for news in the Democratic Republic is bizarre enough already, without help from Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po and Tinky Winky.

North Korean news has always had a credibility problem but since the accession of Kim Jong-un it has grown far, far worse, to the extent that people are looking back on the reign of his diminutive dad as a golden age of clarity and commonsense.

Of the recent alleged news stories supposedly coming out of Pyongyang, which have even a tangential connection with the truth? The report that Uncle Jang Song Thaek was torn to pieces by famished dogs turned out to be the Chinese idea of a joke. Jang’s crony O Sang-Hon has also been liquidated, but was he done in by a flamethrower, as reported by the reputable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo? That too, was very likely no more than a gruesome rumour.

But the official news is equally weird. This week Pyongyang reported Kim Jong-Un re-election as First Chairman of the National Defence Commission. It is said that he obtained 100 per cent of the vote. Believe it if you will – the North Koreans certainly don’t. This week a defector told the Daily Telegraph, “Nowadays people believe less than 20 per cent of what is broadcast…They only use newspapers to roll their cigarettes.”

But through the fog of propaganda, rumour and baroque invention, certain facts about this rogue regime are discernible. The execution of Uncle Jang was clearly the young dictator’s bid to destroy his most serious rival for absolute power, and to prove, outside the country as well as in, that he and only he is the boss. But to the extent that this unprecedented purge exposed deep and dangerous rifts at the heart of the regime, it was evidence as much of his weakness as his ruthlessness. And that raises the most fundamental question about the North Korean regime: how will it end?

Kim Jong-un’s strategy for survival could not be clearer or cruder: terrorise and purge your enemies within, hurl threats and ill-aimed missiles at those abroad. It may appear extreme, but it is in line with the national psychology of the north, sedulously nurtured by all three Kims for 60 years: that of a plucky, uniquely virtuous country whose only hope, surrounded by vicious enemies, is to cultivate ‘juche’, self-reliance. And in the absence of reliable alternative sources of information such as the BBC World Service, the brainwashing inevitably works.

South Korea’s belligerent President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee, has decided to take Kim’s threats at face value, authorising pre-emptive military action if the army believes a missile attack from the north is imminent, authorising the military to respond without reference to political concerns.

But this approach, combined with ostentatious military exercises like the one that is about to start, play straight into Pyongyang’s hand. The underlying goal may be to weaken and even remove Kim, but the in the short run their likely effect will be to make him stronger.  And if his army again responds with firepower, we will be in terrifying new territory, given President Park’s new guidelines. There is a grave danger that the result could be a full-blown military confrontation, with results that no-one could safely predict.

That seems a crazy risk to run.  Kim Jong-un is the political equivalent of the late cult leader Jim Jones. Threatening him with annihilation is no way to talk him down. That’s like practically ordering him to start doling out the Cool-Aid.


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