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Suu Kyi's piano tuners play small but key part in Myanmar history

During democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's years under house arrest, a small band of technicians cared for her beloved but decrepit instrument and helped lift her spirits.

November 15, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Saw Simon, one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s piano tuners, is shown at home in Yangon with his electric piano. “I was very afraid; those were very difficult times,” he said of working on the activist's piano. “I thought I might get persecuted for helping, but it worked out all right.”
Saw Simon, one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s piano tuners, is shown at home… (Mark Magnier / Los Angeles…)

YANGON, Myanmar — Ko Paul had been warned that the old Yamaha piano in the upstairs sitting room of the dilapidated lakeside mansion was in bad shape.

Tropical climates aren't great for pianos. Heat warps their sound boxes, humidity swells their pin blocks, reducing string tension, and termites savor an easy meal. But this one was worse than the piano tuner expected that day in 2009.

"Pretty much everything had to be changed, the pins, the dampers, all the hammers," he said in a coffee shop in Yangon. "It was pretty bad off."

Ko Paul spent a week scrounging for low-quality Chinese replacement parts — with Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, under crippling economic sanctions, they were the best he could find — and patched the Yamaha together before tuning it. As he worked, he chatted with the slight woman in her 60s who owned the piano.

It was Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who had been forced to spend years in the heavily guarded mansion under house arrest.

"She wanted me to tell young Burmese not to be afraid, don't live in fear, things will change," he recalled. "And they have."

Ko Paul's contribution was a small footnote to an epic struggle, keeping the old piano alive and lifting the spirits of a brave woman surrounded by hard men intent on breaking her will.

During Suu Kyi's decade and a half of isolation imposed by generals enraged by her opposition party's victory in a 1990 election, the piano had become a symbol of Myanmar's struggle for democracy. A few brave people reportedly slipped past the roadblocks around the mansion on University Avenue to try to hear it, and reassure themselves that she was still alive.

The piano was also on occasion the object of her frustration. In 2004, after hearing that her friend and Burmese poet U Tin Moe was also under house arrest, she reportedly banged it so hard that keys broke.

And in a 1997 interview, she told of bashing its pedals with such vigor in another moment of weakness that a string snapped. "I told you; I have a hot temper," she said to British journalist John Pilger.

It wasn't until 2010 that Suu Kyi would walk free from her home, to a rapturous welcome from her fellow Burmese and democracy activists the world over.

Her release ushered in a period of opening in a homeland that was one of the most closed societies on Earth. In recent months, a new civilian government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and opened the door to outside contact, paving the way for her election to the parliament.

But for years, the ruling generals waged a psychological war with the opposition leader. While she was kept in near-isolation, Suu Kyi's human contact was limited to two female companions. Her few diversions included listening to BBC News reports, meditating, studying Buddhist sutras and playing a piano that even the generals didn't dare take away.

She was particularly fond of Johann Pachelbel's Canon, which she reportedly played for her husband, Michael Aris, on his last visit in 1997; he died of cancer two years later. Other favorites include Bach, Bartok, Telemann, Mozart and Clementi.

Ko Paul, 42, a portly man with an easy manner, was one of the small tribe of piano tuners called into service unexpectedly, struggling with inadequate materials under the watchful eyes of secret police, but treasuring their brush with Sui Kyi.

He remembers going to Suu Kyi's compound three times starting in 2009 during what would prove to be the waning days of her detention. Decades earlier, his musician father, who'd played piano in a jazz band at Yangon's elegant Strand Hotel, had tuned the same piano for Suu Kyi's mother, receiving coconuts in appreciation.

Security around her lakeside property was extensive, and the secret police had visited his house beforehand as part of a thorough background check. When he arrived with his tool bag, security men inspected everything assiduously before waving him through.

He returned five months later to tune it again. By then, things were loosening up and a few of her friends were at the house. Catching some of the hope that things were improving, he played "Amazing Grace" for the group to a standing ovation.

Saw Sheperd, 70, another tuner who worked on Suu Kyi's piano, fell into the business by accident. While studying the bassoon in Moscow during the 1960s, he said, he was required to learn piano. On returning, he fell out with the regime and started giving piano lessons to survive. Local technicians were so bad that he started repairing students' pianos himself, he said in the family's austere living room as his granddaughter played a tinny piano nearby.

In the early 1990s, Leo Nichols, or "Uncle Leo," an Anglo-Burmese supporter of Suu Kyi who would later die in jail at the hands of the regime, asked Saw Sheperd to fix a piano at his house.

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