Neighborhood journalist traversed militant Burma for book

About 15 years ago, neighborhood resident and veteran journalist Rena Pederson wrote a self-help book titled “What’s Next?” about how women can change direction in midlife. As she toured and gave talks, she says her readers often asked, “When are you going to change direction?”

“I had been at the [Dallas Morning] News for 30 years,” Pederson says. “My youngest son just got out of college. What I really wanted to do was write books.”

In 2003 Pederson read a newspaper article about Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her efforts to bring democracy to the corrupt, militant Burmese government. Something about this woman’s story resonated with Pederson, so she used her vacation time at the Morning News to travel to Burma and interview Suu Kyi. The personal project resulted in a book released earlier this year, “The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation.”

Gaining access to Suu Kyi was difficult.

“Not many people did it. It was very hard to get it to the country, no. 1 and no. 2, to get close to her.”

The country did not grant press visas, and anyone working as a journalist was swiftly kicked out. So Pederson slipped in on a tourist visa and embarked on a two-week bicycle tour, getting to know the locals.

“It was a great way to get in the country,” she says. “I was able to bike through remote villages and see what everyone was doing. It turned out to be a wonderful plan.”

On the last day of her trip, she navigated some diplomatic channels to get to Suu Kyi — if Pederson was going to be thrown out of the country, it might as well be at the end of her trip, she figured. After more than one attempt, they agreed, and Pederson met the “most impressive person I’ve ever interviewed,” she says.

The fearless leader of Burma’s democratic movement is known for staring down the barrels of soliders’ guns without flinching and has been compared to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

A couple of months after Pederson returned home, the military ambushed Suu Kyi’s convoy, beat 200 of her supporters to death and eventually placed Suu Kyi under strict house arrest for seven years.

“The best I can tell, I was last the person to interview her for seven years,” Pederson says. “She was totally incommunicado. Her radio went silent for seven years. That made me feel it was all the more important to do a book about her.”

After enough public outcry, Suu Kyi was released in 2010 but still routinely tracked by the government. She landed a seat in Parliament, but the military retains majority control. Due to economic constraints, the government has opened its borders to globalization and Western tourism.

Pederson returned to the country eight times to finish her book and keep Suu Kyi’s story alive, because her fight for democracy is far from over.

“I can’t tell you what a dramatic feeling it was to stand on the steps of her house, knowing I’m going to be back in Dallas the next day, but she couldn’t leave. I think people do get compassion fatigue. But we shouldn’t forget.”

To learn more and to buy the book, visit
renapederson.com.


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