DAW AUNG SAN SUU KYI Comes to Harvard

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When I walked into the John F. Kennedy Forum last Thursday, I don’t think it had fully dawned on me who it was that I was there to see–in fact, it is only truly dawning on me now on the occasion that I am writing this blog post, and have had a chance to truly reflect on the experience. That afternoon we had made our way through the crowds and up to the front of an orderly line, found our seats among the crimson benches, and taken our seats to await her arrival–the incredible, dedicated, hardworking, loving woman whom the world knows for her bravery and who’s name lit up the posters and flyers and mental images that were all around us that day: Aung San Suu Kyi.

But she is not an icon.

I’m always surprised when people refer to me as an icon and say, well now she is free and must learn politics. What do they think I’ve been doing all this time?”

(Laughter flowed through the room at that cheeky comment)

“I don’t like to be thought of as an icon, because that implies [that one is] just sitting there. I would like you to think of me as a worker.

For all the hype and the respect and the world-wide adulation, this amazing woman would much rather be known as a hard worker than someone whose title immediately siphons away any confusion as to why exactly she is deserving of that praise. When I think back on the history papers I’ve written or the newspaper articles I’ve read about this inspirational woman worker, it seems hard to believe that last Thursday she was sitting just feet away from me, taking questions and speaking to a room full of eager listeners with as much poise, grace, and eloquence as one would expect from a queen.

Of course, Aung San Suu Kyi is well known for all her hard work and the trials & tribulations that came along with it–15 years of house arrest, being unable to visit her husband in the last stage of his life, missing her kids as they grew up far away from their mother–all as she fought for democracy and equality in a Burma ruled by military dictatorship.

Here are the highlights from last Thursday’s forum, both in her words and my own.

  • “We have to prepare our people for democracy and freedom.” Interesting point that I hadn’t thought about. The idea of ‘democracy’ must be so ingrained within the American psyche that the thought of having to change or somehow mold one’s thinking in order to receive it is hard to imagine. Aung San Suu Kyi’s point was a perceptive one from my point of view–change, no matter how good it may be, is not necessarily easy to accept. 
  • “We [as a country] have the advantage of coming to the democratic stage late–we can learn from the mistakes of others.”
  • “[In Burma] Democracy is going to be a tough choice–its not easy.”
  • “The best way to be a free citizen in a free society is to act like you were already a free citizen in a free society.”
  • “So we had to tell them: you will not be imprisoned for going to the polls and voting.” Here she was describing the fear that  the Burmese people had (and continue to have) with regard to voting or otherwise expressing their point of view. Even changing this perception would be difficult (their campaign was a success though, ultimately producing a 70% voter turnout rate)
  • “Freedom and responsibility are different sides of the same coin.”
  • “Tribunals and truth commissions are western ideas imposed on other countries.” This adds to a conversation about what exactly truth commissions are able to achieve–justice? procurement of apologies? closure? reparations? the spread of bitterness?
  • The value of negotiation.
  • On deciding whether or not to leave Burma (and face permanent exile), even when her husband was very ill–I never thought there was a choice. I never thought of leaving Burma.” These are powerful words from a woman who did not see standing up and speaking out as a choice but rather as an obligation that she had to herself and to her country.

And finally, a few words to bring you some sunshine on this rainy Tuesday (at least here in my part of the world)–

I have been very encouraged by our young people…they were always at the foreront of our campaign.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the founder and chair of Burma’s National League for Democracy, a member the Burmese parliament, a mother, an inspiration, and, most of all, an incredibly hard worker.

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