“I’ve always thought of myself as a politician,” Aung San Suu Kyi explained to a packed audience at the Harvard Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on September 27.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese army and is considered the father of Burma’s independence from Britain. She studied political science and economics in Delhi, Oxford, and London. After returning to Burma in 1988 to care for her sick mother she helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD) and lead the struggle for democracy against a series of military juntas.
Suu Kyi spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. The NLD won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats in Burma’s 1990 general elections, but the junta refused to honor the results. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. Her husband—a scholar of Tibetan studies at Oxford—died in 1999 in England while she remained in Burma for fear of being unable to return if she left the country.
Suu Kyi finally received the peace prize in person and delivered her Nobel address earlier this year, when she traveled outside Burma for the first time since her final release from house arrest in 2010. She was elected to the lower house of Burma’s parliament in the 2012 by-elections, along with 42 other NLD candidates.
Now Americans are finally getting to meet Suu Kyi in person after decades of admiring her as a distant hero for human rights and democracy.
On September 19 she met with President Obama at the White House and received the Congressional Gold Medal, which she was unanimously awarded in 2008. She traveled to New York City on September 21 to meet with Ban Ki-moon at the UN, where she worked from 1969 to 1971. While in New York, Suu Kyi also received the Atlantic Council’s Global Citizen Award alongside Henry Kissinger—the symbol of nonviolent resistance in Burma and the man who played a key role in the bombing of Cambodia standing side by side.
I saw Suu Kyi speak to two crowds of college students: one at Amnesty International’s Rights Generation event at the Newseum in Washington, DC on September 20 and the other at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge.
It is difficult to overstate how inspiring Suu Kyi is, especially in person. To begin with she’s the very image of poise, projecting a cool aplomb that displays her Indian and British education. More striking are her obvious strength of will, her character, and her lack of animosity toward the regime that held her captive for fifteen years.
“I never thought that I was making any sort of sacrifice or undergoing any kind of suffering,” she said at the Newseum. “I always thought of myself as following a path that I had chosen for myself.”
She also revealed her fondness for the Burmese army, which her father founded. Suu Kyi said the generals who ruled Burma always treated her “as a member of the family, albeit a rather troublesome one.”
“Forgiveness,” she said, “is not an issue. I don’t feel I have anything to forgive them for.”
As Danny Fisher wrote for Buddhadharma, the audience at Suu Kyi’s Amnesty International event “palpably liked her.” That was just as true at Harvard, where it was apparent that even those asking her difficult questions were addressing someone they deeply admire.
Still there were difficult questions, and not all of them were resolved.
Alicia Mara, Farah Kahn, Alex Heywood, and Chelsey Watrob from the University at Buffalo drove all night see Suu Kyi in DC, whom they called “a rock star” and “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But their enthusiasm was qualified.
“You can tell she’s gone from being an oppressed individual . . . to a politician,” said Kahn, “and maybe she’s acting that way.”
The NLD’s transition from dissidents to politicians has been increasingly clear. Newly-elected NLD parliamentarians, including Suu Kyi herself, originally refused to take an oath of office that requires them to “respect” a constitution they want changed dramatically. However, they relented after a week-long boycott because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, they “decided they could do more by joining as lawmakers than maintaining their boycott on principle.”
Suu Kyi’s speech at Harvard focused heavily on personal responsibility and the need to educate individuals as “free and responsible citizens.” While she expressed concern over the state of Burma’s judiciary—which is widely corrupt and largely under political control—she sidestepped a question about building Burmese civil society. And she appeared to back off some of her earlier criticisms of the Burmese government in which she now serves.
At Harvard, for example, Suu Kyi told the story of seeing girls in tears on election day because their names had not been on the voter lists. “There were many weaknesses of that kind,” she explained. “I do not think all of these problems were deliberately created by the Elections Commission, although some thought otherwise. But it was just that they had not been able to get their act together.”
Compare this to what Suu Kyi said before the election, when the NLD was attempting to address widespread irregularities with voter lists—and even the outright purchase of votes by military-backed parties in some constituencies. “Fraud and rule violations are continuing, and we can even say they are increasing,” she told Radio Free Asia at the time.
Most troubling, however, was Suu Kyi’s response to repeated questions about ongoing human rights abuses against Burma’s minority Rohingya population, who are Muslim. She chided a student in DC for using the word “persecution” to describe Burma’s treatment of the Rohingyas, saying that “condemnation does not always bring reconciliation.” While hinting that the 1982 law that stripped the Rohingya of citizenship might need to be brought in line with international standards, she stopped short of condemning the anti-Rohingya sentiment that is widespread among Burma’s Buddhist majority.
At Harvard Suu Kyi spun the question to discuss how both Muslims and Buddhists in the affected areas had been oppressed by the military junta, and she reiterated her refusal to take sides. “I think there are too many people who try to make political capital out of this situation by speaking out for one side or the other,” she explained, “And I do not intend to do that.”
Western human rights organizations were quick to condemn abuses against he Rohingya. “Burmese security forces failed to protect the Arakan and Rohingya from each other and then unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya,” explained Brad Warner, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director. He went on to call Burma’s treatment of Rohingyas “state-sponsored persecution and discrimination.”
Western activists have venerated Aung San Suu Kyi as an icon of human rights and nonviolence for fifteen years, but the flesh-and-blood politician may prove more complicated.