By Danny Hirschel-Burns, Swarthmore College STAND
My journey to see Aung San Suu Kyi on her first visit to the United States since she was released from house arrest, which she had been under for the better part of twenty-four years, began with a train from Swarthmore to Phildelphia, and then the Megabus to DC. That was followed by an hour and a half walking around Washington trying to find Daniel Solomon’s house. I finally, and after a period of unconsciousness that was too short, on a couch with the same problem, I started my early morning walk to Bender Arena at American University where ASSK was due to address D.C.’s Burmese community. I had been told that the whole event was going to be in Burmese, but I decided it was still worth it to see this incredible woman who had resisted every attempted by the Burmese government to break her spirit over the course of more than two decades.
I knew no one at the event, so I found a seat and waited an hour until The Lady appeared. A huge cry went up from the crowd when she entered via a side door, and even though the president of AU spoke first, all eyes were on her. After receiving an honorary degree from AU, she gave a brief address in English, in which she talked about a need for an inclusive Burmese society for all Burmese. She then moved into the question and answer portion, in which she answered questions in English and Burmese. In a response, she praised the United States for accepting so many Burmese Americans, and expressed her hope that one day all those Burmese who had felt it necessary to give up their citizenship could come back to their homeland. She answered most of the questions in Burmese, but judging from both the applause of the audience and the laughter of the Burmese family behind me, she was both funny and articulate.
I had to leave the event prematurely to catch a cab to the Newseum, where ASSK was due to speak next at an event hosted by Amnesty International. Though it was a shame I had to leave the event early, it was a bonus talking about the political situation in Ethiopia following Meles Zenawi’s death with my Ethiopian cab driver. At the Newseum I met up with Shomya Tripathy (#DJSTANDMOM), STAND’s Community Manager, and several other senior members of STAND and United to End Genocide. As Shomya and I sat there in the heavily over-air conditioned auditorium, we kept looking at the chair thirty feet in front of us with disbelief; Aung San Suu Kyi, who had remained a mythic idol of principle and bravery in our minds would physically inhabit that seat in a few minutes. After introductions by Amnesty International staff and Alex Wagner (the NBC host who moderated the discussion, and who is half-Burmese herself), The Lady herself came on stage to thunderous applause. ASSK was presented with flowers by the husband and four-year-old daughter of one of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members. Even if she had not uttered a word, her presence in that auditorium would’ve had a transformative effect on every member of the audience.
The event format consisted of a short address by ASSK with a question and answer period that followed that alternated between questions posed by students and those posed by host Alex Wagner. In her address, The Lady focused on the task for the next generation of human rights advocates. She urged students to not only condemn hate and injustice (which lead to the political prisoners), but to try to understand their root cause, fear. She challenged students to think critically about why we are suspicious of those different from ourselves and how we can eradicate that dynamic.
The question and answer segment touched on numerous issues. She asked for American help in helping to build democratic institutions in Burma, as well as the mental liberation that former oppressors would have to experience to truly change Burma. She argued against a cultural relativist interpretation of human rights, saying that these excuses were the very ones used by the Burmese government to justify decades of military rule. ASSK also stated, quite emphatically, against the use of violence in any form. She said that violence and human rights are opposite, and that the defense of human rights with violence is both a futile and counterproductive endeavor. For her, the defense of human rights in a distinctly nonviolent effort, saying that those who wish to promote human rights must be prepared to endure violent repression. She asked businesses that invest in Burma to do so responsibly, and predicted a future change in the Orwellian language used by the Burmese government that is so common of authoritarian governments. While we all saw the symbol of defiance and hope we all knew, we also saw glimpses of the savvy politician that perhaps less of us anticipated. When asked how she could forgive the military for imposing house arrest, she responded saying that she had no reason to forgive the military, and that she was actually quite fond of the Burmese military. She cited positive memories of her father in uniform as well as the good treatment she received from military figures while under house arrest. While it is certainly possible that this woman is so incredible that she does not feel resentment for experiencing so many years of house arrest, it is more likely that doesn’t wish to offend her colleagues in government.
While ASSK was articulate and inspiring throughout most of the program, there were some awkward moments. The elephant in the room from the beginning were the Rohingya, and a student according asked ASSK, “Who are the Rohingya and why are they persecuted by the Burmese government?” The Lady immediately and strongly rejected the use of the word "persecuted," arguing that the issue needs to be seen in the framework of communal violence and human rights instead. She stressed that the rule of law needs to be restored in Rakhine state. She said that all Burmese who are eligible for Burmese citizenship under the current law should receive it, and even hinted that the law should be re-examined. Finally, ASSK argued that the Bangladesh-Burma border needs to be strengthened to prevent illegal crossings in either direction. This answer, while certainly not satisfying to the audience, has to be placed in context. The majority ethnic group in Burma, the Burmans, of which Aung San Suu Kyi is a member, largely support the government’s persecution of the Rohingya. This then puts ASSK in a tough position, in which she has to carefully walk the line between a symbol of international human rights and a popular domestic political figure. For example, she didn’t explicitly call the Rohingya illegal immigrants (as many Burmans do), but made statements that will please both sides. Her recommendation to strengthen the Burma-Bangladesh border will appease those who wish to see the Rhingya persecuted, while her implication that the Burmese citizenship law should be re-examined (the Rohingya collectively lost their citizenship in 1982) will be read by Western human rights advocates as a step in the right direction. Despite her seeming silence on the Rohingya, she has in fact spoken out against discrimination against ethnic minorities, with is not common in Burmese politics. Hopefully, she is simply biding her time until she feels secure enough to correctly address the Rohingya issue.
I never expected I would get the chance to see Aung San Suu Kyi in person, and the chance to be within just a few feet of one of the world’s most courageous individuals had a powerful effect on everyone at both events. For the Burmese Diaspora, it was a symbol of hope from their troubled homeland, and for American human rights activists, it was genuinely inspiring experience to be able to share a room with a person who literally personifies the defense of peace, equality, and human rights worldwide. Her stance on the Rohingya demonstrated that even our greatest heroes have flaws, but also that we must look at everyone with a fair and balanced eye. Her impact on me and fellow youth activists was immense, and it is a moment that will live in our memories for the rest of our lives.