By James El-Mallakh–
Aung San Suu Kyi, an activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke to students, refugees and visitors on last Monday at the University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall. Suu Kyi discussed the process of democratization that her country began about two years ago and how it continues today.
Suu Kyi said that she would like the democratization process to be viewed with “cautious optimism.”
“It worries me a little that many may think there is no longer any need for them to make an effort to help along the democratization of Burma,” Suu Kyi said. “It is now that we need your support more than ever, your intelligent support because you need to be aware of what is going on in Burma.”
Suu Kyi spoke for nine minutes. She took questions from the audience for the rest of the hour.
Suu Kyi is a native of Burma, also known as Myanmar. She has risen to prominence around the world as an outspoken critic of the Burmese government, which is widely seen as authoritarian.
“She has been, for many years, a symbol of non-violent resistance to authoritarianism,” said Dr. Jason Abbott, the Director for the Center of Asian Democracy at U of L.
The Burmese government, which came under military rule in 1988, has pursued pro-democratic measures within the past two years. This includes allowing trade unions, easing censorship and releasing hundreds of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 15 years.
Since being released from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi was elected to the 460 -seat Burmese parliament. Her party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, won 42 seats in by-elections held in April. The party that holds the majority of the seats, the USDP, was established by the military and is held by members loyal to the military’s commands.
Following the election, Suu Kyi became the opposition leader in Burma’s parliament, which is equivalent to the House Minority leader in the US. This means she is now the head of the second largest party in the parliament, or minority party.
After being released from house arrest, Suu Kyi was allowed to leave the country.
“Two years ago on the eve of her release, no one could have imagined this trip would be possible.” Suu Kyi’s visit to the US, Abbott said, is a “testimony to the remarkable changes that we’ve seen in Burma.”
She arrived in the US last week for a 17-day visit, during which, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Metal while in Washington. Last Tuesday, she spoke in Fort Wayne, Ind., which has one of the largest populations of Burmese refugees in the country.
Kentucky is home to 2,400 refugees from Burma, most of them are of the Karen ethnic group. Kentucky began receiving many of the refugees in 2005 when the U.S. government allowed them to leave refugee camps in Thailand and resettle in the U.S.
During her speech, Suu Kyi thanked Senator Mitch McConnell and the audience for their support of her countries democratic reforms and asked the United States to continue to support the reforms of the country.
“Please continue to keep your eyes on my country,” Suu Kyi said., “You need to be able to separate the false from the truth, you need to be able to distinguish and discriminate between what is genuine progress and what is just progress on the surface.”
In answering a question about sanctions against the country of Burma, Suu Kyi said the sanctions have helped her country but that it’s time they be lifted. “It is time that we of our country started taking responsibility for carrying on the process of democratization.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma last year in an effort to encourage reforms. The U.S. has taken the stance that if the Burmese government continues to make reforms, sanctions against the country will be lifted.
Among other topics, Suu Kyi answered questions about the media’s role in Burma and increasing access to basic education in her country. She was also asked about the importance of non-violence.
“You must be able to put yourself in the place of your adversary,” Suu Kyi said. “Hatred and fear are very closely linked and if you have true courage, you need not hate anybody.”
Suu Kyi was asked what the U.S. system of democracy could learn from the Burmese struggle for democracy.
“I think what you can learn from us is that we are not as different from you as you think we are,” Suu Kyi said., “To me what democracy means is the right balance between freedom and security… In the end, when it comes down to it, I don’t think that there’s any people in the world that would not say that they want security as well as freedom. Of course, how they define security and how they define freedom may be different.”
Many in attendance at her speech were refugees and students. About 200 tickets were set aside specifically for refugees from the Burmese community. The tickets were distributed through organizations that deal with refugee populations such as Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities.
Ka Waw, a Burmese refugee who has lived in the U.S. for one year, was happy that he got to see Suu Kyi speak, “We are very excited to meet her because she is a role-model for us and she is very dedicated to the country.”
“She marries her beliefs and her actions so carefully that you hardly ever see a discrepancy between the two.” said Sarah Stovall, a junior political science major and McConnell scholar who attended the speech. Stovall says Suu Kyi’s speech is a chance to consider America’s democracy in relation to other countries such as Burma:, “Our system of democracy is not the only democracy in the world.”
Abbott says that it is important for students to be aware of the message that Suu Kyi has and what she represents.
“It’s easy for students in an American university to take for granted the freedoms they enjoy on a day-to-day basis.”
Abbott said that, whether explicitly or implicitly, “Students in a higher education institution like this have expressed a desire to understand the world they live in.”
Photos: Ryan Considine/The Louisville Cardinal