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Global Great Women of Influence
06 December 2013
There are very few humans walking the earth today who have the moral authority – and the grace – of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Burmese political activist has been in a life-long struggle with the military regime that has ruled her country since 1962; has spent two decades of that struggle under house arrest in her homeland and has, through her choices, galvanized behind her and her struggle any number of governments as well as Human Rights groups around the world.
Only recently able to move around freely in Burma and now the rest of the world, Aung San Suu Kyi was in Australia (above) to receive honorary degrees from the University of Sydney and UTS. At the Sydney Opera House event she also spoke with journalist Hamish Macdonald as part of the Ideas in the House series.
With a robust sense of how her life could appear to some, very melodramatic, Aung San Suu Kyi believes by being honest - she answers the questions she is asked - and refusing to see her actions as sacrifices, she is able to sidestep the melodrama and exercise influence without having to have the formal trappings of power.
Following the degree ceremony, Aung San Suu Kyi was set to deliver an address before sitting down to chat with journalist Hamish Macdonald and answer questions from a very excited audience.
There were standing ovations, much clapping, deep respectful silences, and outbursts of unmitigated enthusiasm. Before Aung San Suu Kyi had a chance to take the podium, Macdonald, for example, launched into his questions. She switched and took the change in hand without a hiccup.
Some minutes in to the interview, the organisers came on stage to point out Macdonald’s mistake. Unphased and with absolute good humour and grace, Aung San Suu Kyi then involved the whole audience in what she called the democratic process: “Will we vote on what to do,” she asked?
It was decided: she would do 10 minutes of her formal address and then return to Macdonald and his questions, followed by questions from the audience. It was a triumph of leadership skill and grace under fire.
Tickets to the event sold out in a single day and many Burmese nationals living in Australia had travelled from as far afield as Perth and Darwin to see a woman they have waited 20 years to see alive and well and outside her own front door.
When it came time for audience questions one young women asked Aung San Suu Kyi what advice she would give her unborn child (a little girl, we all found out) to “lead a life as influential and great” as she had. The simple answer, she said, having seen how those she admires in the National League for Democracy have lived their lives, is to “live your life in peace and love”.
If Aung San Suu Kyi was on your bucket list of people to see and hear, then absolutely nothing in the 90-minute event disappointed.
A little background
In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma from years abroad in India and England. She returned with the express purpose of fighting for Burma’s right to an independent democratic government. Defying a brutal military junta, which normally met calls for democracy with one response, slaughter, she travelled the country with her political message. In July 1989 she was placed under house arrest where she remained for the next two decades.
In the mid-2000s cracks in the regime’s power had begun to appear. The economy, which had been mismanaged, was one of the major reasons behind the growth in unrest. In 2010 following a “suspect” referendum to approve the “army-drafted constitution”, elections were held at which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party - the National League for Democracy - was banned from contesting.
In 2011 those bans were lifted but for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD the struggle has some way to go yet.
In her formal address in Sydney she spoke about Burma’s future, not as predictions or thoughts but as the choices that need to be made if Burma is to have an independent, democratic future in which Human Rights are valued and National Reconciliation is achieved.
The three planks needed to underpin democracy, she says, are Rule of Law, internal peace and amendments to the constitution.
For more: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi and Fergal Keane; The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham