On the anniversary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in 1989, Paula Nyunt, a member of CAFOD’s South Asia and Middle East team reflects on seeing fellow Burmese citizen Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time in 24 years.
As I sat among the crowd in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 22 June this year, I could not believe that I was listening to Aung San Suu Kyi in London.
Over the years, I’ve followed Daw Su’s work (Ms Su as she’s affectionately known in Burma); her briefings and speeches, read her books, and books written about her. However, being in the presence of Daw Su now, 24 years since I last saw her, was altogether a different experience. This time it is not about the sentimentality of seeing the daughter of the founder of Burma’s independence movement, General Aung San, nor curiosity of how she might lead Burma, but rather a personal desire to understand how I, as an ordinary citizen, can contribute to the next stage of the development process in our country.
I was there in August 1988, where she gave her first historic public speech calling for a democratic government to a gathering of half a million people. And later that year at her home by Inya Lake where I’d gone, together with a group of young Catholics, to pay our respects to her deceased mother Daw Khin Kyi who was lying in state.
In 1988 I was a student at Rangoon University. I was not particularly informed about politics or student movements; we were not encouraged to discuss politics under the one-party socialist government. During the student uprising in early August, the country was awoken by this new found hope that change may be possible after 26 years of military-backed socialist rule. But weeks after the 8/8/88 uprising, our fragile hope was shattered abruptly by a brutal military crackdown.
Unity is key
This year, on the morning of 22 June, Daw Su the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, met with the Burmese diaspora living in UK. There were approx 2,700 in the iconic Royal Festival Hall auditorium, many dressed in their colourful traditional ethnic costume. It was the first time the Burmese community had come together from all over UK, in this number.
The event at the festival hall started with some classical and folk songs, music and dance. As always, Daw Su used her charm and sense of humour to establish rapport with the audience. She encouraged people to appreciate what the UK has to offer and respect its traditions and culture, but not to forget our own culture, language and traditions so that the world will also learn about Burma.
She stressed that unity amongst various ethnic groups and communities, both inside and outside Burma, is the key in order for Burma to the move forward. Her view on the road ahead is realistic, that it is a long and difficult one but collectively we can help to rebuild Burma. Most importantly, we must examine own ability, and be realistic about enduring commitment.
Spirituality in practice
The sincerity of her concerns for the poor and disadvantaged, and her determination to transform the nation, shone through in her whole way of speaking. Her perseverance on the road to democracy in Burma comes from the intrinsic recognition of the dignity of people. She stressed several times that everything we do must arise from deep compassion inside us.
Sitting among the crowd, I realised that Daw Su, is not only a politician; she is an advocate, educator, motivator, negotiator, and a role model. I was in awe of her stillness and intellectual poise. She showed how an understanding of how values and principles based on faith and acquired wisdom can be applied in everyday life in order to transform our world.
The way she puts her profound spirituality into practice inspires me to live my own Christian spirituality better. As I left, there was a sense of transforming joy amongst the audience, and I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Somehow we knew that as a community we had to take responsibility to achieve unity among ourselves and walk together to re-build our homeland.