From icon to politician. Aung San Suu Kyi’s and the future of Burma

Posted on | september 27, 2012 | No Comments

On September 24th Burmese pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi visited the University of Louisville as a guest of the McConnell Center. I had the enormous honor and privilege both to meet her in person and to sit in on a private question and answer session she had with our McConnell Scholars after her public talk. When we were introduced I informed her that I held the Endowed Chair in Asian Democracy named in her honor. She asked with a note of surprise in her voice “there is a Chair in Asian Democracy?” When I said there indeed was she followed up by saying with a smile “well I could learn something from you then”. Flattered I countered with “I was hoping to learn from you”.

Many adjectives have been used to describe this small, petite woman: inspiring, serene, tranquil. Senator McConnell in his introductory comments stated that her “understated and luminous heroism” made her “the most unlikely of revolutionaries”. That yesterday’s event happened at all is testimony to the remarkable pace of reform in Burma over the past two years. After spending 15 of the past 20 years under house arrest Suu Kyi was released in November 2010 and was subsequently elected to parliament in by-elections this April where she became the official leader of the opposition.
Suu Kyi spoke to about 500 people in the University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall where she proceeded to take questions from the audience including from members of the city’s Burmese refugee community. Facing criticism from some members of pro-democracy advocacy groups for not speaking out against the regime, particularly in light of recent ethnic violence in the West of the country and ongoing conflict in the north with Kachin rebels, she warned that no progress was irreversible but added that she had a cautious optimism about the future. She also stated on several occasions that she believed Burma was a country of many peoples, and that she would work to ensure fair citizenship laws that met international norms.
She directly addressed the issue of sanctions stating categorically that they should be lifted since “I think it is time that we of our country start carrying on the process of democratization. Sanctions have been a great help to us…but I know that there are still human rights violations in Burma… In the end, it’s we who live in the country who must make sure that these violations come to an end.”
In the private session with McConnell Students Suu Kyi revealed showed her sense of humor. One student, referring to comparisons made in Senator McConnell’s speech in which he compared Suu Kyi to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, asked her which of the two she felt she more like. She replied with a smile on her face that she didn’t think of herself as a symbol and that besides she didn’t compare herself with either since “they were men”.
While Burma is undergoing a transition from direct military rule Suu Kyi is also undergoing a transition herself. For so long the face of struggle against brutal repression, a symbol of the resistance one person can mount against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Suu Kyi must now make the transition to a political leader. Unlike her previous role this will be one in which she will have to make messy compromises. It will be one in which she will strike deals that some will find unpalatable. It will be a role in which she will face critics both at home and abroad who will feel she has either gone too far or not far enough, who will critique her for making concessions, and attack her for betraying their principals. This new role is one that she has had little experience in, and while she will surround herself with allies and advisors who can provide wise counsel, ultimately because of who she is and what she represents she will bear the burden and responsibility for the decisions made. Few transitions from authoritarianism are smooth. Few survive without cutting deals with the old regime, whether by granting amnesties to perpetrators of human rights violations, or by forgoing retribution in favor of restorative justice.  Others have made the same journey, Mandela in South Africa, Havel in Czechoslovakia, and their successes and failures provide important lessons from which Suu Kyi can draw. Perhaps those who fear the consequences of ‘The Lady’ getting her hands ‘dirty’ should take heed from this Burmese proverb, “a genuine ruby won’t sink or disappear in the mud”. From my brief moment with this remarkable woman, I believe she is a genuine ‘ruby’.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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