Aung San Suu Kyi’s U.S visit: A Personal View

Posted on | september 19, 2012 | No Comments

I first became aware of the brutal nature of the regime in Burma and the story of Aung San Suu Kyi during the mid 1990s. Suu Kyi had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and five years later the award-winning journalist and filmmaker John Pilger released the film Inside Burma: Land of Fear that documented in particular the country’s use of slave labor. At that time I was in the process of completing my doctoral dissertation on economic development in Southeast Asia and, while I was both concerned and interested in the situation in Burma, it was largely in ways peripheral to my studies, Suu Kyi’s face an image on a T-shirt and the subject of a U2 song (“Walk On”).

My interest in democratization came when, in the course of my continuing research in Southeast Asia, the region was hit by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. In the maelstrom that followed, mass demonstrations both forced the resignation of General Suharto after 31 years in Indonesia, and provoked a political stand-off in Malaysia between the country’s long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir and his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim. Watching events unfold, my work slowly moved away from questions of economic management to analyze and explain why reform succeeded in one country but not in another.

Fast forward eight years. I had moved to the School of Oriental and African Studies where Suu Kyi herself had been studying for a PhD when she returned to Burma during the student uprising in 1988 that would see her assume the mantle of democracy activist. Within the space of the 12 months I was at SOAS, Southeast Asia was catapulted into the global media spotlight first by the coup in Thailand and then by the uprising in Burma led by the country’s Buddhist monks. Both events brought with them numerous opportunities for comment both on the TV news as well as radio for which I was lucky to be in the proverbial right place at the right time. By now, though my own work was firmly focused on questions of democratic transition and while I continued to primarily specialize on Malaysia, the media work I had done on Thailand and Burma meant that I was more cognizant of the historical backgrounds of both those countries. I had also become personally inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s story having read her Letters from Burma and Freedom from Fear as well as several of the biographies that have been written.

Less than a year after moving to the SOAS, I saw a job listing in The Chronicle of Higher Education for the Aung San Suu Kyi Endowed Chair in Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville and decided to apply for the post. The rest as they say is history. I can honestly say that at no point in my own personal journey did I ever expect that one day I would have the opportunity to meet ‘The Lady’ (as she is affectionately known in Burma) nor that Burma would have begun the dramatic changes we have seen in the past year and a half. It is rare, as an academic that in the cloistered halls of university campuses, that you actually witness the events and get to meet directly the people about whom you derive causal explanations for change. That I will is both an honor and a privilege.

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


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