The Burmese call her, affectionately, “The Lady,” and they started lining up before dawn on a chilly Saturday morning, braving a four-hour wait for a moment that had seemed so impossible. Many clutched small red flags bearing the emblem of her once-banned political party. This was their day, and this was their chance to meet a hero.
“She’s a role model, an inspiration,” said event organizer Derek Chin MBA ’03, whose parents were born and raised in Burma* and who grew up hearing stories about its most renowned pro-democracy activist. “It’s almost surreal that this is happening.”
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, is a symbol of hope and freedom who is celebrated far beyond the borders of her Southeast Asian homeland. So when she made her entrance before a capacity crowd of 4,300 at USF’s War Memorial Gymnasium on Sept. 29, she received a standing ovation.
Taking the podium, Suu Kyi (pronounced Soo Chee) appeared elegant and humble, the quintessential stateswoman. At times, she even revealed a lighter side.
“I have come to San Francisco in the right way—with flowers in my hair,” she said with a smile, referencing Scott McKenzie’s Summer of Love hit single, “San Francisco.”
Suu Kyi’s visit to USF to receive an honorary doctoral degree and meet the Bay Area Burmese community—the largest in the nation—was unthinkable just two years ago. She was one of the world’s most famous political prisoners in one of the world’s most repressive states and had spent 15 years under house arrest. Under mounting political pressure, the government finally released her in November 2010. Suu Kyi’s high-profile visit to the U.S. was her first in more than 40 years.
“Our country is now on the verge of a new path,” Suu Kyi told the USF audience in English. “I have to keep reminding people that we are just about to start out, that we are not yet along the way, and because we are just at the beginning, this is a delicate and difficult time.”
But, she said, “We must remember the past that we may learn lessons from it.”
Burma’s history is littered with heartbreaking lessons. For more than four decades, its people have suffered under a harsh military regime that turned Southeast Asia’s second largest nation—and one of its most wealthy and resource-rich—into one of its poorest.
“The great tragedy was that Burma had the potential to be such a prosperous country,” said Shalendra Sharma, a professor of politics at USF. “Given its resources, it used to be called the ‘breadbasket.’ But life has been terrible for Burmese people. It’s like time stood still in the 50s, with decaying buildings, corruption, widespread poverty, rampant drug use.”
After a formal address, Suu Kyi took a seat on stage, signaling the transition to a town hall-style meeting. For the next hour, she spoke directly to her countrymen, mostly in Burmese, answering questions they had submitted in advance.
Some questions were light and personal: What was her favorite memory of San Francisco? Eating a toffee apple. What did she do under house arrest all that time? She read, meditated, and listened to the radio for hours on end.
Others touched on the country’s seemingly intractable problems: the discrimination of ethnic minorities, a weak education system, and a decimated economy. Addressing those challenges, Suu Kyi emphasized, would be key to finding “a correct path to a democratic Burma.”
But the theme she kept returning to was how Burmese in the audience could help rebuild their country. Many immigrants, she acknowledged, have cultivated skills that will be critical to rebuilding their homeland. But if you want to return, she told them, bring your talent, a desire to serve, and, most importantly, a strong sense of humility.
“If you are motivated by self-interest, you are probably not going to find a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment,” she said. “You are in a better station in life probably because you have been given a lot more opportunities that the Burmese people didn’t [have]... So I hope you will not look down on our fellow countrymen if you come back. The Burmese people are not talentless, are not unskilled. It is only that they have not been given sufficient opportunities...”
It was a clear-eyed message that, at moments, struck a gently chiding tone—one that might not have been as well-received had it been delivered by anyone else. But Suu Kyi has proven her commitment to her country and earned the respect and reverence of her people.
The Burmese revere her for reasons that are rooted in her political pedigree and tremendous personal sacrifice. Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, an independence hero widely regarded as the father of modern Burma, and a man whose legacy instilled in her a strong sense of duty to her country. It was this duty that drew her back to her homeland, away from her husband, Michael, two sons, and the comfortable home they shared in England. She organized pro-democracy rallies throughout Burma and worked relentlessly. The military had her arrested.
It was while under house arrest—thousands of miles from her husband and still-young sons—that Suu Kyi made the stunning decision that seared her place in the hearts of Burmese everywhere. Michael was dying of cancer, and she faced a gut-wrenching choice: her husband or her country. The military offered to release her, but going to her husband in England almost certainly meant permanent exile from her beloved Burma. Suu Kyi chose her country. She never saw her husband again.
“She was given chances to sacrifice her principles,” said USF’s Sharma. “She could have gone back to England and lived, but she did not. That’s noble. In the eyes of the Burmese people, she really represents hope. She represents a sacrifice.”
Suu Kyi’s message of hope resonated with Bay Area software architect Nyunt Than, who helped organize her visit to San Francisco and chairs the Burmese American Democratic Alliance. He left Burma two decades ago, longs to return, and says rebuilding the country’s schools will be vital to re-energizing its youth. “One of the things that drives me every day is the young people who don’t have hope. I want to give the young people hope.”
Suu Kyi’s visit is not the first time USF has placed Burma’s fight for democracy center stage. In 2007, USF awarded an honorary doctoral degree to the monks who led a series of mass, pro-democracy protests throughout Burma that year, called the Saffron Revolution—after the color of their robes. It was the largest popular uprising in almost 20 years, and hundreds were arrested. Burmese monks living in the U.S. accepted the award on behalf of their fellow monks in Burma.
“These are extraordinary, modern-day heroes and persons of faith committed to building a better world, even at the risk of arrests, beatings, and death,” said USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. “We celebrate and support their courageous, nonviolent demonstrations, their continuing struggle for a fair and representative government, and the selfless leadership that is giving an entire nation a taste of freedom.”
Today, the determination and sacrifices of many Burmese may finally be yielding fruit. In 2010, the long-ruling junta ceded power to a military-backed civilian government, and the new president enacted economic and political reforms that re-established ties to the global economy and freed many political prisoners. Earlier this year, Suu Kyi won a seat in Burma’s parliament in a landslide victory, and, although largely symbolic, her election is an important political milestone.
Suu Kyi cautioned that the road to a prosperous, flourishing Burma would be a long one, paved with many challenges. Still, she left the audience with a message of hope and possibility: “We achieve the impossible every day. Miracles take a little longer.”
*In 1989, the ruling military junta renamed Burma “Myanmar,” a name not recognized by the U.S. government or many Burmese, including Suu Kyi. For this article, USF Magazine uses the name Burma.