Aung San Suu Kyi at Oxford: a moment in history

This may be the week of our school Founders’ Day, but I had an important appointment today in Oxford, at the Sheldonian, to watch part of the University’s annual Encaenia celebrations. Each year, a number of distinguished people are honoured at the Encaenia ceremony with an honorary doctorate in their field, and this year was particularly special, for one of the honorands was no less than the Burmese politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, who until recently spent many years under house arrest while Burma – Myanmar – was under military rule. The daughter of Aung San, the assassinated hero of the Burmese independence struggle, she studied at Oxford in the 1960’s, where she met and married her late husband Michael Aris, with whom she had two sons. She has universally been recognised as courageous in her leadership of the Burmese National League for Democracy, especially during her many years of house arrest, during which, in 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. Now a newly elected member of the Burmese Parliament, she has become a symbol for positive political change.

Up close, Aung San Suu Kyi has all of the quiet, calm, strong presence we have come to expect of her by reputation. She is tremendously inspiring – she spoke beautifully and with conviction after her award, and I had the huge, huge privilege of exchanging a few words with her at St Hugh’s afterwards, in and amongst the crowds. I told her that I was the Head of a girls’ school and that I taught my girls to change the world; she said that women in Burma are strong, but often hang back. She told me to keep doing what I was doing; I told her she was inspirational, and I thanked her. Moments in the presence of a great person create remarkable memories.

And she is a remarkable woman, to have such serenity and yet such determination after her years in captivity, standing in quiet opposition to a political situation which she felt was wrong and which she knew through her sense of duty it was her responsibility to oppose. It is easy to feel in awe of her – and quite right to do so. Her noble political stance has impacted, of course, on her family; she was unable to leave the country to be with her husband in his dying days, for fear that she would not be allowed to return, and she has become estranged from her two sons. Hard though this may have been, we can see and recognise the wider picture: it was for the greater good of her country that she did as she did, and it is for this that she has been honoured, including at today’s Encaenia in Oxford.

Fairytale endings are rare in politics, however. Aung San Suu Kyi may have won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament in April, but it would be a mistake to assume that this marks a fresh, new, sweet beginning to a brand new future for the country. Sectarian violence – clashes between Buddhists and Muslims – has broken out, and the government still has many embedded links to the military. Aung San Suu Kyi has already warned world business leaders, meeting in Thailand earlier this month, against “reckless optimism”, and her message to the hall in Oslo on 16th June, where she formally accepted in person her Nobel Prize, was that the hard work of political reform in Myanmar has only just begun. Tomorrow, she will speak to our Houses of Parliament, and her message is expected to be similar. Transformation does not take place overnight, and there is a fine line between opposition and compromise – a line which Aung San Suu Kyi must tread, trying to effect change without alienating either her supporters or a government which, for all its faults, has demonstrated its willingness to move forward.

She has an enormous task ahead of her. But she is a magnificent example already of what can be done when we hold true to our values.  She more than deserved her honour today.


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