Suu Kyi in an atmosphere filled with change
05 August 2012
Burma's pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi recognised Britain's support for her release after 15 years under house arrest on a recent visit in which she addressed parliament and a private gathering hosted by the British Council. Public Servant's Zahid Mahmood was one of 100 guests
A successful and growing Burma can be achieved through three clear notions, "education, democracy and youth", Aung San Suu Kyi told her audience in the Gladstone Library at One Whitehall Place.
Creating a democratic culture was about "educational, cultural and political" systems working together to make a difference, and to that end she called on individuals and international organisations to support Burma in its time of need. History was in the making.
Elections in April gave Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party a mandate and a parliamentary platform on which to build, but she has warned against a "reckless optimism". The army still nominates 25 per cent of Burma's parliamentary seats. As she took her place as an elected politician for the first time in July she could reflect on the journey and sacrifices made – and the extent of the task ahead for Burma after almost 50 years of isolation.
Softly spoken and humble in all manners, her sheer determination and relentless energy for democratic freedom is beyond inspiring, and as she calmly spoke of Burma's future, her mood was contagious.
The question posed on the British Council's invitation was straightforward: how best can civil society nurture a democratic culture? To summarise Suu Kyi's thoughts – education is the key to the foundations of society and hence a democratic culture.
Commitment to improving education standards was a constant theme on her four-day visit to Britain and she delved back into her childhood for a Burmese story by way of illustration. The story goes, a man had learnt from a pelican how to catch objects in his mouth and became famous with his tricks, catching swords and daggers, but he steadfastly refused to let anyone in on how he had acquired his amazing skills. The man died, with a dagger in his throat – the stunt had gone wrong.
The tale's moral was simple – "life is a lesson" and "everything is learnt". Suu Kyi believed that we should learn to use what we already had and share our skills with others, to extend the benefits. There were dire consequences in failing to look outward. Democracy, it was clear to her, was part of the process of learning.
"It is in education in particular that I hope the British can play a major role," said the Nobel Peace laureate. "We need short-term results, so that our people may see that democratisation has a tangible, positive impact on their lives."
"Education was about meeting the challenges of life," and it was crucial for us as individuals to continue to ask questions. British Council chief executive Martin Davidson said that an increase in educational funding in Burma would be crucial both for the development of Burma and also for the wider East Asia region. He pledged support for teacher training within private and state funded schools. Support for a strong civil society would lead to a good democratic future for the country.
It was "good to preserve one's culture" in the right context, she said, and while the people of Burma had to make their own future, at the same time they also needed outside help and influence. The British Council's support was highly valued.
Young people were vital to the change process, a powerful lobbying tool – just consider what had been achieved in Egypt. When asked whether the youth of Burma were politically active, she laughed and said: "Yes, they are very active…well, since January anyway". Their activism had followed her release.
She recalled seeing a two-year-old at one of her rallies. The child had remained quiet and engaged during the whole event. Why was that? she wondered, before offering her own answer: "Because the atmosphere was filled with change."
As a British Council Global Changemaker, I was among five young people to have the privilege of meeting Suu Kyi, to briefly share my personal experiences and views on the role of youth development in bringing about social change within a cultural setting.
As she approached our table, I greeted her and introduced myself. "Aha, a Global Changemaker," she said. "What are you going to change?" "The world," I said.
It is both a simplistic statement and a towering task, but as I left our Whitehall gathering, her famous phrase "Every thought, every word and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome, is a contribution to peace" made it sound more achievable.