Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Speaks About Shaping Myanmar at Harvard Kennedy School
By Kate Hoagland – Communiqué: Fall 2012, Volume 11
On September 27, 2012, Harvard Kennedy School welcomed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the JFK Jr. Forum to deliver the Godkin Lecture, considered to be one of the most prestigious annual lecture series at the School. Daw Suu delivered an inspiring yet humble speech on how she and members of her National League for Democracy party are teaching the Burmese to be citizens of a free society. “The best way to be a truly responsible citizen in a free society is to act as though you are already a free citizen in a free society,” she said.
Being a free citizen is a completely new concept for the Burmese, who until recently had been living under military rule for five decades. Nearly 25 years ago, Daw Suu returned to her country to fight for peace noting “this is not a time when anyone who cares can stay out.” She formed the National League for Democracy party in 1988, but was placed under house arrest in 1989 for 15 out of the last 19 years.
“From that day in 1989, Daw Suu has maintained a serene tenacity that continues to be a defining feature of her leadership,” said President Drew Faust at the lecture’s opening remarks with HKS Dean David Ellwood. “Despite imprisonment and intimidation, confinement and surveillance, she has always stood for nonviolent opposition…and in her own words ‘the enervating miasma of fear.’”
In March of 2011, Myanmar established a new government and held its first elections in 20 years. Though the elections were widely viewed as imperfect, newly elected President U Thein Sein has overseen a series of conciliatory political measures that many see as a positive departure from the repressive military dictatorship of his predecessor.
In April of this year, the country held its first parliamentary by-elections in which Daw Suu and other members of the National League for Democracy won 43 out of 44 contested seats, thereby securing a minority of seats in the lower house of the Burmese Parliament. During her lecture, Daw Suu described the six weeks leading up to the by-election as an opportunity not only to campaign for the National League of Democracy, but also to teach her people about the fundamental importance of voting as a right and responsibility of all free citizens.
She trained constituents in literally how to select their choices on ballots while combatting the pervasive culture of fear around voting: many worried of being imprisoned for voting and having their choices publicized to the authorities as had been the case during the previous military dictatorship. She explained to her constituents, “On the day of the elections, you will be equal to the president, because both of you have one vote.” Voter turnout was over 70 percent and demonstrated a newfound eagerness on the part of the Burmese to participate in the civic process and perform their duty as citizens.
Beyond voter participation, Daw Suu described other steps she and her party are taking to prepare the Burmese to be citizens in a free society. The Rangoon District, which she represents, is made up of primarily small, poor, rural villages with a lack of portable water and roads all but unusable during the monsoon season. Daw Suu has started the process of constructing wells in the region as both a matter of necessity and as a means of teaching her constituency the basics of democratic governance. In order for villagers to receive a well, they must have a location centrally accessible to all and have to form a committee responsible for the maintenance of the well. Simple steps, Daw Suu explained, that can make a big difference in how citizens see themselves and the important role they can play in making a difference in the life of their communities. And it is already having an impact. “It’s amazing what a small amount of responsibility can do for the self confidence of our people, who have never been treated as responsible, capable adults,” said Daw Suu.
For the last half century, many Burmese have been treated, in Daw Suu’s words, as “immature children.” With their newfound freedom, Suu argued that they must take on responsibility because “freedom and responsibility are different sides of the same coin.”
“We have just started out on the road of shaping our country into the kind of nation we want it to be,” concluded Daw Suu. “And that means that our people have to be the kind of people capable of deciding their own destiny.”