WASHINGTON — Though the national elections in the United States loom less than seven weeks away, partisan bickering was agreeably suspended for one day last week here, when the Burmese dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, was honored by top Republicans and Democrats with the US Congressional Gold Medal. The award had originally been made to her in absentia in 2008, when she was a political prisoner in Burma, also known as Myanmar. She was freed in 2010, after 15 years under house arrest. This was her first visit to the US since then and included a trip to New York to the United Nations.
As Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state and ambassador to the UN, stood at the lectern in Washington on Sept. 19 and introduced Aung San Suu Kyi as “the Lady,” it was clear that the description was correct.
Poised and humble, speaking without notes about honesty, kindness and even tranquillity, Aung San Suu Kyi’s demeanor went a long way in revealing the reasons behind her incredible political success this year in Burma. The party she leads, the National League for Democracy, swept 43 of 44 contested available seats in the April 2012 parliamentary elections, surprising even those who ran for office alongside her and won, she said. She campaigned, she added, promising voters only to “do my best,” telling the Washington audience that it would be dishonest to make “easy promises” that she wasn’t sure she could deliver. After wondering if that made her less of a politician, Aung San Suu Kyi stressed her belief in rights being directly linked to duties.
As she has reiterated with her Burmese followers, she said in Washington that while everyone has a democratic right to vote, everyone also has a democratic duty to vote. And, despite a flawed process in Burma, people did come out to vote last spring.
Although not far from the capital, the jurisdiction she represents in Parliament is primarily rural. It includes 127 villages. About a month ago, she met with people there to discuss their needs. She was astonished that villagers focused on education and little mention of health. One mother broke into tears, desperate for educational opportunities for her children, she said. But the Oxford-educated Aung San Suu Kyi told the Washington audience that she explained to the mother how health care is also fundamentally important and needed in the village. Without good health, the women’s children could become unable to use any schooling they might acquire, she added, emphasizing Aung San Suu Kyi’s concern for the youth of Burma and their role in the future of the country.
Burma’s biggest institutional problem, however, is the judiciary. “Our people don’t trust the courts,” she said. She was recently appointed to chair the Committee for the Rule of Law and Tranquillity and has been given one year to gauge how free the courts operate from the executive branch. For decades, the rule of law has been missing in Burma.
“But once people can feel confident that the law will protect them, is for them and not to be used against them, then they will find inner security, which generates tranquillity.”
As for the two chambers that make up the legislature, Aung San Suu Kyi said she has been impressed by the fairness of the two speakers of the Upper and Lower Houses and the legislature’s vigor. “They have treated us as an effective opposition, although there are only 44 of us in a legislature of 651 members.”
But, she added, Burmese must “understand how to ask questions” of those in power, something they have not been allowed to do for the last 50 years. Yet they seem to be learning, she said.
That evening in the Presidential Ballroom of the Capital Hilton, Aung San Suu Kyi did not mention the need for lifting sanctions, a point she mentioned at the White House earlier in the day and during an Asia Society-sponsored program at the United States Institute of Peace the day before (though some sanctions have since been relaxed). But other political reforms in Burma are difficult and complex and just as necessary, she said, as recent positive trends in Burma can still be reversed. Nonetheless, supporters everywhere have been kind to Burma, showing good will toward the country.
So many people throughout the world wish her country – in her words – “a happy ending,” and with their continued support, such an ending remains possible for Burma, she concluded; and with a standing ovation, off she went into the night to yet another gathering.
Tino Calabia began his humanitarian work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and then ran a Bronx antipoverty agency and wrote numerous federal studies ranging from the rights of female offenders to racial discrimination on college campuses. He has served on national Asian American boards and organized seminars in former Eastern-bloc countries for exchange students he mentored while they lived in the United States.
Calabia has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, attended the University of Munich on a foreign-exchange fellowship and has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Columbia University. He lives in the Washington area with his wife, Dawn Calabia, who is an honorary adviser to Refugees International.