By Alan Nichols
30 November 2013

The world’s most famous Opposition Leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, held 1200 people spellbound today at Monash University in a speech responding to receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Laws.

Among the crowd were 200 Burmese, most of whom came to Australia as refugees, former ambassadors, academics who frame degrees for refugees still in camps, and former refugee workers.

For them, it was like a dream to see her alive and well in Australia, promoting reconciliation, human rights and democracy in their homeland.

She accepted her Doctorate gracefully, saying ‘I will accept all honorary degrees I am offered, because we Burmese place a high value on education.’

Her speech was on the theme of Reconciliation and the Rule of Law, explaining that law had to be based on justice and on every person being equal.

In describing Burma at the present time, she said: ‘We are a fractured nation, just starting on the road to reconciliation.’ On the present conflicts in Kachin and Rakhine States, she said, ‘Our inability to settle differences peacefully is the main reason for continuing strife in my country.’ Responding to criticism sometimes levelled at her for not commenting on these conflicts, she said that peace talks should be allowed to proceed, and it was unwise to weigh in on one side or the other.

A few says ago in Canberra, she asked a Burmese student in the audience ‘What have you learned here?’ and he answered ‘To ask questions.’ She told him that back in Rangoon her party, the National League for Democracy had been teaching their interns and volunteers to ask questions, not just accept authority. So when police came at night to one member’s house, he asked – as he had learned – ‘Do you have a warrant?’ and the police answered ‘Don’t be silly, we have already decided how long you will be in prison.’

She received standing ovations from the audience on receiving the Doctorate, on finishing her 30 minute speech, and on answering questions. She may have had a full text, or an outline, but she directly faced the audience and spoke persuasively in her Oxford-Burmese accent.

No doubt many in the audience had their own recollections or connections with Aung Sam Suu Kyi. Mine is 1998, when in a two week window on her house arrest, we were allowed an hour with her in her home in University Avenue, Rangon. She looked pale and underfed. Less than a year later, her husband, Oxford academic Dr Michael Aris, died from cancer, and to my surprise I received a message from Aung San Suu Kyi asking would I conduct an Australian memorial service for him in the Buddhist tradition of one month after his death. It was to be simultaneous with ceremonies in Washington, Oxford and Yangon.

So, at St Mark’s Camberwell we had a combined Christian-Buddhist thanksgiving and mourning service. A special feature was the Prayer of St Francis (Lord, make me an instrument of your peace….) which was a special request from Daw Suu.

It was a very difficult time, although she said to the audience today her hardship was not nearly as bad as many of her supporters and NLD members in prison. She said today, ‘It is hard to acknowledge that the NLD started 30 years ago, and now here we are.’ Her supporters, admirers and her compatriot Burmese all felt the same.

December 1 – Unity was the theme at Dandenong Basketball Stadium on the Sunday when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to 1400 Burmese – mostly people belonging to the minority ethnic groups.

In cultural dress – both men and women – 400 were from the Karen and 200 from the Chin. Most have been refugees processed by UNHCR and accepted as refugees in fear of persecution if they returned home. Some have been in Australia for ten years and many in refugee camps in Thailand or Malaysia for 20 years. Many young people have never set foot on Burmese land. In Melbourne, because of rental housing, they mostly live from Dandenong to Box Hill and from Werribee to Corio.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival was like royalty or a US President. Beforehand ethnic leaders in their own languages welcomed the audience. Then a frisson of anticipation moved through the stadium. Flanked by security guards, she walked into sustained applause. Friends of ours from refugee work 20 years ago said: “Who would have believed we could ever see her in Dandenong?”

The entire meeting was in Burmese language – her 30 minute speech without notes, and her 45 minutes answering questions which had been collected in silver caskets.

The theme of both her address and her answers to questions was unity and harmony among the ethnic groups, both inside Burma/Myanmar and in Australia. One person said to us afterwards: “She wants to bring together the ethnic groups in Australia because they are staying separate.”

Throughout Aung San Suu Kyi sounded and acted like a President. She spoke easily and comfortably, with occasional jokes and asides. She clearly knew what she wanted to say to her people. Yesterday at Monash University she acknowledged the suffering of her people in exile, and no doubt she repeated this today.

Could she match Angela Merkel or Hilary Clinton? Undoubtedly. Does the Burmese language have a word for democracy? No. But did the crowd at Dandenong Stadium know what democracy means? Undoubtedly, and 200 black Tshirts said: “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for President of Myanmar in 2015.”

But after she left for a UN function at Government House, many of the audience hung around, meeting old friends and discussing among all the things the Lady had said, asked this question: Will the Burmese military actually change the Constitution so she can stand for President? For, with all their optimism and hope, many Burmese in exile still have doubts that the military will actually hand over power.


Archdeacon Alan Nichols is Coordinator, Multicultural Ministry, Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
Alan and Denise Nichols worked for Jesuit Refugee Service 1991-93, supporting refugees and sheltering students in exile because of the 1988 student uprising. And they have both supported the continuing work of Anglican Overseas Aid in the border refugee camps since 1988.

Photos: Sarah Nichols and Alan Nichols

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