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The Citizen

Aung San Suu Kyi directs audience members to use their vote, voice

By Amy Antonelli“We are here,” began Dean David Ellwood, “to hear and to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is indeed one of the great figures of our time.”

So commenced the 2012 Godkin Lecture in the JFK Forum on Sept. 27, as the HKS community welcomed with an emotional standing ovation the revered Nobel Laureate and Burmese democratic activist who has been an inspiration to millions of freedom-loving people around the world.

Harvard President Drew Faust introduced Aung San Suu Kyi, praising her remarkable persistence in the cause of democracy despite formidable obstacles, including 19 years of house arrest.

“From that day in 1989 [when she was arrested], Daw Suu has maintained a serene tenacity that continues to be a defining feature of her leadership,” President Faust said.  “Despite imprisonment and intimidation, confinement and surveillance, she has stood always for nonviolent opposition, for unity in the face of adversity, for lasting freedom from, in her own words, the ‘enervating miasma of fear’.”

Daw Suu is the daughter of Aung San, considered to be the father of modern day Myanmar. As Chairperson of the National League for Democracy, she has championed the cause of democracy in that country for a quarter of a century.

Addressing the Harvard audience, she spoke of the critical duty of those who wish to live in a free society to behave as though they already do.  She encouraged all citizens to examine their own behavior, explaining: “You have to take that brave step.   You cannot wait for everything to be done for you.  That is the first sign of somebody who lives in a free society:  that he or she takes responsibility for his or her own actions, for his or her own choices.”

She described the challenge of preparing the Burmese people to engage in the political process, particularly with regard to elections.   Her message to her people was simple:  that they had the right to vote and a duty to do so.  As she told them: “On the day of the elections, you will be the equal of the president himself.   He has one vote: you have one vote.   So you use it.   You use it to choose a candidate that you think will be best for your constituency.”

Daw Suu described her joy when she began to see an “eagerness to take part” in the electoral process among her people.  On Election Day, she was touched by a group of girls who were in tears because they had not been allowed to vote.  She realized that the girls had internalized the message that their votes mattered.

“It’s amazing,” she said, “what a small amount of responsibility can do for the self-confidence of a people who have never been treated as responsible, capable adults.  Citizens in an authoritarian state are treated like immature children.   To take responsibility for the results of their own decisions is one of the first steps toward becoming citizens in a free society”.

Following her remarks students, were invited to ask questions.  Many preceded their questions with statements of gratitude, regarding the inspirational impact that Daw Suu has made on their own lives and countries.

“I’m from Pakistan, where we have faced military dictatorship rule again and again,” said Sarmad Palijo, MC/MPA Mason Fellow ’13. “Every time we succeed, they come back.  But I’m very proud to say that you have been our hope.  Although you say you’re not an icon, for us, you are more Pakistani than you realize.”

Hannah Riley Bowles, faculty member at HKS, asked Daw Suu to describe her evolving leadership role, particularly regarding her distaste for the label of “icon”.   Daw Suu clarified with a smile, explaining that she has always thought of herself as a politician.  “I’ve been very surprised,” she said “when people make remarks like, ‘Well, she’s been an icon for 24 years, now she must start learning about politics.’  What do they think I’ve been doing for the last 24 years?  I am simply carrying on with the political work I started in 1988.  I don’t like to be referred to as an icon because icons do nothing except sit there, and I have to work very hard.”

Speaking directly to the students of Harvard, Daw Suu concluded her remarks by inviting them to consider their own price of freedom.  “Every day, you have the right to make simple decisions and to lead your lives as you please.   Many students fail to recognize how they have been given freedom of choice on a daily basis.  Freedom and responsibility are different sides of the same coin.  Those who do not accept responsibility are truly not free.”