Students of the Hertie School had the unique opportunity to discuss the future of Burma with pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Students of the Hertie School had the unique opportunity to discuss the future of Burma with pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. On Tuesday 10 May 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi's voice could be heard on the Hertie School campus in Berlin as she highlighted the liberation of political prisoners, the establishment of an independent judiciary and greater participation in the political process as key issues that Burma faces on its path to democratisation.
Aung San Suu Kyi joined the discussion via a live audio link from her home in Burma. She spoke frankly about the lack of meaningful change in her country since the most recent elections; and shared about her movement’s efforts to change the minds of the Burmese people in order to facilitate real and lasting political change.
The increasing involvement of the youth in Burma’s political process was emphasised by Aung San Suu Kyi as an important development; and she underlined the necessity of education and a strong civil society in creating a climate in which people are empowered to take ownership of the political process.
In terms of the role of the international community Aung San Suu Kyi called for a coordinated approach to the Burma question; as well as carefully targeted development aid that supports civil society and empowers people to become more independent from the government.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010 and has since actively prioritised engaging in dialogue with young people across the globe. She approached the Hertie School and expressed interest in having a discussion with the institution’s international student body. Aung San Suu Kyi and her helpers participated in the event at great personal risk. Thus the Hertie School was requested to make all preparations for this event as discreetly as possible.
A panel featuring Patrick Gilroy (Student, Hertie School), Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (Professor of Democracy Studies, Hertie School), Corina Murafa (Student, Hertie School), Adrienne Woltersdorf (Head of Chinese Department, DW), and moderated by Melinda Crane (DW-TV) steered the discussion with Aung San Suu Kyi. A discussion of this nature had only been hosted once to date with students of the London School of Economics and Political Science in December 2010.
The event was hosted in cooperation with Deutsche Welle-TV and Democratic Voice of Burma.
Student Perspectives on the live discussion with Aung San Suu Kyi
Corina Murafa, MPP Class of 2011
May 10th, 2011 was my last day of classes as an MPP student. No strings attached, the Hertie School succeeded in making it memorable. I got acquainted with the political situation in Burma two years ago, when I introduced Burmese dissident monk Ashin Sopaka to an enthusiastic crowd of Romanian teenagers that I was working with in a national human rights education programme.
Two years later, the Hertie School brought Aung San Suu Kyi, whom I consider one of the greatest political leaders of our century, in front of an equally enthusiastic crowd of public policy students and graduates in Berlin. For security reasons, we could not see her during the hour-long podium discussion. To me it was nonetheless fantastic how her voice penetrated the room, at times sending shivers down one's spine. We could all contemplate the greatness of her political personality as a freedom fighter, a human rights defender and now a leader militating for a peaceful and negotiated transition between the junta and the opposition.
"Mrs. Suu Kyi, you are 65 already. Do you plan to retire?", a member of the audience asked. "In Burma you don't retire, in Burma you succeed", the answer promptly came. It remains to be seen whether Aung San Suu Kyi will become the Mandela of her country. She informed us a growing generation of politically aware young Burmese is gradually becoming more and more active. Genuine change might be closer than we imagined, despite the window dressing put up by the new "hybrid regime".
Puneet Sahani, MPP Class of 2012
I laugh more, contemplate less. Invariably so in face of questions such as: Who was your childhood hero, which famous personality would you like to spend an evening with etcetera. But when Aung San Suu Kyi bestowed the honour of speaking with students of the Hertie School, and I was accepted from among the curious to join the discussion I found that laughter was the only possible response to my confused contemplation.
I wondered how far and deep my acquaintance with Aung San Suu Kyi went. Is she the essays of inspiration (or escape) that a 26 year old public policy student retreats to in his moments of disillusionment with politics? Is she the idol that did not melt away as one graduated? Or is she the face on television that captivated a six-year old's mind, to whom her achievement meant little but trivia?
With these unanswered question, I went into the conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi. I was perhaps less surprised than others with the contrasts in her: measured candour, earthy humility balanced with awareness of her importance, conspicuous foundation in Theravada Buddhism but an unflinching commitment to western-liberal ideals. Still it was just impossible to not be taken by her range. She academically engaged the informed, stimulated the youth with her famous quote "It is not power that corrupts but fear", and patiently heard out a Burmese monk who complained about the lack of organization in an obscure camp.
I tried to challenge her by drawing parallels between her and Benazir Bhutto, the other candle of democracy in south-Asia, who was violently extinguished. Did she fear a similar fate? She dodged it by saying that her father was also an army man, and she does not have reasons to fear the junta. Bhutto too had said something similar and expedient in a military state, knowing well all along that what she stood for was an existential threat to the dictatorial powers.
I tried to pinch her with the U-turn India did on her due to fears of China, and the split within her party over calls to boycott the election of 2010. Did she feel disillusioned or obsolete? I think this was when she was got at her oratorial and inspiring best. She dwelt on the fundamental reasons why one should have a voice, why one should be in politics and public life. The importance to stand up for one’s convictions, to guide change according to them, to not be static in the irreconcilable and enforced status quo that we all experience, and to enjoy the journey. I came away from the discussion without contemplation. I laughed.