Burmese Dissident Speaks at Institute of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi
Jessica C. Salley

Burmese political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the development of democracy in Burma at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Thursday evening. Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent fifteen years under house arrest until her release in 2010, told the packed audience that a sense of responsibility was a foundation for true freedom.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a famous Burmese political dissident imprisoned for nearly 15 years, visited Harvard Thursday bringing tidings of democracy in Myanmar and a reminder for students.

“You are free in this university to lead your life as you please,” Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in 2010, told the crowd at a ticketed John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum event. “This is what very many students fail to recognize—how free they are, how they have been given freedom of choice on a daily basis, how they have been given the chance to shape their lives as they would like it to shape up.”

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Congressional Gold Medalist, is touring the United States for the first time in 40 years. Suu Kyi came to Cambridge after stops in New York City and in Washington D.C., where she spoke with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

At the Institute of Politics on Thursday, Suu Kyi discussed her plan for preparing the people of Myanmar, previously known as Burma, to be active participants in civil society following recent democratic victories there.

“Change has started coming to Burma. But we have not yet seen the fruits of this change,” she said. “We have started out on the road of democratization, and as we go along this road, we have to prepare our people to be citizens of a free society.”

Suu Kyi has spent much of her adult life fighting for democracy in Myanmar. She is a founding member and the current chairperson of the National League for Democracy, an oppositional party that has fought the military dictatorship in Myanmar for 24 years. Suu Kyi’s party won 43 of the 45 vacant parliament seats earlier this year. In two years, Suu Kyi has risen from political prisoner to member of Parliament.

But Suu Kyi said she is not out for revenge for those military officials who kept her prisoner for many years.

“I for one am not keen on retribution. Even if we go for justice, it has to be restorative justice,” she said.

During the question and answer session following her speech, Suu Kyi was asked about her emotions when she faced the choice to leave her country or be placed under house arrest.

“I never thought there was a choice. I never thought of leaving Burma. I always thought that as long as there was one person who believed in democracy in Burma, I had to stay with that person,” Suu Kyi responded.

The lucky students who won tickets to the event were struck by Suu Kyi’s persistence and commitment to bringing democracy to Myanmar.

“I think the way that she spoke was inspiring and soothing, and it was great to see that she is such a humble person,” said Tiffany A. Lazo-Cedre ’16, who participated in the question and answer session with Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s address was the most recent installment of the Godkin Lectures, described as the “most prestigious endowed lecture series at Harvard” by Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75.

—Staff writer Sagar Desai can be reached at sagardesai@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer David W. Kaufman can be reached at davidkaufman@college.harvard.edu.

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