Aung San Suu Kyi is many things. She is a global democracy icon. She is a belovednational hero in Burma , whose people call her Mother Suu. She is a newly mintedparliamentarian in a country that is undergoing surprisingpolitical reforms. The 66-year-old Nobel laureate is also, as sheproved in her first speech to a major foreign audience at theWorld Economic Forum (WEF) of East Asia in Bangkok a bit of aschoolmarm. |
On June 1, Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest formuch of the past two decades and had not left home for nearly aquarter of a century, electrified the packed audience of businessleaders, politicians and media-types. These global thinkers, asthe WEF likes to call them, leaped up for a standing ovation beforeSuu Kyi s speech, which given that she is not officially anational ruler was simply called a "One-on-One ConversationWith a Leader." Like delighted concert-goers, the crowd inBangkok trained their smartphones and iPads on the stage, to recordher every word. Speaking without any notes (and certainly with no teleprompter),the Oxford graduate delivered a talk so flawless it was hard toimagine that she spent so many years alone at the behest ofBurma s then ruling generals. Suu Kyi highlighted the urgent needfor Burma, officially known as Myanmar , to tackle youth unemployment and to build a proper educationsystem.
She spoke of the dangers of corruption and inequality, andshe cautioned potential foreign investors about the legal andethical minefield that is Burma. She inveighed against recklessoptimism and instead counseled healthy skepticism of Burma sreforms. ( READ: Suu Kyi embarks on first foreign trip in 24 years. ) Throughout her talk, Suu Kyi s verbal precision and poised dictionconjured up a headmistress at a posh school, one whose highstandards you desperately want to exceed. Her whos and whoms were as proper as her posture.
Suu Kyi sprinkled her talkwith idioms a principal might use, like no hope withoutendeavor and God helps those who help themselves. It s very simple, she said several times throughout the day,referring to policy initiatives, almost like she was addressing agathering of schoolchildren. Toward the end of her 10-minute speech, Suu Kyi instructed theaudience, as if giving them a pop quiz, for ideas, suggestions,practical ones, to help Burma develop. Later in the day, when sheparticipated in a panel discussion on the state of women in theworld, the moderator asked what she thought of education in Burma. It s very poor, she fired back, with the barest hint of asmile.
I thought you know that. The moderator, a seasonedanchor for CNN, looked like an abashed schoolboy. I m thrown, he said, to the crowd s laughter. Twice, Suu Kyi, who has told me she is a teetotaler, referred tothe evils of mind-altering substances and practices. Young Burmese,she worried in her WEF speech, were turning to drugs, gambling andthe allure of the toddy-palm shop, where cheap liquor is sold.
Inthe panel on female power, she decried a situation in which womentoiled as domestic workers, sending money back to their husbandswho sit in the villages and drink. Suu Kyi, however, is no prude.In the session on women, she talked frankly about her discussionsat an HIV-AIDS clinic with commercial sex workers. Eighty percentof those women, she said, were supporting their parents andsiblings back home and sometimes their relatives knew the truenature of the prostitutes jobs. The nurturing role of womenwas fine, she said, but this sacrificial role has to stop. Suu Kyi has spent part of the WEF whose rather immodest mottoproclaims how it is committed to improving the state of theworld patiently fielding starstruck attendees.
These are thekind of people who normally might show little inclination for heroworship. When five national leaders Indonesian President SusiloBambang Yudhoyono, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra,Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Laotian Prime MinisterThongsing Thammavong and Bahraini Prime Minister Prince AlKhalifa spoke the day before Suu Kyi did, the audience engaged ina fair amount of diversionary smartphone tip-tapping. (Thoseleaders, it must be admitted, did not give the most dynamic ofspeeches.) At one point, as Suu Kyi walked from her speech to thepress conference, a trio of Thai women fell to their knees, likesupplicants in front of a deity. My heart is beating so fast, said one WEF participant, as she asked a question of Suu Kyi. ( READ: Burma's first lady of freedom.
) But Suu Kyi has also spent a fair amount of time at the WEF actingas a student a remarkable role for someone so respected. Sheattended a panel about the evolving politics of East Asia, noddingalong as a U.S. Senator made one point and the ASEANSecretary-General another. The next day, she caught other equallywonky sessions.
At a forum dinner, she chatted with Indonesia sTrade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who comes from a country that hasmade a successful and rapid transition from a military-dominatedquasi-dictatorship to a multiparty democracy. At the panel Imoderated on East Asia s security landscape, she slipped inquietly although the WEF had made sure to reserve her a seat inthe front row. Would she like to contribute anything to thediscussion? Frankly, I ve done a rather lot of talkingrecently, she said. What I d really like to do is listen andlearn.
At a press conference, she repeated that sentiment. I ve learned a lot, she said. I believe in the learningprocess. There were, however, moments of personal reflection.
When asked howshe survived the long years of detention, Suu Kyi gave a simple ifpowerful answer. Her mother, she said, had instilled in her a senseof duty and discipline. That was what carried her through. And asked what she thought as she landed in a foreign country after24 years in Burma, Suu Kyi described how the pilot of the planefrom Rangoon to Bangkok was so very kind and offered her a seatin the cockpit upon descent. The lights of the Thai capital blazedbelow.
Suu Kyi said she had been to New York, to London, to otherplaces with brighter lights long ago. Thirty years before, Bangkokand Rangoon would not have been that different when it came totheir glow in the night sky. This time I was completelyfascinated by the lights because I had just left a Burma sufferingfrom electricity cuts, she said. Indeed, protests have erupted inrecent days in Rangoon and Mandalay because of the chronic powershortages in a country awash in power generation potential.
Thencame headmistress Suu s teachable moment, leavened by a dash ofhumor that enchanted the audience. What went through my mind, she said of that moment before she made her historic landing inThailand, was, We need an energy policy.
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