What Europe can learn from Aung San Suu Kyi's visit

During the next 16 days, Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting Norway, Ireland, Britain, and France, where some say she is an example of turning weakness into strength.

Sebastien Bozon/AP
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, participates in a discussion with Swiss apprentices (not pictured) on June 14, on the train between Geneva and Bern.

“The time of politics,” Aung San Suu Kyi said last year, “is a long time.”  

Now the Burmese reformer is in Europe for the first time in 24 years, 15 of those years she spent under house arrest in Myanmar (Burma). And she is getting a red-carpet reception and plaudits fit for a moral statesperson on the scale of Nelson Mandela, who also waited decades to leave jail in apartheid South Africa.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spoke this morning in Geneva, amid ebullient applause, to the International Labor Organization, which yesterday lifted its restrictions on Myanmar's participation in the orgranization. She appealed for aid to help democratic reform in her country, which has seen political opening in the past year.

During the next 16 days, the Nobel laureate will visit Norway, Ireland, Britain, and France. But she arrives at a somewhat distressed time for Europe, which hasn’t seen a lot of good news of late.  It is a time of austerity, of diminished dreams and ideals, of a return to national interests – and where Greek elections Sunday could further propel a fraying of Europe’s post-war idea of openness and togetherness. Regardless, Aung San Suu Kyi has said since her arrival that she has a great deal to learn from a Europe that she has not visited since before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  

Indeed, the last time she visited there were no smart phones, no iPads or apps, no GPS. Financial derivatives had not been invented, Spain was still emerging from the Franco era, and “Brics” just looked like a misspelling. The European Union of 27 nations did not exist. The European community was made up of 12 nations.

Yet while Aung San Suu Kyi may have a Rip van Winkle-sized learning curve, many cosmopolitan Europeans believe there is also something essential to learn from The Lady (as she is also known in Myanmar).

Weakness into strength

“The French and the Europeans admire her because she showed how to turn weakness into strength with a few moral principles unflinchingly declared and held to,” says Karim Emile Bitar a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “That is what technocratic Europe needs more of. She is in the tradition of Gandhi, Mandela, and Havel, a lighthouse in a foggy world … a simple but not simplistic moral clarity. There is something spiritual about her, and Europe needs something ‘spiritual’ today.”

In Oslo this weekend Aung San Suu Kyi will give the 1991 Nobel acceptance speech she was not able to deliver while under house arrest in Myanmar (her son spoke on her behalf). She’ll then travel to Dublin to accept Amnesty International’s “Ambassador of Conscience” title from U2’s Bono, who is reportedly lending his jet to fly her from Oslo. Then she will head to London to address both Houses of Parliament and possibly meet her grandchildren, whom she has never met.  At the end of her trip she is slated to come to France, the country in Europe that most speaks of the universal human rights that Aung San Suu Kyi embodies, and that played a key role in lifting sanctions on Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s approach to human and civil rights is “gradual, step-by-step, nonviolent, but not soft. Persistent. This is what we can learn from her,” write Stephane Hessel and Frederic Debomy in a their book, “Resistance: Toward a Free Burma,” in which Aung San Suu Kyi participates in a dialogue. (Under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly learned French by watching movies smuggled into her home).

'Steel Butterfly'

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was a leader of Myanmar but was killed when Aung San Suu Kyi was 2. She has epitomized nonviolent resistance to the military junta that crushed the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar in 1988 in which Aung San Suu Kyi, known as the “Steel Butterfly,” appeared certain to emerge as a paramount leader of reform.

She refused to leave Myanmar while under arrest – even as her husband, a British scholar of Tibet, fell ill and died – based on her belief that she would not be allowed back in.

Now a member of the Burmese parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi must negotiate the international area more as a national leader and less as a figure of regime opposition, notes a Financial Times editorial this morning.

"What I would like to see for our country is democracy-friendly development growth,” she said in Geneva today.  “I would like to call for aid and investment that will strengthen the democratization process by promoting social and economic progress that is beneficial to political reform."

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