Thoughts on the Wallenberg Medal 2011 for Aung San Suu Kyi

It was a rare privilege to witness the Aung San Suu Kyi being presented with the Wallenberg Medal by the University of Michigan last night. As Aung San does not leave Burma due to the fear that she may not be let back in, the medal was presented in absentia and her lecture was pre-recorded. The highlight of the evening was the question and answer with Ms. Kyi that was live (via Skype). Even after years of captivity and sporadic contact with the outside world, Ms. Kyi's face showed no signs of bitterness, defeat or exhaustion. She was very animated and showed a great sense of humor in her responses. She talked about the struggle against fear (quoting Tagore's Where the Mind is Without Fear) and oppression that are universal and that her case was only very particular. It's only extraordinary people that think that their lives are quite ordinary.

Not once did I hear her use the word 'I' while talking about the Burmese struggle for democracy. It was always 'us', 'we', or 'the Burmese people'. She was quick to praise the achievements of others. She believes the struggle in Burma is a personal and a limited one - meaning, it is for her people and her society, as opposed to Raoul Wallenberg's, which was for a different people and a different religion. Her modesty was genuine. Giants standing on the shoulders of giants.

In her curious accent that seemed to be a mix of her education in Burma, India and Britain, she narrated a humorous story about the three happiest days in a Burmese man's life: the day he becomes a novice monk, the day he gets married and the day he is released from jail. She said that reflects on what the Burmese think of their own society.

Why now?
In no way reflecting on Ms. Kyi's courage, I have some issues with the university for giving her the medal now. Arguments which I have taken up in another forum. In summary, I felt that this award has come too late and that it would have been more imaginative of the university to give it someone new and focus attention on people who are still relatively unknown. (check back for updates) instead of trying to cash-in on Ms. Kyi's celebrity.

Women in power? or not really?
In 1988, Ms. Kyi got swept up in protests and became a part of movement that she no initial intention of being a part of.  There was a question from an undergraduate about the role and suitability of women in leadership and if this hindered her role in the movement. I feel bad for American women who despite all their advances seem to be plagued by the fact that there has no woman President so far.  Is is true as Ms. Kyi mentioned in her response that "women are equally capable as men" and "the first female head of state was a woman - Srimavo Banradranaike from Sri Lanka..", but there is slightly pessimistic view. Women are not so much the issue as  South Asian seems to gravitate towards dynastic leadership.  It seems like a perversion to think that  while South Asia has been replete with examples of women being in power - Indira Gandhi in India (and now Sonia Gandhi), Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, Bhutto in Pakistan, the average women in all of these countries is far from equal than men. This is not so much a gender issue as it seems but that South Asian seems to love and trust dynastic rule. In Ms. Kyi's case as the daughter of the first leader of Burma it was around her that people rallied. It seems contradictory that appears as democracy prima facie is patrimonialism in another guise.

As someone who has had greatness thrust upon them, Ms. Kyi has done remarkably well to keep her celebrity out and to give credit to others in the struggle. It is the world's fault that we cannot name a single leader apart from Ms. Kyi. Surely, as she herself said in as many words that  there are many unknown people who are leading lives of even greater courage, who are still unsung. It was a great honor to be in presence of such a great person. She is really a steel magnolia, the softness and gentle eyes overlay that indomitable courage and resilience.  She talked about her struggles as a child in conquering her fear of the dark.  She said she walked in dark rooms for two weeks and then it was gone. Since 1988, she has been under, more or less, house arrest. One wonders how long she will have to wander in the dark rooms of Burma before she conquers the tyranny of military rule.

Wallenberg Medal and Lecture website at Umich


ေကာင္းတမန္ said...

Thank you for your reflection. Where can I get the full transcripts of her lecture and Q&A session?

Livin' La Vida Colombiana said...

Beautiful reflection!