It would be tempting to think of Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to Oxford University today as the end of a long journey — but it is, of course, just the beginning. As the Burmese opposition leader herself said at the Encaenia ceremony after she finally accepted her honorary doctorate — awarded to her 19 years ago — her country’s road is yet unformed and has to be built ‘inch by difficult inch’. She also pointed out that ‘too many people are expecting too much’ from her country.
Decades of house arrest do not appear to have sapped the spirit of Suu Kyi, who spoke, apparently without notes, with humour and charm of her old student days at Oxford. Yet she will be 70 when Burma has its all-important national elections in 2015. Suu Kyi has fallen sick during her current tour of Europe, and collapsed from exhaustion several times during her by-election campaign in March. The years do take their toll.
Meanwhile, though her country has seen a remarkable introduction of reforms under it’s ex-junta President Thein Sein — who on Tuesday unveiled a ‘second wave’ of changes — it remains on the whole poverty-stricken, poorly educated, highly sectarian and politically splintered, with the spectre of a return to the junta days ever present. Currently there are reports that around 90,000 people have been displaced in west Burma, where tensions have flared between Buddhists and Muslims.
The unbearable truth, of which Suu Kyi seems so acutely aware in every speech she makes, is that the vast majority of Burmese live in conditions even more dire than hers were under house arrest. The daughter of the legendary assassinated Burmese general Aung San, she had access to opportunities such as Oxford that most of her compatriots cannot touch even in their wildest dreams. This is why she is pushing for basic things in her country such as the rule of law, and foreign investment of the sort that will helped enrich the general population instead of a corrupt few. Suu Kyi is the proud product of old-world, oligarchic Asia, trying to push her nation — hopefully with the determined help of the rest of the world — toward a newer, more egalitarian, more democratic path.
She speaks to the Houses of Parliament tomorrow.