Political Minutes: Aung San Suu Kyi


On Saturday, Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke at the Low Rotunda. The event, moderated my NBC's Ann Curry, was fully registered in a record 34 minutes. Suu Kyi stopped at Columbia's World Leaders Forum as a part of her tour of the United States.

Suu Kyi has made world headlines frequently in recent months. Burma/Myanmar has been undergoing a historic political loosening and Suu Kyi, as the country's de-facto moral authority, has played a large role. Thein Sein, a former military man, was appointed the country's president and allowed for parliamentary elections. Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, along with other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Suu Kyi is seen by many Burmese as a Gandhi-like figure -- she spent 15 years under house arrest, all the while advocating for greater political freedoms in a country where even a whisper of dissent is enough for a one-way ticket to prison.

President Lee Bollinger introduced Aung San Suu Kyi, calling her visit the most important in the history of the World Leader's Forum. "In every era there seems to be a few individuals who stand for a better life for their fellow citizens... these citizens transcend their national boundaries and become emblematic of the strides of human beings everywhere," he said.

After a rousing introduction from Bollinger, Suu Kyi began her opening remarks and said that she came to reach young people. "The most precious resource of any country is its human resource," she said. And "young people who are ill educated, who are in ill health, who have lost hope -- these people are a danger to the country." The only way forward in Burma is to make young people "our treasure and our joy rather than our curse."

After Suu Kyi's spiel on the importance of youth, Ann Curry took over as moderator and the event continued as an interview. Innocuous questions abounded: How Suu Kyi persevered in the face of adversity, who her greatest influences were, what she wants people to learn from her, and what kind of future she envisioned for Burma.

To all of these questions, Suu Kyi gave carefully constructed and often witty replies. She compared resolving crises to cleaning up after a pressure cooker blowing up: "We turn off the gas, then we take a sponge, and then we mop up the mess... you just do what you can, one step at a time.”

Ultimately, though, the event was short on substance. Everyone knows that Suu Kyi is a powerful and truly extraordinary woman -- her story speaks for itself. But Curry's questions were crafted to just rehash this.

At one point, Curry introduced a question about Suu Kyi potentially running for president by saying "now you are a politician and now you are a member of parliament."  This is the central point. Since her release from house arrest and her election to parliament, Suu Kyi is no longer just a symbol of hope but also a political figure. As a political figure, Suu Kyi has to navigate the treacherous waters of Burma's polity, and that means steering away from the tough questions.

This new political dimension to Suu Kyi's character shown through on several questions during the audience Q&A. When asked about Sino-Burmese relations, Suu Kyi emphasized that "government to government relations remain good." Any sticky points in the relationship between Burma and its largest neighbor arise from misconceptions the Burmese may have about Chinese businesses' intentions in the country. When asked about how she felt about the military, Suu Kyi said that growing up she was a "part of the military family" (her father, before his assassination, had founded the modern Burmese army). When asked about the multitude of recent ethnic insurgencies in the country, she quickly fended off the question with "of course there are peace talks going on between the government and ethnic groups" and "this will take time."

Overall, the event gave a very sunny picture of the political landscape in Burma. Tremendous steps have been made, and no one should detract from what Aung San Suu Kyi has done. Last week, though, another conference in Low called Burma in Transition made it clear that Burma's 40 percent ethnic minority population is systematically disenfranchised and have been left out entirely from the recent political loosening.  The fact hat Aung San Suu Kyi avoided discussing some major issues that Burma faces left the event incomplete.