Travels and Travails of Daw Suu Kyi

Buddha, Nehru and Ravi Shankar were on Aung San Suu Kyi’s mind as she articulated her thoughts on the world stage, during her recent travels.  Her first foreign tour in 24 years, which took her to Thailand and then to five countries in western Europe, has helped us get a clearer glimpse of her as a person and public figure writes Rajiv Bhatia

Jul 6, 2012

By Rajiv Bhatia

Lord Buddha, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and spiritual guru Ravi Shankar were on Aung San Suu Kyi’s mind as she articulated her thoughts on the world stage, during her recent travels.  Her first foreign tour in 24 years, which took her to Thailand and then to five countries in western Europe, has helped us get a clearer glimpse of her as a person and public figure.

Her image as the greatest living icon, after South Africa's Nelson Mandela, received a big boost as a warm blanket of adulation, awards and standing ovations was wrapped around her persona. An extraordinary individual and leader, she has triumphed after enormous sacrifice and suffering. But whether she will succeed in leading her people to attain the goals of democracy and development remains unclear. When I put this question last month in Delhi to Madeline Albright, former US secretary of state, she responded candidly: ‘The story is not over yet.’

While in Thailand, Suu Kyi interacted with top business leaders and Myanmar refugees camped at Thai-Myanmar border. She cautioned the former against ‘reckless optimism’ about her country and she assured the latter that they would not be forgotten. Her trip led to the cancellation of President Thein Sein’s visit to Thailand. After spending a few days in Yangon on return, she embarked on the tour covering Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, UK and France. Everywhere she was given the red-carpet welcome, complete with gala events and honours from governments and people alike. Meeting Suu Kyi for the first time, the Dalai Lama told her: ‘I have real admiration for your courage.’

What interests us in India most are the essential messages Suu Kyi conveyed through her speeches, interviews and meetings. From them emerges a strong and confident leader who knows where she is coming from and where she plans to go. Referring to her country’s goals, she herself asked if she was ‘overly ambitious’ and her reply was: ‘Yes, I am ambitious.’ She repeatedly expressed gratitude to the international community for its support to her nation’s struggle, adding: ‘And I suppose I have a stubborn streak.’

Suu Kyi’s spirituality shone through in her belated Noble Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. She referred to ‘the six great dhukha’ (suffering) identified by Buddha - to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love. She wondered what Lord Buddha had experienced in his own life to include the last two in this list. Her Buddhist faith led her to call for ‘a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless.’

Anchored, however, in realities, Suu Kyi spoke frequently about the complex situation in her country. It needed reconciliation, not retribution. Referring to previous military rulers who kept her under house arrest for 15 out of past 22 years, she sounded Gandhian: ‘In some ways I don’t think that they did anything to me.’ The Nobel Prize helped her to connect to ‘the real world’, while assisting the nation’s struggle for democracy. It convinced her: ‘We were not going to be forgotten.’

Suu Kyi recognized recent positive changes in Burma, but stressed that it was at the beginning of a long and difficult road. Rule of law would be the key to further progress towards reform and democracy.  She said in London that ‘too many people are expecting too much’ from her country. She appealed to Britain, her alma mater Oxford and ‘others’ to come forward to help institutions of a nascent democracy and its educational system. Myanmar needed ‘democracy-friendly’ and ‘human rights-friendly’ investments that create jobs and reduce hopelessness of the youth.

Her speech before the joint session of British Parliament was superbly crafted, appropriate for a historic occasion as she became the first foreign woman to address the rare assembly at Westminster Hall. Reference to Nehru’s gift, an overcoat, to her father, and Ravi Shankar’s music warmed many an Indian heart. Queried as to what France meant to her, she said in Paris: ‘Everything from Victor Hugo to onion soup.’

Asked by BBC if she was prepared to lead her people, she replied humbly: ‘If I can lead them in the right way, yes.’ Addressing ILO conference in Geneva, she clarified she was not speaking as a government representative, adding teasingly: ‘...not yet anyway.’ But in an interview with CNN she made it clear, for the first time, that her party’s call for constitutional reform included changes in provisions that barred her to be a presidential candidate. Watching European governments treat her virtually as president, many wondered how this would be received by the President and the army in Myanmar.


On return home, tough tasks await Suu Kyi. Revitalizing her party may be an early priority. She might focus on re-nurturing her most important political relationship – with President Thein Sein – that came under exceptional stress due to her foreign tour. Besides, on major challenges – ethnic question, communal strife in Rakhine state, economic reforms – she would now come under greater pressure to move from the general to the specifics. Finally, having reconnected well with Western Europe, Suu Kyi would need to plan on refurbishing her credentials as an Asian leader. She and Asia need to know each other better.

Above all, it may be noted that debate about the name of the country – Burma or Myanmar – has resurfaced. For the Government, there is no debate as the name mentioned in the constitution is Myanmar. But the leader of opposition party NLD begs to differ. Clearly for effecting a true and lasting reconciliation, the country needs more time, patience and constructive work.

The author is former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, and presently Director General of Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). This article reflects his personal views. 

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