Suu Kyi Faces Tough Questions at Yale, Harvard

By Masao Imamura 28 September 2012

BOSTON—Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi enthralled students and journalists on Thursday at Yale and Harvard universities where she re-emphasized her position on the importance of the rule of law in Burma, but avoided getting involved in a debate about the conflicts in the country’s ethnic areas and the controversial crisis in Arakan State.

“Once we can say that we have been able to re-establish rule of law, then we can say that the process of democratization has succeeded,” Suu Kyi said at Yale. “Until that point I do not think that we can say that the process of democratization has succeeded.”

Calling the current system of judiciary “practically non-existent,” Suu Kyi continued: “Until we have a strong, independent, clean judiciary, we cannot say that Burma is truly on the road to democracy.”

She introduced her new role as the chairperson of the Rule of Law Committee at the House of Representatives in Naypyidaw, saying she deplored that rule of law is “fundamentally lacking” and that corruption is “endemic” in Burma. She said that the restoration of rule of law is the most important and urgent task ahead for her country.

The two lectures she delivered on Thursday underscored both Suu Kyi’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Her extraordinary skills as a public speaker were clearly on display. Above all, it is her ability to speak with passion and in plain terms about basic principles of democracy that makes Suu Kyi an exceptionally appealing democracy campaigner.

It is also characteristic of her to advocate democracy in moral terms. Indeed Suu Kyi’s voice is most confident when she talks about normative values such as responsibility and duty. She concluded her talk on rule of law with the remark that education and training would not be enough, because ultimately the goal would be achieved only when citizens’ “attitude and mind-set” changed.

While many of the Ivy League students drew inspiration from her moral philosophy, it was also evident that Suu Kyi was not going to be simply adored and worshipped, and several questions focused on Suu Kyi’s perceived reticence on Burma’s majority-minority issues.

“It is explicitly feared by some that she might effectively end up reinforcing majority rule,” said one Harvard student.

Despite attempts by Harvard students to debate the topic of the Kachin, the Rohingya and other ethnic issues, Suu Kyi repeated the same answers that she had been giving for weeks: that she would not take one side over the other, and that she is opposed to all human rights abuses.

She went a step further in suggesting that there were “people trying to make political capital” by fueling an international outcry about the plight of minorities.

Yale’s president introduced Suu Kyi as “a great unifier.” But immediately after her talk an undergraduate student wrote an article titled “Promise still to be filled in Burma” for the school newspaper The Daily Yale, which criticized Suu Kyi’s for “remaining largely silent” on issues of ethnic minority.

Masao Imamura is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore and a Research Fellow at the Harvard Yenching Institute.