Suu Kyi Inspires Next Generation of Activists

By Matthew Pennington 21 September 2012

WASHINGTON DC—Worrying about military rule doesn’t keep Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi up at night, but just a little bit of noise does.

Suu Kyi offered a rare glimpse into her personal side on Thursday when she took questions and offered advice to young human rights activists in Washington.

One activist asked what challenges and problems keep the Nobel Laureate up at night.

Suu Kyi confided that’s she’s a very light sleeper. She said every little noise disturbs her, but serious issues—of which the former prisoner has encountered many during two decades of political upheaval in Burma—usually do not.

She said she’s learned that, in time, even what looks like the most horrible event in your life will appear less serious.

Suu Kyi was speaking to a gathering organized by Amnesty International USA a day after receiving Congress’ highest honor for her peaceful struggle for democracy, the ceremonial highlight of a landmark trip across America.

Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in the country officially known as Myanmar, separated from her family, and unable to see her husband, British academic Michael Aris, before his death from cancer in 1999. Suu Kyi was released in late 2010 and has since joined hands with members of the former ruling junta that detained her to push ahead with political reform.

“I honestly never despaired although there were times when I was very, very worried about our people outside,” she said, referring to supporters of her political party that won 1990 elections but was barred from power. “Because house arrest is a lot easier than in prison.”

The 67-year-old said she loved reading and that enabled her to feel as free as anyone else. “Through my books I could get to wherever I wished to,” she said.

Despite the cruelties committed during 50 years of military rule—including bloody crackdowns on protesters and wars on ethnic minorities—Suu Kyi said she always retained a deep affection for Burma’s army, because her father, independence hero Aung San, was its founder.

“Although they kept me under house arrest they treated me well. Most of them treated me as my father’s daughter,” she said. “That is they treated me as a member of the family, albeit a rather troublesome one.”

She urged the several hundred young activists assembled in front of her not just to campaign for the release of political prisoners but to try to change the mindset of the jailers, by disabusing them of the emotion that motivates them: their own fear.

Suu Kyi goes next to New York, where 40 years ago, she worked for the United Nations. She’ll then travel to Kentucky, Indiana and California to speak on campuses and meet Burmese expatriates.