Stepping into the world of Aung San Suu Kyi

Wednesday, 20 April 2011 18:30 Laila de Champfleury


Rangoon (Mizzima) - The Lady is not a revolutionary. The heroine of the Burmese pro-democracy movement sat calmly, hands lightly clasped together on the table, talking to her guests who had come to quizz her about her politics and Burma’s troubled road to democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi said, surprisingly, that she thinks revolutions are ‘not very romantic’.
Aung San Suu Kyi with a group of Danish students and teachers at the National League for Democracy office in Rangoon in early April, 2011. Photo: Laila Felicia Lautrop Pichot de Champfleury
Aung San Suu Kyi with a group of Danish students and teachers at the NLD office in Rangoon in early April, 2011. Photo: Laila Felicia Lautrop Pichot de Champfleury

The Lady, as she is known, is the face of the Burma’s democratic revolution trying to kick a brutal and entrenched military out of power in Burma. But as she sits talking to us, violent revolutionary change, like in her father’s day, is not in her vocabulary.


We were an unlikely group of 11 Danish students with their two teachers who were taking our ‘gap year’ international politics course between high school and university to the limit by plunging ourselves into the land of ‘Big Brother’–– a land of contradictions, with smiling people, golden temples and a repressive army.

It was early April, and we were sitting in the offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Rangoon. Aung San Suu Kyi’s time is precious. Typically, the pro-democracy leader holds meetings with members of the NLD, important visitors and occasional journalists. Everybody wants to meet her. It is normally tough to get an interview. We had heard that it took one Danish journalist two years to get to see her and even then the meeting was brief.

So we were rather surprised to find ourselves in the cramped NLD headquarters talking face to face with the icon we had read so much about.  Maybe it was due to the good contacts our teachers had with influential Burmese dissidents back home in Denmark. That was our guess.

Still, right up until the last moment, we wondered whether we would actually get to meet her. 

The headquarters was packed and not fancy at all. It was like stepping into another world coming in from the street. The offices were filled with pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and stacks of papers. Stepping in felt like opening an old secret box that had never been opened before and that you didn’t know existed. We had been shown upstairs to a room, with again, this atmosphere of underground existence and work. We sat down around a long wooden table in the room, still doubting if we would really meet The Lady. 

I was sitting looking out of the half closed door at the other side of the room, just hoping that she would show up. The air in the room was thick with anticpation and then suddenly I saw her, just for a second, before she went in to the room next door with her bodyguards. She was in the building. Now nothing could go wrong. Five minutes later she came into the room. We all rose immediately. But she just laughed kindly and said, ‘Sit down, sit down’.

The Lady sat up straight with folded hands at the end of the table. She appeared graceful and feminine with the flowers in her hair, as I had imagined. She seemed mild and kind but under the surface her strong and determined nature wasn’t hard to see.

Back in Denmark, we had painstakingly prepared questions for the meeting.  We were studying international politics and Burma’s troubled path and it did not take long before the questions and conversation focused on democracy.

‘Democracy is a word that is so common in the West that you probably don’t take it too seriously’, Aung San Suu Kyi said. ‘I don’t think you even realize the value of it very much’.

Turning the attention on us, she asked how many of us voted at the last election in Denmark in 2007. Many of our students put up their hands but three admitted that they did not vote, though two of them had been too young to vote at the time.

The Lady touched on an issue that we had picked up from our conversations with Burmese people in Rangoon and Mandalay. An atmosphere of fear lurked under the surface of the smiles that typically greeted us on our travels in the country. If you are a tourist, you may not notice anything untoward. But from the elaborate precautions made by a journalist in meeting with us, and from what he had to say, the government had its eye on everyone and censorship allowed only what the military junta wanted to see published in the media. 

‘There is no security in this country because there is no rule of law’, said Aung San Suu Kyi. This was also one of the reasons why the NLD didn’t run in the 2010 election, she said, because her party could not accept the new Constitution that makes it legal for the military regime to make a coup and take over power whenever they felt it necessary.

Also she pointed out that unequal rights were a reason for the conflicts between the ethnic groups and the government.

‘Many of the nationalities want a more federal constitution and that is why they have problems with them. All this injustice must stop, the ethnic nationalities have refugees running away all the time, who are persecuted and really live in fear all the time in their own country. All this must change and in order to change that, we must make them feel that they enjoy equal rights’.

As a school class traveling to Burma, we were interested to learn and experience with own eyes different problems and issues in the country, which we had studied in class back in Denmark. We wanted to meet people who wanted to offer their opinion about the country now, what they wished for and how, in their opinion, it should be achieved.

My special interest was in human rights and the role of law in society. Therefore the issue brought up by Aung San Suu Kyi about the non-existent rule of law in Burma was very interesting to me.

The fact that the law in a way is the last fallback to make people feel secure, to have a line that you know when you cross it and when you don't. To have somewhere to turn to if your rights are violated. This provides the basic rights of a functioning society.

I remembered a conversation I had had with a young Burmese activist in Rangoon, who asked me how I understood the meaning of the term democracy. I answered with things like freedom of speech, the freedom to choose for yourself, having access to free and fair elections, and so forth. He agreed that these were of course really important for a democracy but that in his opinion, the most important thing is the division of power, between the  judiciary and the government. This was his wish and that it would someday be like that in Burma.

The Lady gave us yet an example of the way the regime has the power of decision in their hands. ‘Any member of the NLD that is brought before a court for political reasons is bound to lose the case. We know it from the beginning. We always say, before they take us to court they have always decided how long the person is going to prison for and how they will handle him, and then they take the person to court’.

But even though this is the case, NLD members still get to have a lawyer mostly for a moral protection, she said. To have somebody standing up for them, somebody who can say that they have been falsely accused and that they have committed no crime other than believing in certain ideas and living accordingly by them.

‘We only know about the law when it affects us. Otherwise, we don’t know it in detail. So these cases provide us with an opportunity to teach our people what their rights are. How their rights are being violated in the courts. Nobody can feel safe if the law cannot protect him or her’.

We had heard that The Lady was tired of being asked about sanctions, so we skipped that and asked about her own efforts for change. 

‘Too often in Burma people rely on me or my party to bring about the change they want’, she said. ‘The most important thing is to give them the understanding that they are capable of bringing about change’.

She said she was still determined that the NLD should remain a political party, with the goal of bringing democracy to Burma, despite the move by the authorities to disband it.

She also made it clear that only one strong figure leading the country isn’t good for a democracy, that there should be at least a few strong figures to choose from, to make politicians take more care in their actions

As for the policy of the NLD, we found it hard to obtain a concrete answer from her about their political programme and standpoint, whether they might consider themselves Left wing or Right wing.

‘When you don’t have democracy you don’t think about Left or Right or whether it's going to be a welfare state or not’, she said.

The NLD, she said, should be a centered party with the ideal dream of giving children free basic schooling and a free health care system for the people, though she made it clear that there was a very long way to go.

One question we had been asking a number of activists who we had met on our visit was the method that should be used to bring change in Burma, whether they favoured revolution or another way. We asked Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon for change in Burma.

‘I'm not a great advocate of revolutions, because revolutions are not very romantic’, she told us. ‘Some think they are a quick answer, but the wounds run very deep, and these wounds take a long time to heal. Sometimes on the surface there has been change, but actually it's not that kind of change that anybody hoped for, because these festering sores go on for a long time. I believe that the best way for change is through political negotiations and settlement’.

Her response was both surprising and yet equally understandable. From what she had experienced, her periods of house arrest, the brutal attack on her group when they went traveling upcountry in 2003, and the deaths during the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’, there were clearly questions about the efficacy of revolution.

Burma is not Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. Nor is it the Burma that her father, Aung San, fought the British colonialists for just before independence, only to fall to the bullets of assassins in 1947. 

‘I keep repeating the big difference between Burma and Egypt’, she said, noting that protestors in Cairo were able to demonstrate for a long period before there was a crackdown. In Burma, there was rapid ‘blood-stained repression’ … and ‘I think that people’s psyche has undergone great trauma’. It takes time, she said, to recover from such an experience.

Two hours had passed and it was time to leave. We were surprised the meeting had taken place. So many things could have gone wrong, we thought. She could have been whisked off again under house arrest. We could be denied access by a policeman standing on her doorstep or she could simply have found something more important to do that day than to waste her time on a bunch of students.

What we found interesting was how seriously she took the meeting. We were of course very excited and anxious to meet her.  But the feeling seemed mutual. Every time one of our group asked a question, she would look directly at the person, nodding, really listening to the question before answering, expressing seriousness and sincerity.

To round off the meeting, we gave her some gifts including a book of fairytales by the world famous Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, which she was happy about. She told us that when she was a little girl, her mother gave her a plate with a motive of the little mermaid on it from this book.

We sang an old South African freedom song for her from the Apartheid era. This was a song that the Africans could sing because they sang it in their own language, Zulu, which the ruling Boers could not understand.

At the end, Aung San Suu Kyi shook hands with all of us individually, and we all walked out of the office feeling ecstatic.

As we walked out onto the street, we realized that meetings like this cannot be kept a secret in Burma. Four photographers snapped photos of us. What they will do with these photos we will never know. It is a clear sign of their paranoia and the strong will of people to live in a free Burma.


Laila de Champfleury was part of a group of 11 Danish students and two teachers who spent 10 days in Burma in early April as part of their international politics course at college.

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