Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday 2008: http://www.flickr.com/photos/toastyoneuk/
Beneath London’s Strand, in one of the brick lined tunnels that used to enable boats to dock and goods to be unloaded in order to serve the grand houses, offices and hotels above, Burmese campaigner, Khun Saing, is talking about his love and respect for a woman 6,000 miles and many worlds away – Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement.
“I feel so much discomfort and misery that she is now facing an unfair trial facing a maximum of five years in prison,” says Khun Saing.
He is referring to Suu Kyi ‘s current situation where she has been arrested and charged with “allowing” an unknown American to swim across the lake around her house, thereby “breaking the terms of her house arrest”.
Khun Saing remembers a party many years ago where he met Suu Kyi, already a pro-democracy activist and clearly someone who was being watched closely by Burma’s military regime. Anxiously, he asked her if she planned to stay in the country.
“ ‘Oh yes, of course. I have to stay,’ she replied, calmly and in perfect peace…I suddenly sensed she had already been thinking of that question many times herself… Her response was firm with no loss of composure…I felt the answer came from the bottom of her heart.”
A few months later Suu Kyi was arrested and imprisoned for the first time. Khun Saing was also arrested and thrown in jail. His fellow prisoners told him they had been building a house that was intended for Suu Kyi to live in. This was a clear sign that the regime planned to sentence Suu Kyi to further imprisonment.
“She always tried to change our country from military dictatorship to democracy by peaceful means,” says Khun Saing. “She always wanted to talk to the dictatorship.”
“20 years is enough. She has been harassed, humiliated and insulted. Through these years she has shown grace and dignity. She could have left the country at any time. She could have compromised with the regime for her own self-interest but she hasn’t sacrificed the needs of the Burmese people.”
“I feel guilty and ashamed of myself for putting that question to her and for leaving the country myself…I admire her courage and simplicity.”
Sitting in the audience at the RSA, where Khun Saing is telling his story, I can see that everyone is moved. Suu Kyi has committed no crime, yet she is growing old in prison. She is a leader without a hierarchy, a leader despite the years of abuse and attrition and emotional torture from her captors.
Suu Kyi is a symbol of hope for her people, but also a symbol of the struggle for human rights everywhere.
Today, is Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th birthday. We should do all we can to remind Suu Kyi and the Burmese people that their plight is not forgotten. Please change your profile picture, blog, tweet and spread the word. To read more about the situation in Burma, see The Burma Campaign’s official Suu Kyi birthday site.