Mon 24 Sep 2012
Filed under: International,News
Just after midnight on Saturday, a crowd began descending on a narrow stretch of sidewalk at Queens College. The people came from all over New York and from as far away as Miami and North Carolina, but originally, they and their families were from Myanmar. They stood in line overnight to see the leader of that country’s opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to New York on Saturday as part of her first visit to the United States in some 40 years.
“As soon as I heard she was coming, I decided I had to be here,” said Aung Kaung Myat, 25, a Burmese man living in Buffalo. “I got on line at 1 a.m.”
Now a member of the Myanmar Parliament, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, spent 15 years under house arrest and has long been an international symbol of personal sacrifice and the struggle for human rights. She languished in Myanmar, formerly Burma, as her two children grew up in a faraway country, largely without her. She remained there as her husband, Michael Aris, became ill with prostate cancer and died in 1999. She watched as a military dictatorship ruled the country that her father, Gen. Aung San, helped guide toward independence from British rule before his assassination in 1947, when she was a child.
And yet, during Saturday’s events, not a hint of bitterness was on display in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s manner as she was lauded by New York politicians, was questioned by students and spoke to Burmese immigrants as if to a room full of old friends.
“Dissidents can’t be dissidents forever; we are dissidents because we don’t want to be dissidents,” she said in response to a question from a Queens College student about participating in Myanmar’s government after so many years as its most prominent opponent. “I don’t believe in professional dissidents,” she continued. “I think it’s just a phase, like adolescence.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, her visit and her participation in Parliament are all steps the government of Myanmar, now under President U Thein Sein, a former general, has taken away from its authoritarian past. In Washington earlier this week, she urged the easing of American sanctions against Myanmar, saying that they had played their political role. But she made clear on Saturday that much work remained.
“While we are started on the path,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said in Queens, “we are not yet anywhere near our goal of a truly democratic society.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Saturday schedule also included a discussion at Columbia University moderated by the journalist Ann Curry. There, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s spoke of how Myanmar’s economic troubles pushed the country toward openness, and how she made the most of her time under house arrest with a strict daily schedule of meditation, reading, listening to the radio and exercising.
“I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve become less disciplined, and that I’ve dissipated those years under detention,” she said. “I think I was the healthiest prisoner of conscience in the world.”
In Queens, she was praised by Representative Joseph Crowley, a Democrat, and the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn. And she was serenaded by Carole King, a Queens College alumna, with a customized version of one of her best-known songs. (“Daw Suu Kyi, you’ve got a friend!” Ms. King cooed.) Ms. King asked the crowd to sing along at one point, lending the day the feel of a graduation ceremony, or perhaps a day at summer camp.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a slight woman in an emerald green outfit, red flowers in her hair, spoke comfortably to the crowds and frequently drew laughs, whether from the Burmese community, which she addressed in its native language — a rapt group of nearly 2,000 pitched forward in their seats — or to English speakers at other events.
“I lived in Manhattan for more than three years, and I loved this city at a time when people thought it terrible,” she said of a period that began in the late ’60s.
Yet she also spoke about the role of discipline and duty in her own life; of Myanmar’s young people, put at a disadvantage by a crumbling education system; and of the country’s movement toward a more open government.
At one point, someone asked her about Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, an Army intelligence analyst accused of passing archives of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Microphone in hand, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that one must balance rights with responsibilities, and that she had been dismayed to learn that some of the leaks revealed information about dissidents, and that might put them in danger.
From the past hardships and present challenges, she projected optimism about the future: “We were a country of hope in our part of the world, and we want to become that kind of country again,” she said. “A country that proves that there can be such things as happy endings.
“And when that happy ending arrives,” she continued, “I hope I will be able to welcome all of you into Burma.”