Pamela Gillies: Lessons we can learn from Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle

Campaigner’s tireless battle against injustice shows us why we must never become complacent about our own human rights, writes Pamela Gillies

Campaigner’s tireless battle against injustice shows us why we must never become complacent about our own human rights, writes Pamela Gillies

It has been a remarkable tour of honour so far for a remarkable woman: Oslo for a Nobel Peace Prize, Geneva for an inaugural speech to the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation, a peace concert plus the award of the Freedom of the City in Dublin, and addressing both Houses of Parliament in Westminster, the home of democracy.

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With each occasion also peppered with private audiences, this now represents a typical fortnight of engagements for the indomitable spirit that is Burma’s veteran human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is a lifestyle far removed from the previous existence of a woman who has spent the best part of the last two decades under house arrest.

Like many who will meet her this week, I have been pondering: what kind of heart can hold such a balanced, calm demeanour with no hint of revenge or anger? What kind of head can remain calm in the face of true fear created by a ruthless and repressive regime? Unique, I don’t doubt. But by all accounts human, warm, empathetic, authentic, with a winning smile and, above all, an honesty at all times. Would that we could all think we had one tenth of her spirit.

Yet there is still another side to this extraordinary woman. She is pragmatic. Her final release from house arrest and her election to the Burmese parliament has not changed elements of Burma’s repressive regime.

Just last week unspeakable acts of violence were reported. Human rights have not miraculously reappeared as the gates of her Rangoon home were unlocked. The world does not work like this.

Regimes don’t change overnight, but in order for her to continue her work she must now share with us the view from inside – a unique perspective and one which can inform the global community’s outlook.

Every step of her European tour gives her the platform to share and inspire and also to warn there can be no complacency in the battle for human rights.

Her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Saturday, for example, stressed that the prize was not about her; rather it demonstrated that the world had not forgotten the plight of Burma during its long years of repression.

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As she told her audience: “When I joined the democracy movement in Burma, it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honour.

The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realise their full potential.”

Her dignified stance during sustained periods of house arrest became a beacon of hope for millions around the world. As well as the Nobel Peace Prize, she was awarded the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990. Here in Scotland, Glasgow, too, recognised her courage and conviction when it awarded her the Freedom of the City in absentia in 2007, a rare honour also granted to Nelson Mandela when he was the world’s most celebrated political prisoner.

I will be fortunate enough to meet Aung San Suu Kyi today at a Foreign and Commonwealth Office reception hosted by the Foreign Secretary William Hague.

I will also take this opportunity, on behalf of Glasgow’s Lord Provost, to deliver an invitation to collect her long-delayed Freedom of the City Award in person.

Meanwhile, like Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to urge patience in pursuit of her long-term goals. She tells us that she trusts that the Burmese president and his newly-elected cabinet will effect change.

She asks us to recognise that what took tens of years to create and the death of thousands to seal with their blood and community grief cannot be erased in weeks nor months, however many world leaders visit to chat about potential investment opportunities and provide support to the new regime.

Yet in the West, we can be inclined to take our human rights for granted. For some, they are abstract concepts that belong in legal textbooks and philosophical journals.

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This is not true, however, and the positive impact of our human rights is neither automatic nor inevitable. If we wish to receive the protection and opportunities that our rights afford us, we must work to ensure they are properly integrated into civil society.

The tireless efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and other campaigners are a stark reminder that we cannot afford to let our guard down. If our rights are to protect us, we must protect them.

It is this conviction that forms the basis of the MSc in Citizenship and Human Rights my institution offers to students, a course designed for those seeking to promote the principles of human rights including anti-discrimination, participative democracy, accountability and social responsibility.

It is why we also work closely with pioneers and thought leaders such as the former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Aung San Suu Kyi has taken the opportunity during her European tour to express a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has campaigned for her and those like her in Burma.

But, much more, she has brought with her a new clarion cry: the message is simple – we have never needed your help more than today.

Please stick the course with us as our country defines, decides and delivers its future.

• Professor Pamela Gillies is Principal and Vice Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University and a Trustee of the British Council.