A call to build a nation
For many years VSO staff and volunteers in Thailand have spoken of how important Aung San Suu Kyi is in the struggle for democracy in the region. Last week various VSO staff were able to attend speaking engagements with her during her tour of the UK. Mark Rowland attended her address to the joint UK House of Commons and House of Lords, and blogs here after the event:
The moment Aung San Suu Kyi made her way down the steps of Westminster Hall, 2,500 people rose to applaud her. We didn’t stop applauding until she finally took her seat.
Her diminutive figure belies her huge stature. This beacon for democratic freedoms was speaking at the home of parliamentary democracy; the first Asian to do so, the first woman to do so, the first non head of state to do so. She joined Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Pope Benedict XVI in a very small group of international figures to have addressed parliament at all. This was an opportunity to hear from an individual who chose to endure 15 years of detention and even surrendered her right to see her dying husband, Michael Aris, in pursuit of a cause for which she was prepared to give her life.
With all the key figures from British political life present, Suu Kyi spoke of her passion for political engagement and participation. She spoke of the cost that the people of Burma have paid; living since 1962 under a government which denied the most basic of human freedoms. She spoke of her commitment to pragmatic, constructive dialogue with the same regime which had imprisoned her for so long. She spoke of her conviction that without political freedom, people’s aspirations will go unmet and that no other form of economic or social development is then possible. She spoke of the need to usher in a culture of political settlement in Burma to bring an end to the conflicts with ethnic groups which have raged for over 40 years and led to the worst excesses of human rights violations. She spoke of her pride to have stood and voted in her first election in March 2012 – in which she won a seat as an MP. She spoke of her gratitude to Britain for being the largest bi-lateral donor to Burma of any Western country.
Then she turned her attention to the help needed to build Burma’s future. This was not the moment to relent, to retreat or assume that the battle for a brighter tomorrow had been won, she said. Two issues needed particular attention; firstly, the need to build the institutions of civil society that will ensure that democracy and the rule of law take root in Burma. Secondly, the desperate need for Burma’s education sector – to train teachers, develop new curriculums and to increase access to education for ethnic groups.
This is work that VSO volunteers are doing right now, sometimes in countries that themselves are just emerging from years of conflict. In South Sudan, VSO has recruited experienced head teachers and education managers to help reform an education sector that lacks trained teachers, an examinations system and a full curriculum. Other volunteers are building capacity in grassroots women’s organisations to empower them to have a say in their future.
On all counts, VSO has an opportunity to make an important contribution to sustaining and protecting Burma’s fledgling reforms. Now is the time to re-double our efforts and consider what more we can do to assist Burma on the path of becoming a free nation.