Last week I saw Aung San Suu Kyi receive an honorary doctorate from ANU (that’s what that blurry photo is, my camera phone is beyond obsolete these days). I think she already has a lot of honorary doctorates. I went because it was a pretty great opportunity to see an icon (I hate that word, but it is true). Obviously, like many people concerned about human rights, I’ve also been troubled by some of her recent comment (or lack of comment) on the plight of ethnic minorities in Myanmar, such as the Rohingya. But I don’t think a single person can be all things to all people. She’s not just a human rights figure, she is also a politician. And I guess that can be a hard thing to reconcile, even though it shouldn’t be.
Her speech was great. Probably delivered a million times before in some way or another, but really excellent and amazing to see in person. I can see how she is such a powerful campaigner and how she has mobilised so many. I felt surprisingly inspired by it, my cynicism took a vacation for at least a couple of hours.
When the Chancellor was reading her citation though, I wondered what she was thinking. It must be so strange, to hear your life story over and over, conveniently packaged and condensed into some fairytale version of struggle, stripped of the nuance of days and years. It must be so strange as well to stand to rousing applause wherever you go, moving through formalities for audiences who seem so detached from the very real task of building democracy on the home front, but at the same time serving some kind of abstract purpose in the whole scheme of things. I guess that is the thing to remember–we need our Aung Sang Suu Kyis on the international stage, but she represents so many more people who struggle and work more quietly and behind the scenes for the same goals.
She is an amazing woman though, with an amazing story, and I felt really lucky to get to see her speak in person at my university where I work and studied. It’s one to tell daughters and granddaughters, a reminder that a single woman can be a powerful symbol and actor for change. Even now in 2013 that can still be easy to forget some days.