Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at Westminster Hall
21 June 2012
“Our own determination can get us so far; the support of the people of Britain, and of peoples around the world, can get us so much further.”
|Speaker:||Aung San Suu Kyi|
Lord Speaker, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Prime Minister, my lords, and members of the House of Commons. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you here in this magnificent hall.
I am very conscious of the extraordinary nature of this honour. I understand that there was some debate as to whether I would speak here in this splendid setting, or elsewhere within the Palace of Westminster. I welcome that debate and discussion; it is what Parliament is all about.
I have just come from Downing Street. It was my first visit there. And yet, for me, it was a familiar scene, not just from television broadcasts, but from my own family history. As some of you may be aware, the best known photograph of my father Aung San, taken shortly before his assassination in 1947, was of him standing in Downing Street with Clement Atlee and others with whom he had been discussing Burma’s transition to independence. He was pictured wearing a large British military-issue greatcoat. This had been given to him by Jawaharlal Nehru en route to the UK, to protect against the unaccustomed cold. And I must say, having not left my tropical country for 24 years, there have been the odd moments this week when I have thought of that coat myself.
My father was a founding member of the Burmese Independence Army, in World War Two. He took on this responsibility out of a desire to see democracy established in his homeland. It was his view that democracy was the only political system worthy of an independent nation. It is a view, of course, that I have long shared.
General Slim, commander of the 14th Army, who led the Allied Burma Campaign, wrote about his first encounter with my father in his memoir Defeat Into Victory. The meeting came towards the end of the war, shortly after my father had decided that the Burmese Independence Army should join forces with the Allies. General Slim said to my father: ‘you’ve only come to us because we are winning’. To which my father replied ‘It wouldn’t be much good coming to you if you weren’t, would it’.
Slim saw in my father a practical man with whom he could do business. Six decades later, I strive to be as practical as my father was. And so I am here, in part, to ask for practical help, help as a friend and an equal, in support of the reforms which can bring better lives, greater opportunities, to the people of Burma who have been for so long deprived of their rights and their place in the world. As I said yesterday in Oxford, my country today stands at the start of journey towards, I hope, a better future. So many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be breached. Our own determination can get us so far; the support of the people of Britain, and of peoples around the world, can get us so much further.
In a speech about change and reform, it is very appropriate to be in Westminster Hall, because at the heart of this process must be the establishment of a strong Parliamentary institution in my own country.
The British Parliament is perhaps the preeminent symbol to oppressed peoples across the world of freedom of speech. I would imagine that some people here, to some extent, take this freedom for granted. For us in Burma, what you take for granted, we have had to struggle for, long and hard. So many people in Burma gave up so much, gave up everything, in Burma’s ongoing struggle for democracy. And we are only now just beginning to see the fruits of our struggle.
Westminster has long set a shining example of realising the people’s desire to be part of their own legislative process. In Burma, our Parliament is in its infancy, having been established only in March 2011. As with any new institution, especially an institution which goes against the cultural grain of forty-nine years of direct military rule, it will take time to find its feet, and time to find its voice. Our new legislative processes, while undoubtedly an improvement on what went before, are not as transparent as they might be. I would like to see us learn from established examples of parliamentary democracies elsewhere, so that we might deepen our own democratic standards over time.
Perhaps the most critical moment in establishing the credibility of the Parliamentary process happens before Parliament even opens: namely, the people’s participation in a free, fair, inclusive electoral process. Earlier this year, I myself participated in my first ever election as a candidate. To this day I have not yet had the chance to vote freely in any election. In 1990, I was allowed to cast an advance vote while under house arrest, but I was prevented from contesting as a candidate for my party, the National League for Democracy. I was disqualified on the grounds that I had received help from foreign quarters. This amounted to BBC broadcasts that the authorities considered to be biased in my favour.
What struck me most ahead of this year’s by-elections was how quickly people in the constituencies across Burma grasped the importance of participating in the political process. They understood first hand that the right to vote was not something given to all. They understood that they must take advantage when the opportunity arose, because they understood what it meant to have that opportunity taken away from them.
During the years that I lived in the UK, I never had the right to vote myself. But I can remember, even during my university days, that I was always trying to encourage my friends to exercise their right to vote. It was never clear to me whether they followed those instructions. But it was clear to me even then that if we do not guard the rights we have, we run the risk of seeing those rights erode away. To those who feel themselves to be somehow above politics, I want to say that politics should be seen neither as something that exists above us, nor as something that happens beneath us, but as something integral to our everyday existence.
After my marriage I constantly preached my gospel of political participation to my late husband, Michael. I can still distinctly recall the occasion when a canvasser knocked on the door of our Oxford home, during an election campaign. Michael opened the door and when he saw the gentleman, poised to deliver his campaigning pitch, he said ‘it’s no use trying to win me over, it’s my wife who decides how I should vote. She’s out now; why don’t you come back later?’ The canvasser did come back later, mainly I think to see what a wife who decided how her husband should vote looked like.
It has been less than 100 days since I, together with my fellow National League for Democracy candidates, was out on the campaign trail across Burma. Our by-elections were held on April the first- and I am conscious that there was a certain scepticism that this would be another elaborate April Fools joke. In fact it turned out to be an April of new hope. The voting process was largely free and fair, and I would like to pay tribute to President Thein Sein for this, and for his committment and sincerity in the reform process. As I have long said, it is through dialogue and through cooperation that political differences can best be resolved, and my own committment to this path remains as strong as ever.
Elections in Burma are very different to those in many more established democracies such as yours. Apathy, especially amongst the young, is certainly not an issue. For me the most encouraging and rewarding aspect of our own elections was the participation, in such vast numbers and with such enthusiasm, of our young people. Often our biggest challenge was restraining the crowds of university students, school children, and flag-waving toddlers, who greeted us on the campaign, blocking the roads through the length of towns. The day before the elections, on my way to my constituency, I passed a hillock which had been “occupied” by a group of children, the oldest about ten or eleven, their leader standing at the summit holding the NLD flag. The passion of the electorate was a passion born of hunger for something long denied.
Following Burma’s independence in 1948, our Parliamentary system was of course based on that of the UK. The era became known, in Burmese, as the Parliamentary Era- a name which by the mere necessity of its application speaks of the unfortunate changes which followed. Our Parliamentary Era, which lasted- more or less- until 1962, could not be said to have been perfect. But it was certainly the most progressive and promising period until now in the short history of independent Burma. It was at this time that Burma was considered the nation most likely to succeed in South East Asia. Things did not, however, go entirely to plan. They often don’t, in Burma, and indeed in the rest of the world.
Now, once again, we have an opportunity to reestablish true democracy in Burma. It is an opportunity for which we have waited many decades. If we do not use this opportunity, if we do not get things right this time round, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again.
And so it is for that reason that I would ask Britain, as one of the oldest Parliamentary democracies, to consider what it can do to help build the sound institutions needed to support our nascent Parliamentary democracy. The reforms taking place, led by President Thein Sein, are to be welcomed. But this cannot be a personality-based process. Without strong institutions this process will not be sustainable. Our legislature has much to learn about the democratisation process, and I hope that Britain and other democracies can help by sharing your own experiences with us.
Thus far, I have only spent a matter of minutes inside the Burmese parliament, when I took my oath as a new MP last month. I must say that I found the atmosphere rather formal. Men are required to wear formal headgear. There is certainly no heckling. I would wish that over time perhaps we will reflect the liveliness and relative informality of Westminster. I am not unaware of the saying that more tears have been shed over wishes granted than over wishes denied. Nevertheless, it is when Burma has its own satisfactory equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions that we will be able to say that Parliamentary democracy has truly come of age. I would also like to emphasise the importance of establishing requisite Parliamentary control over the budget.
In all this, what is most important is to empower the people, the essential ingredient of democracy. Britain is living proof that a Constitution does not need to be written down in order to be effective. It is more important that a Constitution should be accepted by the people, that people should feel it belongs to them, that it is not an external document imposed upon them.
One of the clearly stated aims of the NLD is constitutional reform. Burma’s original constitution was drawn up following the meeting between my father, Aung San, and Clement Atlee, here in London in 1947. This constitution may not have been perfect, but at its core was a profound understanding of and respect for the aspirations of the people. The current constitution, drawn up by the military government in 2008, must be amended to incorporate the basic rights and aspirations of Burma’s ethnic nationalities.
In over sixty years of independence, Burma has not yet known a time when we could say that there was peace throughout the land. At this very moment, hostilities continue between Kachin forces and the state armed forces in the north. In the west, communal strife has led to the loss of innocent lives and the displacements of tens of thousands of hapless citizens. We need to address the problems that lie at the root of conflict. We need to develop a culture of political settlement through negotiation, and to promote the rule of law, that all who live in Burma may enjoy the benefits of both freedom and security. In the immediate term, we also need humanitarian support for the many many people, in the north and in the west, largely women and children, who have been forced to flee their homes.
As the long history of the United Kingdom shows clearly, people never lose their need to preserve their national or ethnic identity. This is something which goes beyond, which supersedes, economic development. And that is why I hope that in working for Burma’s national reconciliation, the international community will recognise that it is political dialogue and political settlement which must be given precedence over short-term economic development. If differences remain unresolved, if basic aspirations remain unfulfilled, there cannot be an adequate foundation for sustainable development of any kind- economic, social or political.
Britain has for so long under successive governments, including the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and the previous Labour government, been a staunch and unshakeable supporter of aid efforts in Burma. I hope you can continue to help our country through targeted and coordinated development assistance. Britain has been until now the largest bilateral donor to Burma. It is in education in particular that I hope the British can play a major role. We need short-term results so that our people may see that democratisation has a tangible positive impact on their own lives. Vocational training and creation of employment opportunities to help address Burma’s chronic youth unemployment are particularly important. Longer-term, Burma’s education system is desperately weak; reform is needed, not just of schools and curriculum, and the training of teachers, but also of our attitude to education, which at present is too narrow and rigid.
I hope also that British businesses can also play a role in supporting the democratic reform process, through what I have termed democracy-friendly investment. By this, I mean investment that prioritises transparency, accountability, workers’ rights, and environmental sustainability. Investment, particularly in labour-intensive sectors, when carried out responsibly and with positive intent, can offer real benefits to our people. One test will be whether new players will benefit from the investment coming in. Britain has played an important role in facilitating the forthcoming visit, next month, of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative secretariat. I hope this will be the start of many similar initiatives in the months ahead.
It was through learning about two great British leaders, Gladstone and Disraeli, while at Oxford, that I first developed my understanding of Parliamentary democracy. I learnt the basics; that one accepts the decision of the voters, that the governing power is gained and relinquished in accordance with the desires of the electorate, that it is the system which goes on, and that ultimately everyone gets another chance. These are things taken for granted here in Britain. But in 1990 in Burma, the winner of the elections, the NLD, was never allowed even to convene Parliament. I hope that we can leave such days behind us, and that as we look forward to the future, it will be the will of the people that is reflected faithfully in Burma’s changing political landscape.
This journey out of Burma has not been a sentimental pilgrimage to the past, but an exploration of the new opportunities at hand for the people of Burma. I have been struck, throughout my trip, by how extraordinarily warmhearted and open the world has been to us. To experience this first hand, after so long physically separated from this world, has been very moving. Countries that geographically are distant, have shown that they are close to Burma in what really matters: they are close to the aspirations of the Burmese people. We are brought into proximity through our shared values- and no geographical distance, no human-made barriers, can stand in our way.
During the years of my house arrest it was not just the BBC and other broadcasting stations that kept me in touch with the world outside. It was the music of Mozart and Ravi Shankar, and the biographies of men and women of different races and religions, that convinced me I would never be alone in my struggle. The prizes and honours I received were not so much a personal tribute, as a recognition of the basic humanity that unites one isolated person to the rest of the world.
During our dark days in the 1990s, a friend sent me a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. It begins ‘Say not the struggle nought availeth…’. I understand that Winston Churchill, one of the greatest Parliamentarians the world has known, used the poem himself as a plea for the USA to step in against Nazi Germany. Today, I want to make a rather different point: that we can work together, combining political wisdom from East and West, to bring the light of democratic values to all peoples, in Burma and beyond. I will just read the final verse:
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
I would like to emphasise in conclusion that this is the most important time for Burma, that this is the moment of our greatest need- and so I would ask that our friends, both here in Britain and beyond, participate and support Burma’s efforts towards the establishment of a truly democratic and just society.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address the members of one of the oldest democratic institutions in the world. Thank you for letting me into your midst. My country has not yet entered the ranks of truly democratic societies, but I’m confident we will get there before too long, with your help.