Mother Suu

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, y'all! Factoid: though "Daw" (which means "aunt") is not part of her name, it's an honorific akin to madame.

I was born after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest in 1989. For many Burmese youth of my generation, Daw Suu was just an idea.

We glimpsed her in banned copies of her collected writings, Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma. We saw images of her on the Internet. And we heard about her through foreign media. Every time I drove past University Avenue Road on my way home in Yangon and saw soldiers and metal-wire barricades in front of Daw Suu’s home, I wondered whether I’d ever meet her, or whether she’d ever be free. I wondered whether she would one day be more than the subject of whispered conversations in the country.

But in November 2010, Myanmar held its first general election in 20 years, and, a week later, Daw Suu was released from house arrest. Thousands gathered outside her home, where she appeared on a platform behind the gate of her compound.

“We haven’t seen each other for so long,” she said. “So we have many things to talk about.”

Her words affected me, even though we had not met before. Strangely, for me and for a lot of other Burmese people, it didn’t feel like that was the first time she spoke to us.

Eventually, I did see Daw Suu one day, when I visited the office of her National League for Democracy party. She had a horde of supporters surrounding her, so I was unable to speak to her personally. But this past summer, a second chance and a special opportunity arose: While working at a Thai news agency that covers issues in Myanmar, I learned that Daw Suu was visiting the U.S. in September. Immediately, my friend and I emailed Master Jeffrey Brenzel to propose Daw Suu as a candidate for Timothy Dwight College’s Chubb Fellowship. On the day Master Brenzel told me that her visit was confirmed, I was overjoyed: My mother was coming to Yale.

Tickets to her public address in Sprague Hall ran out in a matter of minutes. I was happy to see the support of the Yale community for Mother Suu, but I was also worried that in celebrating her visit, Yalies would overlook the very issues that she stands for: Myanmar’s political and economic changes are just starting, and there is still much to do back home. At the Chubb Fellow dinner, the evening before her address in Sprague Hall, Mother Suu told the 100 or so students in attendance about the lack of educational opportunities to challenge and prepare young people in Myanmar as we rebuild our nation.

“We would like your help, as citizens of this world, as fellow human beings, to help us to achieve what we are trying to achieve,” she declared.

The next morning, at her public address, she emphasized the fact that until we in Myanmar achieve the rule of law and establish an independent judiciary, we cannot say that our country is truly on the road to democracy. She called on the Yale community for help to train lawyers and judges in Myanmar. The University responded: in his introduction for Mother Suu, President Levin announced that plans were being discussed to bring Burmese high school principals and teachers to Yale for training.

And sitting there, in my second row seat of the crowded Sprague Hall, I had never felt prouder to be Burmese and a Yalie.

But I cannot help but reiterate the point that Burmese people must build up our own country — after all, Mother Suu herself had said, “we must take responsibility for the future of our nation.”

I didn’t see her after the public address, and I admit that I was saddened by the fact that I didn’t get to talk to her more. But I realized that perhaps I was expecting too much. She had already achieved more than enough for my country.

She brought and continues to bring hope to the people of Myanmar, to the hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees outside the country and to many of the young Burmese students abroad who have the privilege of receiving a good education. She connects us, across ethnic boundaries, with a common national goal. For many of us Burmese studying in the U.S., her 18-day tour across the U.S. reinvigorated our purpose. The idea of Mother Suu will always speak to me — and I hope our mother knows that we are ready to take responsibility.

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