A crowd holding signs and waving Burmese flags welcomed international human rights and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi as she arrived to Sprague Hall to deliver a public address Thursday morning.
Visiting Yale as part of an 18-day tour of the United States, Suu Kyi urged the establishment of an independent judiciary in Burma and encouraged Yalies to contribute to the cause of democracy.
“Until we achieve the rule of law, we cannot say Burma is truly on the road to democracy,” she said to roughly 700 attendees inside the Sprague auditorium. “I would like to ask for your help and support to the reestablishment of the rule of law in Burma.”
A Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1991, Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in Burma before being released in November 2010. In April 2012, she was elected to the Burmese parliament, where she also chairs the National League for Democracy party.
In an interview with the News, Suu Kyi said she hopes Yale students will use their privileges to make a difference in other people’s lives.
“Yale is one of the best universities in the world, so students here are very privileged,” she said. “You should use your education to try and help others.”
Suu Kyi spoke to the audience for about 40 minutes on the steps required to take to achieve democracy in Burma, followed by a question-and-answer period.
“If democracy is to be restored to our country, we must have rule of law, an end to ethnic conflict, and changes to the constitution,” she said.
She described her realization while under house arrest that there was “no rule of law in Burma” and that the law instead “only worked for those in power.”
As chair of the Rule of Law and Tranquility committee in Burma, she said her main goal is to establish an independent and responsible judicial system and restore people’s faith in law.
“It’s not just a question of sending [the judges] to special courses at Yale,” Suu Kyi said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “We have to start imposing the rule of law on judiciary itself.”
Plans to bring Suu Kyi to Yale began in mid-July when two Yale students caught word that the former political prisoner was scheduled to travel to the United States for the first time in two decades to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
Han Myo Oo ’15 and Katherine Aragon ’14 — the co-founders of the Myanmar Project, a group that supports Burmese refugee communities within and outside Burma — were both working in Thailand at the time and read the announcement online. Immediately, they alerted Timothy Dwight Master Jeffrey Brenzel to propose Suu Kyi as a candidate for this term’s Chubb Fellowship, a program funded and administered by Timothy Dwight College.
“At the time, we had very little chance of this happening,” said Aragon, who said she was also involved in Burmese refugee issues in high school. “She was going to be in the United States for a few days and she would receive invitations from everyone.”
Brenzel said he promptly issued an invitation to Suu Kyi’s office, enlisting the help of University President Richard Levin and other administrators.
The news of Suu Kyi’s Yale visit, announced Sept. 5, immediately generated campus-wide excitement. On Wednesday, Sept. 19, students lined up as early as 7 a.m. to obtain one of the roughly 600 tickets available for students. The tickets were distributed beginning at 10 a.m., and were gone within 10 minutes, according to students who attended Thursday’s talk.
“This really shows the incredible support from the Yale community for Suu Kyi and her career,” Myo Oo said, noting that the talk was scheduled in the middle of a weekday.
The Myanmar Project hosted a Wednesday afternoon discussion with U.S. Campaign for Burma representative Myra Dahgaypaw and a Friday night screening of “The Lady,” a 2011 film based on Suu Kyi’s life in hopes of informing students of political and social issues in Burma before the talk.
As part of the Chubb Fellowship, Suu Kyi also attended a private dinner in Timothy Dwight College Wednesday night with around 55 TD students and 55 undergraduate leaders representing selected cultural, political and service groups. Suu Kyi also met roughly 70 professors and graduate students in an invitation-only forum before her speech.
Brenzel said Suu Kyi brought to the Yale community “the importance of her commitment to democracy and human rights” and “the example of her unwavering life commitment to a cause” during her speech.
Levin called Suu Kyi “one of the most impressive women I’ve ever encountered.”
“She’s a remarkably inspirational figure,” he said. “She has extraordinary humility and grace on the one hand, and remarkable commitement and toughness on the other, which allowed her to achieve great things for her people. I found it truly inspiring to be in her presence.”
Yale College Council Secretary Leandro Leviste ’15, who met Suu Kyi in December 2010 on a family trip to Burma, said he found Suu Kyi’s speech “surprisingly honest about the state of her country.”
“It was clear this wasn’t a politician behind the podium, but a real leader of moral authority,” he said. “She faced her country’s problems, but in a constructive manner, all the while keeping hope in its future and putting it in the best light.”
When Suu Kyi left the stage, she received a standing ovation from the audience. The event was also simulcast in the Law School’s Levinson Auditorium and livestreamed online.