In the summer of 2009, I visited Burma with my family. I have never been to a place so devout. Stupas and temples dot the countryside, and the red and saffron robes of Buddhist monks and nuns are rarely out of sight. The Burmese people display their devotion in their every action, and their religion has, in many ways, become their only method of peace and security during this difficult political time. So when I heard Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tell a story at her address last week about the police dressing as monks in order to attack her convoy, I was furious. I think my mouth must have been hanging open for a good minute in a combination of shock and outrage.
While I contemplated the shocking yet expected horror of her story, Daw Suu was smiling and even managed to elicit laughter from the crowd. Although at first I was as offended by the laughter as I was by the story, I realized later that this is Daw Suu’s supreme gift. She has seen and experienced so much, but her experiences do not hold her back. Rather, they propel her forward. From an early age she says she “knew what kind of person [she] wanted to be,” and she has never allowed anything to come in the way of being that person. Her strength and perseverance have already done immense good for Burma and for the world. After hearing her speak, I know that her positive influence will continue on for the rest of her life and beyond.
I could use many words to describe this incredible woman who has done so much for her country and for humanity. She is elegant, graceful, highly intelligent and an incredibly gifted speaker. But her nature is so magical that I describe her most accurately only by borrowing a buzzword from Tyra Banks. Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi is fierce. There is a reason that the people of Burma call her the Lady: her grace of bearing, especially considering the horrors she has experienced throughout her life, is absolutely astounding. The military junta declared her a “destructive element” because of her involvement in politics and kept under house arrest without a trial for a total of 15 years. Being locked up without contact with the outside world for 15 years is enough to turn even the kindest person bitter. Daw Suu is, however, one of the least bitter people I have ever seen. She was able to speak about the breakdown of rule of law in Burma without hesitation or anger. She simply spoke of the terror the government’s complete disregard for rule of law inflicted on the people of Burma and said, “without rule of law, our people would never be free from fear.”
I come from a family of five generations of lawyers; we, the Shaw family, may as well have been the cheerleading squad for the American legal system. Although I’ve always been a staunch believer in due process, Daw Suu’s speech made me realize that I never truly appreciated our legal system until I heard, from the mouth of a survivor, what can happen without it.
Sitting there, listening to this remarkable woman — a true victim of the breakdown of law and order in Burma — and hearing her stories forced me to think about the possibility of something like that happening here. I no longer felt isolated from these instances of injustice. They became something real, something tangible, something that could occur not only in Burma but also anywhere under the wrong set of circumstances. I left the auditorium with a newer, deeper appreciation for the American legal system because, although I can’t say our legal system is perfect, it is certainly better than the alternative that Daw Suu experienced. We must guard our system against abuse. and we must protect the great gift that our founding fathers have established for us.