Aung San Suu Kyi: “An icon in Damascus”

Left Foot Forward's Matt Gwilliam reports on the second 2011 BBC Reith Lecture from Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“You are an icon in Damascus,” the BBC correspondent Sue Lloyd-Roberts told the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, explaining how a woman in Syria had led demonstrators onto the street in the face of army snipers, using Aung as inspiration.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2nd BBC Reith lecture was delivered last night at Broadcasting House and explored how her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had survived in the past few decades despite violent oppression from the military government.

The lecture was followed by a Q and A session with Aung, via a poor phone line. As Sue Lawley explained, the pro-democracy leader was “literally on a mobile phone, in Burma, in the middle of the night”

One of the most emotional parts of the evening came when Lord Steel reminded the audience that Aung’s husband had been denied a visa during his terminal illness to visit Burma and his wife “for one last goodbye”. He asked her whether there was ever too high a price to pay; “I don’t this so,” came the answer.

She explained:

“When I agreed, with some trepidation, to take on the Reith lectures, I did so to find out who we [the NLD] were.”

Aung explored the development of the NLD since the 1990 election in Burma, outlining the differences between her party and a normal “opposition” party. For a start, the term “opposition” did not really apply in the conventional sense.

The NLD won the 1990 election by a landslide. They were not the opposition; they should have been the government. So when a party has won and is unable to take on the expected functions of the winner, “what then is its role?”, she asked.

She went on to tell the story of how her party had continued the struggle since then and sought inspiration from other campaigns around the world and from Burma’s own experience fighting for independence. She was always mindful of the differences though.

For example, though oppressive, “the Colonial administration was significantly less totalitarian,” and the rule of law had protected the existence of the NLD as a political party. This did not apply in the case of the Military Junta in Burma now where there is no independent judiciary.

Though uncomfortable with the term “opposition”, she also dislikes “activist” as it is too narrow a term to describe the “essential nature” of the NLD’s work.  The NLD is not looking for an adjustment to the system but:

“…working for a cause that is the sum of the aspirations of our people.”

Aung has often praised the BBC world service. She described how the radio had brought the NLD inspiration. “It was through the radio” that they had learned of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of apartheid; “they were our friends and allies,” she said.

However, she also reminded those struggling for liberty that they should continue their struggle in solidarity with others internationally once their domestic goals had been achieved saying in some cases she had been disappointed.

It was an immense privilege to attend; the Reith lectures will be broadcast on the BBC today at 9am, or you can subscribe to the podcast at – I implore you to listen.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.