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 Attlee 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 II. 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 that can bring better lives and 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 at Oxford, my country today stands at the start of journey towards... a better future. So many hills remain to be climbed... obstacles to be breached. Our own determination can get us so far; the support of the people of Britain and around the world can get us so much further...
The British Parliament is perhaps the pre-eminent symbol to oppressed people 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... So many people in Burma gave up so much... in the ongoing struggle for democracy. And, we are only now just beginning to see the fruits of our struggle... Burmese 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 49 years of direct military rule, it will take time to find its feet and time to find its voice.
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 and 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 (NLD). 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, I was always encouraging my friends to exercise their right to vote. It was never clear to me whether they followed those instructions. But it was clear that if we do not guard the rights we have, we run the risk of seeing those rights erode away...
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 NLD 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 Fool’s joke. In fact, it turned out to be an April of new hope. The voting process was largely free and fair... Elections in Burma are very different to those in many more established democracies. Apathy, especially among the young, is certainly not an issue. For me the most rewarding aspect of our own elections was the participation of our young people in such vast numbers. 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 10 or 11, 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.
Extract from a speech by Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, to the British Parliament in London on June 21