Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to actress Anjelica Huston at Queens College in New York. (AFP)
New York, Sept. 23: Just after midnight on Saturday, a crowd began descending on a narrow stretch of sidewalk at Queens College. The people came from all over New York and from as far away as Miami and North Carolina, but originally, they and their families were from Myanmar.
They stood in line overnight to see the leader of that country’s opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to New York on Saturday as part of her first visit to the US in some 40 years.
“As soon as I heard she was coming, I decided I had to be here,” said Aung Kaung Myat, 25, a Myanmarese man living in Buffalo. “I got on line at 1am.”
Now a member of the Myanmar parliament, Suu Kyi, 67, spent 15 years under house arrest and has long been an international symbol of personal sacrifice and the struggle for human rights.
During Saturday’s events, not a hint of bitterness was on display in Suu Kyi’s manner as she was lauded by New York politicians, was questioned by students and spoke to Myanmarese immigrants as if to a room full of old friends.
“Dissidents can’t be dissidents forever; we are dissidents because we don’t want to be dissidents,” she said in response to a question from a Queens College student about participating in Myanmar’s government after so many years as its most prominent opponent.
“I don’t believe in professional dissidents,” she continued. “I think it’s just a phase, like adolescence.”
Suu Kyi’s release, her visit and her participation in Parliament are all steps the government of Myanmar, now under President U Thein Sein, a former general, has taken away from its authoritarian past.
Suu Kyi said on Saturday that much work remained. “While we are started on the path,” Suu Kyi said in Queens, “we are not yet anywhere near our goal of a truly democratic society.”
Suu Kyi’s Saturday schedule also included a discussion at Columbia University. There, she spoke of how Myanmar’s economic troubles pushed the country towards openness, and how she made the most of her time under house arrest with a strict daily schedule of meditation, reading, listening to the radio and exercising.
‘I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve become less disciplined, and that I’ve dissipated those years under detention,” she said. “I think I was the healthiest prisoner of conscience in the world.”
In Queens, she was serenaded by Carole King, a Queens College alumna, with a customised version of one of her best-known songs. (“Daw Suu Kyi, you’ve got a friend!?” King cooed.) King asked the crowd to sing along at one point, lending the day the feel of a graduation ceremony, or perhaps a day at summer camp.
Suu Kyi spoke of a period that began in the late 1960s. “I lived in Manhattan for more than three years, and I loved this city at a time when people thought it terrible.”
She projected optimism about the future: “We were a country of hope in our part of the world, and we want to become that kind of country again,” she said. “A country that proves that there can be such things as happy endings.
“And when that happy ending arrives,” she continued, “I hope I will be able to welcome all of you into Burma.”