Nobel prize winner and newly elected parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi addressed members of both Houses in Westminster Hall yesterday (Thursday 21 June) at 3pm during her visit to the UK and became the first non-head of State and only the second woman to address both houses. The other is of course Her Majesty the Queen.
Commons Speaker, John Bercow MP, gave a welcome address introducing Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech. Mr Bercow said:
“This Hall has hosted many events over the past 900 years. In recent times only a few international figures – Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI and Barack Obama – have spoken here. Today Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will become the first figure other than a Head of State, the first woman from abroad and the first citizen of Asia to do so.
“This is not a break from precedent without a purpose. The courage of our guest is legendary. She has withstood the unimaginable suffering of separation from her family and her people with a dignity, fortitude and resolve which most of us can barely conceive. Her connections with the United Kingdom, reinforced in Oxford yesterday, are intimate. She has been the symbol of resistance to a regime which even in an imperfect world has been exceptional in its barbarity. As the UN has documented, and from three trips to Burma’s borders I can myself attest, this is a cabal guilty of rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, deployment of child soldiers, use of human minesweepers, incarceration of opponents in unspeakable conditions, destruction of villages, obstruction of aid and excruciating torture. Burma has become a beautiful but benighted land where fear runs through society like blood flowing through veins. One woman has now defied a dictatorship of such depravity for two decades. That is why Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader and a stateswoman, is here with us this afternoon.
“However, there is room for cautious optimism. The recent election to Parliament of our guest, accompanied by 42 of her colleagues, and the release of many political prisoners are welcome signs of reform. We earnestly hope that further, and fundamental, reform will ultimately lead to the freedom, democracy and rule of law which we have so long enjoyed and the people of Burma have too long been denied. There is an Asian saying that a journey of a thousand miles must start with a single step. We are proud that one such step will be taken in this Parliament today.
“Parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to welcome the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
In her address she said it was important to empower the people of Burma, and now was her country’s time of greatest need. Ms Suu Kyi said:
“I am here in part to ask for practical help, help as a friend and an equal, in support of the reforms which can bring better lives, greater opportunities, to the people of Burma who have been for so long deprived of their rights and their place in the world.
“My country today stands at the start of a journey towards, I hope, a better future. So many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be breached.
“Our own determination can get us so far. The support of the people of Britain and of peoples around the world can get us so much further.”
She stressed that it had been less than 100 days since she was on the campaign trail in Burma and went on to have the electoral success that that has made her opposition leader in parliament.
This remarkable personal transition encourages her in her belief that “before too long” Burma will become a truly democratic society.”
But she warns that Burma’s transition will be tough – “the most difficult road we have ever walked”, she said in the address.
Vital, in her view, is help in building Burma’s democratic institutions and education, and developing a “clean and efficient” civil service.
Ms Suu Kyi concluded her speech by saying there was a lot more work to be done before reform in Burma was complete.
She said: “I would ask that our friends, both here in Britain and beyond, participate in and support Burma’s efforts towards the establishment of a truly democratic and just society.”
Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, gave a valedictory address thanking Aung San Suu Kyi following her speech. She said:
“On behalf of the House of Lords, and everyone here today, may I express our collective and heartfelt thanks for your inspiring words.
“We all espouse freedom and democracy but few of us are called upon to pay for and uphold these principles by spending 15 years in detention. Your presence here today is a testament to your courageous approach of steadfast non-violence and reason in the face of an oppressive, powerful and determined regime.
“Your struggle has reverberated around the world. It has forcibly reminded us that free and fair elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and the institutions of civil society are the cornerstones of democracy and individual freedom. We take these freedoms for granted at our peril. Democracy is never won once and forever – it is a process requiring constant vigilance. Today you have reminded us of the struggle that must continue in Burma and elsewhere.
“In post-war Europe we have seen that it is possible for countries to make the transition from totalitarianism to democracy, and I trust that this will give you hope and encouragement for the journey ahead.
“Your stand against repression has been at the heart of the National League for Democracy’s struggle. I am sure that at times during your long campaign you must have felt unbearably lonely, though as you yourself have said, the Nobel Peace Prize allowed you to feel part of the international community. And indeed, through you, your people and your country were always in our minds.
“Now, together, we must use this occasion of your address to fellow parliamentarians to renew our own determination to be part of the struggle for liberty whenever and wherever it arises.”
The proprietors and staff of the Parliamentary Year book add to those good wishes and will follow closely Burma’s transition to a true democracy.