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Amrita Tripathi
Sunday , September 23, 2012 at 16 : 41

Aung San Suu Kyi in the house


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Aung San Suu Kyi has been drawing the crowds right through her US trip. It's the pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate's first trip to the States since being released from house arrest in 2010. Suu Kyi, who met US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has received a Congressional medal of honour, and yet says - incredibly disarmingly - that she is here, at Columbia University, to interact with young people and ask them for advice and their suggestions.

She receives a standing ovation as she enters Columbia's Low Memorial Library, that is packed to capacity with more than 400 people and assorted press. Some of the audience members are distinguished personalities themselves, Nobel laureate Mohd Younus is spotted on his way out, and I think I caught a glimpse of IPCC chief RK Pachauri in the crowd as well. But The Lady is here to meet and interact with young people, and there's an overwhelming feeling of kindness towards her and goodwill in general (I swear the white pigeon that landed on the steps leading up to the library was not a premonition, and meant to be a dove!).

She's gracious, and funny, warm and "lovable" as a fellow journalist puts it, as she fields various questions, first from the news anchor Ann Curry who is moderating, and then from a motley crew of bright young students, including a teenager who at 15 years of age must be the most articulate high school student of his generation. A lot of the audience questions are on how to help Burma, and Suu Kyi is as tactful as she seems kind in her answers, telling someone who apologises over 'stumbling in speech' that she must not apologise, that she herself stumbles in speech, and there are times she loses words (a side-effect of long years in solitary confinement or house arrest).

And yet she's funny too - when asked how she deals with crises, she refers to her pressure cooker moment... pauses to ask if there are still pressure cookers, to much laughter I must add (though Indians would have rallied behind her at this point!) and says it's hard to keep up with all the changes. She adds, she takes crises one step at a time, as she learned to do, when a pressure cooker she wasn't paying attention to exploded.

Rough transcript:

Aung San Suu Kyi: Am a focused sort of person - dealing with crisis, as a reaction to pressure cooker blowing off. This happened to me actually - do we still have pressure cookers? (Laughter) I don't know what kind of developments there have been, it's hard to keep track. But I calmed down and dealt with the mess... go step by step. That's how I dealt with crises. Not too many crises you can get up to in house arrest. I did take things calmly, practically, stuck to a strict schedule, didn't want to waste my time under house arrest. Alright they've placed me under house arrest, I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of me becoming less disciplined...I did as much as I could - meditated, read, listened to radio, exercised. I think I was the healthiest prisoner of conscience in the world.

As you can hear in the clip, she says she was very disciplined under house arrest, and she thinks she was "the healthiest prisoner of conscience in the world".

When she's asked about her influences she cites her father, Vaclav Havel (who we are told wanted very much to give her a rose, like the one in the photo he had of her, but couldn't because of circumstances), and Pandit Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. She tells the audience that she felt closer to Nehru in some ways because of the similarities in education, but exhorts everyone to read Gandhi, calling him "phenomenal", "the first person to preach change through non-violent means".

Rough transcript:

Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course Gandhi's writings: In some ways I have to say I felt closer to Nehru because our education pattern was more similar. We had been educated in India, same kind of background. Gandhi is somebody who is a phenomenon, you must all read his work, the more you read Gandhi, the more impressed you are by who and what he was. Change through non-violent means was not ever thought of before Gandhi. He was the one who started it. He was the one who decided it was possible to inspire.

Aung San Suu Kyi fields several questions, and when asked what people could do to help Burma gives some interesting replies, telling the 15-year-old student to visit, along with his friends...She is tactful, and clearly at ease in public, and as a politician now...walking a fine line when asked about democracy, in the context of China, saying it's not for her to tell people what to choose, it's for people to decide for themselves. It seems a position as far removed from her hosts here in the US, as it is the stuff of realpolitik when it comes to Burma's massive neighbour.

Suu Kyi also says those looking to visit and help must do so with humility and gratitude for the opportunity, saying her people may be poor but have much pride. She takes a swipe at those young Burmese who - studying abroad - choose not to speak their own language well, but is less harsh on other choices made, saying those who settle outside the country shouldn't feel guilty.

In answer to another question on why she says she doesn't hate the military generals, she talks about her father who died when she was two. She describes him as the "father of the Burmese Army", says she felt she was part of the Army family growing up, and her love for him led her to develop a soft spot for men in military uniform (cue laughter). So she didn't hate them, though she hated what they were doing to her country. But in her worldly-wise way she continues: "We hate because of fear", she tells the crowd, and says once you overcome the fear, you overcome the hate. And she wins a few hearts; I'm sure, as she speaks of conquering her own fear of the dark when she was just 11.

She gets a standing ovation as she leaves as well... The only thing that could have topped this moment here, would have been U2 singing Walk On, which the band dedicated to Suu Kyi back in 2001.


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More about Amrita Tripathi

Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.

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