Suu Kyi awarded honorary degree

September 18, 1998

Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi received yet another honour when the University of Melbourne awarded her an honorary doctor of laws in absentia.

Suu Kyi's husband, Oxford scholar Michael Aris, accepted the award on her behalf at a graduation ceremony in Melbourne. He noted that it was nearly ten years since Suu Kyi had been placed under house arrest by the Burmese military government and, had she come to Melbourne to accept the award in person, the authorities would not have allowed her to return and continue the struggle for democracy in the country.

Dr Aris said he had not been allowed to see Suu Kyi for three years and had not spoken to her by telephone for several months. "As the one who claims to know her best and love her most, I need hardly tell you what it means to me to see her properly recognised in this way," he said.

"Suu is inspired by the certain knowledge that her country will blossom only when the hand of fear is lifted from her people and their talents are thereby relieved. She believes this can happen only when all put aside their differences to establish civilian rule based on popular will."

Dr Aris has spent the past ten years teaching at the University of Oxford - he is a Himalayan scholar of international standing - while raising the two sons he has with Suu Kyi.

He said that he spends about 80 per cent of his time working for the cause of democracy in Burma and travelling the world to accept the many honours that countries and institutions have bestowed on his wife - most notable among them being the Nobel peace prize in 1991.

He said that just as Suu's father, Aung San, Burma's national hero, looked for external support in the quest for independence in the 1940s, so did Suu Kyi seek help from beyond Burma's borders in the struggle for democracy.

"The Australian government and people - and some very remarkable and dedicated individuals among them - have been at the forefront of international support for the goal of political freedom in Burma. Conferment of your honorary degree on my wife is an open confirmation of this fact.

"This ceremony is therefore not an empty ritual. Just as it sets a seal on the academic triumphs of your own graduands, who have laboured hard and long in the quest for learning, so does the degree of doctor of laws now conferred on Suu celebrate her extraordinary efforts to establish the rule of law in her country."

Suu Kyi's father was assassinated when she was just two years old and she lived abroad from the age of 15. She studied first in India, where her mother was the Burmese ambassador, and then at Oxford, where she read politics, philosophy and economics.

She married Dr Aris in 1972 and lived in England until April 1988, when she returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother.

After the declaration of martial law in August that year, Suu Kyi began her public participation in politics by addressing hundreds of thousands of people in central Rangoon.

She helped form the National League for Democracy and openly denounced the government at public rallies. Although her party won more than 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the 1990 elections, the military junta refused to accept the results.

The European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought the same year that she was awarded the Nobel prize. The Nobel committee cited her "non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights" and said it wished to honour "her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means".

Dr Aris made it clear that he is in awe of his wife and her capacity to withstand what he called "the turgid sewers of official abuse" that are regularly directed at her. He said the more confrontational approach adopted by Suu Kyi's supporters, as well as the student demonstrations and her recent roadside sit-ins, would help hasten a return to democracy in Burma.

"If there is one lesson in human history that has to be learnt it is that if you truly want peace you must be prepared to give up something for it," Dr Aris said. "Which of the powers will the army surrender in the interests of peace and the common good? Will they have the courage to do so? I believe they will, but the timing of this is still obscure to me. May it please be soon, for the sake of all."

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