Last Saturday, Nobel Prize winning Burmese politician Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a packed crowd of students, suits, and journalists in the Low Library Rotunda as part of the 2012 World Leaders Forum. Suu Kyi emerged from house arrest in 2010 to resume her leadership of Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and won election to the country’s parliament in 2012. World Leader Lover Mark Gorenstein listened as Daw Suu Kyi’s unique blend of humility and charisma, peppered with the occasional bit of situational humor, held the audience in rapt attention.
PrezBo delivered the opening remarks, flaunting his own authority with the claim that, “democratic change is not only possible, but inevitable.” Our elder statesman then proceeded to hand Suu Kyi a rose on behalf of Václav Havel, a one time artist-in-residence of the university who had hoped to present the opposition leader with a flower before his recent death. This gesture was well received by the aging-yet-elegant leader and enabled the audience to voice their content (and perhaps rouse themselves awake from a weekend-morning torpor) with a round of vigorous applause.
Ann Curry, who moderated the discussion, noted that the event had been fully booked 34 minutes after registration opened. Demand for a prized ticket sent enough traffic to the university servers to temporarily crash the authentication portal, leading to much confusion and complaint among those who were unable to snag a spot.
“You are our present as well as our future,” Suu Kyi reminded both the students comprising the audience and their peers across the globe. She outlined a vision of Burma rooted in the ideals of democracy and the transformational potentials of education, repeatedly emphasizing the role of the youth in her homeland’s progress.
Listing her greatest sources of influence, the speaker singled out her father, Aung San, who was a major figure in Burma’s post-colonial reorganization, as well as Václav Havel, Nehru, MLK, and Gandhi. When asked about the message she hopes to perpetuate, Suu Kyi responded with the maxim, “Principles are not an old fashioned idea. Principles matter. You have to build your life around a set of principles.”
Following Suu Kyi’s initial address, Curry invited the audience to engage the leader in a discussion about Burma’s future. A visiting fifteen-year-old high school student was first to accept this invitation, nervously expressing his admiration for the Nobel Prize winner and asking about what he and his friends could do to assist the citizens of her country. Several Burmese members of the Columbia community posed similar questions, delivering impassioned remarks that underscored this symposium’s significance. One notable enquirer labeled this “the most important moment of [his] life.”
Suu Kyi concluded with a short but sage piece of advice, indicating that, “You can only achieve something you really believe in.” Well, readers of Bwog, we suggest you get at it.