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'The past is alive': Aung San Suu Kyi recalls happy days at Oxford University as she collects honorary doctorate

  • @peterpopham

“The past is alive,” Aung San Suu Kyi told a distinguished audience in Oxford today collecting an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law, 19 years after it was first offered to her, “it never goes away.”

And in the most emotional speech of her European tour, delivered without notes in Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre, she rolled back the years, recalling the time in the mid-1960s when she was the only Burmese student in Oxford and like the students today she was “carefree, happy, nice – look at their faces, no hidden agendas there, no reason to be afraid.”

She went on, “At Oxford I learned respect for the best in human civilisation...It gave me a confidence in humankind and in the innate wisdom of human beings.” Referring to her years of persecution by Burma’s military junta, she added with characteristic understatement, “This helped me to cope with what were not quite the best of human kind.”

She lamented the fact that “the young people of Burma have never had the opportunity to live such happy lives.” One of the first acts of General Ne Win on seizing power was to blow up Rangoon’s Students’ Union, a centre of opposition to his rule. Every time students rebelled subsequently, the universities were closed, sometimes for months or even years. A permanent solution to student activism was found by relocating campuses to distant suburbs. “The saddest thing in Burma,” Suu Kyi said, “is the lack of campus life where young people can create their own world.”

Those honoured alongside her in a magnificent ceremony presided over by the Chancellor of the University, Chris Patten [Lord Patten of Barnes], and conducted almost entirely in Latin, included David Cornwell, better known as John Le Carre, to whom Suu Kyi, a devotee of thrillers, paid special tribute. During her worst years of confinement, she said, “the books of John Le Care were a journey into a wider world of thoughts and ideas, to places far away from where I was.”

“Burma is at the beginning of a road,” she said, “but it’s not smooth, it’s not well made – it’s not even there yet; we will have to create it for ourselves. Too many people are expecting too much of Burma. Many people think the Burmese road is like the road I took from London to Oxford, so smooth and straight that I was almost car sick.” Even after the recent reforms that have allowed her finally to take a trip abroad, Burma is not like that, she said. “We have to make the road ourselves, inch by painful inch.”