Commencement speech at Bucknell University
June 12, 1999
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is chair of the National League for Democracy (NLD), a democracy movement opposing fifty years of military rule in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. In Myanmar's November 2015 elections, the NLD won the majority in both houses of Parliament, potentially paving the way for democracy under Suu Kyi's leadership. Suu Kyi delivered Bucknell's 1999 Commencement speech in absentia while she was under house arrest in Myanmar. The speech was delivered by Burton Levin, then U.S. ambassador to Myanmar.
It is an honor indeed to have been presented the Award of Merit of Bucknell University and to have been asked to give the commencement address. A university graduation ceremony is a happy event where faculty members, students and their families gather together to celebrate the successful completion of several years of significant academic training. I would like to express my warm congratulations to the faculty members and the graduating students of Bucknell but even as I do so, I cannot but be aware of a sense of irony.
In my own country, Burma, a university degree has become an unattainable dream for the majority of high school graduates. Since 1988 when a spontaneous, nationwide movement for democracy was violently crushed by the military, higher education has been subjected to frequent disruptions. In the latter part of 1996, students of Rangoon University mounted demonstrations to make known their dissatisfaction with the education system. In response, the military regime closed down the universities and toda y, potential students and their parents still wait, in increasing despair and frustration, for the universities to be reopened. The children of the privileged elite may be able to go abroad to more stable societies for their further studies but for hundreds of thousands of young men and women in Burma, their learning process has been brought to an abnormal, possibly a permanent, halt through no fault of their own.
The closure of the universities of Burma is merely a symptom of a malaise that has turned a country rich in human potential and natural resources into a state that is politically repressed, intellectually impoverished, economically depressed and socially unstable. The root of this malaise is the vastly differing perceptions of the ruling military junta and the people of Burma as to what constitutes freedom and progress.
When the people of Burma called for democracy in 1988, they were expressing their total rejection of the authoritarian rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party that had dominated the country for nearly three decades. They were asking for the right to shape their own destiny through a government that would be responsible to them in accordance with the democratic tradition. It was for such a government that they were opting when they cast their votes overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy in the elections of 1990. The military junta ignored the results of the elections as well as their own promises of a peaceful transfer of power and nine years on today, the struggle for the right to life, liberty, security and, particularly on the part of the young, to learning continues in Burma.
Is it too much to ask that the young people of Burma should have reasonable access to university education just like millions of their contemporaries all over the world? Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that "everyone has the right to education." It further states that:
"Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."
How could education as understood by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be possible in a country where fundamental rights and freedoms are suppressed and where the state, which tolerates no difference of opinion, actively promotes xenophobia?
In countries where the government is held accountable for the well-being and development of the people, the need for an uninterrupted education system is not a political issue. Curricula, academic standards, administration and financing may be open to controversy and debate, and it is only right that it should be so, but the maintenance of a social and political framework within which it is possible for the young to work their way through from elementary school to a university degree without undue hindrance would be considered an amenity so basic that it should not even be necessary for the people to demand it as a right. I would like all those present at this gathering today to cast their thoughts to my country where it is a struggle for children , and their parents, simply to gain access to a reasonable education. I would like them to understand the difficulties of our young people whose intellectual development has been cut off at a crucial stage. As their future is at stake, so is the future of our country at stake.
Education is not simply about academic achievement. As spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is about understanding, tolerance and friendship, which are the basis of peace in our world. It is the fashion to refer to our age as one where all are engaged in a ratlike scurry for material gain, pushing aside such outmoded concepts as compassion and love of one's fellow human beings. Yet I see again and again proof that these concepts and others which constitute our basic humanity have the strength to overcome our less attractive qualities. The long association between Burma and Bucknell, covering one hundred and forty years, is proof that there remain such constant values as friendship and love of learning, values which have ser ved to preserve the ties between a university in the United States and a country in Southeast Asia for over a century despite the vicissitudes of internal politics and international relations.
Bucknell has demonstrated its friendship for Burma in the best possible way, by seeking to promote a better understanding of our country, its peoples, history, culture, politics and contemporary problems. It is only through understanding that we c an appreciate and help one another, that we can reach out across geographical and cultural divides to establish a fruitful partnership. I am confident that one day the people of Burma too will have the opportunity to make their own contributions towards mutual respect and understanding between the different peoples of the earth. In the meantime, I hope that those of my countrymen and women who are present among the audience today will be able to demonstrate to the world that they are united in the effort to make Burma a peaceful and truly progressive society built on a commitment to tolerance, compassion and justice, a society where liberty and learning can flourish.
May I conclude by thanking the president and faculty members of Bucknell University for the great honor they have done me and by expressing my conviction that the historic Burma-Bucknell partnership will gain in strength and beauty with the passing years.
Born in 1945 in Rangoon, Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, known as the "father of Burmese independence". After having spent many years away from Burma she returned in 1988 to Burma to care for her ill mother, leaving her husband and two sons behind in England. During this time in Burma she became engaged in the fight for Burmese independence. In 1989 she was placed under house arrest for 6 years. She did not return to be with her husband who was dying and later died from cancer, as on return to Burma she would have been refused entrance. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.