”Learn to value what you have.” It was a simple message from a woman who has more than earned the right to deliver it.
Burmese human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent almost 20 years under house arrest in a fight to bring democracy to her troubled nation, urged Australians not to underestimate the privileges they enjoy.
On Saturday, the 68-year-old told a captivated audience at Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall – where she received an honorary Doctor of Laws – she had never voted in a free election, and it was a right that should be cherished.
”Because you have these tremendous advantages, I would like you to look to countries like ours that are just starting out on the road that you take for granted. You think democracy is there for you, that you’re entitled to democracy, but entitlement is a perception. There is no such thing as absolute entitlement. You have already got much more than some of us could ever dream of achieving in our lifetime … we need your help and support.”
In an address on reconciliation and the rule of law, Ms Suu Kyi, who is leader of Myanmar’s opposition party and chairwoman of the National League for Democracy, said faith in justice was crucial to the democratic process.
She noted that when her motorcade was ambushed in 2003 – an attack in which four supporters were killed and that led to her arrest – the perpetrators were never brought to account. ”What kind of rule of law is this? What kind of justice is it that punishment is inflicted on those who have been wronged? And how can we build a nation on the basis of such values?”
While the democracy leader has faced opposition during her five-day visit to Australia from local members of Myanmar’s Kachin ethnic group for her failure to condemn military action against them and for not speaking out against the persecution of Muslims, she stressed that condemnation was not the path to reconciliation.
”I’ve found that condemnation of one community increases fears and drives people to extremism.
”Everybody is afraid when violence breaks out all too often. The first step that has to be taken is to establish the rule of law. If people feel under threat, they cannot be expected to sit down and work out a solution to their differences.”
Conferring the university’s highest honour upon her, Monash chancellor Alan Finkel said the institution was honoured to recognise a woman who had shown great courage and grace in the face of tyranny.
Ms Suu Kyi called for constitutional changes to ensure the rights of all people in Myanmar were protected, pointing out that democracy is a road not an absolute goal, and that reconciliation would take time.
”The seedlings have been put in place. But seedlings can be swept away by a gust of wind, they can be kicked away by an unfeeling foot … We have to get to the point where these seedlings start to take root.
”We have a long way to go before we get to that point.”