Saturday 16 December 2017

Dublin is privileged to honour Aung San Suu Kyi, a freedom-fighting Mandela for our times

SIX hours. That is the length of Aung San Suu Kyi 's Irish visit.

This woman, who for most of the past two decades sitting in isolation in her home country of Burma, is here for half a day to receive the freedom of the city, attend a concert and become one of Amnesty's Ambassadors of Conscience.

She is set to be surrounded by people eager to meet her, applaud her, touch her. She has moved from isolation into crowds, from being silent and alone to being cheered and hugged and applauded.

For 20 years, she was without a voice. Most of that time was spent under house arrest. Silenced, starved of contact, robbed of her family life, she nevertheless became a global figure of inspiration, of hope, of passive resistance, fighting for democracy with no weapon other than her dignity and determination. A Mandela for a new generation.

Her tour this week hammers home what, in the worst of circumstances, just one person of courage and determination can achieve.

Status

But it will do more than that. It will introduce her and make her real to many, as did her weekend speech in Norway accepting the Nobel Peace Prize she had been awarded 20 years earlier.

The speech made her real without diminishing her status, made her human without making her trivial.

This tiny, slender woman stilled a noisy, busy world into attentive silence as she talked, not about herself, but about the books, the ideas, the religious beliefs and the human interaction which kept her sane during her incarceration.

Those years present a sharp contrast with her current experience she's currently having. This is her first visit to Europe since 1988. She was met at the airport by Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Foreign Affairs, who introduce d her to the president at the concert in the Bord Gais Eireann theatre.

Trinity College is set confer an honourary degree on her. She's meeting Bono, Bob Geldof, Damien Rice, the Riverdance team and Vanessa Redgrave.

Freedom

Twelve years ago, Dublin registered the importance of the Burmese human rights fighter, and awarded her the freedom of the city, the award accepted at the time by Suu Kyi's son, Kim, at a time when nobody knew if his mother would ever be freed.

Today, the best has happened. She has been returned to her family and to the world, and as the head of Amnesty International, Colm O'Gorman, said, everyone who applauds her on to the stage tonight, "is also sending a message of hope and solidarity to her supporters".

In the few days since she stepped on to the world stage, Aung San Suu Kyi has been at pains to talk about those supporters and to emphasise the need not to forget those who are voiceless, nameless, and anonymous in the fight for democracy.

Surrounded by the great and the good, the major establishment figures of the world, she has taken the time to talk of the simplest gift the most humble human being has the capacity to give: kindness.

Pointing out that very few blessings brightened her years of incarceration, she said the exception was kindness. Whether it took the form of big gestures or of tiny gestures, every time someone showed her a kindness, it made a difference, she said. It connected her to a caring world.

Now, that world welcomes her. Dublin formally recognises her heroism. And, as she celebrates her 67th birthday in freedom, we all get to wish her a happy birthday.

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