March 8, 2016
International Women’s Day
My admiration for the most courageous woman of our time – Aung San Suu Kyi.
John Bercow writes for the Huffington Post.
It was twelve years ago, in my capacity as the then shadow secretary of state for international development, that I travelled to Burma for the first time. That visit marked the beginning of my own personal commitment to that country, and my admiration for the woman many considered its rightful leader-in-exile, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
I did not enter that country on a visa, visit the cities or meet with government officials as would usually be the case during such a trip. Instead I visited internally displaced Karen peoples in the jungles across the border from Thailand, and Karen and Karenni refugees on the Thai side of the border. I heard stories of unimaginable brutality, met parents who had seen their children killed in front of them, and heard survivors tell of the most excruciating cruelty. One man described how he had been tortured all night and hung upside down, his body swinging repeatedly against a pillar; others had endured agonising water torture. Rape was routinely used as a weapon of war, compulsory relocation was a fact of life and human mine-sweepers were commonplace in a country suffering in the iron grip of a merciless military junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi defied this evil for over quarter of a century. She was subject to repeated house arrest, separation from her husband and children and at least one assassination attempt, but remained resolute in her aim: to bring the principles of democracy, freedom and liberty to the people of Burma. As she said in 1997, “Those of us who decided to work for democracy in Burma made our choice in the conviction that the danger of standing up for basic human rights in a repressive society was preferable to the safety of a quiescent life in servitude.”
Few of us, I suggest, would have demonstrated Suu Kyi’s courage, and it is simply incredible that this courage continued to manifest itself, unwaveringly, for so long, and even in spite of the fact that the dream of freedom – both hers and her country’s – often seemed unlikely to be realised.
By the time Suu Kyi addressed both of our Houses of Parliament on 21 June 2012, there was cause for optimism. She had, along with 42 of her National League for Democracy (NLD) colleagues, been elected to the Burmese parliament. She used part of her speech – as inspiring an address as I can recall hearing – to appeal for assistance from the UK Parliament. In responding to this appeal, the House of Commons agreed to provide a programme of research support in the Burmese Hluttaw, and this was later broadened to include committee assistance. This was not about telling the Burmese how to run their country or forcing them to model their parliamentary mechanisms on ours. Rather, it was offering support to a nation trying, arguably for the first time, to establish its own democratic mechanisms.
Since then, thankfully, the people of Burma have spoken – spoken decisively against the brutal military junta that has terrorised them for decades and spoken unmistakably in favour of the fundamental change epitomised and espoused by Daw Suu. Whatever her title or particular office in the new government being formed, my earnest hope, shared I am sure by countless millions around the world, is that Daw Suu will be in the driving seat. That will be hugely to the advantage of all of her people, women and men alike, who suffered too much for too long with too little done to mitigate their plight. They now enjoy the prospect of freedom thanks to the unwavering leadership of the most courageous woman of our times.
To mark International Women’s Day, Action Aid and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association are holding an event in the State Rooms of Speaker’s House. I suspect that it will be both a celebratory and an aspirational event. Much progress has been made with respect to women’s rights and representation globally, but there is still much more that we can do. One in three women is still the victim of violence in her lifetime, and some attitudes still prevail – even in Britain – which, if they do not explicitly facilitate such abuse, do little to challenge it.
It is not, nor should it be, the responsibility of women alone to fix a world that so often acts to their detriment. But, on International Women’s Day, the work of fearless and determined women such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi inspires millions around the world who are striving against oppression and for justice, equality and freedom.