Aung San Suu Kyi to Burmese Americans: First Ask Yourself Why You Want to Help Your Homeland

San Francisco is home to the largest Burmese American community in the United States. (Photo: Flickr/lewishamdreamer)

This article was originally posted on The FilAm, an online magazine for Filipino Americans in New York.

SAN FRANCISCO — I had forgotten to eat breakfast out of my own excitement and experienced some stomach pains as I anticipated my heroine’s arrival. Determined to witness this historic occasion, I ignored my own discomfort.

There she was from a far distance – Aung San Suu Kyi, or ‘The Lady,’ as she was affectionately called by her adoring followers who welcomed her with warmth and tears at the University of San Francisco on September 29.

Wearing the traditional Burmese dress with flowers that adorned her hair, the Nobel Peace laureate walked up to the stage with ease. It was her first time back in the United States after 40 years and after being released from nearly 15 years of house arrest by the military junta of Myanmar.

She spoke in her native Burmese, emphasizing the importance of “not forgetting the mother tongue and roots.” She spoke of humility, service and giving back to the homeland.

San Francisco is home to the largest Burmese American community in the United States, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said introducing Suu Kyi to the stage. About 5,000 people packed USF’s War Memorial Gym.

“This is a delicate and difficult time,” Suu Kyi told attendees. Burma is in the midst of transition to democracy and the country also known as Myanmar, is finally feeling the junta loosening its grip after decades of authoritarian rule.

“The fires of conflict have not all died out in my country,” she said.

Questions were written prior to her arrival, placed inside a fishbowl and read at random during the Q&A session. Journalists were given headsets for the English translation. A recurring question posed by the Burmese Americans was: “How can we help the homeland.”

“Before you try to help others, first reevaluate your motivations,” Suu Kyi said. “We have to understand what our qualities are. Examine yourself and look at what can you do to contribute to promoting a happier, healthier and more peaceful Burma.”

“Are your intentions to help communities, improve lives? Or do you want to come back thinking that it will benefit yourself, first, ‘check your temperature,’” Suu Kyi said.

Another question asked how “intellectuals” can help Burma.

“The word ‘intellectual’ itself implies superiority,” she told the audience. “Do not return thinking you are better or know better than anyone else.” She pointed out that she does not see politicians and VIPs any differently from the ordinary Burmese folks. “Everyone is the same in my eyes.”

Although she was speaking to the Burmese community in particular, her concepts were universal. And for someone who sacrificed so much putting her country first before her own interest and her family, her humility was something we could all strive to emulate. The realization brought me to tears.

“From Daw Suu Kyi, the most important lesson I’ve learned is fortitude,” said Dr. Maria Ortuoste, professor of Political Science at California State University, East Bay. Ortuoste previously worked as a research specialist for the Foreign Service Institute in Manila and one of her duties was to monitor events in the Asean and Burma. Myanmar was her first assignment as a research specialist.

“Fortitude is having the strength of one’s convictions, but without arrogance,” she said.

Ortuoste said she hopes that young people learned that “when trying to help your home country, not to do it for selfish reasons and not to dictate. But do it with respect and value to the locals concerns, ideas and the situation.”

What Suu Kyi remembered from the last time she was in San Francisco 40 years ago were the toffee apples. “I had the toffee apples with the soft coating and I loved it,” she said. The coatings on the toffee apples in England were hard, which she said she “did not appreciate very much.” But the ones in the U.S. she enjoyed.

Asked what she would like to do in her spare time, Suu Kyi smiled: “I have a little dog who is prone to biting strangers. So I’m thinking maybe I should bring the dog into parliament with me. I think that might be a good method to keep members of parliament alert.” The crowd roared with laughter.

Burma’s path to democracy is both similar and different from the path the Philippines took when it returned to democracy in 1986. There have been comparisons between Suu Kyi and Cory Aquino and their struggles.

Suu Kyi’s most important message about love of one’s homeland with selflessness and humility echoed throughout.

Ryan Gajudo Macasero graduated from California State University, East Bay in 2010. He is a freelance reporter who contributes to various community and ethnic news sites including Philippine News and The Patch.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund. 

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