It wasn’t long after I saw Luc Besson’s biopic ‘The Lady’ about Burma’s Pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and I was in the middle of reading a book called The Perfect Hostage (the author of the book was writing about Suu Kyi’s arrest in 2003 by the Generals, again, and this time there seemed little hope they would ever let her go…) And then I heard the most unbelievable news… The Lady was coming to visit Ireland!
I have been following Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwavering fight for democracy and freedom for her people since I first heard about her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The image of one woman standing up to the might of a military dictatorship, facing armed military ready to fire with calm, serene, determination, rejecting violence despite the brutality she faced. I was five years old. I kept what newspaper cuttings I could find over the years, painted pictures of her portrait with flowers in her hair and joined Burma Action and Amnesty International campaigns showering the military junta with paper letters. After her pro-democracy opposition party’s (National League for Democracy) landslide victory in 1989, the military junta responded by imprisoning Suu Kyi for 15 of the next 24 years. Over 400 political prisoners still remain in prison in Burma, who sacrificed their liberty for the cause of freedom. It is estimated that 8 million people have been consigned to forced labour and half a million people are the target of ethnic cleansing campaigns.
I never dared imagine that after 24 years without freedom, in and out of house arrest, that ‘Daw Suu’ (Mother Suu, as she is called by her supporters) that she would honour us by coming to visit Ireland after 15 years of house arrest and her first visit to Europe in 24 years – Ireland, a tiny nation that had made a lot of noise on her behalf, through the Burma Action Group, the Amnesty Action group. Bill Shipsey and Amnesty International organised the Electric Burma concert on June 18 at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in her honour, with all profits going to Amnesty’s campaign and the Aung San Suu Kyi Trust for Education and Health. The symbol for the event was the Ambhaya mudra, which means fearlessness in Sanskrit. It is a symbolic spiritual gesture in Eastern traditions, performed as an act of mindfulness to concentrate ones thoughts and energies. It was a night to celebrate human rights, freedom and the fearlessness which won Daw Suu her freedom with amazing artists, activists and human beings. The Lady herself was seated in the stalls in the middle of the audience with her son Kim, laughing at Bob Geldof’s dig at Bono, saying that after a day in the U2 singer’s presence she would be begging the junta to take her back.
However, it was Bono and U2 who brought her with them on their 360° world tour – from 2009 to 2011 across 60 venues her electronic image, voice and message was shared with the hundreds of thousands U2 fans, building momentum and support for the campaign for her freedom. I was at U2’s concert in Croke Park in 2009 when Bono announced Suu Kyi had received Amnesty’s Ambassador of Consicence Award, an award which she returned to Ireland to finally collect in person at the Electric Burma concert. U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind album was banned in Burma because the song “Walk On” was dedicated to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for her pro-democracy activities at the time. On the night, Bono performed the song live for Suu Kyi.
It was a beautiful, emotional event, where ‘princes and paupers’ rubbed shoulders. Also mixing with the audience was actor David Thewlis who played Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris in The Lady, a film about her life by Luc Besson, Vanessa Redgrave was there with her daughter Jolie Richardson, Seamus Heaney, the Mayor of Dublin, students, human rights activists, U2 supporters, artists, musicians, Burmese refugees and the everyday people of Ireland all sharing the experience together. The stage was decorated with metal bird cages, with all their doors left wide open…
Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her tight schedule, stayed for the full concert. On our way back to our seats for the second half, I met her in the aisle unexpectedly. I have been asked by so many people what it was like to meet Suu Kyi? She has been described as the ‘iron butterfly’ and ‘steel orchid’, a bodhisattva (goddess of compassion) but she is also a woman who was about to celebrate her 67th birthday, a daughter whose father was assassinated when she was just 2 years old, a mother who her missed her children growing up, a wife who lost her husband and never got to share his passing from this world. A woman who has experienced wide-open heartache in isolation, discovering that she is not alone, ‘I never knew how much people cared for us in Ireland, it has been so moving’ she said to me. Suu Kyi was full of humble gratitude even though it was I who was thanking her for coming to visit us and that we would never give up. Despite what must be an exhausting demand on her time and attention, she has an incredible ability to make you feel like you are the most important person in that moment. She directs her full awareness and attention towards you, and is somehow able to sense what it is you are feeling and need before you can articulate it yourself, holding my hand and my gaze, smiling with unexpected delight at the whole experience. So slight and delicate and yet she possesses such a powerful energy that comes from somewhere deeper and seems to project outwards, infinitely.
The celebration of her freedom and her visit to Ireland was an historical moment, where the seed of hope was firmly planted and begins to grow, slowly and tentatively climbing towards the light.
To Fearlessness and Freedom!