BURMA: Real education will triumph

Burmese opposition politician AUNG SAN SUU KYI, released from house arrest in 2010, spoke to students and academics at Hong Kong University via video link from Rangoon last Monday as part of the university's 100th anniversary 'Distinguished Lectures' series. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi donated her US$1 million award to Prospect Burma, an educational charity supporting Burmese students in universities around the world. Here is what she told students and staff at the Hong Kong University.

One of my favourite dicta is that people should not be categorised as good or evil, wise or stupid. It would be much more sensible to divide them simply into learners and non-learners. In between the two extremes would be a broad spectrum graded on the degree to which individuals are capable of correct assessment and understanding of the learning material at their disposal.

Here, of course, I'm giving a very broad definition of learning. It would involve much more than what could be acquired from one institution or from any one formal teacher. It would mean a process of gaining such knowledge and experience as would help us cope with the challenges that life throws at us and to find ways of enhancing our own existence, as well as that of as great a portion as possible of all the other occupants of our planet.

To put it in another way, the highest form of learning would be that which makes us caring and responsible citizens of this world, and equips us with the intellectual means necessary to translate our concerns into specific deeds.

Whenever I consider the educational progress that has been made in other countries, I think with sadness of the deplorable state of education in my own. There was a time when educational standards and institutions in Burma were viewed with respect and envy in many countries in Asia and elsewhere.

Rangoon University, 10 years younger than Hong Kong University, is the outcome of the merger of Rangoon College and Judson College, the Baptist college. The university rapidly became the breeding ground not only of bright young intellectuals but of dedicated nationalists determined to free their country from colonial rule.

Even as academic standards grew robustly and gained the recognition of long established institutions in the Western world, so the patriotic fervour of the students gained new momentum. Rangoon University became the vanguard of movements demanding equality and justice and, eventually, these movements were supported and joined by students from Mandalay University and from schools all over the country.

The close link between political movements and universities became an established tradition in Burma. When the country fell under military rule, students were among the first protesters calling for the restoration of democratic rights. As authoritarian rule tightened its grip on the country, the position of universities as institutions aimed at fostering freedom of thought, expression and association was steadily eroded.

Yet, after more than two decades of totalitarian governance, it was again the students of Rangoon University who led the movement to free the country from military administration. This was the famous public uprising of 1988. Now, more than 20 years on, the aims of democracy and human rights, for which many students sacrificed liberty and life, have not yet been realised. In the meantime, the standard of education at all levels has fallen and Burma is a country crying out for the potential of its people, especially its young people, to be realised. I might mention here that many leaders of the 1988 student movement still remain in prison today, serving unbelievably long sentences.

Education should be available to all, not just to a privileged few. Education should foster values that will promote human dignity and guide human progress in a positive direction. Education should be a true learning process, not a machine for churning out meek, obedient people incapable of reasoning why justice and liberty should not be the birthright of all human beings.

I am confident that the day will come when we in Burma will be able to enjoy the fruits of real education and to share them with the rest of the world. This will be the day when wisdom and virtue will triumph.

* This is an edited version of Aung San Suu Kyi's speech to Honk Kong University. The original can be accessed here. For further reading, see BURMA: Elections - the students have been silenced.