Aung San Suu Kyi awarded freedom of San Francisco


IT WAS billed as a community meeting, and that is exactly what it was. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is in the United States for a 17-day visit, during which she was presented with the Congressional medal by president Barack Obama and saw US economic sanctions against Burma lifted.

But on Saturday morning the Burmese citizens of San Francisco got her all to themselves. They queued to take their seats in the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gymnasium as some college athletes trained a little vigorously outside. The Burmese ladies in the queue – and they were mostly ladies – were unperturbed.

Asked what Suu Kyi meant to her, Jackie Jonson, born to Burmese parents, replied simply: “Everything. She means the world to us.”

Lin Lin Naing has been in the US for only a year. She works as a care assistant in a rehab hospital. It was in 1988 that Lin Lin first first heard of Suu Kyi, who had returned to Burma for the funeral of her mother. At that time Lin Lin was in middle school; it is easy to forget that the beautiful Suu Kyi is now 67.

“We love her. Deeply,” said Lin Lin. “Because she gave up everything for our country. She is the very noblest person.”

San Francisco has the largest Burmese population in the US. Its members vary from garbage men and sushi chefs to entrepreneurs and soccer moms such as Min-Min Tun, who was at the event with her two young daughters.

“Burma has been a pariah state,” said Min-Min Tun, who was born in Burma. “Aung San Suu Kyi gives us pride in our country – our original country. She shows that change can happen if you work hard. That’s what I tell my daughters.”

Less than one-tenth of the audience was made up of European Americans, and those present looked slightly hippy and were in the best San Francisco tradition of well informed protest. Indeed, the event was being hosted by USF because its Jesuit owners awarded honorary doctorates to the Buddhist priests of Burma in 2007.

Lisa Rappoport was there because her friend, Edith Mirante, worked for years for human rights in Burma.

“I’m here to support democracy in Burma, and the rights of the Rohingya people in Burma,” she said.

In the auditorium, even Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was just a warm-up act on the day. Mayor Ed Lee was shamelessly local, presenting Aung San Suu Kyi with the freedom of San Francisco “with the standing invitation that you return to our world-class city”.

Suu Kyi was left on the stage alone, wearing a white jacket and sitting in a large chair between two arrangements of orchids. She was presented with a bowl of questions from the Burmese community, about half of which were in Burmese.

She wanted to speak Burmese, she said. There was warm applause at this. The atmosphere was not adulatory, but intimate. Suu Kyi seemed frank and told funny stories: a dynamic figure who is just as much a spiritual leader as a political leader – perhaps more so. Hate comes from fear, she said.

There were several questions about the infighting that took place in the Burmese community in San Francisco before she arrived. These elicited knowing laughter from the Burmese audience, and from Suu Kyi.

She recommended humility to the Burmese who had resolved to go home and help their country. There was laughter at this also. Of the ethnic minorities she said respect must be shown on both sides, to the Christians of Chin province and to the Rohingyas, and the laws must be just. The Burmese have to learn to negotiate, she said.

It was 40 years since she was in San Francisco, she said, laughing. “But those of my generation will know that I have come to San Francisco the right way, with flowers in my hair.”

As we emerged from the gymnasium a small protest on behalf of the Rohingya people had started. “Justice for the dark-skinned people,” said one of its slogans.