Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech addresses big universal issues yet she starts in a very personal way, reflecting on her own experience as a democratically elected leader who has lived over six years under house arrest. This delicate balance between personal reflection and meditation and more abstract, generalised reasoning continues through the speech. Her surface message is that women can and must play a bigger part in social and political decision-making throughout the world and that, as this happens, the world will be a better place. However, equally her speech is a message of hope, a message of confidence in the ability of clear-sighted people “capable of learning” to win out over those incapable of learning, those who create societies of violence based on nightmares that come out of insecurity. Her experience in applying non-violent resistance to the Burmese military and their violations of human rights gives her reflections on how change can be achieved a moving authenticity.
Reflecting on the importance of women joining public life “to dissipate the darkness of intolerance and hate, suffering and despair”, Aung San Suu Kyi reveals a very personal approach to feminism. While arguing that “it is time” for women to enter “the arena of the world”, Aung San Suu Kyi is careful to show respect and empathy for the vast majority of women in the world, those in third world countries, where keeping the family together, bringing up children and protecting others is a massive full-time occupation with no guarantee of security, safety or freedom from violence. She speaks of the two freedoms the women of the world most cry out for – “freedom from want and freedom from war”.
Interestingly despite her suffering and the suffering of her people, Aung San Suu Kyi does not see the politics of her country or of the world as a battle between “two opposing camps of good and evil” but as a divide between those “capable of learning” and those who through insecurity and intolerance become unable to learn and go on attempting to impose policies that lead to suffering. Rejecting the dualism of good and evil, she posits life as a process of learning whereby all have the capability of finding release from their prejudice and insecurity. She sees women as having an essential role in this process, due to their great skills in speaking and negotiating as well as nurturing and working towards harmony. The underlying Buddhist values in her speech are captured in her reference to metta (loving kindness) as well as the paravana ceremony where monks at the end of a long silent retreat ask each other for forgiveness. Much of the power and interest of her speech comes from her status as outsider –a woman in a world dominated by men, one from the third world in an international forum where the perspectives of rich developed countries tend to dominate, one from a culture and religion committed to tolerance and non-judgmentalism.
Her personal approach to her speech is shown in the way it opens and closes with “I”. The first person is evident throughout, even though there is no sense of her imposing her own experiences or seeing them as any more important than countless other people’s experiences. The range of her speech is interesting, shifting from folk proverbs (“The dawn rises only when the rooster crows”) to citations from UN documents. Memorable images (“the war toys of grown men”) help balance out the excessively formal, political platitudes of bureaucratic buzz-words (“productivity, equity, sustainability and empowerment”). Particularly moving is her portrayal of the bravery of ordinary women in repressive, violent third world countries, captured in two paired similes “tender as mothers nursing their newly born, brave as lionesses defending their young”.
The structure of her speech is largely moulded through opposing pairs – mutual respect vs patriarchal domination, societies where men are confident of their own worth…