On the 28th of November 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi was conferred an honorary doctorate by the Australian National University. A prominent human rights activist, Suu Kyi has campaigned extensively for political reform in Myanmar, efforts for which she received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1991.
ANU Chancellor and former Australian Foreign Minister, between 1988 and 1996, Gareth Evans, presented Suu Kyi with the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, for her outstanding contributions in service of society. He described her as “a champion of a peaceful path to a better and more just world” and recognized her “not only as the global icon for democracy […] but also as a gritty, hands-on politician who brooks nothing – least of all linguistic authoritarianism.” She received a standing ovation.
In her address, Suu Kyi illustrated the struggle of the Burmese people for human rights in Myanmar. For democracy to prevail in Myanmar, she contended the need for a “fair and just constitution,” stating that,“we as a nation want to live in peace and harmony and contribute what we can to the betterment of human kind. But, realising dreams is great, hard work.”
She also expressed hope that Australia would play a role in this process, “I hope and pray that Australia will be with us on this journey. I hope the world will help us realise our dreams.”
In 2011, after decades of political unrest in Myanmar a series of democratic reforms began to be introduced. These resulted in the dissolution of the Burmese military junta,, the installation of a nominal civilian government, and, Suu Kyi’s release, after almost fifteen years of house arrest.
As she continues to advocate for an overarching democratic struggle for human rights, Suu Kyi also commented on the democratic character of the Australian identity.
She argued that to achieve “genuine unity and diversity,” Australia should not become “Asianised”: “I’d like to congratulate you on what you have achieved and remind you that you don’t need to go all Asian. You are special because you are a unique combination of east and west and an example of genuine unity through diversity[…]Please retain what makes you special. You don’t have to be like everyone else and everyone around you.”
Suu Kyi also discussed the controversy surrounding her use of the term ‘Burma’ in reference to the nation that is officially known as ‘Myanmar.’ In 1989, the military regime set up a commission that renamed ‘Burma’ as ‘Myanmar’ because ‘Myanmar’ is the official name of the country in the Burmese language and is more inclusive of minority groups. However, Suu Kyi feels that this was not done in consultation with the Burmese people and is an illegitimate title.
Gatra Priyandita, the incoming President of the ANU Indonesian Student Association said, “‘Burma’ refers to a specific ethnic group while ‘Myanmar’ is meant to rule the country, a more neutral term. I question whether it may appear exclusionary to certain ethnic groups.”
Myanmar’s government has been criticised for what human rights organisations describe as a policy of ethnic cleansing against the largely Muslim Rohingya minority.
While Western nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, still refer to the country as ‘Burma’, non-English speaking nations like China, India, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recognize ‘Myanmar’ as the official name.
Rama Fatah, the incoming President of the ANU ASEAN Society, remarked, “Suu Kyi used the term ‘Burma’ to show her resistance towards the military regime. Suu Kyi has been loved by many for what she is. In her speech, she emphasized the fact that the military should serve the people and protect the nation.”
Vice Chancellor, Ian Young, referred to Suu Kyi as “an iconic figure, a clear leader.” Myo Mon, an Australian citizen that emigrated from Myanmar in 1999, found Suu Kyi to be inspirational and hoped for a successful transition to democracy.
In 2014, Myanmar will be the chair of ASEAN for the first time.