Aung San Suu Kyi: Oxford 'helped me to cope'

Aung San Suu Kyi told attendees at the University of Oxford's annual Encaenia ceremony this afternoon that her Oxford experience 'helped me to cope with all the challenges I had to face' and that it taught her 'respect for the best in human civilisation ... Oxford is a place of tremendous broad-mindedness. Nobody discriminates against anybody else.'

In a break with tradition, Daw Suu, who is Chairman of the Burmese National League for Democracy and member of the Burmese parliament, was invited to give a speech after receiving her honorary doctorate in civil law at the ceremony, held in the Sheldonian Theatre.

You can view a video of her full speech here and read a transcript here.

She told a packed audience: 'Today, many strands of my life have come together. The years that I spent as a student at St Hugh’s; the years that I spent in Park Town as a wife and mother; the years I spent under house arrest - when my university, the University of Oxford, stood up and spoke up for me.

'During the most difficult years I was upheld by memories of Oxford. These were among the most important inner resources that helped me to cope with all the challenges I had to face.'

She spoke movingly of the Oxford characteristic she holds most dear, a respect for difference. ‘Oxford taught me to value humankind - because when I was in Oxford I was the only student from Burma. I think I was the only Burmese person resident in Oxford for the first couple of years. And all my friends were non-Burmese – of course English students, but students from all over the world, from Ghana, from India, from Thailand, from Sri Lanka, from all over the world.

'And I never felt that they were different from me. We were all the same: we were all students from this university, which has some magic that makes us feel that nothing separates us - neither religion, nor race, nor nationality, not even different levels of excellence in academic affairs.

‘Oxford is a place of tremendous broad-mindedness. Nobody discriminates against anybody else because he or she may be different, or may not have achieved as much as others. Every human being is expected to have a value and a dignity of her kind or his kind. And that’s why throughout the years when I was struggling for human rights in Burma I felt I was doing something of which my old university would have approved.’

She said: 'The most important thing for me about Oxford was not what I learnt there in terms of set texts and the books we had to read, but in terms of a respect for the best in human civilisation.

'And the best in human civilisation comes from all parts of the world. It is not limited to Oxford; it is not limited to Burma; it is not limited to any other country. But the fact that at Oxford I had learned to respect the best that is in all of human civilisation helped me to cope with what was not quite the best.

'Because what is not yet quite the best may still, one day, become the best; it may be improved. It gave me a confidence in humankind. It gave me a confidence in the innate wisdom of human beings – not given to all of us, but given to enough of us for the rest of the world to share, and to make use of it for others.'

She said she cherished her time at St Hugh's College where she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (1964-1967).

'Today has been a very moving day for me. Moving because I have found that the past is always there, it never goes away, but you can select what is best from the past to help you go forward to the future.

'In my college, my old college St Hugh’s, I found that I could recognise every bit of it: even though there were very many new buildings, yet they had merged in with the old. It was such a harmonious picture of the old and the new standing together as a promise for the future.

'I was very proud to be back in my old college ... in a sense I am no different now to the young student who was at Oxford so many years before. But also I am different, because I’ve had to face different experiences.

'But I bring all these experience back to me here at Oxford, and I find that Oxford is big enough and broad enough to contain my new experiences as well.'

Looking at the prospects for Burma, she warned that 'too many people are expecting too much from Burma at this moment' and that 'Burma is at the beginning of a road ... It is a road that we will have to carve out for ourselves ...inch by difficult inch ... we will need your help and the help of others all around the world to make sure that it leads to where we want our country to go.'

She made a plea for responsible investment in the country, asking members of the University: 'Please help us to make sure that all investments in Burma ... are democracy-friendly and human rights-friendly. That these investments will help to promote in our country the kind of values for which you stand – the kind of values that you taught me.'

Daw Suu recounted how, on her first trip abroad for 24 years, she went to Thailand and stayed in a hotel called ‘The Shangri-la’, and that in the book Lost Horizon the mythical paradise of Shangri-la had been described as 'something a little like Oxford.'

She said: 'Where I want our people to go to is a place which will enable them to see for themselves how wide open the world can be,  and how to find our own place in the world, which is also open enough and wide enough for everybody to be included. I would like a bit of Oxonian Shangri-la in Burma.'

Daw Suu, who spent much of the period from 1989 until 2010 in some form of detention as a result of her campaign to bring democracy to Burma, was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Oxford in April 1993 but has, until now, been unable to receive it in person.

After graduating, she worked in New York and Bhutan, before settling in Oxford with her husband, the Tibet scholar Michael Aris. Her return to Burma in 1988 to care for her ailing mother coincided with a period of growing discontent with the military government. Fearing her influence, the military placed her under house arrest in July 1989, she was to spend most of the next two decades under house arrest or in prison.

Finally released from house arrest in November 2010, in April this year the Burmese National League for Democracy won 43 out of the 44 seats it contested in a by-election and Daw Suu was elected to parliament to represent the constituency of Kawhmu.

She is an honorary fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford and of St Antony's College, Oxford, and patron of the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.