To look at Aung San Suu Kyi — demure, slight of stature, with a warm, easy smile on her face — one may find it hard to imagine what this Nobel Peace Prize recipient and worldwide symbol of the struggle for human rights has been through in her 67 years.
On Saturday morning, the former political prisoner, who spent nearly 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010, addressed a packed house at LeFrak Concert Hall at Queens College, where crowds of young and old alike stood in line for hours to be part of history, as this native of Burma, now known as Myanmar, made her first visit to the United States in nearly 40 years.
The talk came two days after she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor granted to a civilian by the United States — and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Aung San Suu Kyi derived her motivation as leader of her country’s political opposition, she said, from her father, a general who is considered the father of modern-day Burma and who was assassinated when she was 2 years old.
“I felt very close to him and I studied his life,” she said. “I understood his politics. I think he would have approved” of the path her life has taken.
Her father was “a tremendous influence on my life,” giving her “tremendous confidence,” much of it coming from the simple knowledge that he loved her.
Accorded multiple standing ovations during the 90-minute appearance, Aung San Suu Kyi seemed particularly bent on motivating the many young people in the audience.
“Practice your duties as a citizen,” she told them. Duty “will prepare you for many challenges in life,” the greatest of which, she said, is “where you have to struggle with yourself.”
Voting, she said, is a right one should “guard with your very life.”
Recollecting that Burma had, at one time, been a country with high standards of education, she lamented that now its young people are barely educated. She called education the foundation of human dignity.
“As we progress toward democracy, we need our young people with us,” she said, indicating that many changes have already taken place but her country is not yet anywhere near reaching the goal of a truly democratic society.
“We must prepare our young people to preserve the present and work toward the future,” she said. “We must start giving our young people their rightful place in society.”
She also said there is nothing better than to see young people who are caring and understand the needs of others. “Don’t let go of your generosity,” she implored.
Several students had the opportunity to speak directly with Aung San Suu Kyi, who faced several assassination attempts before winning election to the Burmese Parliament.
One student asked her about her roles as both an outsider and insider of the system. “Dissidents can’t be dissidents forever,” she said. “I don’t believe in professional dissidents. It’s just a phase, like adolescence.”
Years of military rule, she said, had destroyed her country and stoked her desire to stand up, explaining that Burma had not become the kind of country her father had fought for.
“I just didn’t know how to stop. One does not want to abandon one’s principles,” she said. “It’s worth it, I can tell you.”
Her struggle has paid off. “There has been change,” she said. “I’m here. I’m in Parliament. I can go back home, as well. The media is much more free.”
Joining her on stage were several local dignitaries and performers. James Muyskens, president of Queens College, welcomed her as “a fine example for the young people we teach at this college,” comparing her to the likes of Mohatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
“It is exciting for me personally to be in the presence of such an inspiring person,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx), a Queens College graduate who led the effort to bestow upon Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal last week.
Academy Award-winning actress Anjelica Huston, a long time supporter, met Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time on Saturday, calling it “an unexpected and thrilling privilege.” She read an excerpt from Aung San Suu Kyi’s essay “Freedom from Fear.”
“Your determination is matched by your humility,” Huston said. “We stand with you and the Burmese people.”
“It’s easy to think we have it tough,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan). “To see what you have been through, it gives all of us strength and courage.”
An emotional highlight of the event was a personalized rendition of the song, “You’ve Got a Friend” by its composer, multiple Grammy Award-winner and Queens College alumnus Carole King, who invited the audience to join in, inserting Aung San Suu Kyi’s name into the song.
As a token from the people of Queens, the honoree was presented with a miniature replica of one of the borough’s most iconic symbols, the World’s Fair Unisphere, representing “peace through understanding.”
Now she looks forward to the day when Burma will be the “country of hope” it once had been, when it will be in a position to help others who are in need.