“Aung San Suu Kyi – the only woman to have addressed both houses of Parliament apart from the Queen #Burma #WestminsterHall #bbcnews” I had tweeted at 3.44pm on June 21st.
“@merleneemerson The only woman to do so internationally, the only person from Asia and the only non head of state. She’s a record breaker!!” came a reply within seconds from one @gregjudge.
We weren’t the only ones excited by the recent visit by Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Opposition in Burma to London. Celebrated in Norway where she finally accepted her Nobel Peace prize 21 years after the event, entertained by Bono in Ireland and honoured with a Doctorate by Oxford University, we were watching live her historic speech at Westminster.
What was remarkable to me was how at home Aung San Suu Kyi seemed then holding court, speaking in perfect BBC English and paying tribute to Britain for leading the rest of the world in the way of democracy. (The irony of course being that half of the audience had not in fact been democratically elected to the House of Lords).
She then went to great lengths to describe how important it was for everyone to be engaged in the political process, something which many Britons might take for granted. “Politics should be seen neither as something that exists above us nor as something that happens beneath us but something that is integral to our everyday existence” she said.
What drew the most laughs from the audience was when she described how her late husband Michael Aris had turned away a canvasser from their Oxford home saying that it was his wife who determined how they voted. I must confess this is somewhat similar in my own household, where I have managed not only to persuade my husband to vote Liberal Democrat but also our 2 older sons (with postal votes no less whilst away at University).
On a more sombre note, Suu Kyi then turned her address to more pressing matters in her home country, calling for help at a time of her country’s greatest need. British businesses were encouraged to make “democracy friendly investments” in Burma and by that she explained were investments that respected workers rights, were transparent and accountable, and which were also environmentally sustainable.
Over 16 years ago I had made my first visit to Yangon, capital of Myanmar with a delegation of lawyers from Singapore. I remember being told on the trip that there were over 40 golf courses in the country, a legacy of British rule between 1824 and 1948. Following Japanese occupation, the 2nd world war and the struggle for independence, it seemed a shame that Burma chose not to join the Commonwealth. The worst tragedy was of course the assassination of Suu Kyi’s late father, General Aung San and the onset of 49 years of military rule.
But following Aung San Suu Kyi’s example, it is probably better not to dwell on the past but to focus instead on the future. She made a point in her speech to thank and acknowledge the leadership and foresight of President Thein Sein. Certainly were it not for him and the gradual opening up of the regime, she would likely not be free now to travel the world.
May I therefore end by also paying tribute to Britain for exporting the Westminster model to all former colonies, and to enlightened leaders around the world. But unlike Aung San Suu Kyi, who wished for Burmese Parliament to emulate the so-called liveliness and informality of Westminster-style heckling …. er … no comment.
* Merlene is Vice-Chair of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and Chinese Liberal Democrats. She was London Assembly Candidate in 2012 and Parliamentary Candidate for Hammersmith in 2010.