On her European tour – after delivering speeches filled with inspiration, reflection and nostalgia – Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a pragmatic speech before a joint session of the British Parliament on Thursday in London.
After meeting Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, she spoke in Westminster Hall, built in 1097, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster. She is now only the second woman after Queen Elizabeth to address both houses of Britain's Parliament, a rare honor.
She asked the British MPs to help rebuild a crippled Burma – in infrastructure, in business sectors, in the rule of law and in education as a way to invest in Burma’s future.
“I am here in part to ask for practical help, help as a friend and an equal, in support of the reforms which can bring better lives, greater opportunities, to the people of Burma who have been for so long deprived of their rights and their place in the world,” she said.
Help is needed, she said, because: “Our own determination can get us so far. The support of the people of Britain and of peoples around the world can get us so much further.”
She noted that after Burma gained independence from Britain it had been called, “The country most likely to succeed in South East Asia."
“Things did not, however, go entirely to plan," she said. "They often don't in Burma, and indeed in the rest of the world. Now once again we have an opportunity to establish true democracy in Burma. It is an opportunity for which we have waited many decades.”
“If we do not use this opportunity, if we do not get things right this time around, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again,” she said.
The opposition leader praised Burmese President Thein Sein's “sincerity” in taking steps towards reform.
Visiting the Burmese Parliament recently to be sworn in, she said its atmosphere was “rather formal.”
“There is certainly no heckling. I would wish that over time perhaps we would reflect the liveliness and relative informality of Westminster.”
To laughter, she quipped: “I am not unaware of the saying that more tears have been shed over wishes granted than wishes denied.”
“Nevertheless, it is when Burma has its own satisfactory equivalent of Prime Minister's Questions that we will be able to say that parliamentary democracy has truly come of age.”
She said she hoped that Britain would help in developing Burmese education, which was “too narrow” and needed reform after years of decay because of a military regime that distrusted and feared students.
British businesses could also help the reform process in Burma through “democracy-friendly investment,” she said.
“By this I mean investment that prioritizes transparency, accountability, workers' rights and environmental sustainability,” she said.
She recalled learning how parliamentary democracy works by studying 19th century British prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli at Oxford.
“I learned the basics, that one accepts the decision of the voters, that the governing power is gained and relinquished in accordance with the desires of the electorate.”
“That is the system that goes on and that ultimately everyone gets another chance. These are things taken for granted here in Britain, but in 1990 the winner of the elections, the NLD, was never allowed even to convene parliament.”
“I hope that we can leave such days behind us and that as we look forward to the future it will be the will of the people that will be reflected faithfully in Burma's changing landscape,” she said.
She read the final verse of the poem Say Not the Struggle by Naught Availeth, a favorite of Winston Churchill, that she said had been sent to her by a friend in the 1990s.
“I would like to emphasize in conclusion that this is the most important time for Burma, that this is the moment of our greatest need, so I would ask that our friends both here in Britain and beyond participate and support Burma's efforts towards the establishment of a truly democratic and just society,” she said.
Burma is not yet among the ranks of truly democratic countries, she said, while adding: “I am confident we will get there before too long, with your help.”
Earlier in the day, Suu Kyi held talks in No. 10 Downing Street with Prime Minister David Cameron earlier, and she recalled that her father – Burmese independence leader Aung San – was photographed outside the same building.
Suu Kyi is now ending her tour of Europe, with her final stop in Paris.
Briitian has announced that Burmese President Thein Sein will visit Britain in a few months. Suu Kyi said, “I think it's right to invite him. Because we don't want to be shackled by the past. We want to use the past to build a happier future.”
A former general, Thein Sein’s recent government reforms and passage of a series of laws to move the country toward democracy have led to the lifting or suspension of some sanctions.
Since taking office in March 2011, the government has freed political prisoners, sought peace deals with ethnic armies, dismantled a fixed exchange rate that distorted government revenue and halted the construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydropower project in response to criticism China was exploiting Burmese resources. He also met with Suu Kyi and made it possible for her party to rejoin the political process after boycotting the 2010 elections, and he encouraged her to seek political office.
Suu Kyi, was kept under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years by Burma's military government, became a lawmaker in her country in May, a sign that it is opening up after decades of dictatorship.
On Wednesday, Suu Kyi received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in advanced civil law.
While in Britian, Suu Kyi also visited the Department for International Development (DIFD) to meet with Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell to discuss possible aid to Burma.
“Aid that is given with the right intentions – in the right way – works. It must empower the people and promote the principles of a genuine democratic society,” Mitchell said.
Following recent conflict between the country's ethnic groups, the UK will give up to £3 million for short-term peace building initiatives in cease-fire areas, subject to an agreement of results that will be achieved.
A delegation of Parliamentarians will travel to Burma in July to build parliamentary links and determine how best to support the democratic process.
The DFID plans to increase its support in each successive year to the Burmese elections in 2015.
Some observers have said that Aung San Suu Kyi could become the next president of Burma, but, as she has repeated throughout her trip, the road ahead is long, and it will not be smooth.