A report from Amnesty International’s DC Town Hall event with Aung San Suu Kyi (with video)

By Danny Fisher

Last week, I had the great honor and pleasure of attending Amnesty International’s town hall event with Burma’s Nobel Peace laureate and engaged Buddhist icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Held at the Newseum in Washington, DC, and moderated by MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, the event came only a day after “Daw Suu” met with President Barack Obama and received the US Congress’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Suu Kyi is the leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy and currently sits in the lower house of the country’s parliament. Her election came after she had spent 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest. During that time, she became the symbol for Burma’s struggle for democracy and freedom from the repressive ruling junta. In addition, she became the world’s most recognized prisoner of conscience during that time — thanks not only to her Nobel Prize and the international media, but also to the efforts of Amnesty International. The town hall, then, celebrated a special relationship between guest and host.

This was acknowledged right up front as the husband and daughter of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the members of the imprisoned Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, presented “The Lady” with a bouquet of flowers. Pussy Riot is now the focus of many of Amnesty’s urgent actions, just as Suu Kyi herself once was, which gave the gesture both emotional heft and a sobering effect. “I don’t see why people shouldn’t sing what they want to sing,” Suu Kyi said, speaking about the group. “I would like the whole group to be released as soon as possible.”

In her prepared remarks and responses to the questions put to her, Suu Kyi addressed a range of issues with the eloquence and wit that have made her figure of inspiration around the world. Among other things, she addressed the issues of international trade with Burma (“There are no easy answers, but one answer I’ve thought of is transparency”), Buddhist thought and prisoners of conscience (“Unless you eliminate hatred you won’t be able to eliminate political prisoners; unless you eliminate the root of hatred [which is fear] you won’t be able to eliminate hatred”), military intervention for human rights (“I do not understand people who defend human rights through violence”), criticizing governments (“I think governments don’t count as people — they must be prepared to take criticism”), and the importance of reading for young people in the crowd (“Don’t look at just the internet — read”). Throughout the event, there was much laughter and applause — the audience palpably liked her.

If there was any unsatisfying moment during the event, it came during the inevitable question about the current persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. The Lady blanched at the word persecution and said: “Accusations don’t diffuse problems, and condemnation does not always bring reconciliation.” This may be true, but  Human Rights Watch published a damning report only weeks earlier, which noted that “recent events in Arakan State demonstrate… state-sponsored persecution and discrimination,” including killings, rapes, and mass arrests of Rohingyas. A more direct, less politick response from Suu Kyi was needed up front.

She fared better as she continued, though, and hinted at the possibility that she believes the law that denies Rohingyas Burmese citizenship is in violation of the 15th Article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: “Are our citizenship laws in line with human rights standards?” Suu Kyi said Burma should ask itself. (Responding to an earlier question, she had said categorically, “For me, human rights is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”) Additionally, she said that she felt the country should investigate the issue of border crossing, and discern whether or not the Rohingyas in Burma were in from Bangladesh or elsewhere illegally. Suu Kyi also expressed a belief that what is happening now is based on one crime that was committed and never dealt with properly. “The rule of law should have been applied in the first instance of communal violence,” she said.

An unqualified success, Amnesty’s event with “Daw Suu” was characterized by its warmth, relevance, and vision. (Billed as a gathering intended to inspire “the next generation,” Amnesty deftly used social media throughout, encouraging attendees to tweet the town hall using #rightsgeneration.) The sheer impact of Suu Kyi taking the stage should have been the high point — even a year ago, this would have been inconceivable — but Amnesty managed to create a container in which the awe and inspiration factors seemed to increase exponentially throughout.

You can watch the full town hall below, or here.

Photo by Joshua Eaton.