Aung San Suu Kyi
The Jesuit Superior of the Arrupe Community in Yangon, Burma, Fr Peter Kim Se Mang SJ, and the Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, Fr Brendan Callaghan SJ, were among the well-wishers who welcomed the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the city last week. Daw Suu Kyi was in Oxford to accept an honorary civil law doctorate from Oxford University - 19 years after she was awarded it. [Daw is an honorific name, a sign of respect for older, revered women, similar to madam.]
In thanking the University, Daw Suu Kyi said her memories of her time in Oxford had helped her while she was under house arrest for more than two decades in Burma, and how the Oxford characteristic that she holds most dear is a respect for difference.
"Oxford taught me to value humankind," she said in her acceptance speech, "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 … students from all over the world, from Ghana, from India, from Thailand, from Sri Lanka … 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."
She went on to describe Oxford as 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," she said. "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."
Father Callaghan said the Encaenia (the ceremony at which the University of Oxford awards honorary degrees to distinguished men and women) was both moving and historical. "It was an honour to be able to share in the occasion with Aung San Suu Kyi - someone who, over two decades, sacrificed so much for democracy and human rights. Her quiet, contained (and on occasions in her speech slightly mischievous) dignity came across very clearly. The applause after her speech grew into a standing ovation, with a heart-stopping moment when Dr Henry Barnett, a distinguished Canadian neurologist also awarded an honorary degree, struggled to rise from his wheelchair to stand to honour her."
Presenting the award, Oxford's Public Orator, Professor Richard Jenkyns of Lady Margaret Hall, praised Daw Suu Kyi's "patience and endurance to a degree not easily imagined", adding: "We hail you with joy as you appear in Oxford once more."
In addition to her visit to the UK, Aung San Suu Kyi's two-week-long tour to Europe - her first since 1988 - included Switzerland, France and Norway where she was presented with her Nobel Peace Prize, 21 years after it was awarded to her in 1991.