Aung San Suu Kyi at Oxford University Encaenia 2012
Aung San Suu Kyi has received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford at a ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre today, along with seven leading figures from the worlds of science, the arts, intelligence and business.
Daw Suu, Chairman of the Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD) and member of the Burmese parliament, was awarded the honorary doctorate in civil law in April 1993, but until now has been unable to receive it in person.
She received the award at Encaenia, the University’s annual ceremony at which honorary degrees are conferred on distinguished men and women and benefactors are commemorated.
Aung San Suu Kyi told attendees at the University of Oxford’s annual Encaenia ceremony this afternoon that her Oxford experience ‘helped me to cope with all the challenges I had to face’ and that it taught her ‘respect for the best in human civilisation’.
In a break with tradition, Daw Suu, who is Chairman of the Burmese National League for Democracy and member of the Burmese parliament, was invited to give a speech after receiving her honorary doctorate in civil law at the ceremony, held in the Sheldonian Theatre.
You can view a video of her full speech here.
She told a packed audience that ‘during the most difficult years I was upheld by memories of Oxford. These were among the most important inner resources that helped me to cope with all the challenges I had to face … During the years I was under house arrest my university, the University of Oxford, stood up and spoke up for me’. She said she cherished her time at St Hugh’s College where she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (1964-1967) and formed ‘simple’ but ‘very precious’ memories of spending time with friends.
‘These are very precious memories because I had lived a happy life and this made me understand so much better the young people of Burma who wanted to live a happy life and had never been given an opportunity to lead one.’ She said that on meeting current students at St Hugh’s, she saw herself: ‘They were so open, as we were open, because we had been given the chance to be open. We were not afraid, there was no reason for us to be afraid, and this opened us to the world.’
Turning to one of the other honorands, she revealed: ‘When I was under house arrest I was also helped by the books of John Le Carré … they were a journey into the wider world. These were the journeys that made me feel that I was not really cut off from the rest of humankind.’
The most important thing she had learnt at Oxford, she said, was ‘respect for the best in human civilisation – and the best in human civilisation comes from all parts of the world … it gave me a confidence in humankind, it gave me a confidence in the innate wisdom of human beings.’
Of her Oxford experience she said she was with ‘students from all around the world, but we were all the same, we were all students of this university. There is some magic that makes us feel that nothing separates us, neither religion, nor race, nor nationality … Oxford is a place of tremendous broadmindedness … every human being is expected to have a value and a dignity.’
She said that the ‘saddest thing in Burma over the last decades is the lack of campus life for university students … university life has been shattered … I would like to see university life restored to Burma in all its glory and I would be so grateful if my old university, the University of Oxford, could help to bring this about.’ Students in Burma should be ‘confident they will be able to do their best for the world … in the belief that the world also wants to do the best for them,’ she added.
Looking at the prospects for Burma, she predicted that it would not be a ‘smooth road’ but ‘a road that we will have to carve out for ourselves; this is a road that we will have to build as we go along … too many people are expecting too much from Burma at this moment … this road is there in our hearts and minds but not actually there yet … we will need your help, and the help of others all around the world, to make sure that it leads to where we want our country to go.’
The other honorands were Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, former Director General of the Security Service; author David Cornwell (aka John le Carré); the President of Harvard University, Professor Drew Faust; Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman of Sony Corporation; Professor Charles Taylor, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill University; Dr Henry Barnett, former President and Scientific Director of the Robarts Research Institute; and physicist Professor William Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said: ‘We were honoured to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi back to the University of Oxford, her alma mater, after so many years. The University awarded her an honorary degree in 1993, and for her to finally be able to collect it is a momentous occasion both for us and for her.
‘She is returning to a city and university that was her home for several formative years; we have the honour of welcoming an alumna who is one of the great figures of the 20th and 21st centuries.’
Daw Suu arrived in Oxford yesterday on her 67th birthday. She stayed at St Hugh’s, the college where she studied as an undergraduate, where a private party was held for friends and family complete with birthday cake.