LONDON – Khin Khin, an 8-year-old donning traditional Burmese clothes, jumped up and down hysterically at the front of the Royal Festival Hall in London last week. She’s never set foot in Burma before, and only speaks a few words of her family’s native language. But she understands the importance of the lady about to take the stage. “I love her so much, I am so excited to see her,” she says, ignoring her mother’s request that she sit down.
The spotlight spins right, and Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader and democracy icon, gracefully enters the hall. For Khin Khin, and the young friends around her, this is the first time they have seen her; like the rest of the hall, they jump excitedly, clapping hands. “I can’t believe it,” screams one young man behind Khin Khin.
For most of the 2,500 members of the U.K.’s Burmese community, crammed into the hall, this was the first time they had ever seen their country’s true leader. Despite winning a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, the military regime never allowed her to take power, and she was, instead, to spend 15 of the next 20 years under house arrest.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Despite Suu Kyi’s physical absence from Burma’s politics, and the fact most of the audience had been out of Burma for over twenty years, it felt as though everyone was still in the streets of Yangon, twenty years ago, cheering her on for the elections. “Suu Kyi has always been the leader of our country; we’ve remembered that in our hearts. There was nothing the regime could ever do to change this,” says Aung Kyaw Oo, 42, shaking with excitement.
But for one little mar on her popularity, wherever she went, her support seems not to have diminished one bit.
She started in Thailand, where Thais and Burmese migrant workers jostled side by side to catch a glimpse of the democracy icon. Then, on to Norway, to formally accept, at last, a Nobel Peace Prize awarded her in 1991. She went to Switzerland, enjoyed a rock concert with Bono, spoke at Parliament in the U.K.—met with a complete standing ovation, spent time with David Cameron in his constituency, and planted trees with Prince Charles. Throughout her trip she received praise and awards, deserving for a lady who has sacrificed so much of her life to tirelessly fight for human rights and democracy in Burma.
But the hero’s welcome had its limits; the questions came from her own fellow Burmese. A haunting reminder of the atrocities, which are being committed daily, waited for her outside the Royal Festival Hall as she left the event. A dozen or so members of the Kachin community, who are living in the U.K., held a demonstration to raise awareness for the plight of their people.
Since June of last year, the state military has been advancing into the territory of the Kachin Independence Organization (K.I.O.), displacing around 70,000 Kachin civilians and committing countless human rights abuses. Despite several deadlines for ceasefires being made, the Burmese military continues to advance towards Laiza, the headquarters of the K.I.A., and is reported to be preparing for major offensives in the coming weeks.