How many young people have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi? How many care about her seven years of continuous house arrest and her 22 years of struggle against the military regime in Burma?
Well, probably very few, and this is hardly surprising, I suppose. However, what better way to bring home to your pupils the value of an open society than telling them about someone who was locked up in her own home (as well as Burmese jails) because she fought for democracy and freedom?
Suu Kyi was the daughter of General Aung San, Burma’s great national hero who was assassinated when she was only two years old. She is leader of the National League for Democracy, which won the election in Burma in 1990, but was denied power by the military junta. She has been a thorn in the side of the junta ever since, and this has resulted in her being hounded, imprisoned and put under house arrest over a 22 year period. She was married to Michael Aris, whom she met at Oxford University, and they had two sons. Her husband died of prostate cancer in 1999, but when she returned to Burma to nurse her sick mother, she was put under house arrest and was not allowed to visit him before he died.
In contrast, the leader of the junta, Than Shwe, lives in a ‘royal’ residence in the newly-built capital city, Nay Pyi Daw. He and his wife have adopted the airs of royalty and demand to be addressed by elaborate titles. He wears regalia on his uniform and takes part in daily rites, once reserved for kings. Rebels are driven out of the country or put under forced labour if caught. In 2007, the military crushed the protests by Buddhist monks and refused international help for a cyclone that killed 140,000 lives. So not a nice lot!
There is a lot of information about Suu Kyi on the internet. Young people can find out about her life and her politics, and cannot fail to be impressed by her strength. However, her story could be the starting point for a more general analysis of what it is like to live without freedom, and the importance of being watchful of our own.
Section 1 of Citizenship Studies for Key Stage 4 and GCSE looks at these issues and provides some examples of people living in totalitarian societies and examines human rights. Chapter 2.1 in This is Citizenship 3 asks pupils to discuss the question ‘What sort of country do you want to live in?’ and raises the topical question of the balance between freedom and protection. An activity in the Teacher’s Resource Book 3, page 41, allows pupils to choose the way they would like their country run.
Comparisons of democracy and autocracy should not result merely in self-congratulatory relief that we don’t live in countries like that, but should prompt discussion of every threat to freedom that is uncovered in our own society. I can’t put it better than the then Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, who said, in 1998:
‘We should not, must not, dare not be complacent about the health and future of British democracy. Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens, our democracy is not secure.’