The hour before Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival at a human rights town hall hosted by Amnesty International Thursday wasn’t quiet. The audience chanted (“What do we want? Human rights!”). A biographic video was played. Magazines with Suu Kyi’s face on the cover were distributed. Like pre-match hype, the build up was big.
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader is not—the slight 65 year-old, with pink flowers pinned in her hair, finally appeared shortly before noon. At times, it was a strain to hear her speak, and the microphone twice switched off. But Aung San Suu Kyi is the giant of the Burmese struggle for human rights. She’s in the United States, her first visit since being released from 19 years of house arrest in 2010, for a 17-day tour.
The goal of the event was to help inspire the “next generation” of human rights activists. Suu Kyi’s message was loud and clear, even if her voice was not. She urged the audience to turn its attention to the plights of political prisoners internationally who, like her, were imprisoned because their governments feared a challenge to political power. “The seed of hatred is fear,” Suu Kyi said; fear is “how prisoners become prisoners.”
When an audience member asked Suu Kyi for her thoughts on the imprisonment of the members of the Russian punk band “Pussy Riot,” sentenced to two years imprisonment for performing an irreverent song mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin, Suu Kyi seemed at first to be measuring her response. She asked, “Was there anything in the song that was nasty to other people?" After Amnesty Director Suzanne Nossel answered that the song could indeed have been offensive to many people, including the Russian government, Suu Kyi quipped, “Governments don’t count as people.” She said she hoped the band members would be released, though any other response would have been awkward with the husband and young daughter of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the imprisoned group members, in attendance. The pair had presented Suu Kyi with a bouquet at the beginning of the event.
Suu Kyi also addressed her own political imprisonment when an audience member asked if her sacrifice had been “worth it.” Suu Kyi responded that she did not view her confinement as suffering, but as a chosen path. Suu Kyi thanked those in attendance for their support, saying, "My fight was long, but not lonely, because of people like you fighting for me.”
The admiration the audience felt for Suu Kyi was palpable, as was the enthusiasm of the “next generation” of human-rights activists in attendance. However, equally manifest were the differences between how Suu Kyi has waged her crusade for human rights—most notably spending 19 years without freedom to leave her house—and how her American audience pursues humanitarian and political change—taking to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. (There is a Twitter account registered to an Aung San Suu Kyi, though it might not be hers, with more than 1,800 followers. It has tweeted exactly 0 times.
Of course, I don’t mean to discount the power of social media to affect global change—Facebook and Twitter have helped groups organize the world over. But it does take a higher amount of work to make the voices of my generation heard beyond a virtual space. So perhaps Amnesty could host a follow-up speaker tomorrow: one who will explain how to connect what we know how to do—tweet and re-tweet, small actions—to what we do not—bigger actions, Suu Kyi-like sacrifice in a non-virtual world. That would make for a powerful “next generation.”