Belfast Telegraph

Peace lessons for Nobel laureate

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has said lessons from Northern Ireland's peace process will help the people of Burma reconcile their differences.

She met political leaders, police and school children during a whistlestop tour of the region.

The peacemaker and former political prisoner said she was in Northern Ireland to listen and ask questions, because in her homeland during 50 years of military rule questions were not encouraged.

"The main reason I have come to Northern Ireland is to learn about how you managed to negotiate a peace process in spite of all the difficulties," she said at Wellington College in Belfast.

"It is very useful, what we have learned here I think will help us a great deal back in Burma.

"I want to see from you how you see your present day problems because I am told the work is not done."

She said divisions in Northern Ireland, dating back 800 years, were more deep seated but in Burma the problem was much more complex, with a multiplicity of ethnicities and challenges in integrating a new military and civilian administration.

Earlier she had lunch with members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and justice minister David Ford.

She has also met members of the main political parties at Stormont, including largest powersharing partners Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

The Burmese opposition leader also toured Belfast and visited the Titanic Belfast visitor centre.

"The last 30 years has been a struggle not just against a dictatorship but a struggle against our people accepting the dictatorial regime's definition of their own country and it is a matter of making our people think for themselves and, as we put it, to shape their own destiny," she said.

"We wanted to shape our own destiny, we decided that we had the right to shape our own destiny.

"It is always the case that authoritarian governments try to convince the people that they know best, that the people don't know best and it is best for them to listen to their rules and to do exactly what they are told."

Ms Suu Kyi has become an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

She spent most of the last two decades in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma.

Yesterday, she met Prime Minister David Cameron, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

On arrival in Northern Ireland, she was met at the airport by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.

The main event of her day in Belfast was when Ms Suu Kyi met pupils from Wellington College, St Dominic's, Lagan College and Aquinas Grammar School for a question and answer session. She had red roses and her trademark yellow flower in her hair and wore an embroidered and elegant traditional-style Burmese green outfit which flowed around her feet.

The campaigner and peace activist told the children of the importance of going to university and asking questions.

"If you grow up in a very repressive, authoritarian society you learn quickly that questions can be very dangerous and you are not encouraged to ask questions," she said.

Members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party were arrested daily at the height of the Burmese terror, often without a warrant and with little information about where they had been taken.

"This is what happens in a society where citizens are deprived of the basic rights, they forget that they have basic rights, they forget what the laws of the land are," she added.

"There are laws against arresting people without warrant but the Government was not observing those, we had to try to teach our people to ask the simple question.

"They lived in a state of fear."

Burmese education standards plummeted during the dictatorship, from top of the league to the bottom.

The opposition leader recognised that the trouble in Northern Ireland is not over as there is not perfect integration.

"But you are freer from the prejudices of your parents and your grandparents," she told pupils lined in front of her in seats in the school library, hardback classics from Charles Dickens and Don Quixote lining the wall behind the Oxford alumni.

"In my country we have many problems, much more complex because there are many ethnic minorities in Burma. When you talk about peace and reconciliation it is not just with the various ethnic groups but also between the military and civilian ones.

"Your troubles are far deeper because you have got eight centuries...but ours are much more complex."

She shook hands with fluorescent-jacketed police officers guarding her during her visit before departing.

Lucy Graham, deputy head girl at Wellington College and in her final year, responded to a question from the Burmese leader about celebrity culture.

"Fake ideals are put on us by the whole media culture," she said.

"We need to go back to more traditional ideals and hold on to our ideals."

Laura Dodds, 16, from St Dominic's school in West Belfast, addressed the question of whether Catholics and Protestants should be educated together.

"I don't think everybody has the ability to go to an integrated school."

She said people were entitled to their views.

"They have personal beliefs and family beliefs and where they come from, it is down to the individual to a certain extent.

"It does contribute to division but we cannot change people's values, whatever will happen will happen, forcing people to integrate won't make much difference."

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