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Harvard gives humanitarian award to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at Harvard on Saturday.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at Harvard on Saturday. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

As Harvard University gave the 2016 Humanitarian of the Year Award to Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, she urged people in the overflowing lecture hall to go out into the world and prove for themselves that hatred — any hatred — is rooted in fear.

The charismatic 71-year-old leader smiled as she accepted the award, a gold medal on a red plaque, before a crowd of hundreds in the Science Building.

“I look upon this prize not as a reward for what I have done, but as a happy omen for what we are trying to achieve in the future,” she said. “In my country, there is still a long way to go before I can say that our people are both free and secure.”


After decades as one of the world’s most well-known political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s State Counselor — a title equivalent to prime minister.

Born in the country’s former capital city of Yangon, she was educated at the University of Delhi and at Oxford University, and worked for the United Nations. She married Dr. Michael Aris, a British historian, and had two children with him in England.

When her aging mother fell ill back in Myanmar, she returned home, where she started and led the National League for Democracy, the democratic opposition party. She was soon detained by authorities and spent about 15 years out of 21 under house arrest imposed by the military dictatorship. Her husband taught at Harvard for a while during her confinement and died from cancer in 1999.

“I believe that fear is at the root of all division, because fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to division,” she said, reiterating that there is a “vein of goodness” in everyone, and mining it will help us overcome fear.


She noted that previous speakers had referred to her country both as Burma and Myanmar.

“This is where our problems start,” she said with a smile. “We can’t even agree on what to call our country!”

Being a toddler when her country won independence from Britain in 1948 as the “Union of Burma,” she finds Burma to be a “beautiful word,” she said. “But it is not our word.” The military government that overtook the country began using its Burmese name, “Myanmar.”

Still, she often chooses to use the name Burma when abroad — in memory of the excitement of her country’s independence, and because foreigners so often butcher the pronunciation of Myanmar, said Aung San Suu Kyi as the audience laughed.

But she will not instruct others on what to call her country.

“I don’t want to fall into the trap of always trying to impose your will once you are in power,” she said. “If you are in a position to impose your will, it is all the more important that you do not do it.”

Outside the Science Building, more than a hundred people stood in line even after the auditorium had reached full capacity. A handful of students held protest signs urging Aung San Suu Kyi to “stand up for the Rohingya,” an ethnic group from the Rakhine State of Myanmar.

“No one more than you would appreciate the students standing outside on behalf of the Rohingka,” said Diana L. Eck, a Harvard professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, speaking to the leader before the crowd. She emphasized Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment to free speech and free ideas, especially among young people in college.


What would it be like, Eck asked, to maintain that protest for 25 years?

Nicole Fleming can be reached at nicole.fleming@globe.com.