Thoughts on meeting Nobel laureate Aung Suu Kyi

Portr�t af den burmesiske oppositionsleder Aung San Suu Kyi. Hun er fotograferet i sin bungalow i Rangoon, Burma.
Portr�t af den burmesiske oppositionsleder Aung San Suu Kyi. Hun er fotograferet i sin bungalow i Rangoon, Burma.

Just before the summer recess I had the honour and privilege to meet Aung San Suu Kyi after her impressive address in Westminster Hall.

For her peaceful struggle, honoured by the Nobel Peace Prize, she is an inspiration to democrats and humanitarians around the world.

Mark Durkan MP

Mark Durkan MP

I was struck by her grace and elegance but conscious that this finely-framed fragrant woman is a towering symbol of strength and a powerful rock for freedom and democracy.

When we met in the Speaker’s House, I acknowledged her wonderful words, the positive witness of her life and the difficult work ahead.

She jokingly admired my accent and spoke positively of her love for Ireland, saying, “We (the Burmese) are called the Irish of the East”.

Suu Kyi also told me of her high regard for fellow Nobel peace laureate John Hume, and we discussed that some of the Northern Ireland experience of transition, institution-building and reconciliation might offer some insight to those hoping to take troubled Burma’s democratic journey forward.

I thought that it was especially appropriate for the Speaker of the House John Bercow to receive Aung San Suu Kyi. As a backbench MP he had been an active advocate against the ruthless Burmese regime. Some years ago he spoke after me in a general debate on foreign affairs and gave an animated, passionate speech on Burma, whose borders he had recently visited.

I was personally grateful to be one of those invited to the reception in the Speaker’s House. It was also good that he was willing to use his offices to ensure that the formal and impressive invitation from the Rotarians for Aung San Suu Kyi to come to Derry for their international conference next May was presented to her in accordance with due protocol.

This memorable meeting brings me on to a very important issue that I have been consistently calling for at Westminster (including in conjunction with the Elders Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson) – a landmark international Arms Trade Treaty which would prevent weapons being supplied to countries like Burma where there is a risk they will contribute to human rights abuses, atrocities or repression.

It is important to note that 2,000 people are killed every single day worldwide as a result of armed violence (the equivalent of the population of Derry every two months!). These deaths are not inevitable and are the tragic consequence of an arms trade which is out of control.

In July, we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference at the first-ever international Arms Trade Treaty UN Conference in New York.

Sadly, these four-week-long negotiations ended in huge disappointment with the world powers (USA, Russia and China) opting for delay and political self-interest ahead of the majority of governments globally who want to see a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty. In particular, American failure to join a strong stance was deeply regrettable.

As a proud representative of a political party which has stood completely opposed to all violence (for more than 40 years), I have always been deeply concerned about the death, damage to human rights, destruction and undermining of development that is facilitated by arms trafficking and ease of access to weapons globally.

Therefore, as I return to Westminster shortly I will be keeping up the pressure so that an historic agreement can be achieved which will legally bind the regulation of arms exports and imports, provide international oversight and create the necessary enforcement mechanisms.

I will be demanding that the government sustains their commitment to a robust Arms Trade Treaty – which will be enforceable on signatories, non-signatories and non-state actors.

In standing strong for peace, democracy, human rights and respect for diversity, I will be pressing the government to be a driving force behind what could be a truly historic breakthrough.

Claire Allan is on holiday. Mark Durkan will be contributing a monthly column to the Friday Journal on the life and times of a Foyle MP.