OTTAWA — Tears welled in Jasmine Bowen’s eyes as she addressed the large and very live video image of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She choked out the words:
“You’re my hero!”
Bowen, 24, had come from Toronto with her grandmother, who fled Burma nearly 50 years ago, to hear Suu Kyi speak to Canadians for the first time. An Internet link between her Myanmar home — where she has spent most of the last two decades under house arrest — brought Suu Kyi to an auditorium of students and Burmese nationals at Carleton University.
For about half an hour early Wednesday morning, the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner — one of only five people to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship — was literally and figuratively larger than life as her image resonated from a screen the size of small multiplex movie theatre.
“Canada has helped us greatly with regard to our movement towards democracy,” said Suu Kyi, who has become a global symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression.
She said the tough sanctions imposed by Canada and the world are helping Myanmar on its hard road to democracy. Myanmar’s new civilian leaders are feeling the economic pressure and are being pushed to reform because of them, she said.
After a half-century under a military junta, Myanmar held elections last year and handed power over to a civilian government.
Suu Kyi was also given more freedom and is now campaigning in a round of by-elections across Myanmar, once known as Burma.
“The way in which you can continue to help us is to keep up your awareness of what is happening in Burma,” she told her audience Wednesday. “Don’t be too optimistic. Don’t be too pessimistic. Try to see things as they are and try to keep contact with the ordinary people of Burma.
“That is how you will learn whether or not we are making any progress under this new government.”
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide electoral victory in 1990 but was barred by the military from forming a government. Her party is no longer banned and is contesting 48 seats in parliamentary by-elections set for April. Even if her party wins all these seats, it will still only have a minority in parliament.
But Suu Kyi said any success will mean the voices of the Burmese people will begin to be heard.
“I think she’s the strongest woman in the whole world,” Bowen said afterwards, as her grandmother beckoned to her across the hall.
Bowen was born in Ottawa and now lives in Toronto, where she hosts an Internet television program. But had her grandmother not fled Burma to freedom in Canada, “I could have ended up there.”
Suu Kyi offered a special message to young people and apologized for leaving several of them at a microphone when she had to end her video conference to continue doing something that was unthinkable for her a little more than a year ago — campaigning in an election.
“I want to be a bridge between our young people and your young people and young people in other parts of the world. The young people in Burma have been cut off from the rest of the world for so long. We need to repair all the damage that has been done by these years of isolation,” she said, before signing off.
“I hope to hear from you, I want to keep in touch. I hope that, in future, that not just Canada but the whole world will be able to join us in making sure that the future of our young people is much better than what the past has been.”
Earlier, Suu Kyi said she believes her country’s new civilian president, Thein Sein, is “sincere” in his intent to reform, but success depends on what the military thinks about that process.
In January, Myanmar released about 300 political prisoners, including activists, ethnic and religious leaders and journalists.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has greeted the move as a “significant step forward” by Myanmar.