Recently, I had the great privilege of seeing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi receive her honorary doctorates from UTS and the University of Sydney at the Sydney Opera House. The Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from UTS was originally awarded in 1997 while Daw Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Her address was witty, sincere and uplifting.
Photo by Louise M Cooper
There is much debate at the moment regarding whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been forceful enough in her criticism of violence against ethnic minorities. Although she clearly abhors violence, she has not accepted the view of some that the violence amounts to ethnic cleansing. I don’t fully understand what is happening but her response struck a cord with me.
“I have always defended those whose human rights have been attacked, but what people want is not defence but condemnation. Particularly they are saying why am I not condemning this group or why am I not condemning that group, and it also applies to the military. Why am I not condemning the military. I don’t – I’m not condemning because I have not found that condemnation brings good results. What I want to do is to achieve national reconciliation. It’s very interesting in those days back from 1988 until a year or two ago when the military regime was very, very severe and when we talked about national reconciliation everybody agreed because they thought it was not achievable. But now when we talk about national reconciliation in very, very simple, practical terms of trying to work out our differences instead of condemning one another, then people don’t like it. So there’s an inconsistency. When they thought national reconciliation was just a pipedream they were ready to support it but now many who supported national reconciliation as a goal do not seem to be very keen on practicing national reconciliation which means as I’ve said, trying to sort out our differences without resorting to condemnation or violence.”
Nelson Mandela was also awarded a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) by UTS in 2000. He also had to face the ruling groups and convince them to give up power peacefully so that a different kind of society could be built for all. Everyone in the rainbow nation needed to have a say in the new South Africa.
When I was 13, I had just started learning Japanese. In Social Studies, we were studying Australian history and the fact that Japanese planes bombed northern parts of Australia. I was so shocked I burst out with ‘The Japs did that!?’ without realising just how offensive that term was. The teacher corrected me and I learnt a hard lesson that slang is not harmless. I was still confused, however. How could the same people who folded origami cranes, created their words in pictures, loved dragonflys and made even a simple lunchbox a work of art cause such destruction? This was the start of my realisation that war and suffering is always complex. More than fifty years of conflict led up to Pearl Harbour and during that time a culture of abuse developed in the Japanese forces that stripped most ordinary soldiers of their humanity. The actions of Japanese soldiers during in the war can not be excused and must not be forgotten but they can be forgiven. Imagine if General Macarthur had crushed Japan instead of helping them rebuild- the cycle of poverty and conflict would never have been broken. Wars have always been spawned from previous wars and the festering sores that retribution and revenge create.
Great leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and UTS Alumnae Senator Sekai Holland know that they must heal their societies before they can hope for peace. Aung San Suu Kyi is fighting for democracy, but that democracy must include the military. The individuals that make up the military must have no more or no less power and rights than any other citizen. Senator Sekai Holland is governing alongside those who tortured her. Nelson Mandela worked all his life to heal South Africa. Healing is part forgiveness and part justice, with access to health and education as the key tool for balancing the scales. Now it is our turn to help heal the world. We need to be citizens of the world and make sure that our words and our actions reflect an open mind and heart. Join Rotary or apply for a Rotary Peace Fellowship and you can be part of tipping the scales. It is not just up to great leaders. We can and must find collective greatness.
I’m a volunteer member of Rotary International and today I volunteered as a Spanish language facilitator for the International Red Cross Red Crescent Global Youth Conference. 200+ young delegates from all over the world are attending this meeting which leads into the General Assembly and the Council of Delegates. I believe it is very important for non-profit organisations to work together, so I was very glad to be able to help the Red Cross in this way. I also thought it would be good practice for Rotary’s own International Convention which will be held in Sydney in June 2014 http://rotary2014.com.au/
It seems that the International Red Cross Red Crescent has very similar challenges to Rotary when it comes to engaging youth (attracting, including and demonstrating progress on issues that improve young people’s lives). Concerns regarding whether youth should be considered the future or the present, whether youth should have a seat at the table in broader governance structures or whether they should be empowered with their own committees that can initiate their own projects and agendas seem to prevail. The answer is probably all of the above. The digital revolution is a challenge to keep up with but it can also be a very powerful agent for change- not just through social media but also through access to information- coffee farmers can now access the global coffee price from their mobile handsets so are not cheated in negotiations. Red Cross is 150 years old this year. Rotary also has more than 100 years of history. Both have stood the test of time but need to ensure that the best traditions are kept (ethical codes, fundamental principles) while the styles of leadership change towards something more inclusive and collaborative.
I see a lot of frustration from young people about why older people don’t listen to them or give them autonomy. I would like to ask any young people reading this, when was the last time that you conversed with an older person in a volunteering group that you are engaged with, not to ask for change or to argue a point of view, but to learn about who they are, their life and/or professional experience, how many children or grandchildren they have, what drives them to also want to change the world and stay engaged in that process for so many years of their life? If you are at a meeting and there are people of different ages in the room, who do you walk up to to strike up a conversation? Would you join a group of volunteers that were mostly older than you if it meant that you could learn something as well as achieve your goals for change? Recently I met Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission. There is a real problem with how older people are perceived in our society which leads to discrimination in employment, education, health and many other areas of life.
It seems that the age at which society thinks that people have a ‘use by’ date is getting younger just as life expectancies are getting longer. Someone who is 50 has at least 20 productive healthy years ahead of them. Yet as young people we may think they are annoying like our parents or in the way of change or too frail/sickly or stuck in their ways to contribute or simply that we don’t have much in common to strike up a conversation. We may think about helping an older person who is poor but not think about the challenges that a well educated, reasonably well off development worker/volunteer faces in maintaining their ability to make a difference, learn new skills and also have a voice as they edge closer to ‘retirement’ age.
The panelists today spoke a lot about how it is the responsibility of young people through their own actions and voice to change things. I think that also includes making sure that we respect the wisdom that those who have volunteered or worked before us have built up. By opening ourselves up to learn from older people, it will be natural that those same people will seek us out if they want to learn something from us. If we form intergenerational friendships, the collaboration will be natural and our opinions will be heard. One of the things I love most about volunteering with Rotary and for other organisations like the International Red Cross is the opportunity to cross to the other side- of culture, age, religion, language, upbringing and more.
Workshops on development challenges and overcoming the internal and external barriers to making a difference
Countries represented Venezuela, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Spain, Colombia, Peru, México, Bolivia, El Salvador, Chile, Italy, Finland