On Wednesday, September 19, I had the opportunity to accompany Aung San Suu Kyi to the Washington offices of Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), two news organizations whose broadcasts have penetrated closed and war-torn countries, such as Burma, for decades.
I was delighted to be a part of this visit, because I was recently assigned as a Public Diplomacy Officer to Embassy Rangoon for my first tour in the Foreign Service. I'll soon leave for post, but it was exciting and interesting to be a part of Suu Kyi's first visit to the United States in 40 years.
Suu Kyi's visit is historic -- after 17 years of house arrest and detention, she is now free -- free to visit family and friends, free to travel abroad (and receive her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and 2008 U.S. Congressional Gold Medal), and free to run for -- and win -- a seat in Burma's parliament. Interviewers at RFA and VOA asked Suu Kyi about prospects for building democratic institutions, establishing a just rule of law, and addressing persistent violence in Burma's border regions.
But the most interesting part of the visits to RFA and VOA may have been Suu Kyi's informal meetings with the Burmese news services. For Suu Kyi, this was a chance to meet, and thank, the people who produced the radio shows she listened to every day while she was under house arrest. They were her main source of reliable world news, and she was visibly grateful when meeting RFA and VOA staff.
For the Burmese news service staff, many of whom have strong ties to or family members in Burma, this was a chance to meet the unequivocal leader of democratic change -- someone who espouses the ideals of responsible, free expression. These values are enshrined in the histories and charters of RFA and VOA.
At RFA, Suu Kyi was escorted into a hot, crowded newsroom where staff hung on her every word, camera phones poised. She spoke at length, taking the time to describe exactly how important their work was to her routine during her time under house arrest, when she listened to approximately six hours of news radio per day. At VOA, she entered the newsroom and was offered a chair and tea. She spoke for almost 45 minutes, answering questions and greeting children, who accompanied their parents to work for this special occasion.
I don't yet know what conditions will be like in Burma; they are changing by the day. As a newly-minted Public Diplomacy Officer, I may have an unrealistic view of the power of public diplomacy programs to reach audiences and spur change. But after seeing Suu Kyi at RFA and VOA, I know alternative voices matter and people are listening.