Kevin Mackenzie meeting Aung San Suu Kyi . Photo: Frank Noon
Kevin Mackenzie, the next Director of British Council Burma who takes up post in September 2012, blogs about meeting Aung San Suu Kyi at an event organised to mark the British Council’s pledge to extend education opportunities in Burma both at school and higher education levels.
I met Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday afternoon. A reception for 150 people at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall wasn’t quite where I had imagined I would shake the hand of our most important Burmese stakeholder. After all, long periods of house arrest have made meeting her at all impossible for much of the last two decades. I had taken it for granted that I would have to wait till I got to Burma, and that it would be a rather lower-key occasion.
The reception was a triumph, and a glorious demonstration of the influence of the British Council and the value of sticking around through difficult circumstances. It was a privilege to listen to a genuine world icon speak about the value of education and cultural relations, and in particular on the importance of the British Council. The Lady has long personal and professional ties with our organisation that any other would be extremely proud of. What an endorsement.
Stakeholders from politics, youth leadership, the media, education, think-tanks and the arts were there, many of them young people. We pledged to expand our work in education in the country, with the announcement of a teacher training programme which will improve English teaching for some two million children. The cultural and political implications of education reform in the run-up to the 2015 general election shone through as the key challenge in Daw Suu’s speech.
All of which helped to put the plight of the real protagonists – the Burmese – into some kind of context.
On Friday, I got to know two young Burmese professionals living and working in Britain. It would be difficult to imagine a lovelier couple. Tharaphi teaches Burmese language and culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies, while her husband Thurein works for World Service Burmese. Over a chocolate muffin in the university common room, we discussed Burmese life, people and food, and the economic and social challenges the country suddenly finds itself with an opportunity to address.
But there’s a sobering side to their story. The areas they work in are both threatened by cuts. Tharaphi and Thurein are about to move to another country, with the longer-term plan of returning home to Burma to set up an academy. Perhaps by then there will be more opportunity in their own country for them than in their adopted one.
We’ll be doing what we can to support that.
Kevin Mackenzie takes up post as Director Burma in September.