Bringing Aung San Suu Kyi Into a Cambodian Classroom

by David Calleja, Feb 15, 2009 | Destinations: Cambodia

At 10 in the morning in early October 2008, with the dark clouds menacingly appearing low and threatening to deliver a deluge of rain, I asked my class of nine students, "What would you like to know about me today?"

One student raised her hand and said in a quiet, high-pitched voice, "Teacher, who is your hero? Please tell us."

The nine students who only a week earlier had initially approached me for voluntary tutorials,  had put me on the spot. Students have an incredible ability to show how simple it is to catch a person off guard in the art of conversation. However, I was glad that somebody had taken the initiative to spontaneously ask such a question because it provided me with an opportunity to learn how far their knowledge of the world extended and what issues they cared about.

In a split second, I asked myself what response would provide the best example: an iconic figure idolized across the western world, a regular citizen in a western country who is not famous but one I can more readily identify with, or a Cambodian identity my students would know, which would show respect for my host nation and its people.

Without so much as opening my mouth, I simply pointed to a printed image on my T-shirt   and played the waiting game, hoping that one student would identify the world's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's opposition political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).  

Working as a volunteer provides me with greater flexibility of material choice and lesson creation. Later in the class, I would introduce U2's tribute to Suu Kyi, "Walk On", and highlight to the class how music can be an effective method of raising one's social conscience.  In Cambodian villages, open conversations regarding political and social matters are rare amongst adults, let alone in the classroom, so my lesson plan contained a great risk of failing. However, I had observed a small number of high school students not only being able to identify Aung San Suu Kyi, but also cite why she is famous and that she is currently under house arrest. 

As my finger remained fixated on the image, one student declared excitedly, "David, I know that lady," while pointing to my T-shirt.

"Who is she?" I asked.

"She is Aung San Suu....", and although unable to pronounce Kyi, I had already accepted her answer as correct.

I continued by saying, "Where have you seen her face?" 

"We study her for English class. I show you." 

The student opened up her exercise book and pulled out a photocopied article from an unidentified English language newspaper. It quoted a spokeswoman claiming to represent a women's association aligned with the Burmese military junta. The headline read, "Deport Aung San Suu Kyi to UK." 

The student's ability to identify such a public person impressed me. Individuals with college level education from western countries have been unable to demonstrate a similar knowledge. Several months earlier while travelling through Laos, a backpacker from California proclaiming to have a degree in International Affairs majoring in Asian Studies asked me if Aung San Suu Kyi was a Chinese pop singer.

It is little wonder that the Burmese military junta defiantly flout calls to release Suu Kyi unconditionally if members of the informed international community cannot identify political figures constantly in the global spotlight. Yet even regional leaders have commented publicly on the need to keep Suu Kyi out of the limelight. In 2008, then Prime Minister of Thailand Samak Sundaravej accused the West of using Suu Kyi's imprisonment as a tool to isolate Burma and suggested they focus more on bilateral trade. With the increasing number of companies willing to invest in Burma, more companies are willing to turn a blind to human rights for increased access to natural resources such as gas.

The class listened and re-listened to "Walk On" throughout the week. I also played the song on guitar and provided vocals, to demonstrate the difficulty for native English speakers in getting the rhythm and voice pitch correct. Together, we also worked through some of the lyrical metaphors. The song became so popular, everybody in the class formed groups of three and developed a roster to share the disc outside of school time. 

Upon my return to Tropang Sdok in January 2009, two students proudly told me how they  practiced the tune two hours per day for an entire month. Then suddenly they burst into song in unison, shyly singing the first verse before apologizing. "We promise when you come back, we will know it all," they assured me before excusing themselves and making their way home for lunch.

I could only stand back and express my admiration as these softly spoken teenagers broke free from the mould of being reclusive teenage students and embraced a daunting task with much enthusiasm.

In a country where students will soon be learning about the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge as part of their general education in history class, these students may one day  become versed in another part of Southeast Asian affairs by encouraging others to speak out on behalf of a woman who openly calls for the rights of oppressed citizens in Burma to be respected and practiced.

One day, there will be a growing movement in Cambodia on behalf of a brave woman who provides hope and the singing bird in an open cage will then finally fly for freedom.