Nobel winner fields questions
From Times - Picayune Thursday, May 23, 1996
By VALERIE FACIANE
Imagine you are a fourth-grader sitting in a classroom on Jackson Avenue and listening to a recording of a Nobel Peace Prize winner on the other side of the world answering questions you have posed to her.
That's just what occurred last week as a group of Trinity Episcopal School students heard the voice of Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader of the Burmese democratic movement who was released last summer after six years of house arrest in Burma.
Author Whitney Stewart is writing a biography of Suu Kyi and her efforts to persuade the military regime in Burma to hand over power to the National League for Democracy, which won a decisive victory in a 1990 election but then was denied power by the military.
Stewart collected the children's questions in October and asked Suu Kyi to respond to them during a visit to Burma last November.
The students are members of the fourth-grade enrichment class taught by Billie Andersson, Stewart's sister-in-law. They include Pierre Bordeaux, Katie Cordes, Betsy Foster, Helen Looney, Molly Smith, Reese Woessner, Jessica Darkness, Artemis Antippas, Hartley Casbon, Hayley Cr0well, Gunner Goodlad, Neils Johnsen, Marc Robert and Kirk Wessman.
One student asked Suu Kyi, "What was it like when the government put you under house arrest and did you cry a lot?" Other questions were, "How did you get your food when you were under house arrest?" and "Are you mad at the military government?"
Stewart said Suu Kyi giggled at some of the questions, but she has two sons of her own and has a deep love for children.
In her responses, Suu Kyi, 50, said she holds no great malice toward the government but wants it to help the Burmese people.
Stewart also gave a slide presentation, showing pictures of Suu Kyi and her house and pictures depicting life in Burma.
"Cool" was one student’s response as Stewart showed slides showing Buddhist temples, how Burmese people dress and how they live and travel.
"Do they wear shoes?" one student asked.
"You always have to take your shoes off in the temples," Stewart explained, adding that the Burmese don't wear shoes in their houses either.
One slide showed two young Burmese boys with shaved heads.
"In Burma, almost all Buddhist boys become monks for one week up to one month," Stewart said. The boys take vows of Poverty and are sent on the streets to beg for food and money, a way of gaining merit for the boy and his family.
Stewart said her trip to Burma wasn't exactly a pleasurable one. She feared that she was being followed, and she was careful not to tell anyone that she intended to write a book about Suu Kyi.
She said her escort "was always looking over his shoulders, which made me nervous and made me look over my shoulders. I still worry that I made his life a little more dangerous by being there."
She said most of the people of Burma spoke of Suu Kyi as if she is a god, but the military government searched her house, looking for evidence to prove that she was guilty of treason, and spread rumors that she was being manipulated by Western governments.
The children were particularly enchanted by pictures of goldleafed statues of Buddha 'and Buddhist temples and pagodas. Burma is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, and there are pagodas and temples throughout the country, said Stewart, who has converted to Buddhism and told the authorities she was visiting to meditate at the temples.
Stewart also showed slides of ragged thatched huts outside Rangoon that are inhabited by poor Burmese and minorities, who she said the government forces to build roads without pay.
"I saw pregnant women and little children working on the roads," she said.
At the end of the slide show, Stewart showed the students Burmese money and Buddhist prayer beads, and they tried on Burmese attire, called longyi, worn by both men and women.