PeaceJam co-founder recalls connection with now-traveling Aung San Suu Kyi

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma is currently in Thailand, her first international trip in 24 years. Suu Kyi spent much of the past two decades under a house arrest enforced by the ruling military junta, which has since been replaced. Now freed, Suu Kyi has been elected to Parliament. The Nobel Peace Prize winner is also on the board of the Colorado-based PeaceJam, whose founders, Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff, are watching the situation in Burma closely.

"We definitely plan on doing more with Aung San Suu Kyi, but it really depends on what happens when she finishes this trip," Engle says. "Will they allow her back into the country? Will they put her back under house arrest? Will they confiscate her passport? Will they allow her to serve in Parliament? Its all question mark, question mark, question mark, question mark. We're hoping and praying.... It's unclear what's going to happen."

PeaceJam connects kids with Nobel Peace Prize winners, teaching them about the laureates' work and bringing them together at conferences. (Read more about how the organization got started in our 1998 story, "Peace Pipeline.") Twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners -- "the Nobels," PeaceJam calls them -- participate, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Suu Kyi, whose representative attends PeaceJam board meetings. PeaceJam first asked Suu Kyi to participate in 1995. During a short reprieve from her house arrest, Suu Kyi met with foreign journalists -- and with Suvanjieff.

Engle tells the story. "We were able to secure an interview with her," she recalls. "Ivan, he traveled to Burma with a small film crew. The London papers were there, Newsweek was there and he was there." He met with Suu Kyi twice and, Engle says, "he explained to her the PeaceJam program and she agreed to be on our board."

But it wasn't an altogether pleasant trip. Visiting Suu Kyi, Engle says, made Suvanjieff "a target for the military regime in Burma. And they went into his hotel room and tossed the room," uncovering letters of support that other Peace Prize winners had written to Suu Kyi. When Suvanjieff was at the airport, waiting to depart from Burma, soldiers came after him. "They took him into a back room and beat him up," Engle says.

They also demanded he turn over his film of Suu Kyi, Engle says -- but Suvanjieff outsmarted them. After his hotel room was tossed, he realized they were watching him, and he mis-marked the tapes. Instead of turning over his footage of Suu Kyi, he gave the soldiers what Engle describes as innocuous footage of pagodas, elephants and street scenes. "They put him on a plane and told him never to come back to Burma," Engle says.

"It's fabulous we had that opportunity to be with her, but it's also incredible what she's been through and what the people in Burma have been through," Engle says. The PeaceJam curriculum includes lessons about Suu Kyi's life and work, and Engle says there are PeaceJam volunteers on the Thai-Burma border -- where many refugees from Burma live -- who are teaching the PeaceJam program.

"It's a tremendous honor to work with Aung San Suu Kyi and to be able to share her wisdom and courage with young people," Engle says. "She's an amazing role model."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar