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Suu Kyi has reminded us that we still have much to be proud of

Some people will tell you there are no heroes left any more.

Last night in Dublin, Aung San Suu Kyi proved those cynics wrong. Ireland may have lost another football match, but we gained something much more valuable -- the friendship of a remarkable woman who is destined to go down in history alongside Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

In her speech at the Grand Canal Dock, Suu Kyi reminded us that British colonial leaders used to refer to Burmese people as "the Irish of the east".

Although she joked that this was possibly because of our shared fondness of a drink, the underlying point was a serious one.

It reminded us that, for all our current woes, we still have an international reputation for being a fighting race that never gives up -- and unlike Burma, we enjoy political freedoms that should never be taken for granted.

That's why Suu Kyi chose Ireland as one of just three countries to visit on her European tour, along with her former home in Britain and the Nobel Peace Prize headquarters in Norway.

Through her long years under house arrest, this was one of the few places that refused to forget about her.

Irish people also campaigned against South African apartheid and contributed more money to Live Aid per head of population than anywhere else, a proud record that Nelson Mandela commended when he came here shortly after his release in 1990.

In short, Aung San Suu Kyi did not come here because she had to.

She did it because she genuinely wanted to thank Ireland in person. We may not feel we have much to be proud of these days, but the brief time she spent in Dublin was a powerful reminder that some things in life are worth much more than money.

When Suu Kyi's father was leading the struggle for Burmese freedom in the 1940s, he showed a particular keenness to learn about Michael Collins and other Irish patriots.


According to one of General Aung San's old colleagues: "We were interested in how Irish people were so close to the British, not the same."

Around the same time, Mahatma Gandhi was studying the Irish constitution as a model for how a newly independent India could carve out a separate identity while remaining on peaceful terms with its former masters.

Suu Kyi's father was assassinated when she was just two years old. She has seen some of her closest friends beaten to death and has lost decades of her life that she can never get back. When her husband died of cancer in 1999, she had been refused permission to see him for a full four years.

Despite these personal sacrifices, Suu Kyi never once wavered in her opposition to violence.

As she has always maintained, no military junta can ever be stronger than a people's desire to be free.


This was the moral dilemma that also confronted many Irish nationalists over the years -- with some choosing the political path, others taking up arms and ignoring the old Gandhi quote: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

Although Suu Kyi was recently the subject of a reverential biopic called The Lady (as she is affectionately known by her supporters), real life is always more complicated than the movies. Back home, Suu Kyi is struggling to maintain the reforms that are still viewed with hostility by her country's powerful army leaders.

She is now involved in the messy business of politics, where compromises have to be reached -- and there will be more bloodshed before Burma totally rids itself of one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever known.

At a time when political role models are in short supply, however, Aung San Suu Kyi is living proof that sometimes the good guys really do win.

Last night, Ireland gave her the cead mile failte she so richly deserved -- and in the process, reminded ourselves that "Yes, we can" is not just another slogan.