Last week, the Australian National University (ANU) conferred Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans stated that “she is an exemplar of quiet courage and determination in the face of oppression, and a champion of the peaceful path towards a better and more just world”. She received four honorary degrees during her Australia visit: one each from the ANU in Canberra, Melbourne’s Monash University, the University of Sydney, and the University of Technology – Sydney.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has received more than 130 awards and honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Companion of the Order of Australia and the United States Congressional Gold Medal. Her less familiar honours include being made an honorary citizenship of Paris and a lifetime platinum member with Burma’s Asian Wings Airways. Asian Wings Airways wants to see that she can travel domestically anywhere, anytime, comfortably and free of charge for the rest of her life.
Certainly, honorary degrees aren’t just for those in academia – kings, pop-stars and even communist leaders have been singled out. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej holds more than 200, Aussie pop-star Kylie Minogue was conferred with one from the Anglia Ruskin University in Essex, and incredibly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un holds a Doctorate in Economics from Malaysia’s Higher Education Learning Philosophy (HELP) University.
Honorary degrees are just as political as politics itself. Back in 2007, Lee Kuan Yew was conferred with an ANU honorary degree. His honorary degree broke ANU rules, and saw 150 protestors (mostly students) chant their chagrin: “Lee Kuan Yew – ANU is not for you!” Unlike Lee Kuan Yew, Aung San Suu Kyi is held in high regard at the ANU. I didn’t hear any chanting outside ANU’s Llewellyn Hall last week, but I’m sure if I did, it would’ve sounded something like: “Aung San Suu Kyi – we support your dignity!”
I was curious to know what Aung San Suu Kyi was thinking when the Chancellor presented her with her Doctorate of Letters. Even in her speech, she told us she’d often wondered why universities confer honorary degrees on politicians. “It’s a recognition of the fact that politics is part of the education of a nation”, she told the congregation.
Aung San Suu Kyi admits that she holds her degrees close to her heart. If she’s anything like me, she’ll prop her ANU certificate on the mantle piece at home. But my guess is that back in Yangon, her mantle is full, and she probably has a trophy room. As Luther Vandross sang, there’s “never too much” (click on the video for an interpretation).
Olivia Cable is a graduate student in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific