“…As soon as Aung San Suu Kyi entered the auditorium with her trademark flowers in her hair the whole place erupted…”
It was with great anticipation I had waited for June 18th 2012 to arrive and for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader to arrive on Irish shores and for the Electric Burma concert. I was very aware I was one of the lucky ones when I obtained a precious ticket for this event. A long-time supporter and admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi I was so excited to know I would be in the same audience as she watching what was to be an amazing concert in her honour.
It was a celebration of music, song, dance and the poetry of our very own Seamus Heaney who was in attendance and was seated beside Aung San Suu Kyi. As soon as Aung San Suu Kyi entered the auditorium with her trademark flowers in her hair the whole place erupted into a massive applause which lasted a few minutes such is the huge respect this inspirational lady commands everywhere she goes.
Opening the show was Riverdance and they set the tone for the high calibre of entertainment that was to come over the next few hours. There was poetry readings from Jack Gleeson, Saoirse Ronan and Bob Geldof who joked how after a day with Bono, Suu Kyi would want to return to house arrest. Declan O’Rourke sang a beautiful version of Imagine with trapeze artist Ingrid Berman Marin treating us to a wonderful display on silks. One of the highlights of the first half and indeed the whole show was when Damien Rice sang Unplayed Piano which he had written in honour of Suu Kyi’s 60th birthday. Given her 67th birthday was the day after the Electric Burma concert it was a very emotional moment of the night.
Other musical highlights of the first half included Martin Hayes on fiddle and playing together, Sarah Nemantu and Romain Descharmes on violin and grand piano who also supplied a backdrop to the poetry reading by Saoirse Ronan. I found it very moving listening to both Nazanin Afshin Jam and Wu’er Kaixi when they were speaking about how political oppression has affected them. Nazanin Afshin Jam is from Iran and spoke of how her father was a political prisoner and how she has never taken her freedom for granted. Wu’er Kaixi is the exiled leader of the Tiananmen Square Protest in China. He spoke how he hasn’t being able to return to China since 1989. Both of these people served to remind us that while we were celebrating having Aung San Suu Kyi in our country we also need to remember there are still many people living in oppression and that there are many people in Burma and other countries still under house arrest or are political prisoners.
The most special part of the evening came at the end of the first half of the concert where Bono and Vanessa Redgrave with the leader of Amnesty International Salil Shetty, presented Aung San Suu Kyi with the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award. She was originally awarded this in 2009 but been under house arrest in Burma at that time it was only now that she was able to accept the award in person. Vanessa Redgrave read from The Republic of Conscience by Seamus Heaney in English and then a Burmese academic Khin Thant Han read it in Burmese. After Bono made a few comments he invited Aung San Suu Kyi on stage to speak. There was a standing ovation and a thunderous applause as she made her way up on stage.
Listening to her speak only a couple of feet away from where I stood is a memory I will cherish forever. She spoke of how moving it is to see the reaction of people on the road and how she never knew how much people cared and how she hopes we will be there with her in years to come and help make her country a place where hope and history merges.
After a short interval the second half commenced with a message from David Lee Travis of the BBC whom Suu Kyi used to listen to while under house arrest in Burma. This was a goosebump moment while he thanked her and said he would be seeing her in person soon. It served as another reminder of the incredible courage Aung San Suu Kyi has and of the personal sacrifices she made down through the years in Burma so that she could best serve her people.
This was followed by a musical celebration led by Jerry ‘Wonda’ Duplessiss. Performers included Lupe Fiasco, Angélique Kidjo, Bob Geldof and Bono. Bob Geldof performed an excellent version of What’s So Funny About Peace at his own suggestion. Legendary here in Ireland for his humanitarian work for Africa it was only right he was there on Monday night. Another musical highlight was when all the artists performed a song dedicated to human rights called Toast to Freedom.
Bono was one of the most vocal voices for Aung San Suu Kyi during her years under house arrest. Accompanied by Damien Rice He sang Walk On which he had written for Suu Kyi and a group of people in the row behind us held up signs with the letters for Walk On and also images of Suu Kyi. This brought back memories of when at the U2 concerts in Croke Park in 2009 Bono had announced that Aung San Suu Kyi was to be the recipient of the Amnesty Ambassador of Conscience. At the concerts and indeed all the concerts on that tour Bono raised awareness of her plight. He also performed the song One at the concert Monday night.
Non-musical highlights of the second half included a very impactful delivery of a poem by Kate Tempest from the balcony and also an appearance by Zarganar, a Burmese comedian who spoke of how he was imprisoned for simply telling jokes which the regime didn’t like. It was another wakeup call and reminder that even though Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest there is still a long way to go for Burma before it is a democracy and a place where free speech is allowed which is something taken for granted here. Another reminder was in our programmes there was a sticker with the name of someone still in captivity in Burma as a political prisioner. We were all asked to put the sticker on our right palm and to think of these prisoners and hold our hands up. The name I was given was Khaing Kham Mon.
There was a wonderful party like atmosphere to end the concert with all the performers singing and dancing on stage to Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up. Redemption Song was also performed earlier in the night and I thought it very appropriate that the music of Marley be used given the amount of work he had done in helping secure peace in Jamaica.
While the concert was now over the celebrations weren’t and we now moved outside to join the many thousand already out there who had gathered to witness a public appearance by Aung San Suu Kyi while she was to be presented with the Freedom of Dublin by the Lord Mayor Andrew Montague. Again this was awarded to her during her years of house arrest and it was only now she was able to accept it. After signing the roll of honour she spoke to the thousands of people gathered. She described it as one of the unforgettable days of her life and how we Irish have always stood by her and how we will be a part of her heart. There was a very touching end to the evening when Aung San Suu Kyi was presented with a birthday cake and Eleanor McEvoy led the thousands gathered in singing Happy Birthday.
Monday June 18th will live in my heart as one of the most special days of my life. I feel so lucky to have secured a precious ticket to this unforgettable event. Amnesty International did an exceptional job in organising it and the mixture of music, song, poetry and dance was perfect and we couldn’t have wished for a better way to welcome the amazing and inspirational lady that is Aung San Suu Kyi to our country.
Tags: Angélique Kidjo, Aung San Suu Kyi, Bob Geldof, Bob Marley, Bono, Damien Rice, David Lee Travis, Declan O'Rourke, Eleanor McEvoy, Electric Burma, Get Up Stand Up, Happy Birthday, Imagine, Ingrid Berman Marin, Jack Gleeson, Jerry Duplessiss, Kate Tempest, Khaing Kham Mon, khin Thant Han, Lupe Fiasco, Martin Hayes, Nazanin Afshin Jam, One, Redemption Song, Riverdance, Romain Descharmes, Salil Shetty, Saoirse Ronan, sarah Nemantu, Seamus Heaney, Toast To Freedom, Unplayed Piano, Vanessa Redgrave, Walk On, What's So Funny About Peace, Wu'er Kaixi, Zarganar