Aung San Suu Kyi is many things. She is a global democracy icon. She is a beloved national hero in Burma, whose people call her Mother Suu. She is a newly minted parliamentarian in a country that is undergoing surprising political reforms. The 66-year-old Nobel laureate is also, as she proved in her first speech to a major foreign audience—at the World Economic Forum (WEF) of East Asia in Bangkok—a bit of a schoolmarm. On June 1, Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for much of the past two decades and had not left home for nearly a quarter of a century, electrified the packed audience of business leaders, politicians and media-types. These “global thinkers,” as the WEF likes to call them, leaped up for a standing ovation before Suu Kyi’s speech, which given that she is not officially a national ruler was simply called a “One-on-One Conversation With a Leader.” Like delighted concert-goers, the crowd in Bangkok trained their smartphones and iPads on the stage, to record her every word.
Speaking without any notes (and certainly with no teleprompter), the Oxford graduate delivered a talk so flawless it was hard to imagine that she spent so many years alone at the behest of Burma’s then ruling generals. Suu Kyi highlighted the urgent need for Burma, officially known as Myanmar, to tackle youth unemployment and to build a proper education system. She spoke of the dangers of corruption and inequality, and she cautioned potential foreign investors about the legal and ethical minefield that is Burma. She inveighed against “reckless optimism” and instead counseled “healthy skepticism” of Burma’s reforms.
Throughout her talk, Suu Kyi’s verbal precision and poised diction conjured up a headmistress at a posh school, one whose high standards you desperately want to exceed. Her “whos” and “whoms” were as proper as her posture. Suu Kyi sprinkled her talk with idioms a principal might use, like “no hope without endeavor” and “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s “very simple,” she said several times throughout the day, referring to policy initiatives, almost like she was addressing a gathering of schoolchildren.
Toward the end of her 10-minute speech, Suu Kyi instructed the audience, as if giving them a pop quiz, for “ideas, suggestions, practical ones,” to help Burma develop. Later in the day, when she participated in a panel discussion on the state of women in the world, the moderator asked what she thought of education in Burma. “It’s very poor,” she fired back, with the barest hint of a smile. “I thought you know that.” The moderator, a seasoned anchor for CNN, looked like an abashed schoolboy. “I’m thrown,” he said, to the crowd’s laughter.
Twice, Suu Kyi, who has told me she is a teetotaler, referred to the evils of mind-altering substances and practices. Young Burmese, she worried in her WEF speech, were turning to drugs, gambling and the allure of the toddy-palm shop, where cheap liquor is sold. In the panel on female power, she decried a situation in which women toiled as domestic workers, sending “money back to their husbands who sit in the villages and drink.” Suu Kyi, however, is no prude. In the session on women, she talked frankly about her discussions at an HIV-AIDS clinic with commercial sex workers. Eighty percent of those women, she said, were supporting their parents and siblings back home—and sometimes their relatives knew the true nature of the prostitutes’ jobs. The “nurturing role” of women was fine, she said, but this “sacrificial role has to stop.”
Suu Kyi has spent part of the WEF—whose rather immodest motto proclaims how it is “committed to improving the state of the world”—patiently fielding starstruck attendees. These are the kind of people who normally might show little inclination for hero worship. When five national leaders—Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and Bahraini Prime Minister Prince Al Khalifa—spoke the day before Suu Kyi did, the audience engaged in a fair amount of diversionary smartphone tip-tapping. (Those leaders, it must be admitted, did not give the most dynamic of speeches.) At one point, as Suu Kyi walked from her speech to the press conference, a trio of Thai women fell to their knees, like supplicants in front of a deity. “My heart is beating so fast,” said one WEF participant, as she asked a question of Suu Kyi.
(READ: Burma’s first lady of freedom.)
But Suu Kyi has also spent a fair amount of time at the WEF acting as a student—a remarkable role for someone so respected. She attended a panel about the evolving politics of East Asia, nodding along as a U.S. Senator made one point and the ASEAN Secretary-General another. The next day, she caught other equally wonky sessions. At a forum dinner, she chatted with Indonesia’s Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who comes from a country that has made a successful and rapid transition from a military-dominated quasi-dictatorship to a multiparty democracy. At the panel I moderated on East Asia’s security landscape, she slipped in quietly—although the WEF had made sure to reserve her a seat in the front row. Would she like to contribute anything to the discussion? “Frankly, I’ve done a rather lot of talking recently,” she said. “What I’d really like to do is listen and learn.” At a press conference, she repeated that sentiment. “I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I believe in the learning process.”
There were, however, moments of personal reflection. When asked how she survived the long years of detention, Suu Kyi gave a simple if powerful answer. Her mother, she said, had instilled in her a sense of duty and discipline. That was what carried her through.
And asked what she thought as she landed in a foreign country after 24 years in Burma, Suu Kyi described how the pilot of the plane from Rangoon to Bangkok was “so very kind” and offered her a seat in the cockpit upon descent. The lights of the Thai capital blazed below. Suu Kyi said she had been to New York, to London, to other places with brighter lights long ago. Thirty years before, Bangkok and Rangoon would not have been that different when it came to their glow in the night sky. “This time I was completely fascinated by the lights because I had just left a Burma suffering from electricity cuts,” she said. Indeed, protests have erupted in recent days in Rangoon and Mandalay because of the chronic power shortages in a country awash in power generation potential. Then came headmistress Suu’s teachable moment, leavened by a dash of humor that enchanted the audience. “What went through my mind,” she said of that moment before she made her historic landing in Thailand, “was, ‘We need an energy policy.’”