WASHINGTON — The former political prisoner who is now the de facto leader of Myanmar used her visit to a Washington high school to solicit ideas about how to improve education in her country.
Aung San Suu Kyi told students at Roosevelt High School on Thursday that she had never visited a public school in the U.S. While the students had prepared questions about her life and career and her opinions on American politics, she appeared more interested in using them as a focus group, quizzing them about their favorite teachers and subjects and asking how schools can improve the performance of boys in particular.
“The boys are not doing as well as the girls,” Suu Kyi said. “This is a big problem.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled for decades by a military junta, and Suu Kyi, 71, was a longtime opposition leader who spent 15 years under house arrest. The Nobel peace prize laureate was elected last year — in what she called her first-ever opportunity to vote in a free election — and she holds the titles of state counsellor and foreign minister. The constitution still bars the pro-democracy leader from the presidency.
On Wednesday, she met with President Barack Obama, who announced that all remaining economic sanctions against Myanmar would be lifted and trade benefits restored. Suu Kyi’s schedule Thursday also included meetings on Capitol Hill and a dinner hosted by U.S. and Asian business leaders.
As Suu Kyi pointed out during her school visit, Myanmar’s development has lagged behind the rest of southeast Asia, and she described the public school system as a shambles. Classrooms are overcrowded, schools can’t afford to provide books and many students drop out, Suu Kyi said.
By contrast, she marveled at the facilities of Roosevelt, which reopened this year after a $136 million modernization. She was surprised to hear that about half the teachers are men — more than 90 percent of teachers in Myanmar are women, she said.
She also listened intently as boys described how the school supports their interests in music or sports.
“You have no idea how privileged you are,” Suu Kyi said.
Nonetheless, Roosevelt embodies many of the stubborn contradictions of District of Columbia public schools, where an influx of money and aggressive school-reform policies have not always produced results for the city’s poor students. Recent standardized testing deemed zero percent of students at Roosevelt to be proficient in English and math. The school is 62 percent black and 36 percent Hispanic, and 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, an indicator of poverty.
Suu Kyi provided diplomatic answers to a few pointed questions. Asked what she thought of the Black Lives Matter movement, she said people who stand up to oppression need to trust each other and believe in their mission.
Asked for thoughts on the U.S. election, she urged everyone to vote and said it was important for voters to explain the reasons behind their support for a candidate.
“I worry that each and every one of you who is in a position to vote will not exercise his or her right,” Suu Kyi said.
She put a positive spin on her period of house arrest by noting that many of her colleagues endured lengthy prison sentences. She said she valued the time it gave her to read and reflect.
“I wish they would put me under house arrest at weekends so I could get a bit of rest,” she said.
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