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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Nobel Prize winner greets HPU dean

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

In Yangon, Myanmar, at high noon yesterday the monsoon rains had cleared long enough for Mary Hammond to step over the puddles and potholes and walk into the shabby political headquarters of international hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hawai'i Pacific University's Mary Hammond, at microphone, spoke yesterday in Yangon, Myanmar, at the request of 1991 Nobel prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Courtesy of Mary Hammond

Four fluorescent lightbulbs dimly lit the hall as 100 people, many of them former political prisoners and parliament members, waited expectantly for the Hawai'i Pacific University's International Center dean to encourage them to go back to school and renew interrupted educations.

Several ceiling fans swept the humid room with a breath of air, and the windows were draped with saffron curtains.

"For security?" Hammond wondered.

But the front door was wide open as she spoke, and the people, ranging in age from 16 to 80, scribbled notes in blue books reminiscent of high school exams in the United States.

Although Hammond has given a number of educational seminars through the American Embassy in the country formerly known as Burma, it was a surprise to be personally invited by the woman leader revered around the world and who was recently released from house arrest by the ruling military regime.

"My knees were knocking," Hammond said Friday before she left.

Suu Kyi won a landslide vote in 1990 for her National League for Democracy party but has never been allowed to take office. Along with her, hundreds of other pro-democracy opponents of the government have been imprisoned or put under house arrest.

"This is not an invitation to track them into online distance learning," Hammond said on Friday. "But probably a heart-to-heart talk about the skills involved in leadership that they need to work on as individuals and a group.

Mary Hammond, right, talks with activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar. Suu Kyi leads an opposition party, The National League of Democracy, and recently was released from house arrest.

Courtesy of Mary Hammond

"Their goals are to learn the concepts, thought patterns and critical thinking skills to become leaders. Historically they learned through lecture and memorization, so now they must learn to read for content, to think critically and to lead and work as a team."

The members of parliament and volunteers who crowded the room to listen to Hammond had educations interrupted because of the political situation, and she knew her advice would have to fit their circumstances.

"I'll give them ideas on how to utilize the materials they have," she said. "Some of the principles I'm going to talk about are the kinds of struggles adults typically go through when education is interrupted."

Laughter greeted some of her anecdotes about how hard it was to take time out of a busy day to study at home. Dressed in their traditional Burmese longi — wrapped sarongs knotted in the front — the people asked questions afterward about the American educational system and how to develop analytical and critical thinking skills.

After Hammond's talk, Suu Kyi spoke of the poor health of her people due to the poverty.

"Mothers are caring," she told Hammond, "but they don't have the resources."

Suu Kyi also spoke about how many of the Burmese people have high blood pressure, probably from stress due to the authoritarian rule.

"Many people are giving up pork due to health reasons and to lower blood pressure," Suu Kyi told her.

"The stress is caused by the authoritarian rule, but since they cannot give up the authoritarian rule, it's easier to give up pork."

Hammond is familiar with educating people under trying circumstances. She has worked in remote Chinese villages in the Gobi desert where the only books were old Mark Twain and Charles Dickens stories, or grammar books printed in-country and full of typos.

"You can make this grammar lesson come alive by applying a local experience that makes it relevant," she told the teachers. "If you're bored by it, you know your students are."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.