The Localist

The Opera House and Aung San Suu Kyi


Many small Australian towns find it necessary to rally around a novelty architectural icon for the purposes of tourism.  Often taking the form of a giant replica of something abundant in the region, these structures are prefaced by ‘The Big…’, and examples include ‘The Big Pineapple’, ‘The Big Banana’, ‘The Big Beer Can’, ‘The Big Prawn’,  and ‘The Big Mosquito’.

Sydney however, in lieu of a giant champagne bottle, has opted for the undoubtedly more tasteful Opera House. While there is no denying that it’s a beautiful building, I’ve always seen it as primarily something for postcards. Maybe I’m just not all that into architecture – after all, I spent six months in India without making it to the Taj Mahal. It’s always been the people and the experience of a country that interest me more than its buildings. So when the opportunity arose to see Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi speak at the iconic Sydney Opera House, it was the event, not the venue, that excited me.

I first heard about Aung San Suu Kyi on a trip around South East Asia a number of years ago and was immediately inspired by her life as a strong female leader fighting for democracy in a male dominated military dictatorship. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see her in person, largely because she was under house arrest for her political beliefs at the time, and had been for almost two decades, despite being backed by a large majority of the country.

I think that sometimes we take our political system for granted here. We vote for a party, majority rules, and we’re stuck with them for the next 4 years. We may not all be happy (Tony Abbott, are you serious?) but at least we know that we can vote the party out sooner or later. In In Burma, however, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party ran a huge political campaign in 1990 and won the elections. Instead of being sworn into power, Aung San Suu Kyi was instead imprisoned. Pretty scary stuff really.

I went about excitedly planning my evening with two friends, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit was not without its (relatively minor) challenges. ‘Challenge #1’ was actually getting tickets. In my younger years, I remember witnessing people lined up outside our local record store, complete with sleeping bags, determined to be first in line to get that concert ticket in the morning. If you were willing to sacrifice a good night’s sleep, you would most likely be guaranteed a ticket. I don’t know about anyone else but since the invention of the internet, despite my best efforts, I basically have not been able to purchase a ticket the legitimate way.  I’m usually forced to turn to Gumtree (more on this later) and inevitably pay above and beyond the ticket price from some technological genius who managed to buy half the auditorium with the sole purpose of on-selling. Hate.

Considering tickets went on sale at 9am, which also happens to be the time that work begins, I was terrified that my lifelong dream would be destroyed by my ticket-buying curse. I arrived at work early with the sole purpose of having a long and focused session on the Opera House website. As 9am rolled around I started furiously tapping away at my keyboard  while keeping my ear to the phone and the box office on speed dial. Predictably, everything was jammed. My other friends were also trying and somehow managed to get their hands on two tickets, then another one other for me. I still don’t understand how this happened as I was trying just as furiously, but such is the mystery of technology.

The event started early, at 5pm. ‘Challenge #2’, therefore was figuring out how to get out of work early to attend. This one was bothering me the most at time of purchase, but fate stepped in once more and made me redundant two days later. Fate could have been a little kinder and perhaps sent me the inspiration for a brilliant excuse rather than actual unemployment, but in any case, I was free to attend. Unfortunately for my other friends, ‘Challenge #2’ was a killer. They both had to pull out last minute due to work commitments, leaving me with the prospect of attending alone, and also ‘Challenge #3’: how to on-sell the tickets. Hello Gumtree.

I posted a free ad online and despite the event being a few hours away, within 30 seconds I had a phone call from someone desperate to buy a ticket. Then came many, many more calls, so I had to say yes to the first two and ignore the rest. Sorry people. The whole afternoon was spent rushing around, co-ordinating ticket pick ups and drop offs and somehow trying to arrive at the Opera House relatively un-dishevelled despite power walking across the city in the rays of the roaring sun.

Meeting my Gumtree buddies was like a blind date… I sent a message saying I would be wearing a green dress and had long blonde hair, Sarah replied saying she was wearing a blue cardi and had bright red lipstick, and Hannah had just stepped off the plane from Melbourne and had a backpack and yoga mat. I waited nervously outside the front doors and we all miraculously managed to find each other in the crowd. To celebrate our excitement we decided to have a glass of champagne on the Opera House forecourt and conversation started to flow. I felt like a backpacker, meeting up with strangers at a ‘must see’ tourist destination. The sun was beaming down, the vibe was enticing. A band started up at the Opera Bar below, and the harbour was sparking. Part of me felt like a tourist and as I took a photo of the harbour bridge I did cringe slightly. On the other hand, it was all pretty damn amazing, and I have to admit I was getting slightly swept up in the moment.

After chatting away about our travels and love for Aung San Suu Kyi we walked into the theatre feeling inspired. We listened to her speak about the struggle towards a political system we are lucky enough to already have here in Australia. Now finally released from house arrest, she was campaigning to change the Burmese constitution. Among other things, the wording currently prohibits anyone from a non-military background from becoming president, and the Burmese army doesn’t accept women. While we only had our first female Prime Minister in 2010, to live in a country that openly prohibits female leadership is unthinkable to me. The more she spoke, the more I was drawn in by her articulate, compassionate, and intelligent manner. And the more I felt that Sydney’s most iconic building was the perfect place to host such an important international figure. Maybe it’s not just for postcards after all.

You can watch the full video of Aung San Suu Kyi speaking at the Opera House here:


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