On June 16, 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi gave her lecture in Oslo, Norway accepting the Nobel Peace Prize awarded her 21 years ago. She was unable to be present on that prior occasion because she was under house arrest in her native Myanmar (Burma) for protesting the abuses of its military regime.
The 1991 Peace Prize Presentation
When the Prize was presented in absentia in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma, the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, “In the good fight for peace and reconciliation, we are dependent on persons who set examples, persons who can symbolise [sic]what we are seeking and mobilise [sic] the best in us. Aung San Suu Kyi is just such a person. She unites deep commitment and tenacity with a vision in which the end and the means form a single unit. Its most important elements are: democracy, respect for human rights, reconciliation between groups, non-violence, and personal and collective discipline.”
The presentation continued, “The central position given to human rights in her thinking appears to reflect a real sense of the need to protect human dignity. Man is not only entitled to live in a free society; he also has a right to respect. On this platform, she has built a policy marked by an extraordinary combination of sober realism and visionary idealism. And in her case this is more than just a theory: she has gone a long way towards showing how such a doctrine can be translated into practical politics.”
An “absolute condition [for such a translation] is fearlessness,” the Nobel Chairman stated. He added that Aung San Suu Kyi had said “it is not power that corrupts, but fear. The comment was aimed at the totalitarian regime in her own country. They have allowed themselves to be corrupted because they fear the people they are supposed to lead. This has led them into a vicious circle. In her thinking, however, the demand for fearlessness is first and foremost a general demand, a demand on all of us. She has herself shown fearlessness in practice.”
The Nobel Committee concluded its 1991 statement with the words: “In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize … to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour [sic] this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.”
Recognizing her inability to be present for the award in 1991, the Nobel Committee Chairman said, “The great work we are acknowledging has yet to be concluded. She is still fighting the good fight. Her courage and commitment find her a prisoner of conscience in her own country, Burma. Her absence fills us with fear and anxiety . . . .”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s Acceptance Speech
Twenty-one years later, Aung San Suu Kyi formally accepted the 1991 Peace Prize in the City Hall of Oslo, Norway. The text and video of the speech are available online.
She talked about the impact in 1991 of learning of the award while she was under house arrest. “Often . . . it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an in different universe. What the Nobel Peace Prize did [in 1991] was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. . . . And what was more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten.”
She continued, “To be forgotten . . . is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. . . . When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. So for me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.”
“The Burmese concept of peace,” she explained, is “the happiness arising from the cessation of factors that militate against the harmonious and the wholesome. . . . Everywhere there are negative forces eating away at the foundations of peace. Everywhere can be found thoughtless dissipation of material and human resources that are necessary for the conservation of harmony and happiness in our world.”
“Are we not still guilty, if to a less violent degree, of recklessness, of improvidence with regard to our future and our humanity? War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.”
While living in isolation she said she ruminated over the meaning of the Buddhist concept of the six great “dukha” or suffering: “to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love. . . . I thought of prisoners and refugees, of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, of that great mass of the uprooted of the earth who have been torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends, forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming.”
“How often during my years under house arrest have I drawn strength from my favourite [sic] passages in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
- ……. disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspirations of the common people,
- …… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law . . .”
“The peace of our world is indivisible,” Aung San Suu Kyi continued.” As long as negative forces are getting the better of positive forces anywhere, we are all at risk. It may be questioned whether all negative forces could ever be removed. The simple answer is: ‘No!’ It is in human nature to contain both the positive and the negative. However, it is also within human capability to work to reinforce the positive and to minimize or neutralize the negative. Absolute peace in our world is an unattainable goal. But it is one towards which we must continue to journey, our eyes fixed on it as a traveller in a desert fixes his eyes on the one guiding star that will lead him to salvation. Even if we do not achieve perfect peace on earth, because perfect peace is not of this earth, common endeavours [sic] to gain peace will unite individuals and nations in trust and friendship and help to make our human community safer and kinder.”
She then emphasized kindness. [The] most precious . . . [lesson from her isolation] I learnt . . . [was] the value of kindness. Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world. To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people. ”
Aung san Suu Kyi concluded with these words. “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace. Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.”
I have never been to Myanmar (Burma), and I do not know the history of that country in any great detail. But in 2001 as a pro bono attorney I helped a Burmese man obtain asylum in the U.S. because of his well-founded fear of persecution if he returned to his homeland due to his political opposition to its military regime. He had been arrested in his home country for distributing video tapes of the movie “Beyond Rangoon [now Yangon],” which was critical of the military regime.
Aung San Suu Kyi also suffered persecution because of her political opinions and thereby demonstrated the importance of human rights for her and for all of us. I share this belief in human rights although I never have had to pay the personal cost she did. I also share with her the experience of having “read” Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s life and her acceptance speech are especially moving for me.