Aung San Suu Kyi’s long journey to Oslo

    Photo by Dom Pates, via Flickr.

    This past week Aung San Suu Kyi collected the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded 21 years ago in absentia. The longtime Burmese pro-democracy movement leader was freed from house arrest in November 2010 and recently won election as a member of parliament in Burma. With shifts toward political change apparently underway in a nation that nonetheless remains under military rule, the leader of the opposition who spent nearly 15 years in confinement seems confident that she will not be barred from returning home after her trip to Oslo and a series of public events across Europe.

    In her Nobel speech, Suu Kyi sounded the notes that have sustained her personal and political journey for 25 years: human rights, democracy, peace and the transformation of suffering. Thinking perhaps of her own experience of detention, she spoke of building a world where people are not displaced, homeless or forgotten. She longs, instead, for a world in which “each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.”

    Years of house arrest sharpened her reflections on the meaning of these matters, she said in her address, especially in light of ancient Buddhist teachings on dukkha (suffering), including the suffering of being “parted from those one loves.” Suu Kyi’s journey has involved just such a forced separation, but she did not dwell on her personal dukkha in the presentation. Instead, she spoke “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.”

    “Wherever suffering is ignored,” she emphasized, “there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” Hence the need to create “a free, secure and just society.”

    Suu Kyi’s commitment to nonviolent struggle is rooted in these and other reflections of this kind. In 1990, she published Freedom From Fear, a book of essays and interviews that articulated a clear and principled vision of active and liberating nonviolence. As she stresses, fear is what breeds violence and injustice — and keeps violence and injustice in place. As she writes:

    It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. … As long as there are governments whose authority is founded on coercion rather than on the mandate of the people, and interest groups which place short-term profits above long-term peace and prosperity, concerted international action to protect and promote human rights will remain at best a partially realized struggle. There will continue to be arenas of struggle where victims of oppression have to draw on their own inner resources to defend their inalienable rights as members of the human family.

    The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.

    Suu Kyi has rooted her commitment in the belief that “even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.” Even more pointed is her conviction that “concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”

    For those of us not immediately facing these suffocating pressures, Suu Kyi invites us to go to the heart of the matter: a revolution of consciousness purified of violence and injustice at its roots, a profound transformation of values and identity. This is what Aung San Suu Kyi herself has undergone: from living a quiet life in Oxford to throwing in her lot with a long-term movement for nonviolent change in her homeland — and being willing to face the consequences.

    People around the world are celebrating these recent events, which may signal a new direction in Burma, though it is still much too early to say anything definitive about this. Much more fearlessness, determination and perseverance will likely be needed for real structural change to happen.

    One strange thought occurs to me in light of this story. While I would have preferred Aung San Suu Kyi to have received her Nobel prize the same year she was named (1991), there may be some benefit to being named a Nobel laureate at one point in time and then actually receiving the award years later. The passage of time seems to illuminate (and even help assess) the broader lifecycle and impact of the movements or issues that the laureates represent. For example, if 1970 laureate Norman Borlaug (considered the driving force behind the agricultural “Green Revolution”) had come for his “final Nobel” 20 years later, there might have been a lively debate whether petrochemical agriculture was such a good thing after all. The yardstick that the passage of time could provide might come in handy for re-assessing the long-term peacebuilding (or lack thereof) of several laureates or their movements. (Henry Kissinger and South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk might benefit from such a public review.) The most recent case that could stand a second look is the 2009 award received by President Obama.

    Concerning Aung San Suu Kyi, the delay between being named a laureate and her being able finally to travel to Norway has only burnished the Nobel Committee’s decision — and deepened the world’s understanding of the realities facing Burma. In these two decades, Suu Kyi has relentlessly carried on the struggle with people throughout her nation and with allies around the world. As she writes, “Struggle = never knowing when to give up, to never say die.”


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