Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last weekend has raised hopes yet again for a peaceful transition to democracy in Burma. This optimism is tempered, however, by the past behaviour of the ruling military junta, of re-arresting her at will.
The daughter of Burmese national leader Aung San who was assassinated while she was still an infant, Aung San Suu Kyi has become recognised worldwide for her selfless and unremitting struggle over two decades for Burmese freedom from military dictatorship.
Now aged 65, she was educated at Oxford before returning to Burma in 1988. She soon became the leader of the democracy movement, and was subjected to house arrest and threatened with assassination before the 1990 elections, in which her National League for Democracy party won more than 80 per cent of seats.
The military junta refused to honour the result, and she was again placed under house arrest. In the nearly two decades since then, much of the time spent under house arrest, she has gained enormous international support, and become one of the world’s best-known advocates for peaceful change.
Among her many honours was the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, which the military junta prevented her from attending to receive. Here is her acceptance speech, delivered on her behalf by her son, Alexander Aris, in Oslo on 10 December 1991.
‘The Burmese people can today hold their heads a little higher in the knowledge that in this far distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded. We must also remember that the lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection. The Prize, I feel sure, is also intended to honour all those engaged in this struggle wherever they may be. It is not without reason that today's events in Oslo fall on the International Human Rights Day, celebrated throughout the world.
Mr. Chairman, the whole international community has applauded the choice of your committee. Just a few days ago, the United Nations passed a unanimous and historic resolution welcoming Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar's statement on the significance of this award and endorsing his repeated appeals for my mother's early release from detention. Universal concern at the grave human rights situation in Burma was clearly expressed. Alone and isolated among the entire nations of the world a single dissenting voice was heard, from the military junta in Rangoon, too late and too weak.
This regime has through almost thirty years of misrule reduced the once prosperous “Golden Land” of Burma to one of the world's most economically destitute nations. In their heart of hearts even those in power now in Rangoon must know that their eventual fate will be that of all totalitarian regimes who seek to impose their authority through fear, repression and hatred.
When the present Burmese struggle for democracy erupted onto the streets in 1988, it was the first of what became an international tidal wave of such movements throughout Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Today, in 1991, Burma stands conspicuous in its continued suffering at the hands of a repressive, intransigent junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. However, the example of those nations which have successfully achieved democracy holds out an important message to the Burmese people; that, in the last resort, through the sheer economic unworkability of totalitarianism this present regime will be swept away. And today in the face of rising inflation, a mismanaged economy and near worthless Kyat, the Burmese government is undoubtedly reaping as it has sown.
However, it is my deepest hope that it will not be in the face of complete economic collapse that the regime will fall, but that the ruling junta may yet heed such appeals to basic humanity as that which the Nobel Committee has expressed in its award of this year's prize...
Although my mother is often described as a political dissident who strives by peaceful means for democratic change, we should remember that her quest is basically spiritual. As she has said, “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit”, and she has written of the “essential spiritual aims” of the struggle. The realisation of this depends solely on human responsibility.
At the root of that responsibility lies, and I quote, “the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end, at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitation...” And she links this firmly to her faith when she writes,
“...Buddhism, the foundation of traditional Burmese culture, places the greatest value on man, who alone of all beings can achieve the supreme state of Buddhahood. Each man has in him the potential to realise the truth through his own will and endeavour and to help others to realise it.”
Finally she says, “The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcends the flaws of his nature.”’
The campaign Aung San Suu Kyi leads remains one of the world’s most pressing struggles for freedom and democracy. The Burmese military junta’s ruthless suppression of dissent led by Buddhist monks in late 2007, refocussed world attention upon the terrible plight of the Burmese people, as have the recently staged elections, with any meaningful opposition banned, and voters urged to boycott the poll.
*Aung San Suu Kyi's speech is from my book, "Speeches of War and Peace", published by New Holland Publishers