Suu Kyi: Nobel Prize ensured Burma would not be forgotten
OSLO, NORWAY—When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, while under house arrest in Burma (Myanmar), Aung San Suu Kyi said on Saturday, she realized that the Burmese “were not going to be forgotten.”
When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded her the prize, she said in her Nobel lecture here on Saturday, 21 years later, it was recognition that “the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity.”
But “it did not seem quite real, because in a sense I did not feel myself to be quite real at that time,” she said. “The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.”
She said the prize “had made me real once again; it had drawn me back into the wider human community,” and it had given the oppressed people of Burma, whose rulers call Myanmar, and its dispersed refugees, new hope.
“To be forgotten,” Suu Kyi added, “is to die a little.”
In a quiet, throaty voice, she asked the world not to forget other prisoners of conscience, both in Burma and around the world, other refugees, others in need, who may be suffering twice over, she said, from oppression and from the larger world’s “compassion fatigue.”
It was a remarkable moment for the slight Suu Kyi, who turns 67 next week and is now a member of parliament and the leader of Burma’s opposition.
She was dressed in shades of purple and lavender, her hair adorned with flowers. It is a gesture she makes in honor of her father, General Aung San, an independence hero of Burma who was assassinated in 1947, when she was 2, but whom she remembers threading flowers through her hair.
The audience in Oslo’s City Hall, which included the Norwegian royal family, listened raptly, applauding often, standing to clap when Suu Kyi entered the hall and when she finished her speech, which was at the same time modest, personal and touching—an appeal to find practical ways to reduce the suffering of the world.
“Suffering degrades, embitters and enrages,” she said. “War is not the only arena where peace is done to death.”
Absolute peace is an unattainable goal, she said. “But it is one toward which we must continue to journey, our eyes fixed on it as a traveler in a desert fixes his eyes on the one guiding star that will lead him to salvation.”
She had thought much on the Buddhist idea of “dukkha,” or suffering, in her long years of isolation and house arrest, Suu Kyi said. “If suffering were an unavoidable part of our existence, we should try to alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways.”
One crucial avenue, she said, was simple kindness. “Of the sweets of adversity, and let me say that those are not numerous, I have found the sweetest, the most precious of all, is the lesson I learned on the value of kindness,” she said, with a rare shred of humor. “Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in the world.”
Kindness, she said, “can change the lives of people.”
Her comments on Burma were careful but considered. She called for national reconciliation and ceasefire agreements between the government and “ethnic nationality forces,” which she said she hoped would “lead to political settlements founded on the aspirations of the peoples and the spirit of the nation.”
“In my own country,” she said, “hostilities have not ceased in the far north,” and “to the west, communal violence” has flared in the days before she left Burma. She spoke of the Burmese concept of peace, which she defined as “the happiness arising from the cessation of factors that militate against the harmonious and the wholesome.”
The term “nyein-chan” translates literally, she said, as “the beneficial coolness that comes when a fire is extinguished.”
She had never thought of winning prizes, she said. “The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society,” she said. “The honor lay in our endeavor.”
Her endurance against dictatorship and steadfastness to her principles has brought comparisons to Nelson Mandela. Her life has also been one of personal sacrifice.
For her country, and for the legacy of her father, Suu Kyi could be said to have given up her family: Her beloved husband, Michael Aris, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Oxford, and her two children, Alexander and Kim, who grew up largely without her.
Burma’s former military government persistently refused to grant them visas to visit her—even when Aris grew ill with prostate cancer—apparently in the hope that she would leave Burma herself to visit them.
She refused to do so, fearing with reason that the government would not allow her back into the country. After Suu Kyi’s initial house arrest in 1989, Aris was allowed to visit only five times, the last time during Christmas in 1995. He died in March 1999, on his 53rd birthday; to the end, he supported her decision to remain in Burma.
She had returned to Burma from Britain in March 1988 to nurse her ill mother, Khin Kyi, and became caught up in the swirling protests against years of eccentric autocracy and military rule. In January 1989, just after her mother’s funeral, she and her husband sat for a rare interview at her mother’s house in Rangoon, now Yangon, as their children ran about the rooms, with their faded colonial elegance.
“You know, when I married Michael,” she said, “I made him promise that if there was ever a time that I had to go back to my country, he would not stand in my way. And he promised.” Aris said: “That’s true. She made me promise.”
She said then that she understood how much her stature depended on her father’s aura. “I don’t pretend that I don’t owe my position in Burmese politics to my father, at least at the beginning,” she said. “It’s time to look at what people do.”
At another moment, she said: “Really, I’m doing this for my father. I’m quite happy they see me as my father’s daughter. My only concern is that I prove worthy of him.”
Once fate intervened, she chose the life she has lived, and there is little doubt that she has proved herself fierce, loyal and worthy, both to her father and to her people.
As on her previous public events this week in Switzerland and Norway, she spoke with a voice of unerring crisp diction but a physical presence bordering on exhaustion.
Yet Saturday’s schedule offered no letup. She left City Hall for the neighboring Nobel Peace Center where artists had designed an interactive display called “Mother Democracy” chronicling the highlights of her life. She chatted in Burmese with about 300 Burmese refugees granted asylum in Norway.
Then she addressed a public rally that attracted about 10,000 Oslo locals and tourists, many from foreign cruise liners docked along the capital’s nearby shoreline. Many waved Norwegian flags and leaflets bearing Suu Kyi’s image as she thanked the Norwegian people for giving so many of her countrymen and women sanctuary from oppression.
Smiling with delight as church bells tolled, she also led the crowd in Burmese chants wishing everyone peace and happiness.
“Suu Kyi is such an incredible person. It’s a blessing to be here, to get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see her, to hear her,” said Javier Rodriguez, 50, an airline steward from Los Angeles who happened to be on an Oslo layover and staked out the peace center before Suu Kyi’s arrival.
On Sunday, Suu Kyi heads to the Norwegian city of Bergen to meet charities and members of Norway’s Burmese refugee community, then on Monday speaks alongside U2 singer Bono before the pair fly to Dublin, Ireland, for a celebrity-studded concert in her honor.
On Tuesday she starts engagements in England, including a visit to her Oxford University alma mater and a speech to the joint houses of Parliament. Reports from AP and AFP