In Long-Overdue Speech, Dissident Says Nobel Opened Her Heart
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in Oslo on Saturday.
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, now Myanmar, and its dispersed refugees, new hope. “To be forgotten,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi added, “is to die a little.” In a quiet, throaty voice on Saturday she asked the world not to forget other prisoners of conscience, both in Myanmar 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 Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who turns 67 next week and is now a member of Parliament and the leader of Myanmar’s opposition. She dressed in shades of purple and lavender, her hair adorned with flowers. It is a gesture she makes in honor of her father, Gen. 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 Ms. Aung San 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 inextinguishable 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 towards 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, Ms. Aung San 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 Myanmar were careful but considered. She called for national reconciliation and cease-fire 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 Myanmar. 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, Ms. Aung San 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. Myanmar’s former military government persistently refused to grant them visas to visit her, even when Mr. Aris grew ill with prostate cancer, apparently in the hope that she would leave Myanmar herself to visit them.
She refused to do so, fearing with reason that the government would not allow her back into the country. After Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial house arrest in 1989, Mr. 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 Myanmar.
She had returned to Myanmar from Britain in March 1988 to nurse her ill mother, Daw 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.” Mr. 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.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, praised her and thanked her “for your fearlessness, your tenacity and your strength.” He said: “Your life is a message to all of us.”