/ 21 June 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi tells of Burma’s struggle for freedom

Aung San Suu Kyi Tells Of Burma's Struggle For Freedom

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has issued a passionate manifesto for freedom in an unprecedented international broadcast describing the continuing 21-year-long struggle against Burma’s military junta and the inspirational impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

Delivering the first of this year’s BBC Reith lectures, which was secretly recorded in Burma and will be broadcast on June 28, Suu Kyi speaks movingly of the price she and fellow activists have paid while travelling what she calls the “hard road to freedom” — and of her heartfelt belief in the justice of their cause, which sustained her during nearly 15 years in jail or under house arrest.

“What is this passion? What is the cause to which we are so passionately dedicated as to forgo the comforts of a conventional existence?” she asks. “Going back to [former Czech dissident leader] Václav Havel’s definition of the basic job of dissidents, we are dedicated to the defence of the right of individuals to free and truthful life. In other words, our passion is liberty.”

Suu Kyi describes the way those who choose the path of resistance and protest can become isolated, physically and spiritually, from ordinary life — and the toll such deprivation exacts. “Human contact is one of the most basic needs that those who decide to go into, and to persevere in, the business of dissent have to be prepared to live without.

“In fact living without is a huge part of the existence of dissidents. What kind of people deliberately choose to walk the path of deprivation? Max Weber identifies three qualities of decisive importance for politicians as passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.

“The first — passion — he interprets as the passionate dedication to a cause. Such a passion is of crucial importance for those who engage in the most dangerous kind of politics: the politics of dissent. Such a passion has to be at the core of each and every person who makes the decision, declared or undeclared, to live in a world apart from the rest of their fellow citizens; a precarious world with its own unwritten rules and regulations, the world of dissidence.”

Speaking of the vital importance to her of poetry and faith, she goes on: “Passion translates as suffering and I would contend that in the political context, as in the religious one, it implies suffering by choice: a deliberate decision to grasp the cup that we would rather let pass.

“It is not a decision made lightly — we do not enjoy suffering; we are not masochists. It is because of the high value we put on the object of our passion that we are able, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to choose suffering.”

Suu Kyi discusses the dangers inherent in the feeling of “separateness” experienced by the dissident, be they Burmese, Yemeni, Czech or Korean. To counter this, Burma’s most committed regime opponents are focused as far as possible on pragmatic, tangible objectives, such as freedom of speech, the freeing of political prisoners, or democratic elections, rather than the academic or philosophical benefits of liberty, she says.

‘My mind had always been free’
“Whenever I was asked at the end of each stretch of house arrest how it felt to be free, I would answer that I felt no different because my mind had always been free. I have spoken out often of the inner freedom that comes out from following a course in harmony with one’s conscience.”

In what may be seen as a response to critics who claim her personal story and international celebrity status have got in the way of Burma’s quest for democratic reform, she goes on: “There is certainly a danger that the acceptance of spiritual freedom as a satisfactory substitute for all other freedoms could lead to passivity and resignation. But an inner sense of freedom can reinforce a practical drive for the more fundamental freedoms in the form of human rights and rule of law.”

Suu Kyi speaks of her self-doubt when, after her motorcade was attacked by pro-government thugs in 2003 and many supporters were killed or arrested, she survived and was held in relatively good conditions in a prison bungalow.

She quotes the Ukrainian poet Anna Akhmatova: “No, this is not me. This is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that and all that happened.” She continues: “I felt almost as a physical force the strong bond that linked those of us who had only our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance.”

She also speaks with affection and pride of the supporters who turn up daily to help at the ramshackle headquarters of her much suppressed and harassed party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a 1990 landslide election victory, only to see it annulled by the military junta.

“More than once it has been described as the NLD ‘cowshed’. Since this remark is usually made with a sympathetic and often admiring smile, we do not take offence. After all, didn’t one of the most influential movements in the world begin in a cowshed?”

The bravery of these people, she says, is extraordinary. “They pretend to be unafraid as they go about their duties and pretend not to see that their comrades are also pretending. This is not hypocrisy. This is courage that has to be renewed consciously from day to day and moment to moment. This is how the battle for freedom has to be fought until such time as we have the right to be free from the fear imposed by brutality and injustice.”

Suu Kyi draws comparisons between Burma’s plight and the revolution in Tunisia, which was ignited by a selfless act of defiance by an ordinary person who could no longer tolerate the “unbearable burden” of injustice. The main difference, she argues, was how free and uncensored communications, especially via young people’s social media networks, allowed the world to know what was happening in many Arab countries. This was not yet the case in Burma.

Speaking in general of dissenters’ attempts to challenge or bring down authoritarian regimes, she says: “A friend once said she thought the straw that broke the camel’s back became intolerable because the animal had caught a glimpse of itself in a mirror. The realisation dawned that the burden it was bearing was of unacceptable magnitude and its collapse was in fact a refusal to continue bearing so oppressive a load.

“In Tunis and in Burma, the deaths of two young men were the mirrors that made the people see how unbearable were the burdens of injustice and oppression they had to endure.

“Do we envy the people of Tunisia and Egypt? Yes, we do envy them their quick and peaceful transitions. But more than envy is a sense of solidarity and of renewed commitment to our cause, which is the cause of all women and men who value human dignity and freedom. In our quest for freedom, we learn to be free.”

Suu Kyi, who will deliver two of this year’s Reith lectures, received the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Released from house arrest last year, she is unable to travel outside Burma. – guardian.co.uk