Linking Present to Past

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 - )

Nobel Peace Prize Winner, 1991


Speaking Truth to Power

While it is debatable that women have a natural proclivity toward countering a violent situation with non-violent actions, there are notable females who have done so. Some have found the courage to speak out for justice and freedom against the military might of authoritarian regimes. Two examples are the words and actions of Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi and Argentina’s Madres of the Plaza de Mayo.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous stand promoting peaceful accession to power in Burma (Myanmar), a country held down by a brutal military dictatorship. The Human Rights Watch World Report in 2005 described Burma as "one of the most repressive countries in Asia."

Daw Suu has won numerous international awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament, United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Jawaharlal Nehru Award from India. She has been called the “Champion of Democracy,” and “Heroine of Burma.” She has used her fame to ask people beyond the Burmese borders to join her struggle for freedom in Burma, saying "Please use your liberty to promote ours." Asking for economic sanctions on Burma she has told the world that economics and politics can not be separated. “Injustice and lack of peace in (Burma) means injustice and lack of peace for the rest of the world because it threatens peace and justice everywhere else. We would like to remind those who are simply looking at the economic benefits that they hope to reap from Burma today that they are working against their own long term interest and the long term interests of the international community in general.”

Daw Suu’s promotion of democracy against military rule began in 1988 when she returned to Burma from London to nurse her dying mother. It was a time of massive peaceful demonstrations led by students who were demanding a democratic multi-party system. Because she was the daughter of an assassinated national hero, General Aung San, she was called upon to give public speeches. On 26 August she addressed a rally of 500,000 gathered in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on," she says. "This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for independence." She also joined the newly-formed National League for Democracy (NLD) political party.

The uprising for freedom and democracy was squashed by the military, which killed thousands. It was, however, forced to call for a general election in 1990, and Suu Kyi’s party won 82% of the votes. The regime never recognized the results. Instead, Suu Kyi and others were detained by the regime, and she has been in and out of arrest ever since, sometimes in prison, sometimes under house arrest. Her house became the national center for the democracy movement. Refused even visits from her family, she has drawn strength from what she calls “engaged Buddhism,” the principle of loving-kindness put into action. Her speeches, comments, and letters reflect her ideas of self sacrifice, non-violence, and the value of a democratic society. Following are excerpts from some:

1) Asian Week interview. June 1999:
Would you support the people if unrest [political revolution] breaks out?
"If you mean that would I support violence, no I would not support violence. Because I don't think that violence really does anybody any good. But if you mean that would we support a spontaneous demonstration by the people for better conditions, certainly we would. Why shouldn't we? We know that there is a need for better conditions."

You did say at one time that you had no ill feelings toward the military for putting you under house arrest, 'I do have a soft spot for the Myanmar army, it's because of my father,' you said.
"Yes, I don't hold it against them because they put me under house arrest."

No bitterness?
"No. Why? It's part of the job. You know."

2) Excerpt from her famous Freedom from Fear Speech. 1990:
“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. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched...

The students were protesting not just against the death of their comrades but against the denial of their right to life by a totalitarian regime which deprived the present of meaningfulness and held out no hope for the future. And because the students' protests articulated the frustrations of the people at large, the demonstrations quickly grew into a nationwide movement. Some of its keenest supporters were businessmen who had developed the skills and the contacts necessary not only to survive but to prosper within the system. But their affluence offered them no genuine sense of security or fulfillment, and they could not but see that if they and their fellow citizens, regardless of economic status, were to achieve a worthwhile existence, an accountable administration was at least a necessary if not a sufficient condition. The people of Burma had wearied of a precarious state of passive apprehension where they were 'as water in the cupped hands' of the powers that be...”

3) Comments at celebration of the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Oct. 1995:
“Today we celebrate, the ‘great soul’ who demonstrated to the world the supremacy of moral force over force based on the might of arms or empire...The life and works of Gandhiji, as I was taught to refer to him even as a child, are both thought provoking and inspiring for those who wish to reach a righteous goal by righteous means.....The way of democracy is to create mutual trust and understanding through free and open discussion and debate. It is by this way that we can learn to settle our differences without resorting to compulsion or violence and to weld unity out of the diversity that is the wonder of our human world. People may be compelled to act against their inclinations, they may be bribed to set aside their conscience. But they cannot be forced to give their hearts and minds to any cause that they do not truly believe to be worthwhile.”

4) Video tape message sent to a press conference held in UN Human Rights Commission. April, 1996:
“There are those who argue that the concept of human rights is not applicable to all cultures. We in the National League for Democracy believe that human rights are of universal relevance. But even those who do not believe in human rights must certainly agree that the rule of law is most important. Without the rule of law there can be no peace, either in a nation, a region, or in throughout the world. In Burma at the moment there is no rule of law. Unless there is the rule of law there can be no peace or justice in this country...”


 - To get a beautiful poster of Aung San Suu Kyi (one of a set of 12 internationally renowned women)
   and a Curriculum Guide Click here

 - Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma, 1997.

 - Aung San Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope: Conversations with Alan Clements. 1997.

To find out about an Argentinean mothers movement which spoke “truth to power,” click here
(Madres de La Plaza de Mayo)

For a list of other Women Nobel Peace Prize winners  click here

To read the essay “Peace as an Early Woman’s Issue”  click here

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
Click for Author Information

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