In Burma, a woman's inner freedom, unbroken by fear
Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi reveals in a BBC lecture the source of her spiritual strength in surviving as an isolated dissident and as a champion of democracy.
Many a visitor to Burma (Myanmar) who sees the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyiâ€™s political party calls it a â€ścowshed.â€ť The ramshackle structure is hardly a symbol of her great ability to keep alive the peopleâ€™s hopes for democracy in a country run by despots.
So where does Ms. Suu Kyiâ€™s strength lie in leading a dissident movement despite being isolated for 15 years, either in prison or under house arrest?
The answer can be found in a talk recorded in secret for the BBCâ€™s â€śReith Lectures,â€ť just months after her release. The tapes were smuggled out of Burma for broadcast this week and next (click here).
Suu Kyiâ€™s insights about her inner strength build on the works and writings of previous freedom fighters, such as Vaclav Havel. But they are unique to her experience as the daughter of modern Burmaâ€™s founder, someone raised in a Christian school but who lives in a Buddhist country that has been in simmering revolution since 1988.
These lectures could not be better timed to inspire the faltering Arab Spring â€“ as well as the Burmese.
She says a basic human right is freedom from fear, something that Arabs learned quickly after Tunisiaâ€™s revolution in January. For her, living under a repressive regime, â€śfear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom, and often it is the one that remains until the very end.â€ť
But, she adds, people struggling for liberty need not be completely free of fear to carry on. She has discovered that her fellow dissidents â€śpretend to be unafraid as they go about their duties and pretend not to see that their comrades are also pretending.â€ť
â€śThis is not hypocrisy,â€ť explains the Nobel Peace Prize winner. â€śThis 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.â€ť
She tells of the first autobiography that she ever read, at age 13, about a Hungarian woman who fell afoul of a communist purge in the 1950s but who was able to keep her mind sharp and spirit unbroken despite being isolated.
Any dissident with a passion for liberty must be ready â€śto live without,â€ť says Suu Kyi, and make a conscious choice for personal suffering. This was not easy for her, as she often thought of herself as someone easily â€ślaid low by anxiety and uncertainty.â€ť
But, she says, â€śI 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.â€ť
When asked by Burmese after her house arrest how it felt to be free, she responded that she was no different â€śbecause my mind had always been free.â€ť
While such inner strength comes from following oneâ€™s conscience, Suu Kyi warns that spiritual freedom can often lead to being passive about the practical struggle to fight for human rights and the rule of law.
Such personal contentment must be resisted. She cites the recent history of Buddhist monks in Burma who are spiritually free but then express a loving kindness toward the people by protesting in the streets for basic rights.
And she repeats the story of the Tunisian vegetable vendor who was so humiliated by police that he lit himself on fire, â€śshowing the world that his right to human dignity was more precious to him than life itself.â€ť A similar story of a young Burmese man killed by police in 1988 sparked that nationâ€™s protests and led to Suu Kyiâ€™s rise as the champion for democracy.
Compared with those of Egypt and Tunisia, Burmaâ€™s revolution has not been successful because its soldiers are willing to shoot demonstrators and the country lacks digital communications to the outside world, she says.
For now, the Burmese must continue to â€ślive like free people in an unfree nation,â€ť and perhaps wait for a new generation to achieve liberty.
Her lectures reveal the spiritual revolution needed to create that inner freedom, which eventually leads to political liberty.
She doesnâ€™t care that people refer to the headquarters of her National League for Democracy as a cowshed. After all, she notes in a reference to the birth of Jesus, â€śDidnâ€™t one of the most influential movements in the world begin in a cowshed?â€ť