Crusader for Democracy
Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi is kept from collecting her Nobel Prize. ANALYSIS
THIS year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, presented in Norway today, shares a circumstance with earlier Peace Prize-winner Andre Sakharov and Literature Prize-winner Boris Pasternak: Her own government will not allow her to collect it in person.Far from the award ceremony amid the snows of Oslo, Aung San Suu Kyi, heroine and symbol of the Burmese people's struggle for democracy and freedom, sits inside her two-story stucco house in humid Rangoon, Burma. The military junta's troops surround it, cutting off contact with the outside world, as they have since July 1989. In Oslo, Suu Kyi is represented by her British husband, Tibetologist Michael Aris, and her two teenage sons. Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the revered founder of Burma's army and builder of its independence. She burst onto Burma's political stage in August 1988, at a time of tense, bloody confrontation between the Ne Win military dictatorship of 26 years and masses of citizens - many of them students and monks - demonstrating in the streets. From the start she called for nonviolence as well as unity and discipline in the struggle for democracy, stumping the countryside from the steamy south to the dusty north, winning the hearts and minds not only of sophisticated intellectuals but also of village grandmothers. Her activity lasted less than a year. On July 20, 1989, government troops abruptly prevented her from leaving her house and have kept her in isolation ever since. In her solitude, she remains a luminous symbol of the Burmese peoples' continuing fight for democracy and human rights. The potency of this symbol was stunningly demonstrated 18 months ago when the junta held its long-promised multiparty elections. Despite Suu Kyi's total absence from the political arena for 10 months, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 392 out of 485 seats contested. The junta was startled by the NLD's victory, but ignored the results. It arrested most of the newly elected legislators and forced those that remained to disavow Suu Kyi's leadership. Except for a handful of students and others living in precarious conditions on the border with Thailand, opposition to the regime has gone deep underground. But today, the world can hear Suu Kyi's authentic voice for the first time since her house arrest. On the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize award, Professor Aris has edited a collection of some of Suu Kyi's speeches and writings: "Freedom From Fear and Other Writings" (Penguin, 338 pp., $25 cloth, $12 paper). The essay "Freedom from Fear," from which the book takes its title, begins with the arresting statement, "It is not power that corrupts but fear" and goes on to note that fear is at the root of some of the most repressive actions taken by corrupt or dictatorial power holders. The antidote to fear must be love, and in her first political speech, a speech that electrified the country and established her as the leader of the democracy struggle, Suu Kyi called not only for unity and discipline but for forgiveness. "The people should demonstrate clearly and distinctly their capacity to forgive," she said. From then on, Suu Kyi was at the center of what she called "the second struggle for national independence the first one was that conducted by her father during and immediately after World War II. Her father's name gave her instant recognition in the cities and villages of Burma, but her voice was distinctly her own. While keeping house and bringing up her sons, mostly in England, but with frequent visits to Burma and academic fellowships in India and Japan, Suu Kyi grappled with the intellectual history of her country, its profoundly Buddhist heritage, and its capacity for democratic development. Suu Kyi asked why Burmese thinkers remained passive for many years, satisfied with old ways and seeing the colonializing British as mainly bringing technological and economic change. One senses, in this book, that Suu Kyi is still working out her answers. She clearly enunciates her belief that there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between village traditions and democracy. "When asked why they feel so strong a need for democracy," she wrote during the year she spent stumping the countryside, "the least political will answer: 'We just want to be able to go about our own business freely and peacefully, not doing anybody any harm, just earning a decent living without anxiety and fear.' In other words, they want the basic human rights which would guarantee a tranquil, dignified existence free from want and fear." Whatever Suu Kyi's final answer to the problem of getting democracy to take root in Burma, almost certainly it will be grounded in the villages where her message of unity, discipline, and love found such a spontaneous response. "Alas, your Suu is getting weatherbeaten," she wrote her husband in England after one of her trips, "none of that pampered elegance left as she tramps the countryside spattered with mud, straggly-haired, breathing in dust and pouring with sweat!" The Nobel Peace Prize is a tribute to Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy and human rights, her espousal of nonviolence, her call for unity among all the peoples making up the Union of Burma, and her steadfast confidence that, in the end, right will prevail.