In an event hailed as the “most remarkable in the entire history of the Nobel prizes”, Aung Sun Suu Kyi has delivered her acceptance speech in Oslo for the peace prize awarded to her more than two decades ago.
Given the prize in 1991 – but then under house arrest by Burma‘s military junta – it was left to the pro-democracy leader’s two sons, Alexander and Kim, to travel to Norway to receive the peace prize that year.
Twenty-one years later and able to travel freely, Aung San Suu Kyi stood up on Saturday in front of a packed City Hall to deliver her long-delayed acceptance speech in a historic moment of high emotion.
Commended in the original citation for her “non-violent struggle” as “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades” the 66-year-old activist, elected to Burma’s national assembly during its fragile political transition, recalled with typical self-effacement the moment she heard she had been awarded the peace prize.
“I heard the news on the radio one evening. I have tried very hard to remember what my immediate reaction to the announcement of the award had been. I think it was something like: “Oh … so they’ve decided to give it to me.”
Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Norway on Friday from Switzerland, her first stop on a planned two-week tour of Europe which will also take in Britain, Ireland and France. The journey is her first to Europe since 1988, the year she left her husband and two young sons in England to visit her ill mother back home and became the focal point for the country’s nascent democracy movement.
Quoting I Have a Rendezvous with Death by the American first world war poet Alan Seeger, she lamented that almost a century after it was written “youth and love and life [were] still perishing forever” without a “satisfactory answer”.
Her wide-ranging and personal lecture touched on several themes, including her feelings of isolation under house arrest, the Buddhist concept of suffering, human rights, her hopes and fears for Burma’s future, and the importance of the peace prize itself.
“[The prize] did not seem quite real because in a sense I did not feel myself to be quite real at that time. Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world.
“There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe.
“What the Nobel peace prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. This did not happen instantly, of course, but as the days and months went by and news of reactions to the award came over the airwaves, I began to understand the significance of the Nobel prize. It had made me real once again.
“And what was more important, the Nobel prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten.
“When the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize to me they were recognising that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world; they were recognising the oneness of humanity … The Nobel peace prize opened up a door in my heart.”
Aung San Suu Kyi used her speech to highlight continuing issues in Burma, including political prisoners and ongoing clashes. “Hostilities have not ceased in the far north; to the west, communal violence resulting in arson and murder were taking place just several days before I started out the journey that has brought me here today.”
After spending most of the last 25 years under house arrest, the 66-year-old made a case for those still being held by the Burmese government.
“It is to be feared that because the best known detainees have been released, the remainder, the unknown ones, will be forgotten.”
Talking about the motivation behind her own long struggle isolated in her house in Burma, during which time her British husband, the academic Michael Aris died while they were separated from each other, she said: “If I am asked why I am fighting for democracy in Burma, it is because I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights.”
The member of parliament also talked about progress and reform in Burma and told a packed audience: “Over the past year there have been signs that the endeavours of those who believe in democracy and human rights are beginning to bear fruit in Burma. There have been changes in a positive direction; steps towards democratisation have been taken. If I advocate cautious optimism it is not because I do not have faith in the future but because I do not want to encourage blind faith. Without faith in the future, without the conviction that democratic values and fundamental human rights are not only necessary but possible for our society, our movement could not have been sustained throughout the destroying years.
“When I joined the democracy movement in Burma it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honour. The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realise their full potential.
The honour lay in our endeavour.
“When the Nobel committee chose to honour me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow. For this I thank the committee, the people of Norway and peoples all over the world whose support has strengthened my faith in the common quest for peace.”
In 1992, Aung San Suu Kyi said she would use the $1.3m prizemoney to establish a health and education trust for Burmese people.