Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Your Majesties, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are assembled here today to honour Aung San Suu Kyi for her outstanding work for democracy and human rights, and to present to her the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991. The occasion gives rise to many and partly conflicting emotions. The Peace Prize Laureate is unable to be here herself. The great work we are acknowledging has yet to be concluded. She is still fighting the good fight. Her courage and commitment find her a prisoner of conscience in her own country, Burma. Her absence fills us with fear and anxiety, which can nevertheless only be a faint shadow of the fear and anxiety felt by her family. We welcome this opportunity of expressing our deepest sympathy with them, with her husband, Michael Aris, and with her sons, Alexander and Kim. We feel with you, and we are very grateful to you for coming to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize on behalf of your wife and mother.

Our fear and anxiety are mixed with a sense of confidence and hope. In the good fight for peace and reconciliation, we are dependent on persons who set examples, persons who can symbolise what we are seeking and mobilise the best in us. Aung San Suu Kyi is just such a person. She unites deep commitment and tenacity with a vision in which the end and the means form a single unit. Its most important elements are: democracy, respect for human rights, reconciliation between groups, non-violence, and personal and collective discipline.

She has herself clearly indicated the sources of her inspiration: principally Mahatma Gandhi and her father, Aung San, the leader in Burma’s struggle for liberation. The philosopher of non-violence and the General differ in many respects, but also show fundamental similarities. In both, one can see genuine independence, true modesty, and “a profound simplicity”, to use Aung San Suu Kyi’s own words about her father. To Aung San, leadership was a duty, and could only be carried out on the basis of humility in face of the task before him and the confidence and respect of the people to be led.

While no doubt deriving a great deal of inspiration from Gandhi and her father, Aung San Suu Kyi has also added her own independent reflections to what has become her political platform. The keynote is the same profound simplicity as she sees in her father. The central position given to human rights in her thinking appears to reflect a real sense of the need to protect human dignity. Man is not only entitled to live in a free society; he also has a right to respect. On this platform, she has built a policy marked by an extraordinary combination of sober realism and visionary idealism. And in her case this is more than just a theory: she has gone a long way towards showing how such a doctrine can be translated into practical politics.

For a doctrine of peace and reconciliation to be translated into practice, one absolute condition is fearlessness. Aung San Suu Kyi knows this. One of her essays opens with the statement that it is not power that corrupts, but fear.1 The comment was aimed at the totalitarian regime in her own country. They have allowed themselves to be corrupted because they fear the people they are supposed to lead. This has led them into a vicious circle. In her thinking, however, the demand for fearlessness is first and foremost a general demand, a demand on all of us. She has herself shown fearlessness in practice. She opposed herself alone to the rifle barrels. Can anything withstand such courage? What was in that Major’s mind when at the last moment he gave the order not to fire? Perhaps he was impressed by her bravery, perhaps he realised that nothing can be achieved by brute force.2

Violence is its own worst enemy, and fearlessness is the sharpest weapon against it. It is not least Aung San Suu Kyi’s impressive courage which makes her such a potent symbol, like Gandhi and her father Aung San. Aung San was shot in the midst of his struggle. But if those who arranged the assassination thought it would remove him from Burmese politics, they were wrong. He became the unifying symbol of a free Burma and an inspiration to those who are now fighting for a free society. In addition to his example and inspiration, his position among his people, over forty years after his death, gave Aung San Suu Kyi the political point of departure she needed. She has indeed taken up her inheritance, and is now in her own right the symbol of the revolt against violence and the struggle for a free society, not only in Burma, but also in the rest of Asia and in many other parts of the world.

We ordinary people, I believe, feel that with her courage and her high ideals, Aung San Suu Kyi brings out something of the best in us. We feel we need precisely her sort of person in order to retain our faith in the future. That is what gives her such power as a symbol, and that is why any illtreatment of her feels like a violation of what we have most at heart. The little woman under house arrest stands for a positive hope. Knowing she is there gives us confidence and faith in the power of good.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945. Her father was killed when she was two. She has no personal memories of him. Her mother was a diplomat, and Aung San Suu Kyi was to spend many of her early years and much of her later life abroad. In 1967, she took a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. From 1969 on, she worked for two years for the United Nations in New York. In 1972 she married Michael Aris, a British specialist on Tibet. For a time the family lived in Bhutan, but in the mid-seventies they moved back to Oxford. In addition to being a housewife with two small children, Aung San Suu Kyi kept up her academic work, gradually concentrating on modern Burmese history and literature. She was a visiting scholar at Kyoto University in Japan and at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in New Delhi. On her return to Burma in 1988, she broke off her studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. There is little in these outward events to suggest the role she was to embark on in 1988. But she was well prepared.

There is a great deal of evidence that the fate of her own people had constantly weighed on her mind. Her husband has told us how she often reminded him that one day she would have to return to Burma, and that she would count on his support.3 Her studies, too, as we have seen, became increasingly concentrated on Burma’s modern history. The study of her father and the part he played in Burmese history no doubt increased her political commitment and sense that his mantle had fallen on her.4

In moving to Japan, she was virtually following in her father’s footsteps. During the Second World War, it was from a base in Japan that Aung San built up Burma’s independent national army. When Japan invaded Burma, Aung San and his men went too. Before long, they switched from fighting the British colonial power to resisting the occupying Japanese and supporting the retaking of Burma by the Allies. After the war, he led the negotiations with the British which were to lead to final independence. Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have felt an urgent need to study the process which led to Burma’s independent statehood, and to understand the ideals governing the politics. In a beautiful essay comparing the Indian and Burmese experience of colonisation, she also brings out the special features of Burma’s cultural heritage.5 History is important. You choose who you are by choosing which tradition you belong to. Aung San Suu Kyi seeks to call attention to what she sees as the best aspects of the national and cultural heritage and to identify herself with them. Such profound knowledge and such a deep sense of identity are an irresistible force in the political struggle.

The occasion of Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to Burma in 1988 was, characteristically enough, not the political situation but her old mother’s illness. The political turbulence had just begun, however. There had been demonstrations and confrontations with the police with some two hundred killed. The unrest continued while she was nursing her dying mother. That was the situation in which she resolved to take an active part in what she herself called “the second struggle for national independence”.

The military regime had seized power in Burma in 1962. The disturbances which broke out in 1988 were a reaction to growing repression. In the summer of that year, at a time when the situation was very uncertain, Aung San Suu Kyi intervened with a open letter to the government, proposing the appointment of a consultative committee of respected independent persons to lead the country into multi-party elections. In the letter, she emphasised the need for discipline and for refraining from the use of force on either side, and demanded the release of political prisoners.6

A couple of days later, she addressed several hundred thousand people in front of the large Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, presenting a political program based on human rights, democracy and non-violence. On the 18th of September, after hesitating for a few weeks, the armed forces reacted by tightening the restrictions. The so-called “State Law and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC) was established, and martial law was introduced under which meetings were banned and persons could be sentenced without trial.

Political parties were not prohibited (perhaps with meetings banned it was thought unnecessary). A week after the establishment of SLORC, Aung San Suu Kyi and a few other members of the opposition founded the National League for Democracy, the NLD. She went on to engage in vigorous political activity, defying the ban on meetings and military provocations, and holding heavily attended political meetings all over the country. One remarkable feature of her political campaign was the appeal she had for the country’s various ethnic groups, traditionally at odds with each other.

It must have been her personal prestige which caused the regime to hesitate so long, but in July 1989 she was placed under house arrest. In May 1990, elections were held, in which the NLD won an overwhelming victory and over 80 per cent of the seats in the national assembly. There is general agreement that this was principally a triumph for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Why did the SLORC allow free elections? Probably because they expected a very different result, a result which would somehow have provided the legitimacy they needed to retain power. The dilemma of such regimes was demonstrated – trapped in their own lies. At any rate, they refused to accept the election result. The election was in effect annulled. The SLORC continued, but with reduced legitimacy. Lack of legitimacy is often made up for by increased brutality. Amnesty International has reported continuing serious violations of human rights.7 Today, the Burmese regime appears to have developed into one of the most repressive in the world.

In recent decades, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded a number of Prizes for Peace in recognition of work for human rights.8 It has done so in the conviction that a fundamental prerequisite for peace is the recognition of the right of all people to life and to respect. Another motivation lies in the knowledge that in its most basic form, the concept of human rights is not just a Western idea, but common to all major cultures. Permit me in this connection to quote a paragraph of Aung San Suu Kyi’s essay In Quest of Democracy:

Where there is no justice there can be no secure peace.
…That just laws which uphold human rights are the necessary foundations of peace and security would be denied only by closed minds which interpret peace as the silence of all opposition and security as the assurance of their own power. The Burmese associate peace and security with coolness and shade:

The shade of a tree is cool indeed
The shade of parents is cooler
The shade of teachers is cooler still
The shade of the ruler is yet more cool
But coolest of all is the shade of the Buddha’s teachings.

Thus to provide the people with the protective coolness of peace and security, rulers must observe the teachings of the Buddha. Central to these teachings are the concepts of truth, righteousness and loving kindness. It is government based on these very qualities that the people of Burma are seeking in their struggle for democracy.9

This is not the first time that political persecution at home has prevented a Peace Prize Laureate from receiving the prize in person. It happened to Carl von Ossietzky in 1936, ill in one of Hitler’s concentration camps.10 It happened to Andrei Sakharov and to Lech Wałęsa. Ossietzky died before the regime fell, but Sakharov and Wałęsa saw their struggles succeed.11 It is our hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will see her struggle crowned with success.

However, we must also face up to the likelihood that this will not be the last occasion on which a Peace Prize Laureate is unable to attend. Let that remind us that in a world such as ours, peace and reconciliation cannot be achieved once and for all. We will never be able to lower our standards. On the contrary, a better world demands even greater vigilance of us, still greater fearlessness, and the ability to develop in ourselves the “profound simplicity” of which this year’s Laureate has spoken. This applies to all of us as individuals, but must apply especially to those in positions of power and authority. Show humility and show fearlessness – like Aung San Suu Kyi. The result may be a better world to live in.

1. “Freedom from Fear” in Freedom, pp. 180-185. The reference is to the oft-quoted dictum of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

2. In 1988, despite opposition by the government, Aung San Suu Kyi made a speechmaking tour throughout the country. She was walking with her associates along a street in a town, when soldiers lined up in front of the group, threatening to shoot if they did not halt. Suu Kyi asked her supporters to step aside, and she walked on. At the last moment the major in command ordered the soldiers not to fire. She explained later, “It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in.”

3. Freedom, Introduction, p. xvii.

4. “My Father”, in Freedom, pp. 3-38. First published by Queensland Press in 1984 in the Leaders of Asia series under the title of Aung San. Reprinted in 1991 by Kiscadale, Edinburgh, as Aung San of Burma: A Biographical Portrait by His Daughter.

5. “Intellectual Life in Burma and India under Colonialism”, in Freedom, pp. 82-139.

6. “The Formation of a People’s Consultative Committee”, 15 August 1988, translated by Suu Kyi, in Freedom, pp. 192-197. Her first political initiative.

7. Amnesty International received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. See Irwin Abrams, ed., Nobel Lectures, Peace. 1971-1980 (Singapore: World Scientific, 1997): 161-177. Amnesty International campaigned for Suu Kyi’s release from detention as a “prisoner of conscience”.

8. The 1935 award to the concentration camp prisoner Carl von Ossietzky may be considered the earliest human rights prize. Later such recipients were Albert Lutuli (1960), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), René Cassin (1968), Séan MacBride (1974), Amnesty International (1977), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (1980), Lech Wałęsa (1983), Desmond Tutu (1984), Elie Wiesel (1986), and the 14th Dalai Lama (1989). After 1991 such grantees were Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992), and the 1996 laureates from East Timor, José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Belo. See Abrams, The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates (Boston: G.K. Hall), 3rd printing, 1990): 175-6 and entries on these laureates. Also the lectures of the most recent human rights laureates in Abrams, ed., Nobel Lectures, Peace. 1971-1980, cited in the previous endnote, and the companion volume for 1981-1990.

9. Quest for Democracy”, in Freedom, pp. 167-179, esp. pp. 177-178.

10. The international campaign for the prize for Carl von Ossietzky had already brought about his removal from the camp to a hospital in Berlin before the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in 1936 that he would be awarded the postponed prize of 1935. The Nazi government refused permission for him to go to Oslo for the award ceremony. See Irwin Abrams, The Nobel Peace Prizes, pp. 125-129; Abrams, “Carl von Ossietzky Retrospective”, The Nobel Prize Annual 1989 (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990): 12-23.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1991-1995, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1999


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1991

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