Speech by Thorbjørn Jagland


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Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thorbjørn Jagland’s speech at Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Lecture, Oslo, 16 June, 2012

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,

We have been waiting for you for a very long time. However, we are well aware that your wait has been infinitely trying for you and of an entirely different nature than ours. But please know this: In your isolation, you have become a moral leader for the whole world.

Today’s event is one of the most remarkable in the entire history of the Nobel prizes. In 1991, you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades”. In the Committee’s opinion, the Prize would support the many people throughout the world “who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means”.

The 21-year interim has proved the Committee right about this.

But it is you, Aung San Suu Kyi, who translated the Committee’s words into reality. Through your awe-inspiring tenacity, sacrifice, and firmness of principle. Your voice became increasingly clear the more the military regime tried to isolate you.

Your cause mobilised your people and prevailed over a massive military junta. Whenever your name is mentioned or when you speak, your words bring new energy and hope to the entire world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have seen it so many times before: weapons and uniforms without any moral grounding in universal human rights are doomed to fail, sooner or later. Fortunately, in today’s world, human rights do not recognise national frontiers. Oppressive rulers who abuse these rights with brutal power must know that there will always be courageous individuals who will oppose them. The world wants to keep an eye on the oppressors.

Suu Kyi could not attend the prize award ceremony on 10 December 1991. Granted, she could probably have left her country, but she was afraid that the military regime would be so pleased to see her gone that they would refuse to let her back in again. Other prize laureates who have been unable to come to Oslo to accept their medals have also earned a place in the annals of history: Carl von Ossietzky for his battle against Hitler’s Germany, Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa for their fight against Soviet Communism and Liu Xiaobo for his struggle to promote human rights in China.

Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is finally here. We hope that Liu Xiaobo will not have to wait as long as she has had to before he can come to Oslo.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the great Aung San, leader of Burma’s struggle for liberation. He was murdered before completing his fight for freedom. His daughter was just two years old at the time. Her mother was later appointed Burma’s ambassador to India. The daughter got a world-class education in her native country, in India, at Oxford, and in Kyoto and New York. In 1972, she married Michael Aris, a professor and an authority on Tibetan Buddhism. They have two children, Alexander and Kim.

Initially, Suu Kyi did not show much interest in Burmese politics, but she became more and more interested in Burmese history, her father’s fight for freedom, Buddhism and Gandhi’s policy of non-violence. Her many letters to her husband made it increasingly clear: “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them”. She could also fall into the clutches of fear: “Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment”.

In March 1988, after 28 years abroad, Suu Kyi was informed that her mother had suffered a stroke.The next day, she left for Rangoon to care for her ailing mother.

At the time, the military regime that had run Burma since 1962 was in the throes of crisis.The old dictator Ne Win had to formally step aside. Demonstrations broke out. Many lost their lives when military forces fired into the crowds. It was not long before Suu Kyi was involved in what became known as Burma’s second fight for freedom. As Aung San’s daughter and with her indisputable ability as a speaker, she soon emerged as the leader of the opposition. In her first major speech, she addressed herself to “reverend monks and people”: “This public rally is aimed at informing the whole world of the will of the people. Our purpose is to show that the entire people entertain the keenest desire for a multi-party democratic system of government”.

Although her mother passed away, Suu Kyi remained in Burma. The military grew to fear the rapid rise in her popularity and placed her in “restricted residence”.

They had promised to hold free elections and they probably overestimated their chances of winning. To be on the safe side, though, they initiated a large-scale campaign against Suu Kyi. She was accused of being too foreign, and of knowing too little about Burma after spending 28 years abroad. She responded: “They claim that I know too little about Burmese politics. The trouble is that I know too much.”

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 392 of the 485 seats in the national assembly. Nonetheless, the military ignored the result. Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest.

Like so many times before, the Norwegian Nobel Committee reacted.

We all remember the ceremony in 1991. The Nobel Committee had arranged for two Burmese musicians to fly in from Los Angeles to play Suu Kyi’s favourite piece. That same piece will be played here again today. The high point of that ceremony was the speech that her son Alexander delivered on behalf of his mother. He emphasised that the prize was not primarily an award for his mother, but for the many who fought for democracy in Burma under very difficult conditions. He expressed the hope that even within the military forces, there might be people who wanted victory for democracy. “I know that within the military there are those to whom the present policies of fear and repression are abhorrent, violating the most sacred principles of Buddhist heritage. It was a conviction my mother reached in the course of her dealings with those in positions of authority”.

We Norwegians still remember Alexander’s words well: “The Burmese can today hold their heads a little higher in their knowledge that in this far distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded”.

We never forgot Aung San Suu Kyi. When we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 with more than 30 peace prize laureates in attendance, we left one chair empty. The appeals for your freedom have been many.

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,

You have always held a place in our hearts.

We have asked ourselves all along where you draw your strength from. Isolated from the outside world. In the beginning, your family was allowed to visit you. This was because the authorities thought your family would manage to convince you to leave the country. When that failed, they were no longer allowed to visit you. Even when your husband’s life was ebbing away due to cancer, he was not allowed in. When the authorities opened a package from your family and used the contents, consisting of a lipstick and an exercise video, against you, you refused to accept supplies from the outside. You sold furniture to buy food. Deficiency diseases became a problem.

You must have had infinite faith in your cause. In our common cause. Like Nelson Mandela, you could reach out to your prison guards. Like Liu Xiaobo, you could say “I have no enemies”. In your own words recently: “I have tremendous good will towards the military. So it doesn’t bother me to sit with them.”

We know that you have become a true humanitarian through Buddhism and meditation. The idea of love, tenderness, “metta” (meditation), carries your message: “Not only should one speak only the truth, one’s speech should lead to harmony, it should be kind and pleasant and it should be beneficial”.

No bitterness, no animosity.

Only a true champion for mankind can behave like that.

We must also remind one another of what fear is, and that its counterpart is hope. In your essay Freedom from Fear, you write: “within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of failure”.

Rulers also feel fear. They are not as powerful as they might appear to be. They get up every morning, afraid of the people. Because deep down, they know that there are things greater than fear, for example, hope and courage.

This is the reason for the downfall of every dictatorship. Their fear of the fearlessness of the people is so great that control of the people is preventing the innovation needed in every country. The lack of control over the elite leads to corruption and the abuse of power. The combination of control of the people and the lack of control of the elite leads to misrule and stagnation, and ultimately to revolution.

Consequently, the democracies of the world should not despair today when they see authoritarian regimes outpacing their economic growth. This is temporary. The regimes will be broken apart by inner contradictions.

The democracies will always find new paths. The democracies have come out winners in history because the people can elect new leaders when the old ones fail.

And democracies are peacemakers. Democracy creates fraternity across national frontiers and within national frontiers. This was probably what Alfred Nobel understood. For that reason, he wrote in his last will and testament that the Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to the one “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations”. That was one of his three criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize. Few people meet this criterion better than you.

A true fraternity among all the ethnic groups in Burma and the neighbouring countries starts with free elections, with free people.

Few believed that the dissolution of the military junta and the appointment of Thein Sein as president just over a year ago would have brought such major changes. But something happened. Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Political prisoners were released from prisons. The media could operate more independently. Cease-fires were signed with the ethnic minorities. The huge dam project with China was suspended, sending a clear signal of change to the surrounding world.

But your struggle is still not over. It created quite a sensation when you answered the question of where you would place the democratic development of Burma on a scale from one to ten: “we are approaching one”. The question could hardly have been answered more clearly.

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,

You carry a heavy burden on your shoulders. No one can be certain of what the future will bring. But today you are here. And we know for sure that you can return home.

I will conclude by reiterating the words of the chair of the Nobel Committee in 1991. Francis Sejersted expressed the hope that your struggle would be crowned with victory. He concluded by urging people to “show humility and show fearlessness – like Aung San Suu Kyi. The result may be a better world to live in.”

Few have done more than you have to make the world a better place for all of us. We thank you for your fearlessness, your tenacity and your strength, and we wish you the best of luck with the important work ahead of you.

Thank you all for your attention!

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2012

To cite this section
MLA style: Speech by Thorbjørn Jagland. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Sat. 1 Oct 2022. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1991/kyi/26192-aung-san-suu-kyi-speech/>

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