Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea for freedom

Aung San Suu Kyi faces a crackdown by the Burmese government after she gave a speech on the BBC. Her fight for freedom has made her a worldwide symbol of hope.

It was a dangerous and secretive operation. A small team of BBC journalists and engineers entered Burma illegally in order to speak with Aung San Suu Kyi. After recording her words – a meditation on the universal human thirst for freedom – the reporters smuggled the tapes out of the country, to be broadcast this week as the Radio 4 Reith lecture.

Like Gandhi in India and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a symbol of her country’s pro-democracy movement, which struggles against one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Released last November after seven years of house arrest, she leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party which has been declared illegal by the government.

You have to be brave to join. Describing those who work in the NLD’s ramshackle offices, Suu Kyi said: ‘You do not ask them if they have ever been to prison. You ask them how many times.’

All have faced brutality and harsh interrogation. One helper is an elderly man who spent 20 years in jail. Now free, he still wears the blue prison shirt as a reminder of the countless others who remain locked up for their political beliefs.

None of them know how long they will live. Suu Kyi herself has faced a mock execution, with the commander counting down to fire. So was the possibility of death something dissidents had to live with? ‘Yes,’ she told a BBC panel via satellite link. ‘I think we all come to terms with such a possibility very early on.’

She has watched the flame of freedom burn bright in other parts of the world this year. Inspired by protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria she yearns for a similar uprising in her own country. But what does freedom mean to her?

Freedom is no political prisoners, she says and ‘freedom of speech and information and association, or [that] we can choose the kind of government we want, or simply, and sweepingly, we will be able to do what we want to do.’

She also sees freedom from fear as a basic human right. ‘Since the very beginning of the democracy movement in Burma,’ she says, ‘we have had to contend with the debilitating sense of fear that permeates our whole society.’

Inner freedom

Like the Buddhist monks of Burma who, in 2007, protested against the devastating rise in food prices affecting the poor, Aung San Suu Kyi knows freedom is a political and economic struggle. But it’s also personal.

As she says, ‘Whenever I was asked at the end of each stretch of house arrest how it felt to be free, I would answer that I felt no different because my mind had always been free.’

You Decide

  1. What are the most important human freedoms?
  2. So far, protest in Burma has been peaceful, but Aung San Suu Kyi does not rule out violence. Is violent protest ever right?

Activities

  1. Aung San Suu Kyi spent years under house arrest, cut off from the outside world. Come up with some strategies for surviving a year of isolation from other humans.
  2. Read, research and reflect on the poem Invictus (Latin for ‘unconquered’) by W.E. Henley. It was a constant source of inspiration to Nelson Mandela in prison and to many Burmese prisoners today. Why does it inspire? Write a piece called ‘The power of Invictus’.

Some People Say...

“True freedom is the lack of inner fear – not lack of external restrictions.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is Burma the same as Myanmar?
Yes, Myanmar is the officially recognised new name for the country.
How did Aung San Suu Kyi survive isolation?
Aged 13, she read the autobiography of an imprisoned woman called Seven Years Solitary. ‘I was fascinated,’ she says, ‘by the determination and ingenuity with which one woman alone was able to keep her mind sharp.’ It turned out to be useful.
Does the government look after the people?
No. The country is rich in resources like oil but ordinary people are very poor. The government prevents many farmers from using their land to provide food. Child malnutrition is common.
Are young people involved in the protests?
Aung San Suu Kyi says that young rappers are at the core of Generation Wave, an informal organisation committed to democracy and human rights.

Word Watch

Reith lectures
A series of annual radio lectures given by leading figures of the day on different subjects, commissioned by the BBC.
Political prisoners
People imprisoned solely for their political beliefs. So they are not people doing time for burglary, fraud or murder.
Dissident
Someone who disagrees with or voices opposition to the established system, whether it’s political, religious or organisational.
Association
Those who you meet with. The Burmese government bans certain people from meeting each other.
House arrest
A punishment in which, instead of going to prison, you are confined to your house. Travel and access to your friends and family are either restricted or completely forbidden.

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