Many a visitor to Burma (Myanmar) who sees the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party calls it a “cowshed.” The ramshackle structure is hardly a symbol of her great ability to keep alive the people’s hopes for democracy in a country run by despots.
So where does Ms. Suu Kyi’s strength lie in leading a dissident movement despite being isolated for 15 years, either in prison or under house arrest?
Suu Kyi’s insights about her inner strength build on the works and writings of previous freedom fighters, such as Vaclav Havel. But they are unique to her experience as the daughter of modern Burma’s founder, someone raised in a Christian school but who lives in a Buddhist country that has been in simmering revolution since 1988.
These lectures could not be better timed to inspire the faltering Arab Spring – as well as the Burmese.
She says a basic human right is freedom from fear, something that Arabs learned quickly after Tunisia’s revolution in January. For her, living under a repressive regime, “fear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom, and often it is the one that remains until the very end.”
But, she adds, people struggling for liberty need not be completely free of fear to carry on. She has discovered that her fellow dissidents “pretend to be unafraid as they go about their duties and pretend not to see that their comrades are also pretending.”
“This is not hypocrisy,” explains the Nobel Peace Prize winner. “This is courage that has to be renewed consciously from day to day and moment to moment. This is how the battle for freedom has to be fought until such time as we have the right to be free from the fear imposed by brutality and injustice.”
She tells of the first autobiography that she ever read, at age 13, about a Hungarian woman who fell afoul of a communist purge in the 1950s but who was able to keep her mind sharp and spirit unbroken despite being isolated.
Any dissident with a passion for liberty must be ready “to live without,” says Suu Kyi, and make a conscious choice for personal suffering. This was not easy for her, as she often thought of herself as someone easily “laid low by anxiety and uncertainty.”
But, she says, “I felt almost as a physical force the strong bond that linked those of us who had only our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance.”
When asked by Burmese after her house arrest how it felt to be free, she responded that she was no different “because my mind had always been free.”
While such inner strength comes from following one’s conscience, Suu Kyi warns that spiritual freedom can often lead to being passive about the practical struggle to fight for human rights and the rule of law.
Such personal contentment must be resisted. She cites the recent history of Buddhist monks in Burma who are spiritually free but then express a loving kindness toward the people by protesting in the streets for basic rights.
And she repeats the story of the Tunisian vegetable vendor who was so humiliated by police that he lit himself on fire, “showing the world that his right to human dignity was more precious to him than life itself.” A similar story of a young Burmese man killed by police in 1988 sparked that nation’s protests and led to Suu Kyi’s rise as the champion for democracy.
Compared with those of Egypt and Tunisia, Burma’s revolution has not been successful because its soldiers are willing to shoot demonstrators and the country lacks digital communications to the outside world, she says.
For now, the Burmese must continue to “live like free people in an unfree nation,” and perhaps wait for a new generation to achieve liberty.
Her lectures reveal the spiritual revolution needed to create that inner freedom, which eventually leads to political liberty.
She doesn’t care that people refer to the headquarters of her National League for Democracy as a cowshed. After all, she notes in a reference to the birth of Jesus, “Didn’t one of the most influential movements in the world begin in a cowshed?”