An air of despair hangs over Europe, indeed much of the Mediterranean. From Greece to Syria, from Egypt to Spain, a crisis of either democracy or economy – or both – has millions of people on edge, feeling like victims.
So what better time for a visit to this troubled region by Aung San Suu Kyi? “The Lady” from Myanmar (Burma) has much to share on how to shake off personal despair and be free of fear, having endured two decades of struggle and isolation for her civic ideals and hopes for her impoverished country.
Here’s an example of the kind of lessons she can offer: Soon after her arrival for a 17-day tour of Europe, she was asked if she could forgive Myanmar’s powerful generals for having put her under house arrest for 15 years. She responded with typical steely confidence about her mission:
“In some ways I don’t think they really did anything to me…. I do not think I have anything to forgive them for.”
Similar comments by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi can send a powerful and timely message to Europe as well as a disheartened Arab world. Her travels include picking up her Nobel Peace Prize in Norway (won 21 years ago), speaking to the British Parliament, and being feted by the rock band U2.
Global heroes such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and the late Václav Havel learned through suffering that qualities of thought can overcome their circumstances. Their messages are useful for, say, Egyptians currently dismayed by their military’s derailing of a budding democracy or Greeks who face difficult choices that will determine the future of the 17-nation eurozone, perhaps even the global economy.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself still has plenty to worry about back in Myanmar. The military has permitted only limited political reform, which did allow her and her political party to win most of the seats in parliament in an April election. Ethnic fighting, a struggling economy, and an ever-present threat of an Army crackdown does not make it easy for Aung San Suu Kyi despite her popularity at home and abroad.
She defined the problem this way in a speech Wednesday in Switzerland: “We have to try and eradicate corruption and inequality as we proceed towards greater [foreign] investment.”
Tellingly, she arrived in Europe with some humility. “Part of the democratization process [in Myanmar] has to be a learning process from established democracies,” she said.
But it is her earned wisdom from 24 years as a pro-democracy fighter that many Europeans and Arabs may seek. Last year, for example, she said in a talk with the BBC that “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.”
She admitted to being laid low by anxiety and uncertainty at times but finding the courage along with others to assert a right to be free of injustice.
“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,” she said.
Little wonder then that she always carried with her a sense of freedom because, she said, “my mind had always been free.” That insight, shared by many in Myanmar, gave her the strength and patience to work tirelessly for others. She had found in herself something universal that now crosses borders to be of use to others.
By the end of her trip, Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments along the way could plant a seed of hope for those Europeans and Arabs now trapped in fear and blame. Myanmar is making the progress that it is today because of that seed.