Aung San Suu Kyi: Peace Through Work
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi reflects on her spiritual life, our democratic responsibility, and the importance of asking questions.
Illustration by Cap Pannell
In the more than 15 years she spent under house arrest between 1989 and 2010, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says one of the most important things she learned was the power of kindness.
“Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world,” she said in her 2012 Nobel speech, more than two decades after she was awarded the Peace Prize. “Kindness can change the lives of people.”
A lifelong Buddhist, who has said she passed many hours of her confinement practicing vipassana meditation to gain greater clarity of mind, Suu Kyi today is navigating her transition from prisoner of conscience to nation builder. Last year she joined Burma’s parliament as a leading member of the opposition party, and she travels around the world to meet with heads of state and to call attention to her country’s continuing struggle for democracy and peace.
Absolute peace on earth is “an unattainable goal,” she said in her Nobel speech. But, she continued, it is a goal toward which humanity must never cease to strive.
“Even if we do not achieve perfect peace on earth—because perfect peace is not of this earth—common endeavors to gain peace will unite individuals and nations in trust and friendship and help to make our human community safer and kinder,” she said.
Suu Kyi spoke to journalists in Honolulu earlier this year, only her second visit to the United States since she was released from house arrest in 2010. Her face is now lined, and her hair shows streaks of gray, but her perfectly straight back and her intense, steady gaze are seemingly unchanged.
I’ve never thought of myself as having a spiritual life apart from my work. It’s a part of my work. I approach my work as a whole person, and that includes any spiritual strength I may have as well as other strengths.
Maintaining a sense of personal peace
I do meditate, but I don’t have as much time to meditate now as I used to under house arrest. One of the advantages of house arrest was that there was a lot of time for meditation. But I think I see peace through work. I don’t think of myself as surrounded by conflict—I think of myself as someone with a very, very tight schedule and a lot of work to accomplish each day. And by getting through it each day, I get a lot of satisfaction, and satisfaction gives you a sense of peace.
Prisoners of conscience
People talk about prisoners of conscience. I think a person of conscience is somebody who believes in what he or she is doing and does it because of his or her belief. And if we respect their beliefs, then we have a moral obligation to stand up for them and stand with them, and that stands for prisoners of conscience anywhere and everywhere.
Freedom of thought, I think in many ways, is a habit. You have to learn to think. You must learn to ask questions. You must not accept that things are just as they are. If you want to change things, you must get at the root of the trouble, and I think people are very quick to catch on to this.
The duty to vote
I keep telling people that if they do not exercise their democratic responsibilities, they may find that their rights get eroded. We have to be aware of how lucky we are if we happen to have a democratic government. When I was living in England, I was appalled at the fact that many of my friends neglected to vote, and I would tell them, “I’ve never had a chance to vote in a free election. Why are you not using your vote?” If you don’t use your vote, if you don’t use your democratic rights, it’s failing in your democratic responsibility. And everybody has a responsibility to uphold the kind of society in which they want to live.
I was once talking to a young man [in Burma] who had family problems. And he told me that all he wanted was peace of mind. It made me feel very sad, because when I was his age, I never thought of peace of mind. I took it for granted that I could do whatever I wanted in this world—I had so many choices open to me. I realized then of course that not all young people are equally lucky, equally fortunate.
I think young men and women should not need to think about peace. If they need to think about peace, there’s something wrong with this society. Because the young should be so full of confidence and energy and expectation and choices that they do not think of peace as the most important element in their lives.
Women in government
We’ve tried to involve women as much as possible in politics and peacemaking. For example, in the elections last year, we tried to put in as many women candidates as possible. It was not a satisfactory number, but we have almost doubled the numbers of women representatives in our parliament. So we haven’t done too badly, but nothing like as well as I would have wished. We really need more women who can get involved in politics and who are willing to get involved in politics.
How the United States should respond to North Korea
I think you should find out why they have adopted this “offensive posture,” if this is how you see it. Because I always believe in asking the question why. I think an offensive posture has a lot to do with the necessity to defend oneself in some way.
I think behind offense is always some kind of fear, mistrust, lack of understanding. You have to work to change those.
Burma as a model for peace
I think people see my country now as a place where there can be a happy ending, where things seem to be heading in the right direction. I don’t think things are as easy as that. I’ve always been a very cautious optimist, and I think we have to work very hard before we can get Burma to where we want it to go. But I’ve never thought of it as a focal point for peace because of the ethnic conflict in the country. I think people are trying to achieve peace for us, but we have to try to do it for ourselves.
Her own political future
A bright one, I hope.