LONDON – Twenty-one years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi made her acceptance speech at last on Saturday during her first tour of Europe after spending most of the last two decades under house arrest.
“When I joined the democracy movement in Burma, it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honor. The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realize their full potential,” Suu Kyi said. “When the Nobel committee chose to honor me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow.”
The 66-year-old democracy campaigner was greeted with a standing ovation by the glittering crowd inside Oslo city hall in the Norwegian capital. She spoke clearly and firmly, showing no sign of the exhaustion-induced illness that struck her at an earlier stop in Switzerland.
She recalled learning that she had won the 1991 Nobel Prize by hearing news of it on the radio in Burma, also known as Myanmar. With her movements restricted by the country’s ruling military junta, she was unable to receive the award in person; her now-late husband accepted it on her behalf. But the recognition helped ease her isolation.
“It had made me real once again. It had drawn me back into the wider human community, and what is more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma,” Suu Kyi said. “We were not going to be forgotten.”
Her belated speech Saturday was made possible because of the Burmese government’s recent political liberalization, which has earned praise from around the world.
“There have been changes in a positive direction,” Suu Kyi said. “Steps towards democratization have been taken. If I advocate cautious optimism it is not because I do not have faith in the future, but because I do not want to encourage blind faith.”
Rather, all sectors of Burmese society must actively participate in and support the reform process, she said. And in the only part of her address to be interrupted with applause, she called for the release of other political prisoners in her country.
“I am standing here because I was once a prisoner of conscience. As you look at me and listen to me, please remember the oft-repeated truth that one prisoner of conscience is one too many,” she said. “Those who have not yet been freed, those who have not yet been given access to the benefits of justice in my country number much more than one. Please remember them and do whatever is possible to effect their earliest, unconditional release.”
Suu Kyi’s tour of Europe will also take her to Ireland and to Britain, where she was once a student at Oxford. In London, she will enjoy the rare honor of addressing the British Parliament.
On Saturday, Suu Kyi emphasized the need for universal human rights to be upheld around the world.
“Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concern for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart,” she said, then urged her audience: “Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.”
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi delivers her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech 21 years after she was accorded the honor. Credit: Ragnar Singsaas / Getty Images