Aung San Suu Kyi: Lessons in Human Freedom and Democratic Possibility

            Like many around the world interested in human rights and democratic governance, I have come to admire Burmese MP and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi profoundly. My reasons for this respect arise from my view of her as a model of moral courage and reflective leadership. It was therefore with considerable interest that I read her recent remarks on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that she had been awarded in 1991, but which a brutal military regime that held her under house arrest had prevented her from actually receiving, until June 16th of this year.

            As is her wont, Dr. Suu Kyi was plainspoken, clear and emphatic in her comments to those assembled to hear her Nobel lecture. One striking theme of her speech was her emphasis on the role of kindness in securing human rights and democratic possibility. After noting that it was the empathy and kindness symbolized by award of the Nobel honor that restored a “sense of reality” to her and drew her “once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived,” she observed later:

Of the sweets of adversity, and let me say that these are not numerous, I have found the sweetest, the most precious of all, is the lesson I learnt on the value of kindness. Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world. To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people.

            Dr. Suu Kyi developed this idea in her comments in relation to the needy, the displaced and the unending and Sisyphean global quest for peace. I was struck by the concept’s salience for our own nation’s political context, in which many of our elected leaders are increasingly contending we should exist in a society built on self-interest and markets with little or no regard for or need for kindness to others, at least as evidenced in public action on behalf of the needy. There is no requirement, in such a society as they depict, for disciplined imagination to consider the needs of others and no moral imperative for, as Dr. Suu Kyi noted in her observations, a mature faith in the future as a possibility to improve the living situations of all. This is so because in such a society as these politicians promote, one need not worry much about the future of those less fortunate in one’s midst. In such a self-interested, completely market-centered society, one owes one’s fellow citizens nothing, and if the life circumstances of others leave them in penury or find them struggling with addictions or mental illness or disabilities of various sorts, or a lack of education or many other maladies or circumstances that might leave one downtrodden, such is their problem and they alone must deal with it. Government in such a society, even a duly elected regime, owes nothing to its citizens based on claims that arise from arguments linked ultimately to human compassion, empathy and dignity.

            Such a society would be devoid of all moral standing in Dr. Suu Kyi’s terms, because it would be unwilling to ensure the realization of the basic human rights of its residents. And, of course, this cruel reality exists in many developing nations around the world and in many others subject to the whims of tyrannical rule. But to choose such a path when a society possesses resources to behave otherwise, as in the United States, is to raise profound questions concerning whether that nation can remain free in the long run. This is so, Dr. Suu Kyi’s comments suggested, for practical reasons, even if one does not wish to embrace the concept that all human beings deserve rights and just treatment because they are human and for no other reason:

Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.

            In short, and paradoxically, even as many American politicians may blame the poor, illegal immigrants or the afflicted or otherwise downtrodden for their woes and argue the nation (or state) “cannot afford” to assist them or, indeed, often contend they are morally unworthy of succor, this stance will not realize those leaders’ aims. It will instead only sow the seeds for social conflict and upheaval. One cannot secure and maintain free and democratic governance while large groups of citizens are seething over the injustice and suffering they experience. This way lies, Dr. Suu Kyi warned, not just profound social inequality, injustice and suffering, but the eventual degradation and decline of democratic governance and enervation of true freedom.

            Dr. Suu Kyi is hardly a wild-eyed romantic idealist. She has known oppression and the loss of freedom first hand and yet she does not argue her society or her government should abandon its poor or distressed. To the contrary, she cannot conceive Burmese society assuring the full human rights of its citizenry without an engaged and dynamic democratic government supported by the nation’s full (and currently much divided) citizenry. How different at least one major strand in American politics is by contrast, for its advocates argue that true freedom represents a total or near complete lack of public (government) engagement in society. Dr. Suu Kyi rightly reminds all who will listen that such a conception of political life not only ultimately will undo the bonds among individuals that make democratic society possible, but also will eventually create such oppressive conditions of injustice as to threaten freedom itself. The ideal of purportedly radically free individuals bound by little besides their collective pursuit of wealth, and lacking any need to show kindness to their fellow citizens, is not a recipe for sustained democracy, but instead for social destruction.

Dr. Suu Kyi’s remarks on receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize may be found here: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-lecture_en.html