Sometimes the occasion is more important than the speech. When Aung San Suu Kyi stood behind the lectern it would have been just fine had she said thanks and sat down. Two decades after she was first invited, the very fact of her presence would be worth the price of the new outfit.
She never did that, of course. As you would expect, she spoke of peace and freedom. She also spoke of kindness. She spoke beautifully and authentically. She constructed a lecture that was clever without being too intellectual; that was full of feeling and sentiment and personal anecdote yet never mawkish; that was hopeful for a better future in Burma whilst warning that complacency is the biggest enemy of democracy. Her measured, calm and inscrutable delivery style helped in this regard. It will be interesting to see how the sentiment and style in this speech is changed now she is a real politician, rather than an idealised figurehead.
Starting with an anecdote that rolled up a story about her finding out about her nomination for the Nobel, her late husband, Desert Island Discs, Oxford, her son, her house arrest and the surreal nature of the life she was living was a perfect start. (She was right not to mention The Hairy Cornflake, Dave Lee Travis, on this occasion.) The message gave us all we needed.
It also gave the hosts what they wanted: vindication. I always say it is dangerous to insult your host when you are speaking, and you are always better to compliment them. (It is amazing how many do this when speaking at events. They watch too many comedians: you are not a comedian.) What better way to compliment her host than to say, “the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten.” This was no throw-away line, Suu Kyi develops this theme to say that the French believe that “to be forgotten is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity.” She extends this to others who are forgotten, in Thailand on a recent visit, and finishes with “The Nobel prize opened a door in my heart.” I am sure it did, but in any event she did a great job in making her hosts feel good about the whole nine yards.
I confess that hearing the section on the First World War “a terrifying waste of youth and potential” brought me nearly to tears. Maybe simply because I have a 23 year old son who has everything he could wish for. He is unlikely to “meet his death: at some disputed barricade; on some scarred slope of battered hill; at midnight in a flaming town”, as this young American, fighting in the French Foreign Legion, did. Then her own words, poetry more than prose, “Youth and love and life perishing forever in senseless attempts to capture nameless, unremembered places…”
Suu Kyi links the unimaginable horror of war to the less violent “recklessness” and “improvidence” of ignoring suffering since “where suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” (Note the use of “and” rather than a comma.) Then there is a clever juxta-position, where she speaks of suffering, the Buddist word “dukha”, and the six great sufferings. “To be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in proprinquity with those one does not love.” It is the last two she highlights in terms of human trafficking, the uprooted and the dispossessed. What an elegant way to so do. Of course, these are the two she personally can identify with.
And having highlighted the less fortunate, she goes on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, having stated, with subtlety, that too many of us take them for granted, “We are fortunate to live in an age when social welfare and humanitarian assistance are recognised not only as desirable but necessary.” She stated that the declaration is all she needs to nod to when asked what she is fighting for.
Now the narrative that tells us like it is: that all is not yet won; that there remain many like her in prison in Burma; that “one prisoner of conscience is one too many.” (She got respectful but heartfelt applause here.) This is a tricky bit to pull off. She has a platform to speak, to essentially thank those who have bestowed a gift. It can seem opportunistic to go too far with the politics. There is an appropriate bit of history and context, a fair amount of acceptance that her presence in Oslo and other progress is a good thing but that there is a long road to travel. I especially like her assertion that, “their faith in our cause is not blind; it is based on a clear-eyed assessment of their own powers of endurance and a profound respect for the aspirations of our people.” You get the distinct impression that she knows blind faith gets you nowhere.
And kindness. Suu Kyi even muses that she has deliberated for a long time, “the careful deliberation of many years” over the word. But she defines it and she believes in it. She can do this because in the 20 minutes before we all know she is no dewy-eyed optimist, no arriviste. Not when there are refugee camps with “illegal drug use, home brewed spirits, the problem of controlling malaria, tuberculosis, denge fever and cholera.” What is powerful when she reads such a list is that she delivers with pragmatism a horrible catalogue that for most of her audience might as well be on another planet. She reminds us they are not, and that kindness always helps.
At the end Aung San Suu Kyi does what many good speakers do: goes back to the beginning. It helps, of course, when that beginning is the words of the Nobel Committee in 1991 in awarding her the prize. She says that such a bauble (she does not call it a bauble) was not in her orbit when she joined the democracy movement in Burma. “A free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realise their full potential” was something she had on her horizon. “The honour lay in the endeavour.”
In the end, she says that, because of the Nobel Committee, “the road I had chosen of my own free will became less lonely.” And more visible.
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