Free At Last
Politics / In times of war, violence and civil strife, genuine peacemakers can rise to the status of rock stars and cultural heroes. Last Spring, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited to give a series of talks on peace in Honolulu, and thousands of admirers came out to join what some called the Lama-palooza tour!
Since the launch of the Pillars of Peace Program in 2012, the Hawaii Community Foundation and other groups have helped to organize speaking tours for three popular and profound Nobel Peace Prize laureates. After the Dalai Lama’s events in April, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke to overflowing crowds at St. Andrew’s Cathedral last August about South Africa’s long fight against apartheid and his personal quest for freedom.
In January, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi became the most recent Nobel Peace Laureate to grace our shores and share her struggles for peace. Suu Kyi is the daughter of a war hero who helped win Burma’s independence from Britain, but she lived much of her life abroad after her father was killed and a military junta took over the country.
When Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1998 to lead the National League for Democracy, she peacefully defied the military rulers and was later placed under house arrest for more than a decade. She could have snuck out of the country but refused to leave her people behind. Unable to see her sons grow up or visit her dying husband, she bore her confinement with stoic dignity and became an international symbol of nonviolent resistance.
Known as Daw (or aunty) Suu, this elegant woman finally won her freedom last year when the government began accepting the democratic reforms that she and her countrymen had been fighting for all those years. She has gone on to become a member of Burma’s parliament, an advocate for reconciliation among the diverse ethnic groups of Burma and a voice of peace around the world.
Daw Suu was invited to Honolulu to share her story at the Rotary Global Peace Forum and other events sponsored by Pillars of Peace Hawaii, Rotary International, the East-West Center and the Myanmar Association of Hawaii. Before receiving Rotary’s Hawaii Peace Award at the Hawaii Convention Center, she spoke to a handful of reporters.
At the small press conference, I mentioned that while she and her people were fighting for basic democratic reforms, almost half the population in the U.S. had failed to vote in the last election. “What would you say to the people of Hawaii and the United States about the meaning of democracy after everything you’ve been through?” I asked.
“I keep telling people that if they do not exercise their democratic responsibilities, they will find that their rights get eroded,” Daw Suu said. “When I was living in England, I was appalled by the fact that many of my friends neglected to go out and vote at the time, and I would tell them, ‘I have never had the chance to go to a free election. Why are you not using your vote?’ If you don’t use your vote and your democratic rights, it’s failing your democratic responsibility. And everybody has the responsibility to uphold the kind of society in which they want to live.”
Daw Suu went on to give an impressive speech that night and received an enthusiastic standing ovation. As a co-founder of Pillars of Peace Hawaii, Pam Omidyar said that Aung San Suu Kyi has “proven, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and dear Archbishop Tutu, that love and truth can move people more strongly than fear or coercion.”
Through her words and actions, Daw Suu reminds us that even in a violent world, peace will eventually triumph if we keep “our eyes on the prize.”