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- Subject: The Speech
- From: carol@xxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 01 Sep 1995 09:16:00
Opening Keynote Address by Aung San Suu Kyi
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
to the NGO Forum on Women
31 August 1995
It is a wonderful but daunting task that has fallen on me to say few words
by way of opening this Forum, the greatest concourse of women (joined by a
few brave men!) that has ever gathered on our planet. I want to try and
voice some of the common hopes which firmly unite us in all our splendid
But first I would like to explain why I cannot be with you in person today.
Last month I was released from almost six years of house arrest. The
regaining of my freedom has in turn imposed a duty on me to work for the
freedom of other women and men in my country who have suffered far more --
an who continue to suffer far more -- than I have. It is this duty which
prevents me from joining you today. Even sending this message to you has
not been without difficulties. But the help of those who believe in
international cooperation and freedom of expression has enabled me to
overcome the obstacles. They made it possible for me to make a small
contribution to this great celebration of the struggle of women to mould
their own destiny and to influence the fate of our global village.
The opening plenary of this Forum will be presenting an overview of the
global forces affecting the quality of life of the human community and the
challenges they pose for the global community as a whole and for women in
particular as we approach the twenty-first century. However, with true
womanly understanding, the Convener of this Forum suggested that among these
global forces and challenges, I might wish to concentrate on those matters
which occupy all my waking thoughts these days: peace, security, human
rights and democracy. I would like to discuss these issues particularly in
the context of the participation of women in politics and governance.
For millennia women have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the task
of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young and the old, striving for
the conditions of peace that favour life as a whole. To this can be added
the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by
women. But it is women and children who have always suffered most in
situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary
historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home
and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and
experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of
years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot
fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.
If to these universal benefits of the growing emancipation of women can be
added the "peace dividend" for human development offered by the end of the
Cold War, spending less on the war toys of grown men and much more on the
urgent needs of humanity as a whole, then truly the next millennia will be
an age the like of which has never been seen in human history. But there
still remain many obstacles to be overcome before we can achieve this goal.
And not least among those obstacles are intolerance and insecurity.
This year is the International Year for Tolerance. The United Nations has
recognized that "tolerance, human rights, democracy and peace are closely
related. Without tolerance, the foundations form democracy and respect for
human rights cannot be strengthened, and the achievement of peace will
remain elusive." My own experience during the years I have been engaged in
the democracy movement of Burma has convinced me of the need to emphasize
the positive aspect of tolerance. It is not enough simply to "live and let
live": genuine tolerance requires an active effort to try to understand the
point of view of others; it implies broad-mindedness and vision, as well as
confidence in one's own ability to meet new challenges without resorting to
intransigence or violence. In societies where men are truly confident of
their own worth women are not merely "tolerated", they are valued. Their
opinions are listened to with respect, they are given their rightful place
in shaping the society in which they live.
There is an outmoded Burmese proverb still recited by men who wish to deny
that women too can play a part in bringing necessary change and progress to
their society: "The dawn rises only when the rooster crows." But Burmese
people today are well aware of the scientific reasons behind the rising of
dawn and the falling of dusk. And the intelligent rooster surely realizes
that it is because dawn comes that it crows and not the other way round. It
crows to welcome the light that has come to relieve the darkness of night.
It is not the prerogative of men alone to bring light to this world: women
with their capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice, their courage and
perseverance, have done much to dissipate the darkness of intolerance and
hate, suffering and despair.
Often the other side of the coin of intolerance is insecurity. Insecure
people tend to be intolerant, and their intolerance unleashes forces that
threaten the security of others. And where there is no security there can
be no lasting peace. In its "Human Development Report" for last year the
UNDP noted that human security "is not a concern with weapons -- it is a
concern with human life and dignity." The struggle for democracy and human
rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity. It is a struggle that
encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations. The people of
my country want the two freedoms that spell security: freedom from want and
freedom from fear. It is want that has driven so many of our young girls
across our borders to a life of sexual slavery where they are subject to
constant humiliation and ill-treatment. It is fear of persecution for their
political beliefs that has made so many of our people feel that even in
their own homes they cannot live in dignity and security.
Traditionally the home is the domain of the woman. But there has never been
a guarantee that she can live out her life there safe and unmolested. There
are countless women who are subjected to severe cruelty within the heart of
the family which should be their haven. And in times of crisis when their
menfolk are unable to give them protection, women have to face the harsh
challenges of the world outside while continuing to discharge their duties
within the home.
Many of my male colleagues who have suffered imprisonment for their part in
the democracy movement have spoken of the great debt of gratitude they owe
their womenfolk, particularly to their wives who stood by them firmly,
tender as mothers nursing their newly born, brave as lionesses defending
their young. These magnificent human beings who have done so much to aid
their men in the struggle for justice and peace -- how much more could they
not achieve if given the opportunity to work in their own right for the good
of their country and of the world.
Our endeavours have also been sustained by the activities of strong and
principled women all over the world who have campaigned not only for my own
release but, more importantly, for our cause. I cannot let this opportunity
pass without speaking of the gratitude we feel towards our sisters
everywhere, from heads of government to busy housewives. Their efforts have
been a triumphant demonstration of female solidarity and of the power of an
ideal to cross all frontiers.
In my country at present, women have no participation in the higher levels
of government and none whatsoever in the judiciary. Even within the
democratic movement only 14 out of the 485 MPS elected in 1990 were women --
all from my own party, the National League for Democracy. These 14 women
represent less than 3 percent of the total number of successful candidates.
They, like their male colleagues, have not been permitted to take office
since the outcome of those elections has been totally ignored. Yet the very
high performance of women in our educational system and in the management of
commercial enterprises proves their enormous potential to contribute to the
betterment of society in general. Meanwhile our women have yet to achieve
those fundamental rights of free expression association and security of life
denied also to their menfolk.
The adversities that we have had to face together have taught all of us
involved in the struggle to build a truly democratic political system in
Burma that there are no gender barriers that cannot be overcome. The
relationship between men and women should, and can be, characterized not by
patronizing behavior or exploitation, but by METTA (that is to say loving
kindness), partnership and trust. We need mutual respect and understanding
between men and women, instead of patriarchal domination and degradation,
which are expressions of violence and engender counter-violence. We can
learn from each other help one another to moderate the "gender weaknesses"
imposed upon us by traditional or biological factors.
There is an age old prejudice the world over to effect that women talk too
much. But is this really a weakness? Could it not in fact be a strength?
Recent scientific research on the human brain has revealed that women are
better at verbal skills while men tend towards physical action.
Psychological research has shown on the other hand that disinformation
engendered by men has a far more damaging effect on its victims than
feminine gossip. Surely these discoveries indicate that women have a most
valuable contribution to make in situations of conflict, by leading the way
to solutions based on dialogue rather than on viciousness or violence?
The Buddhist PAVARANA ceremony at the end of the rainy season retreat was
instituted by the Lord Buddha, who did not want human beings to live in
silence "like dumb animals." This ceremony, during which monks ask mutual
forgiveness for any offence given during the retreat, can be said to be a
council of truth and reconciliation. It might also be considered a
forerunner of that most democratic of institutions, the parliament, a
meeting of peoples gathered together to talk over their shared problems.
All the world's great religions are dedicated to the generation of happiness
and harmony. This demonstrates the fact that together with the combative
instincts of man there co-exists a spiritual aspiration for mutual
understanding and peace.
This forum of non-governmental organizations represents the belief in the
ability of intelligent human beings to resolve conflicting interests through
exchange and dialogue. It also represents the conviction that governments
alone cannot resolve all the problems of their countries. The watchfulness
and active cooperation of organizations outside the spheres of officialdom
are necessary to ensure the four essential components of the human
development paradigm as identified by the UNDP: productivity, equity,
sustainability and empowerment. The last is particularly relevant: it
requires that "development must be BY people, not only FOR them. People
must participate fully in the decisions and processes that shape their
lives." In other words people must be allowed to play a significant role in
the governance of their country. And "people" include women who make up at
least half of the world's population.
The last six years afforded me much time and food for thought. I came to
the conclusion that the human race is not divided into two opposing camps of
good and evil. It is made up of those who are capable of learning and those
who are incapable of doing so. Here I am not talking of learning in the
narrow sense of acquiring an academic education, but of learning as the
process of absorbing those lessons of life that enable us to increase peace
and happiness in our world. Women in their role as mothers have
traditionally assumed the responsibility of teaching children values that
will guide them throughout their lives. It is time we were given the full
opportunity to use our natural teaching skills to contribute towards
building a modern world that can withstand the tremendous challenges of the
technological revolution which has in turn brought revolutionary changes in
As we strive to teach others we must have the humility to acknowledge that
we too still have much to learn. And we must have the flexibility to adapt
to the changing needs of the world around us. Women who have been taught
that modesty and pliancy are among the prized virtues of our gender are
marvellously equipped for the learning process. But they must be given the
opportunity to turn these often merely passive virtues into positive assets
for the society in which they live.
These, then, are our common hopes that unite us -- that as the shackles of
prejudice and intolerance fall from our own limbs we can together strive to
identify and remove the impediments to human development everywhere. The
mechanisms by which this great task is to be achieved provide the proper
focus of this great Forum. I feel sure that women throughout the world who,
like me, cannot be with you join me now in sending you all our prayers and
good wishes for a joyful and productive meeting.
I thank you.