October 2013, European Parliament, Strasbourg, Germany
Aung San Suu Kyi received this award in absentia during her period of house arrest. In 2013, she attended in person to collect it.
This is for me a joyous and a deeply meaningful occasion. A joyous one because I have been given the opportunity to thank all of you for the support you have given me and my party and all those who believe in democracy in Burma for over two decades.
And it is deeply meaningful because the Sakharov Prize is very meaningful. It was given to me in 1990. That was a year of great significance in the history of Burmese politics. That was the year in which the first democratic elections in over two decades were held in my country. In these elections, my party, the National League for Democracy, won over 82% of the seats that were contested. But we were never allowed to take office. We were never allowed to even call parliament. We were never allowed to implement the wishes of the people as had been expressed through those elections. Instead, our party was repressed. Our people were persecuted and we had to struggle on for a couple more decades before we had come to this stage.
Where are we now? I think we have to look at it in a very practical way. We have made progress since 1990. But we have not made sufficient progress. But before I talk about this I would like to say a few words about what the Prize meant to me at that time. I had become familiar with Professor Sakharov through the writings of others as well as through his own writings. I was sent a copy of memoir, of his memoirs while I was under house arrest. And I remember the day when I received it because whenever I received books from my family at that time it was always a very exciting moment for me because this was my contact with the outside world. And I got into the habit of always smelling the books before I read them. There is something very nice about the smell of fresh printer’s ink. And this was for me the beginning of a very pleasurable few hours, reading a new book.
When I read Professor Sakharov’s book, I was struck by the fact that he was so down to earth and so practical and so scientific in his approach to politics. I have to confess I didn’t quite understand some of his scientific comments but it made me feel very good simply to be reading them. I remember reading them on a very sunny day. Sunny like today here in Strasbourg, but of course we have many more sunny days in Burma, and thinking this was a happy occasion for me even though I was under house arrest to be able to read something by a man who I admired and a man who I saw as a great champion of human rights and freedom of thought.
Freedom of thought (applause),…freedom of thought is essential to human progress. If we stop freedom of thought, we stop progress in our world. Because of this it is so important that we teach our children, our young people, the importance of freedom of thought. Freedom of thought begins with the right to ask questions. And this right our people in Burma have not had for so long that some of our young people do not quite know how to ask questions. One of the tasks we have set ourselves, in my party, the National League for Democracy is to teach our people to ask questions, not to accept everything that is done to them without asking why.
'Why' is one of the most important words in any language. . If you do not have this curiosity and if you do not have the intelligence in order to be able to express this curiosity in terms that others can understand than we will not be able to contribute to progress in our world. How many of our people over these past few decades ever ask themselves why that had to submit to the authority of people who did not have the mandate of the general public. I do not think very many did. It was taken for granted that those who had power and authority could do exactly as they please. This was something that we could not accept.
During our years of oppression many of our people were arrested almost on a daily basis and we had to teach them to ask those who came to arrest them why. We had to teach them their basic rights and we had to say to them, if someone comes to arrest you in the middle of the night you have to right to ask do you have a warrant. Even that many of our people did not know. I have to confess that one of those who took our teachings very seriously and asked those who had come to arrest him if they had a warrant was answered, don’t be silly we’ve already decided how many years you’re going to be imprisoned. So this is the kind of society in which we had to live for many years.
But we have made progress. That I think we admit we recognize, not sufficient progress. Our people are just beginning to learn that freedom of thought is possible but we want to make sure that the right to think freely and to live in accordance with a conscience has to be preserved. This right is not yet guaranteed 100%. We still have to work very hard before the basic law of the land, which is the constitution, will guarantee us the right to live in accordance with our conscience. That is why we insist that the present constitution must be changed to be a truly democratic one.
I think Professor Sakharov would agree that if we are to be firmly on the road to democracy, that is to say, if we are to adopt a system that respects the will of the people, it would not due to have a constitution that subjects the people to the authority of one particular organization, an unelected organization, which is the military. I have often said sometimes to the annoyance of many of my colleagues that I have a great fondness for the Burmese military. This is very natural because my father was the founder of the army and I was brought up to love it and to look upon it as our family and one of the great aims, the main aims, of our democracy movement was to bring about national reconciliation, which means reconciliation between the then ruling army and the civilians who wanted democracy. We are still trying to achieve such a reconciliation but in order to achieve such a reconciliation we need the help of all our friends all over the world.
I accept and I’m very proud to accept (applause) that it is the people of my country who must do most, who must work hardest and who will ultimately be responsible for the democratization of our country but at the same time in this day and age we cannot ignore the fact that the weight of international opinion is immense, that the world has great power over any particular society anywhere. We are in the age of globalization, which has its drawbacks, which has its problems, but also has great advantages in that nowhere in the world can people what other people think. (applause)
This brings me back to freedom of thought. Because you are in a position to be able to think freely and to be able to live in accordance with you conscience, you have great power, you have great strength in you endeavors to help our people to engage with freedom of thought and to be able to live in accordance with our conscience. When the European parliament, the European Union, the European Commission, when the free world recognized our movement for democracy in Burma it have us the strength to go one despite great odds. There were those who said to us that we should give up because we were trying to achieve the unachievable but I have never thought that anything that human beings wanted to achieve for the society in which we live was beyond reach. We only have to have the will and determination to pursue our goals.
Our goals are very simple. Our people simply want to live in dignity and in peace. We want to be free from want and free from fear. These are the freedoms that are recognized as most important by the community of nations as reflected in the United Nations charter of human rights. Because we wish to live free from want and free from fear we have had to face want and we have had to face our own fears and overcome them. This we have managed to do because of the solidarity not just of our own people but of the world at large.
Solidarity is a beautiful word because it means that you reach out to those who are different from you and who have to cope with different circumstances because we recognize that we all share the same human needs and same values. It is the values that count most of all. The value of freedom of thought, the value of democratic practices, the value of respect for your fellow human beings. I have never claimed that democracy was a perfect system because we human beings are not perfect. We are not capable of producing a system that is perfect. But I think there is something nice and challenging about imperfection. If we were all perfect I think it would be a very boring world. But as it is (applause) because we have to cope everyday with our imperfections everyday can become a day of excitement. You wake up and say to yourself now which one of my many imperfections shall I work on today and that makes it very interesting and very challenging.
But it is more important that we work on the imperfections of societies and of laws and of practices that truly hurt us as human beings, that erode the foundation of human dignity. It is because of this that we feel our quest for democracy is not yet at an end. We will not achieve perfection as I said earlier but we do want to get to the point where we can say that the laws of the land, the institutions of our society, guarantee that our people can live in human dignity as far as it is possible for human beings to do so.
We all have to be responsible for ourselves. I accept the concept that respect for yourself must be the foundation of respect for others. It is only if you respect yourself as a human being and you have faith in your ability to achieve what should be achieved that you will be able to help others. You in the European Union have been fortunate to be born in country, or perhaps not born in those countries but you have made those countries, the kind of countries where you could live as dignified human beings.
There are many countries in the European Union now which as the time when we started our movement for democracy in 1988 did not yet enjoy the fruits of a democratic society. It is say but I’m proud and sad at the same time to say that the democratic revolution started in Burma before it started in the Czech Republic or Slovakia or Romania or I can name a great number of countries that only started getting on to the road to democracy in 1989, a who year after we had started. (applause) But they outstepped us. They went forward and we were left behind. But now we are on the road towards democracy. We have not got there yet and we would like you to be aware of fact that we still need your help and your support and your understanding that we need still to make a lot more progress before we can say we are were Professor Sakharov would have wished us to be. And he would have wished us to be in a place where freedom of thought was the birthright of every single citizen of our country. And to achieve this position of a society which would have had the approval of Professor Sakharov, we will have to work harder. Our people will have to do the greater part of the work but I do believe that all of you can help us in our endeavors.
I’ve always said there’s no hope without endeavor. Hope has no meaning unless we are prepared to work to realize our hopes and dreams but in order to that we do need to have friends. We need those who believe in us. Friends are those who believe in us and who want to help us whatever it is that we are trying to achieve.
So I would like to take this opportunity as I thank you for the Sakharov Prize to say that I hope you will be our friends in our continuing endeavor to achieve democratic rights for our people. I hope you will give us the understanding that we need to resolve the many problems that our country is having to face today. I hope we will have your help from freeing our people from want and from fear because it is a fact that fear is still very much part of our society. Unless we are free from fear we will not be able to give our children the kind of future that we would like them to have.
The future of our country is in our young people as the future of the world is in the hands of our young people. We would like you to understand that we need help with education, with health, with development, inclusive development, the future of our country might be safe, the future of our children and our young people might be assured. But in order to achieve progress in those areas we need basically the kind of political system that will give our people the right to shape their own destiny.
When the fathers of the independence movement were working to free our country from colonial rule they said we want the right to shape our own destiny. This is still what we need in Burma, the right of our people to shape our own destiny. We want to be able to decide what we think is best for ourselves. We want to be able to learn to sort out our differences. We want to be able to come to a united position in spite of our differences because Burma is a country of many peoples, of many opinions, of many religions, of many races. We have to all come together and create unity out of diversity that the destiny that build will be one that is right not just for now but for generations to come.
And as we work to achieve such an end we hope that you will be with us to point out our mistakes when we need to know that we’ve made mistakes, to help us when you think that we’re doing the right thing and always to remember that ultimately we are one. Whether we are Europeans, whether we are Asians, whether we are Africans, or Australians, or Americans, we are all one because of our shared common human values based on the belief that we have the right to the birth right of every human being which is a dignified and secure existence.
Security, freedom, dignity, if we had these three we could say that it has been worth while being born into this world and I would like all the young people of Burma and young people all over the world to be able to feel that it was right that they have been born into this world.
I would not like young people to ask this question, why were we born at all. I want them to ask every kind of question but for them to question why they have been born to a situation which does not assure them of their right to dignity and to freedom from want and from fear, that is not the kind of question I would want anyone to ask.
So, may I conclude by saying once again how much I appreciate everything you have done to support our people in their endeavors to live with their conscience freely and proudly and I would like to say that there will come a time when our people too can make our own contribution to the world. I’m confident now that the young people of Burma will one day be valued citizens of the world helping to promote those rights and those achievements which Professor Sakharov would have approved. Thank you. (applause)