Young peace advocates no longer had to imagine Aung San Suu Kyi behind the closed doors of house arrest. The Nobel laureate was in Washington this week to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from the president, and she stopped by the Newseum on Thursday for an interactive question-and-answer session with high school and college students.
She cautiously took the stage in her slate-blue traditional Burmese dress and spoke with a restrained steeliness about the pursuit of peace against despotic governments and open communication across cultural borders. She began her speech saying she arrived to “pass the torch” of peace advocacy to the younger generation, who will “uncover the root cause” of political oppression.
“The seed of hatred is fear,” Suu Kyi said. “It is fear that leads to dislike and hatred. What the young people must do is try to eradicate fear."
Suu Kyi received thousands of submitted questions online, as a testament to her growing icon status. She weaved in practical advice amid her talk about the virtues of nonviolence in the political arena.
“When something troubles me, I think to myself, after 24 hours, this will seem less serious.”
She also encouraged young people to read and “not just sit in front of the ’net.”
One audience member asked about her personal sacrifice and touched upon her 24-plus-year struggle to work with the Burmese military junta. In 1990, Burmese authorities refused to recognize the parliamentary election victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy political party and rejected her appeal for a civilian-led government. On a personal level, Suu Kyi was subjected to house arrest and unable to see her family, including her now-deceased husband, for years.
“My fight was long, but not lonely because of people like you fighting for me,” she said. “I have to say that I’ve never thought that I was making any kind of sacrifice. I always thought I was following a path that I chose.”
Through the years, Suu Kyi has remained steadfast in what she said is a request for “funding, advice and engagement” from the U.S. government to help Burma build democratic institutions.
“We have lived under dictatorship for half a century, and getting out of a particular mind-set is not easy.... We look to the U.S. [as an example], as they have always been a champion of democracy.”
Audience members also asked Suu Kyi to connect her struggle for democracy to current conflicts, including the Arab Spring uprisings.
“I do not understand people who believe violence is a legitimate way to human rights,” she replied. “You are undermining the foundation of human rights. You should do it through your ability to resist violence at every stage of the way.”
Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the arrested members of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, and his daughter Gera presented the democracy leader with flowers. Verzilov was in town to meet with U.S. lawmakers in support of sanctions on Russian officials.
“I don't see why people should not sing whatever they want to sing” — unless they can’t carry a tune, Suu Kyi deadpanned, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“I hope the whole [Pussy Riot] group will be released as soon as possible,” she said on a more serious note.
“Was there anything in their song that was nasty to other people? Yes, individual people can take offense, but the [government] cannot. The government doesn’t count as people. [It] must be prepared to take criticism. Governments who can’t take criticism will never turn out to be good governments.”