Speaking at the San Francisco Freedom Forum before an audience of top innovators, international human rights activists and fellow dissidents, Burmese Democratic Leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called for a new approach to ending human rights violations around the world. In a personal speech entitled “The Long Road to Freedom”, the Nobel Laureate said that while it is important to bring attention to human rights abuses that are committed, what is most needed is to stop human rights violations from occurring and to make people understand that they should not be committing human rights violations in the first place.
She called for a new human rights agenda in Burma which examines ”the root of the matter” and spoke personally about her own experience of struggling to be free. In preparing for her talk, she said that she thought deeply about what freedom means to her: ”Freedom to me means my right to live in peace with my conscience. Even if I am deprived of my physical freedom, the ability to live in peace with my conscience would make me free and keep me free. We have to create a society where everybody can live in peace with his or her conscience.”
What is most needed, she said, is to find out what can be done to stop making people commit human rights violations: ”This is what will help us most in our road to freedom. Not just to be able to prevent human rights violations through rule of law, but [by] making people understand why they should not engage in the violation of human rights.” Addressing the the opportunity to build democratic institutions in Burma, she said that ”we need to free our people not just from oppression but from their own fears and their own hatred”. Making people recognize that they are destroying their own human dignity as well as those of others when they commit atrocities, is a critical part of this process.
She asked for the help of friends to show a total commitment for the dignity of every human being, to make choices rooted in hope and to have confidence in the ability to change the world in which we live. Many prisoners of conscience remain in Burma, which she addressed: ”We are aware of the problems that lie ahead, and we are prepared to meet the challenges that await. The road to freedom never comes to an end and that our struggle for freedom will come to an end. The long road to freedom is one where you need friends.”
Invoking the spirit of her friend Václav Havel, she said that human beings need to live in truth and be responsible for their choices: ”This is why I am a great admirer of people like Gandhi, who also walked the long road to freedom and who managed to walk it without hatred.”
“The forces of bigotry, prejudice, unjust laws, oppression strike at the root of a free society which begins with freedom of the spirit,” she added.
In her first trip to the United States in more than 20 years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was presented with the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent by Freedom Forum founder Thor Halvorssen, for her ”creativity and decades of determination which kept pressure on Burma’s leaders.”
The San Francisco Freedom Forum connected a network of international human rights advocates with a diverse Bay Area audience. Speakers exchanged stories and ideas, illuminating the many paths individuals take to reach freedom. Those speaking alongside her included: Russian democracy activist Garry Kasparov; Saudi women’s rights pioneer Manal al-Sharif; Pussy Riot spokesman Pyotr Verzilov; Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy; Slate editor William J. Dobson; Ghanaian economist George Ayittey; drug policy reformer Ethan Nadelmann; anti-genocide artist Naomi Natale; conflict psychologist Justine Hardy; Iranian author and former prisoner of conscience Marina Nemat; and Venezuelan journalist Marcel Granier.
You can view Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at the San Francisco Freedom Forum here: