What Aung San Suu Kyi Teaches Me


Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is featured in The Philosopher’s Table in my chapter entitled “Persistence and Grace.” Among the quotes from Suu Kyi that I reference: “I don’t give up trying to be a better person…a battle that will go on my whole life.” “In my life I have been showered with kindness…more than love, I value kindness.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has been stripped of her 1997 Freedom of Oxford award. More cutting of ties with her will surely follow. A current member of Parliament and nominal leader of her country’s National League for Democracy, she remains silent while the Myanmar military eliminates the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, a group despised by the mostly Buddhist populace. While under house arrest, the dissident Suu Kyi served as global symbol of the power of nonviolent protest and the inalienability of human rights. Other Peace Prize winners implore her to act now against what the UN Commissioner on Human Rights calls “ethnic cleansing.” She equivocates at best, dismisses the Rohingya issue, refuses to criticize the military that perpetrates ongoing mass murder.

In her article about the “Fallen Idol” in the New Yorker’s October 2 issue, Hannah Beech searches for explanations for Suu Kyi’s change of heart and mind, once a victim of the military that placed her under decades of house arrest—a military that she now defends. Beech asks “What’s Happened to Myanmar’s Human Rights Icon?” and concludes that there was much that the world didn’t understand about Suu Kyi. Maybe there’s not much change at all? How interesting and unsettling to compare this article to Beech’s 2011 article in Time about Suu Kyi, “The First Lady of Freedom.”

I’ve thought a lot about my readers who now encounter a different Suu Kyi from the one I presented in The Philosopher’s Table. What’s my response?

My response, today, is that I can’t fathom the genocide or the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh—unthinkable brutality and misery. As for Suu Kyi, she teaches me how hard it is for anyone to practice ethical consistency—for our actions to mirror our beliefs and words. How well am I doing with the demands of such consistency? She reminds me to look out for my own blind spots. What am I missing, what rank injustice am I overlooking? Her fear of re-arrest by the military and her likely assessment that her voice would go unheard challenge me to speak truth when it’s unpopular, even dangerous, seemingly futile. Will I? She reinforces the adage that actions speak louder than words as I recall her quotes about the necessity for self-improvement and kindness.

Aung San Suu Kyi teaches me to look within.