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Aung San Suu Kyi - Burma's Nelson Mandela

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Friday, 11 December, 2009

Commenting on Oprah.com, Desmond Tutu shares his reaction to President Barack Obama's recent push to bring Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi into the global agenda.

The Elders with the empty chair for Aung San Suu Kyi As a tribute to freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, an empty chair is kept open at each meeting of The Elders. Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign for democracy in Burma led to her arrest by its military government, which has kept her detained for 14 of the past 20 years. She is the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a truly extraordinary woman. I can think of no better way of underlining her courage, sacrifice and importance than to describe her as Burma's Nelson Mandela.

Her long imprisonment, too, is a symbol of her country's continued oppression under a cruel military regime. Her commitment to democracy and nonviolence is a beacon of hope for her fellow countrymen and women — and an inspiration to all who prize freedom.

Aung San Suu Kyi has now been in jail or under house arrest for fourteen of the past 20 years. But the cruelty of the ruling generals goes beyond simply denying her freedom. They have also used her family to try to break her will.

Her husband, dying of cancer, was refused permission to fly to Burma to say goodbye. She has been separated from her children most of their lives. She has grandchildren she has never seen.

Such cruelty would weaken most of us, but not Aung San Suu Kyi. She may be small in stature, but she is a giant in spirit. She has refused to leave Burma because she won't abandon her people and she knows that she would never be allowed to return.

But what is most remarkable is that, like my friend Nelson Mandela, she is neither bitter nor angry. Despite all she has suffered, her message remains one of peaceful change and reconciliation in a country that lives in daily fear.

For Aung San Suu Kyi is not the only political prisoner in Burma. There are thousands who, like her, have been jailed for their beliefs. Thousands more have been killed simply because they dared to protest peacefully.

Appalling brutality, disregard for human life and corruption are the hallmarks of the military that seized power nearly four decades ago. Burma, one of the biggest countries in southeast Asia, is rich in natural resources. But while the generals have grown rich, its 50 million people are among the poorest in the world.

Only two years ago, the dictatorship demonstrated its indifference to the suffering of its people. When Burma was hit by a severe cyclone, the junta refused international aid. As communities desperately tried to survive, the regime used its military forces not in an emergency relief effort but to herd people to the polls to vote for a constitution that would keep them in power forever.

But if the generals thought hiding away Aung San Suu Kyi would silence her, they are beginning to realise they have made a mistake. Her recent trial and sentencing to renewed house arrest until after planned elections next year show how much they still fear her and the idea of democracy. The regime has not forgotten that the party she led won an overwhelming majority when elections were held in 1990—a result the generals simply ignored.

Up until now, the international community has failed Burma and its people. The response has been divided, confused and driven, in some cases, by economic interests. But President Barack Obama has now pushed the plight of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi right up the global agenda.

During his visit to Asia, he directly challenged the generals to release her and all the country's political prisoners and ensure that next year's planned elections are free and fair. He has promised that movement toward democracy would lead to warmer relations with the United States and other countries that prize freedom and the rule of law. In Burma, as elsewhere in the world, we need America's moral leadership.

For years, the generals have refused to move. But in recent months they have begun to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi. They have also allowed her, after years of isolation, to meet senior western diplomats.

I hope this is not another trick by a cruel regime to hold on to power. We must demand the generals release their grip on their country. We must judge them by what they do, not what they say.

But what we have seen in South Africa, and many other countries, is that the human demand for freedom can't be suppressed forever. We must hope that the generals can see that their rule is coming to an end and that this brave woman offers the best hope of a peaceful transition.

The Elders, a group of former leaders set up by Nelson Mandela to promote dialogue, keep an empty chair for her at each of our meetings. I look forward to the day when she can join us in person.

Even more, like the people of Burma, I long for the time when she can use her courage and vision to guide her country, as Nelson Mandela did 20 years ago, to a peaceful and democratic future.

But we know freedom is never given easily. We must all be prepared to fight for it.

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