Freedom, Passion & Courage – the Fight for Liberty in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi, the well-known Burmese dissident and leader of the opposition party National League for Democracy in Burma, was invited to speak at the BBC’s Reith Lectures this year. Both of her lectures are available on iplayer and also on – you can listen to them and also download the transcripts (links are below).

Here are three extracts from her first lecture on Liberty. She is a very good speaker and the story of her party’s fight against an oppressive military regime, facing almost insurmountable difficulties, and their determination and courage to persevere in spite of everything is truly inspirational.


“What is this freedom that is our passion? Our most passionate dissidents are not overly concerned with academic theories of freedom.

If pressed to explain what the word means to them, they would most likely reel off a list of the concerns nearest to their hearts such as there won’t be any more political prisoners, or there will be freedom of speech and information and association, or we can choose the kind of government we want, or simply, and sweepingly, we will be able to do what we want to do.

This may all sound naïve, perhaps dangerously naïve, but such statements reflect the sense of freedom as something concrete that has to be gained through practical work, not just as a concept to be captured through philosophical argument.”


“What kind of people deliberately choose to walk the path of deprivation? Max Weber identifies three qualities of decisive importance for politicians as passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. The first – passion – he interprets as the passionate dedication to a cause. Such a passion is of crucial importance for those who engage in the most dangerous kind of politics: the politics of dissent. Such a passion has to be at the core of each and every person who makes the decision, declared or undeclared, to live in a world apart from the rest of their fellow citizens; a precarious world with its own unwritten rules and regulations. The world of dissidence.

You will…see in our NLD office women and men whom the Burmese would say were of “good age”. That means they’re in their forties. When they joined the Movement for Democracy, they were in their twenties or even still in their late teens, fresh faced and flashing eyed, passionate for the cause. Now they are quieter, more mature, and more determined, their passion refined by the trials they have undergone. You do not ask them if they have ever been to prison. You ask them how many times they have been to jail.

Then there are young people, but not too young to be strangers to interrogation and incarceration. Their faces are bright with hope, but sober, free from the flush of illusion. They know what they have let themselves in for. They threw down the gauntlet to the future with clear eyes. Their weapons are their faith; their armour is their passion – our passion.

What is this passion? What is the cause to which we are so passionately dedicated as to forego the comforts of a conventional existence? Going back to Vaclav Havel’s definition of the basic job of dissidents, we are dedicated to the defence of the right of individuals to free and truthful life. In other words, our passion is liberty.

Passion translates as suffering and I would contend that in the political context, as in the religious one, it implies suffering by choice: a deliberate decision to grasp the cup that we would rather let pass. It is not a decision made lightly – we do not enjoy suffering; we are not masochists. It is because of the high value we put on the object of our passion that we are able, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to choose suffering.”


“A basic human right, which I value highly, is freedom from fear. Since the very beginning of the democracy movement in Burma, we have had to contend with the debilitating sense of fear that permeates our whole society.

Visitors to Burma are quick to remark that the Burmese are warm and hospitable. They also add, sadly, that the Burmese are in general afraid to discuss political issues.

Fear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom, and often it is the one that remains until the very end. But freedom from fear does not have to be complete. It only has to be sufficient to enable us to carry on; and to carry on in spite of fear requires tremendous courage.

“No, I am not afraid. After a year of breathing these prison nights, I will escape into the sadness to name which is escape. It isn’t true. I am afraid, my darling, but make it look as though you haven’t noticed.”

The gallantry embodied in Ratushinskaya lines is everyday fare for dissidents. They pretend to be unafraid as they go about their duties and pretend not to see that their comrades are also pretending. This is not hypocrisy. This is courage that has to be renewed consciously from day to day and moment to moment. This is how the battle for freedom has to be fought until such time as we have the right to be free from the fear imposed by brutality and injustice.


I would like to end this lecture with my favourite lines from Kipling with many thanks to Tim Garton-Ash who tracked them down for me.

“I’d not give room for an Emperor – I’d hold my road for a King. To the Triple Crown I’d not bow down – but this is a different thing! I’ll not fight with the Powers of Air – sentry, pass him through! Drawbridge let fall – He’s the lord of us all – the Dreamer whose dream came true!””



BBC Radio 4 website – Reith Lectures:

BBC iPlayer:

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