Sep 21, 2012

The Lives of Others

In practically all of her work, Hannah Arendt reminds the reader that politics always retains a basic universal moral element because, in the end, it is about people. When Dr. Arendt was detained in her attempt to illegally cross the Franco-German border, it was a Nazi official who let her leave, not a mysterious instruction signed and stamped by one of his superiors, à la Kafka. It was her beloved friend Walter Benjamin who committed suicide out of fear that the Francoists who discovered the refugee camp in Spain would force him back to France, where he would meet a dire fate. After realizing that the conditions in her country during the Allied occupation made it impossible to go back, it was her mother who suffered in New York City because she could not speak English well. And they were her students and her students’ friends who were being detained and kept isolated in cells during the Civil Rights movement.

I had not seen this deep understanding of the empathic element in politics until, on occasion of her official visit to Washington, DC, I read the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture of Aug San Suu Kyi (originally awarded in 1991; lecture delivered this summer) and heard her Congressional Medal of Honor acceptance speech, ceremony which took place last Wednesday.

Now a Member of Parliament in Burma, Mrs. Suu Kyi was put under arrest in 1991 after her party, the National League for Democracy, won the elections the year before, the military government refused to leave and decided to put the challengers under control. She stayed imprisoned until November 2010, sometimes in jail, at other times under house arrest, and was liberated a couple of times just to be put back in prison because she was an icon of the opposition and, in the view of the government, attracted too much attention. During that time, her children became adults, her husband died, and she used a considerable part of her time to meditate on the six great dukha (a Buddhist concept comparable to the Western idea of suffering): “to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love”.

Next to resisting the oppression of her government, Mrs. Kyi is quite remarkable for her speeches. On the surface, she does not articulate any discourse following a particular school of thought. Yet the idea of helping to exit isolation and suffering, and the deep gratitude that sincere and committed people help produce, permeate her words.


In its national chapter of the 2012 World Report, Human Rights Watch mentions that human rights in Burma remain in a critical situation. Political liberties are curtailed, the military try to impose order disregarding the rule of law, and inter-ethnic conflict remains a major source of instability for the country. In her acceptance lecture she mentioned that receiving the Nobel Peace prize reminded her that she was not alone, that Burma was not alone, and that people in other places of the world were not only paying attention to the suffering of the Burmese, but also helping them in one way or another. Wednesday at Congress she began thanking her friends for the assistance she had personally been an object of and, once more, for not forgetting about the Burmese. Or, at the speech given at the World Economic Forum Regional Meeting in Thailand, her first international journey after being released from arrest, she explained that commitment to the improvement of the Burmese would bring about reconciliation among previously enemy groups and improvement in living conditions.

She needed help to get out of the isolation of her confinement and the resulting suffering. Burma needed help (indeed, still needs) to get out of the isolation of the military rule and the suffering it imposed on the daily lives of the Burmese. She received it from people she did not expect to, and now she is willing to give help back. The actual President, U Thein Sein, has allowed a certain degree of liberalization by freeing some political prisoners and diminishing the control of the state over the economy. Mrs. Kyi recognizes that resentment or the desire for vengeance will take Burma nowhere. One single person issued an order to put them in motion, but the whole population, military along with civil society, the different ethnic communities and the citizens must work together to make the reforms work. Because that is what politics is all about. People living together have two options. If they fight against each other, isolation, death and even more suffering will come about. But if they help one another, perhaps things will improve. It is remarkable that such an idea gave Suu Kyi prison and the Nobel Peace Prize exactly the same year.



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