OSLO, Norway — Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi declared Saturday that the Nobel Peace Prize she won while under house arrest 21 years ago helped to shatter her sense of isolation and ensured that the world would demand democracy in her military-controlled homeland.
Suu Kyi received two standing ovations inside Oslo’s city hall as she gave her long-delayed acceptance speech to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in front of Norway’s King Harald, Queen Sonja and about 600 dignitaries. The 66-year-old champion of political freedom praised the power of her 1991 Nobel honor both for saving her from the depths of personal despair and shining an enduring spotlight on the injustices in distant Burma.
“Often during my days of house arrest, it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world,” she said to a silent chamber, which had been lined with rainbows of fresh cut chrysanthemums and towers of orchids for the occasion. “There was the house which was my world. There was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community. And there was the world of the free. Each one was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe.
“What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings, outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me … It had made me real once again … And what was more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten,” she said during her 40-minute oration.
Suu Kyi, who since winning freedom in 2010 has led her National League for Democracy party into opposition in Burma’s parliament, offered cautious support for the first tentative steps toward democratic reform in her country. But she said future progress depended on continued foreign pressure on the government.
“If I advocate cautious optimism, it is not because I do not have faith in the future, but because I do not want to encourage blind faith. Without faith in the future, without the conviction that democratic values and fundamental human rights are not only necessary but possible for our society, our movement could not have been sustained throughout the destroying years,” she said, referring to the past two decades since Burma’s military leaders rejected her party’s overwhelming triumph in 1990 elections, one year after Suu Kyi’s own imprisonment.
Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, introduced Suu Kyi as a leader of “awe-inspiring tenacity, sacrifice and firmness of principle.”
“In your isolation, you have become a moral leader for the whole world,” he said from the podium, turning to the seated Suu Kyi.
“Your voice became increasingly clear the more the military regime tried to isolate you. Your cause mobilized your people and prevailed over a massive military junta. Whenever your name is mentioned or when you speak, your words bring new energy and hope to the entire world,” Jagland said to applause.
Suu Kyi, in a traditional Burmese gown of purple, lilac and ivory, offered only a stoic Mona Lisa smile at the end of her speech, greeted with a 2-minute ovation. As on her previous public events this week in Switzerland and Norway, she spoke with a voice of unerring crisp diction but a physical presence bordering on exhaustion.
Yet Saturday’s schedule showed no letup. She left the city hall for the neighboring Nobel Peace Center where artists had designed an interactive display chronicling the highs and lows of her life. Later she was scheduled to address a public rally outside the city hall. On Sunday she heads to the Norwegian city of Bergen to meet charities and members of Norway’s Burmese refugee community, then on Monday speaks alongside U2 singer Bono before the pair fly to Dublin, Ireland, for a celebrity-studded concert in her honor.