Spoken four years ago, the words now ring with a new and urgent significance:
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact, the opposite is true. Only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.”
They were uttered by Aung San Suu Kyi as she accepted the inaugural Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, quoting from the late Czech prisoner-then-president’s essay “The Power of the Powerless”.
Continuing, she said, “We in Burma and elsewhere who are trying to create a better life, have learned so much from him. We have learned about living in truth. We have learned about the power of the powerless. In fact, he empowered us, the powerless, by his words, by his actions, and by his abiding concern for people like us, everywhere in the world.”
A week ago in New York, the creative transformation now unfolding in Myanmar was laid bare before a global audience when, in her first address to the United Nations as foreign minister, Suu Kyi spoke of “the overwhelming majority of votes in favour of the National League for Democracy during elections last November” that had brought “a time of determined hope for Myanmar”.
This week, a few blocks away, Vaclav Havel Day was being celebrated with a ceremony to honour another of Myanmar’s creative heroes against totalitarianism. At New York’s Bohemian National Hall, dissident Ma Thida became the first recipient of the Disturbing the Peace Award, given annually by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation.
Ma Thida’s own story of patient perseverance is revealed in her newly released book “Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps through Insein”, a testament to human ingenuity in the face of oppression.
Three years ago Suu Kyi revealed a secret that Havel, in his characteristically humble fashion, never did: that in refusing the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 he suggested it should go to her. “It’s better that the prize go to someone who works for a good cause voluntarily, and possibly at great risk,” was all he said at the time. “That kind of recognition always emboldens people and their struggle in very concrete ways.”
Suu Kyi paid homage to Havel in 2013 during an encounter with fellow Nobel laureate the Dalai Lama. “When I was under house arrest for many years in Burma, I knew that somewhere in the world there was a man who was speaking out for me and because of whom my freedom remained intact in spite of physical detention,” she said, adding that it is “our responsibility to carry his wish, his dream, his vision, and his spirit”.
Tibet’s spiritual leader later recalled that Suu Kyi had discussed the problems she was facing after deadly ethnic rioting in Rakhine State in 2012.
“I mentioned about this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”
The seeds of that “something”, despite some reservations among Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, are now being planted. In her speech at the UN, Suu Kyi spoke of the launch of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
“There has been persistent opposition from some quarters to the establishment of the commission. However, we are determined to persevere in our endeavour to achieve harmony, peace and prosperity in Rakhine State.”
A little over a week before he died, Havel too encountered the Dalai Lama, for what the Tibetan leader’s website called a “meeting of two old friends, a spiritual leader and a playwright … in Prague on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights day”.
“[Havel] oversaw the transformation of his country into a democratic republic as it transitioned out of communist dictatorship,” beams Veronika Brazdilova, programme coordinator of Prague’s Vaclav Havel Library.
“For me he is the greatest Czech ever.”
In “To the Castle and Back”, Havel writes of coming third in a TV contest called “The Greatest Czech”:
“When I looked out the window outside, I said to myself that I deserved instead the title ‘The Greatest Fool’.”
In accepting the award named for him in 2012, Suu Kyi said of Havel, “He not only gave us hope, when we were struggling for democracy and human rights … he gave us ideas. He taught us to struggle. He taught us how to handle the matter of dissent wisely and creatively.”
Suu Kyi concluded her UN address last week with ideas reflecting those of a fellow Nobel Laureate she has met twice, and another man who was offered the award but instead chose to channel its power of inspiration towards a higher purpose. Although she never met him in person, she will always share with Havel a connection of universal truths that should continue to inspire us all:
“So I appeal to you that we all stand up against anger and hatred, against fear and ignorance and find a way to a better world through our capacities for compassion, for loving kindness and for the ability to be happy in the good fortune of others.”