Aung San Suu Kyi talks to the young people of the world about peace, alienation, and realizing their own power.
Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the world's leading campaigners for democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize winner of great heroism. In person, we found her delicate and charming, and her wit and intelligence shone throughout our interview.
We traveled to Burma to interview Aung San Suu Kyi for Peacejam, a five - year educational program to reach out to young people worldwide with a message of hope. Peacejam celebrates the lives of Nobel Peace Laureates, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu, the Dalai Lama, Oscar Aris Sanchez and Betty Williams. Aung San Suu Kyi's deep Buddhist training is the basis of her life, her work, and her exemplary response to the difficulties of her current situation. So as you read this interview, look beneath the words of her answers to hear the subtlety of the message she has for every one of us. Listen also to the message she is sending to her jailers, to her people and to the world, about the tragedy of Burma. -- Ivan Suvanieff
Ivan Suvanjieff: WHAT DOES FREEDOM MEAN TO YOU?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Freedom would mean that I would be able to do what I understand to be right, without the fear that by doing so I would be exposing myself and others to danger.
WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY?
ASSK: Giving joy to others - that's obvious. I think that those who are happy give happinss to others.
THEN DESCRIBE AN IDEAL LIVING SITUATION FOR ALL PEOPLES.
ASSK: I don't think there is one ideal living situation for all peoples. A situation in which people can be free from want and fear is not a bad situation at all - although I won't be as presumptuous as to say that this would be ideal for all people. Others would have to speak for themselves.
HOW DOES BUDDHISM AFFECT YOUR PERSONAL LIFE, AND SOCIAL VISION AS WELL?
ASSK: Well, I was born a Buddhist and brought up a Buddhist, so it is very difficult for me to separate what is Buddhist in me from what is not Buddhist in me. It's a question that I find very difficult to answer.
WHICH IS GREATER: A BOMB THAT CAN DESTROY ONE MILLION PEOPLE OR ONE MILLION PEOPLE JOINING HEARTS AND MINDS OPPOSE SUCH A BOMB?
ASSK: [Smiles.] I Obviously, I think it would be the one million people! One million can always become two million, two can become four, four can become eight and so on. Whereas, one bomb is one bomb; it remains one bomb. Unless of course, people make more.
It is people who are more important and people who are stronger and in the end, it is people who decide whether or not to use the bomb.
ALONG THIS SAME LINE: IF THEY BUILT A BOMB THAT ONLY ONE PERSON OPPOSED, HOW COULD THAT ONE PERSON CONVINCE OTHERS TO OPPOSE SUCH A BOMB?
ASSK: I think you could start by convincing a friend. You have to start with the first step, and there are many ways of starting- I take heart that some big, international movements have started with a letter to a newspaper and people who read that letter take it up. If you have the will to do something, you can find a way. It's an old-fashioned thing to say, but I think it is still valid to say, "Where there is a will, there is a way."
Every movement, ultimately, was started by one person. Someone initiates it, the same way somebody must have initiated the first step in the process of making the bomb.
OFTEN, YOUTH ARE MADE TO FEEL POWERLESS. HOW CAN YOUTH RECOGNIZE THEIR OWN WORTH AND POWER TO EFFECT NONVIOLENT CHANGE?
ASSK: Do the youth really feel powerless? It is probably because they have less of a community feeling. You may feel powerless as one alone, but if you're part of a community, I think you would feel less powerless.
Perhaps the reason they feel powerless is because they feel apart from the rest of the community-that the generation feels apart from other generations. If they could be made to feel a part of humanity in general-not just a part of a generation, an isolated group-they would feel more powerful.
But is power all that is necessary? Is power all that desirable?
That's another question you have to put forth...
IT'S NOT THAT YOUTH FEEL THAT THEY NEED "THE POWER" PER SE...
ASSK: ... they feel helpless ...
.. AND HOW CAN THEY OVERCOME THIS FEELING OF HELPLESSNESS TO AFFECT CHANGE. DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIFIC IDEAS?...
ASSK: I've always thought that the best solution for those who feel helpless is for them to help others. I think then they will start feeling less helpless themselves.
HAS CONSUMERISM REPLACED SPIRITUAL VALUES IN OUR YOUTH?
ASSK: I don't think there is an easy answer to that. It's not as simple as spiritualism versus consumerism. It's the values of the whole society... it's changing values. Everybody is involved.
I'm quite intrigued about this whole question as to why the youth feel so alienated from the rest of society and why they feel that the only thing that is real for them are material goods. This must be something to do with what they have been taught - the values to which they are exposed to all the time.
I would not be so confident of my own... vision... to be able to give a quick answer to this.
FOR EXAMPLE, THE GENERATION THAT IS, SAY, 14 TO 25 YEARS OLD, WAS THE FIRST GENERATION TO BE TRULY RAISED BY TELEVISION. MOTHER AND FATHER WERE OUT CHASING THE "AMERICAN DREAM," AND THIS GENERATION FEELS THAT THEY'VE BEEN LEFT HOME ALONE; THAT THEY HAVE NO GUIDANCE AND THEREFORE FEEL HELPLESS. HOW CAN THEY GET AWAY FROM THAT SITUATION?
ASSK: If they had more people - among family, among friends - who would spend time with them, perhaps they would spend less time in front of the television. It's more important for them to relate to people rather than the television set.
IN GENERAL, IS IT PREFERABLE TO PRETEND ONE IS TOLERANT OF ANOTHER'S COLOR, RACE OR BELIEFS, OR IS IT BETTER TO BE FRANK?
ASSK: It would help if people were frank about their inner feelings, but only in a positive way. I do not think it does people any good to go around saying how much they hate others [smiles, laughs] or how much they dislike what other people are doing.
But I think that if they can be frank with those who would be able to help them overcome these negative feelings, that would be of great help. They should be frank, but only with the intention of getting something positive out of their frankness, not with the intention of hurting other people.
Some people like to pride themselves on their frankness and openness but in fact, they are just hurting other people. Using the excuse of frankness, they hurt other people, insult other people. I do not think that helps. If you simply want to air your feelings in order to hurt others, you might as well just keep your mouth shut.
If you want to talk to someone frankly about your feelings in order to improve them, to get over your feelings of hatred or inadequacy or fears, I think it's a good idea.
IF SOMEONE HAS A FRANK YET CONFRONTATIONAL MINDSET IN DOING THIS, HOW DO YOU CONVINCE THEM OF THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERDEPENDENCE?
ASSK: I think that first of all, you must listen to that person. You've got to try to ask him to explain why he feels the way he feels. You have to ask, "Why do you hate that? Why do you think a certain color is bad?" or, "Why do you think a certain belief is bad?"
Then, I think, you would have to carry on from there, because if you want to create understanding between two people, both sides must learn to listen to each other-both sides, to a certain extent, must be frank about their fears.
Quite a lot of people do not like to admit their weaknesses to others and they hide these weaknesses. In doing so, they create a barrier. And of course people do not want to confess their weaknesses to just anybody because it might be exploited. That's understandable, too.
The first step is confidence building. If the two sides can start having confidence in the other's good will, then you can carry on from there. Then I think they will be much more honest and not just talk about what they hate, but what they fear.
Hate and fear are the opposite sides of the same coin. It's the same thing. You don't hate unless you fear, basically.
THERE IS A GROWING PROBLEM IN THE UNITED STATES REGARDING PRAYER IN SCHOOLS. SOME DON'T WANT PRAYER AT ALL, SOME WANT ONLY CHRISTIAN PRAYER, AND SOME WOULD BE CONTENT WITH A FEW MOMENTS OF SILENCE SO EVERYONE CAN PRAY AS THEY SEE FIT. HOW CAN WE FIX THIS SITUATION?
ASSK: Could they not be given the opportunity to get to know more about these other cornmunities which they are rejecting? About what is actually contained in those other religions which they have decided, without really knowing much about them, are not real religions at all, are not worth considering? Perhaps they could be told about the similarities that do exist among these different religions.
I'm all for a broadminded attitude. People of all different religions should be given the opportunity to pursue good in their own way. I assume that is what religion is all about. Religion is about increasing peace and harmony in the world. Everyone should be given a chance to create peace and harmony in their own way.
I didn't grow up Catholic, but I went to a Catholic school. It was a missionary school like they had in Burma in those days. The majority of us were Buddhists, so we had a "morals class" [laughs]. It would sound very, very funny to young people today. They'd probably think it was very funny! [Laughter.] I have to confess I really can't remember much of what we were taught in those classes. Later we learned some poems which were supposed to inspire and teach us in good ways. The fact that I can still remember some of these poems seems to indicate these lessons did have an impression.
LET'S SAY THAT INSTEAD OF MORALS CLASSES, SCHOOLS OFFERED SOMETHING LIKE "UNDERSTANDING ONE ANOTHER." WOULD YOU CONDONE A CLASS LIKE THIS?
ASSK: Yes! Anything that creates understanding in the long run makes for less violence. If there is understanding then you don't have to solve your problems through violence; you can solve them by just talking it over. If there was understanding, in fact, there would be few problems.
IS THIS POSSIBLE IN TODAY'S WORLD?
That depends on where in the world, because the conditions that prevail in the States are not the ones that exist in Burma or in India or Japan or perhaps other countries in Europe. And it depends on how you initiate such programs.
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