Speaking to a packed, hushed hall in Oslo yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi reminded us why her name is so often spoken in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's. In a speech by turns personal and universal she spelled out her philosophy of non-violent political change, rooted in her Buddhist faith: how the value of kindness – "there can never be enough kindness in the world," she said – can conquer suffering and isolation.
She explained how the Nobel Prize Committee's decision to award her the coveted peace prize 21 years ago, when she had already endured more than two years of house arrest, made her feel real again. "I didn't feel quite real in those days," she explained. Shut away from her colleagues and the Burmese population which had voted her party into power, a vote the military simply ignored, she had the feeling that each person was "a separate planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe". The award of the prize, which she heard about on the radio, "restored a sense of reality to me ... it drew me back into the wider human community ... We were not going to be forgotten." And she reminded her distinguished audience of the fact that, despite the much-ballyhooed changes in Burma in the past year, changes that have permitted her finally to travel abroad, there are still political prisoners in jail there who must not be forgotten, because "one political prisoner is one too many".
It was a speech nearly 21 years in the making, though, as she revealed at a press conference, she started work on it only last week. Oslo City Hall was as formal and glacial as the occasion demanded. The assembled royals and dignitaries gave her a standing ovation before she even opened her mouth. Her son Kim was in attendance, shaggy-haired in a dark suit, though his elder brother Alexander, who had delivered a speech in her place in 1991 but who now lives in the United States, didn't make it. Their father, Michael Aris, who had accompanied them to the ceremony on that day in November but who died of cancer in 1999, was the other eloquent absence.
Yet for all the pomp and circumstance of this historic event, the music of violin and Burmese harp, and the benevolent smiles of the Norwegian worthies, the world of suffering – the world that had induced her to throw herself into Burma's democracy movement – was not kept long at bay.
With macabre timing, her departure from Burma for her first return to Europe in 24 years was scarred by an outbreak of communal violence in the far west of the country, near the border with Bangladesh, where local Buddhists and Muslims clashed after the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl. Despite the government declaring a state of emergency in the state, the violence continued for days, with the death toll reaching 50. More than 2,000 homes and other buildings have been destroyed, and thousands made homeless. Meanwhile, a vicious small war between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army in the far north of the country drags on, defying all the claims that Burma is moving towards a peace settlement with its many minorities.
Elsewehere, the world had its regular daily diet of suffering. The UN's observer mission in Syria was suspended after the commanding officer warned that rising bloodshed was posing significant risks to the lives of the 300-odd observers in the country. Activists claim that 14,000 have died in two years of rebellion against Assad's autocratic rule – even more than the 8,000-odd killed when the Burmese army cracked down on democratic protesters in September 1988.
Wednesday was Iraq's worst day of violence since the departure of US troops, and yesterday 25 Shia pilgrims were murdered by a car bomb in north Baghdad. In Yemen, government troops killed 25, claiming they were al-Qa'ida terrorists.
We follow such reports, if we notice them at all, with increasingly glazed eyes. As Suu Kyi said in her speech, compassion fatigue is a malaise of our times, along with its relative, donor fatigue, and it is a particular problem in places such as Somalia, Iraq and Burma where there is no end to the violence in sight.
Suu Kyi's presence in Oslo is a sign that things have improved in her native land: for the past 24 years she has refused all invitations to leave, believing that the regime would take the opportunity of her absence to prevent her from returning. Now she believes that is no longer the case.
But the bloodshed in the west and the north are reminders, as she was at pains to underline, that progress has been strictly limited. Burma has changed, she said, "in a positive direction" but any optimism should be cautious. The mere facts that her party is allowed to function and that she has been elected to parliament do not mean that the political dynamic of the country has shifted in a profound way. The army still holds all the cards.
The Nobel Peace Prize 1991: A moving message of hope
Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. 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 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.
This did not happen instantly, of course, but as the days and months went by and news of reactions to the award came over the airwaves, I began to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize. It had made me real once again; it had drawn me back into the wider human community. 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.
The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten, too, is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: "Don't forget us!" They meant: "Don't forget our plight. Don't forget to do what you can to help us. Don't forget we also belong to your world." When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognising that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world. They were recognising the oneness of humanity. So, for me, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.
The First World War represented a terrifying waste of youth and potential, a cruel squandering of the positive forces of our planet ... And for what? Nearly a century on, we have yet to find a satisfactory answer. Are we not still guilty, if to a less violent degree, of recklessness, of improvidence with regard to our future and our humanity? War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.
We are fortunate to be living in an age when social welfare and humanitarian assistance are recognised not only as desirable but necessary. I am fortunate to be living in an age when the fate of prisoners of conscience anywhere has become the concern of peoples everywhere, an age when democracy and human rights are widely, even if not universally, accepted as the birthright of all ... If I am asked why I am fighting for democracy in Burma, it is because I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights.
Over the past year there have been signs that the endeavours of those who believe in democracy and human rights are beginning to bear fruit in Burma ... Steps towards democratisation have been taken. 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 ... Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union.
Since we achieved independence in 1948, there never has been a time when we could claim the whole country was at peace. We have not been able to develop the trust and understanding necessary to remove causes of conflict ... We hope that ceasefire agreements will lead to political settlements founded on the aspirations of the peoples, and the spirit of union. My party, the National League for Democracy, and I stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation.
The peace of our world is indivisible. As long as negative forces are getting the better of positive forces anywhere, we are all at risk. It may be questioned whether all negative forces could ever be removed. The simple answer is: no. It is in human nature to contain both the positive and the negative. However, it is also within human capability to work to reinforce the positive and to minimise or neutralise the negative. Absolute peace in our world is an unattainable goal. But it is one towards which we must continue to journey, our eyes fixed on it as a traveller in a desert fixes his eyes on the one guiding star that will lead him to salvation. Even if we do not achieve perfect peace on earth, because perfect peace is not of this earth, common endeavours to gain peace will unite individuals and nations in trust and friendship and help to make our human community safer and kinder.
Of the sweets of adversity, and let me say that these are not numerous, I have found the sweetest, the most precious of all, is the lesson I learnt on the value of kindness. Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world. To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people.
Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace. Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.
When I joined the democracy movement in Burma, it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honour. The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realise their full potential. The honour lay in our endeavour. History had given us the opportunity to give of our best for a cause in which we believed. When the Nobel Committee chose to honour me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow. For this I thank the committee, the people of Norway and peoples all over the world whose support has strengthened my faith in the common quest for peace.