Aung San Suu Kyi's 'revolution of the spirit,' part one

The Voice of Hope
In the first of a two-part interview, Alan Clements explores the teachings of nonviolent revolution by Burma's pro-democracy leader

The Voice of Hope is based on recorded conversations between Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements that took place in Suu Kyi's home in Rangoon, Burma between 1995 and 1996. At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi had been officially released from six years of house arrest, and unknown at the time, more years of house arrest were soon to follow.

Originally published in 1997, this book is a timeless tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi's unwavering vision of peace and commitment to democracy in her military-run home country of Burma. Reading Aung San Suu Kyi's words, it is clear that years of seclusion under house arrest have not damaged her spirit or political aspirations. In fact, it appears as though her resilience and hope has taken on renewed strength over the years.

Alan Clements is widely considered to be one of the world's leading authorities on Burma's nonviolent revolution and the country's unique expression of Buddhism. He spent five years living in a monastery as the first American Buddhist monk to have ordained in that country. In part one of the following interview, Clements discusses the pertinence of his conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi as well as what he has learned from his time with her.

Noreen Mae Ritsema: Your conversations and interviews with Aung San Suu Kyi took place 15 years ago, what makes her words and those conversations relevant now in 2010?

Alan Clements: I recently reread The Voice of Hope for the first time in nearly 10 years for the purpose of recording it as an audio book. Ironically, it took 20 or so two hour sessions over a three month period to read the 300 page book in a recording studio in Australia. It took that long because I was emotionally overwhelmed so much of the time that I had to stop reading. I had forgotten the power and purity of her words. It was as if I was jettisoned right back into the experience of being with her in her living room at her home in Rangoon, the heart of her country's revolution. Of course, her ideas were very familiar to me, I had been publicly speaking about them for the past 15 years, but the actual flow of her words, her questioning, her reasoning, the deep river of spiritual insight and breadth of emotions within the conversations themselves came back to life, as if I were reliving them in holographic hi-def.

Simply put, "The Lady," as she is often referred to in Burma, has the remarkable gift of inspiring spiritual revolution in someone. You come away from your time with her feeling empowered. She's the revolutionary embodiment of Gandhi's famous statement: "Be the [radical] change you want to see in the world."

Yet, and not surprisingly, she's utterly unpretentious -- not a hint of affectation. Nor is she vexed by some unexplored or repressed inadequacy. Her self-assurance is rooted in the confidence of her ethical intelligence. In other words, she's her own person and she knows that she knows herself. So by the force of her own self-respect, along with her charming poise, playful humour and satirical wit, you feel dynamically awakened in her presence. In a natural way, a very human way. In that sense, the conversations, her words especially, are alive and unbound. They defy containment in time. Moreover, they transform lives. They did mine.

NMR: Can you say more . . .

AC: She speaks from such an authentic place from within herself -- a richly textured place of often hard-earned personal experience -- it's as if the book itself is a dramatic living expression of the heart and mind of this remarkable apostle of peace. Since the conversations are her own spoken words and not prose written for a book, one hears and feels and comes to know Aung San Suu Kyi as she sees herself.

In so doing, we learn about the nature of her country's ongoing struggle for freedom and democracy, something that she refers to as Burma's "revolution of the spirit." In essence, The Voice of Hope explores the meanings and dimensions of nonviolent revolution both in her own country and how we can integrate those spiritual factors and principles in our own daily lives.

Jump time 15 years -- just days ago, on Nov. 13, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from seven and a half years of detention. In one of her first public statements, she reiterated her commitment to continuing her peoples' "peaceful revolution" for freedom and democracy.

Nonviolent revolution is the heart of Aung San Suu Kyi. Bringing freedom to her people is the guiding wisdom of her soul. She lives for the people of her country who genuinely aspire for democracy. They are her family. They are bonded by values. As far as I can see, Aung San Suu Kyi's life is a dynamic expression of revolution-in-action -- it means restoring trust where it has been broken, soothing the hearts of the suffering masses, building bridges across divides, reviving hope among the poor and disenchanted, inspiring courage in the powerless and even reaching into the hearts of her own oppressors and saying, "our doors are always open to you, please come in, let us talk and overcome our differences, and then go out hand in hand and heal our beloved nation together."

And she is not alone in this epic quest for freedom. Burma is a nation of nonviolent revolutionaries. They include the young and old alike. They include tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns. They include Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists. There is no one who is not invited to enter the struggle for freedom and peace-building. Even large numbers of the military back Aung San Suu Kyi. It is only the senior generals who seem to struggle with how to understand Aung San Suu Kyi's supreme importance to the vast majority of the population and her vital role in both the present and future welfare of the country.

Obviously, most of her followers and fellow activists are unknown to the world, but rest assured, many thousands of them are risking their lives at this very moment for the right to live in a free and democratic society.

Frankly, I wish there were tens of thousands of tiny flip video cams that could be smuggled into the country to reveal to the world just what everyday nonviolent revolution looks like within the cities, monasteries, prisons, labour and refugee camps, as well as within the homes and thousands of villages scattered throughout the country. Of course, we know through smuggled out video what the demonstrations looked like from the Buddhist monk and nun led uprising in 2007 but we rarely, if ever, see or hear the tiny daily acts of courageous defiance of ordinary citizens living under one of the most brutal military regimes in the modern era.

Of course, Aung San Suu Kyi would be the first to say that she is just one voice in her country's struggle for freedom. She also repeatedly states that the success of the revolution will only come when everybody does their part -- puts their freedom into action for the greater good.

Another important point that I found both within our book and in her most recent words last week, is that the goal of her country's revolution is radical change in Burma. Clearly, she wants a peaceful transition from the country's current state of authoritarianism to a truly free and democratic nation. She has never wavered in her goal. Ultimately, she is calling for dialogue for the purpose of achieving reconciliation with all parties, the military, the democratic forces and the ethnic nationalities. She said this to me in 1995 and she is saying it again in 2010.

Aung San Suu Kyi firmly believes that we must learn to talk through our differences and not revert to arms to resolve conflicts. She has repeatedly invited senior military officials to talk. She has also repeatedly stated that she and other invited members are prepared to listen.

We can go into this further, if you want?

NMR: Please do.

AC: To understand the heart and soul of Aung San Suu Kyi requires exploring the meaning of a number of key words and concepts that she uses to define her vision as a political leader. For instance, take her phrase "a revolution of the spirit" and look at it as a constellation of ideologies, very specific ideas that are consciously designed to be enacted as lived experience or put into revolutionary action.

I would say the brightest star in Aung San Suu Kyi's mind is freedom -- the freedom of mind that comes from the certainty that one does not have to fear that the authorities in Burma will come in the middle of the night to arbitrarily arrest, interrogate, imprison or torture you, simply for supporting democracy or the National League for Democracy (NLD) -- the political organization that Aung San Suu Kyi is a party member.

Freedom for her people is the essence of her ongoing call for a peaceful revolution. The full meaning of that freedom could be said to be articulated in the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This four page document is considered to be the basis of civilized existence, abused as it is, by many countries around the world. Nonetheless, it was conceived as a blueprint for global sanity. In Burma, the military authorities have absolutely no regard for that UN declaration. None! The rules they play by are decidedly criminal by all standards of international law.

Another star or chief characteristic in the constellation of Burma's revolution is nonviolence or ahimsa -- harmlessness. Aung San Suu Kyi sees this state of mind as non-aggression, non-vilification and non-demonization, even towards one's oppressor or enemy.

You may recall that upon her release she said that she did not hold a grudge towards those who had detained her for the past seven and a half years of her life, and she did not say it with any air of spiritual superiority. She does not seem to harbour hate. I think what she was saying was that her inner freedom was simply untouched by her captors -- untouched by their fear, untouched by their hate or maybe it is jealousy that motivates their behavior. Whatever it is that allows her such inner freedom serves as a reminder to us all that ‘hatred never ceases by hatred,' as the Buddha once said. This is an ancient principle. "Only by love does hatred cease." This is a guiding principle of Aung San Suu Kyi's spiritual and political life.

The need for radical change is another set of words that define Aung San Suu Kyi's revolution. One of the first questions I asked her when we first met in 1995 was "now that you have been released from [her first six years of detention] has anything really changed in Burma?" She replied, "No. Except the world knows better that we are still prisoners in our own country."

We should remember that she is not asking for a regime change in Burma. She is inviting a radical change in values, and the means for that transformation is through dialogue -- the ability to consciously resolve our differences through listening, questioning and wise consideration. From there, the best course of action for achieving reconciliation, national unity and therefore, peaceful co-existence can be determined. She always comes back to the call for change through open dialogue. But how to get the military leaders to the table is another question altogether.

Click here for the second part of this interview.

Alan Clements has released a new book called A Future to Believe In which acts as a guide to putting into action lessons from The Voice of Hope.

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