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On June 16, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi finally delivered an acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on her 21 years ago. To her people, Suu Kyi has long been the symbol of the freedom movement against Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Her push for democracy and iconic status as daughter of General Aung San, an independence hero of the country, led to her being kept under house arrest for many years. Becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners, she won the Nobel award in 1991. But Suu Kyi was detained and unable to accept the prize.
Today, finally freed from detention, she is an elected member of Parliament and leader of Myanmar’s opposition party – as her country slowly tries to march towards democratization. Her recent Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway – while 21 years late – is a powerful reminder that when even a single voice speaks up, the world may listen.
In 1991, I was in college when I first read about Suu Kyi – the woman know simply to her people as “The Lady.” I was immediately intrigued by how this slight woman, following Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent protest and Buddhist principles, could be such a threat to Myanmar’s military dictatorship. At the time, I was knee-deep competing in the intercollegiate speech world and often talked about Suu Kyi and her Nobel Peace Prize in impromptu speeches. I was fascinated by her origin (like me) from a Southeast Asian country, by her compelling name, and by how she could inspire a nation.
Since then, I have periodically followed news about Suu Kyi. In November 2010, I was happy to hear she was finally released from house arrest. I was even more thrilled when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December 2011 and photos showed two of my favorite ladies in politics meeting in person. With Secretary Clinton and other members of the international community pushing, Myanmar’s military government is taking slow steps towards loosening its grip. In spring 2012, Suu Kyi won a seat in the country’s Parliament and is now the opposition leader through her National League for Democracy party.
Suu Kyi’s recent speech to finally accept her Nobel Peace Prize brought this story full circle for me. These words from “the Lady” were particularly powerful: “Often during my days of house arrest, it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. . . 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. … 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.” And this sentiment really moves me: “To be forgotten is to die a little.”
The Lady is so right. For those who speak out for injustice, to be forgotten is indeed to die a little. Freedom and justice comes when voices are not just heard, but remembered. And as Suu Kyi personifies, your voice can speak even through silence, isolation and house arrest.
Today, groups in America still fight for change – to bring greater equality for women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other historically disadvantaged groups. For the younger generation and everyone else who wonders why change doesn’t come fast enough, remember Suu Kyi. While Myanmar still faces a long road to achieve true democracy, Suu Kyi’s journey is proof that the arc of history does indeed bend toward justice – as long as you keep speaking up and even if it takes 21 years to stand with Nobel.
I’m no longer giving impromptu speeches in competition. But reading about the Lady’s Nobel speech brought back for me the feelings I had about this freedom figure 21 years ago. Suu Kyi will forever hail from a Southeast Asian country like me, still has a wonderfully compelling name, and now more than ever, her voice ignites not just her nation but the world.
Jimmy Nguyen is nationally recognized as an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, diversity and LGBT advocate, commentator and motivational speaker. In 2008, Lawdragon named Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America. He has been named a “Best Lawyer under 40” by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the National LGBT Bar Association. Jimmy serves on the board, and is former co-chair, of the California Minority Counsel Program. He formerly served on the board of Equality California, and in 2010, was named by the Advocate magazine to its “Forty under40” list of top LGBT persons. Jimmy writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyWinMedia.