Photo: Jeff Moore/The Elders
As a tribute to freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, an empty chair is kept open at each meeting of The Elders, a group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to support peace and dialogue. Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign for democracy in Burma led to her arrest by its military government, which has kept her detained for 14 of the past 20 years. She is the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
Desmond Tutu, a member of The Elders and an active international advocate for peace, justice and reconciliation, shares his reaction to President Barack Obama's recent push to bring Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi into the global agenda.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a truly extraordinary woman. I can think of no better way of underlining her courage, sacrifice and importance than to describe her as Burma's Nelson Mandela.
Her long imprisonment, too, is a symbol of her country's continued oppression under a cruel military regime. Her commitment to democracy and nonviolence is a beacon of hope for her fellow countrymen and women—and an inspiration to all who prize freedom.
Aung San Suu Kyi has now been in jail or under house arrest for fourteen of the past 20 years. But the cruelty of the ruling generals goes beyond simply denying her freedom. They have also used her family to try to break her will.
Her husband, dying of cancer, was refused permission to fly to Burma to say goodbye. She has been separated from her children most of their lives. She has grandchildren she has never seen.
Such cruelty would weaken most of us, but not Aung San Suu Kyi. She may be small in stature, but she is a giant in spirit. She has refused to leave Burma because she won't abandon her people and she knows that she would never be allowed to return.
But what is most remarkable is that, like my friend Nelson Mandela, she is neither bitter nor angry. Despite all she has suffered, her message remains one of peaceful change and reconciliation in a country that lives in daily fear.
For Aung San Suu Kyi is not the only political prisoner in Burma. There are thousands who, like her, have been jailed for their beliefs. Thousands more have been killed simply because they dared to protest peacefully.
Appalling brutality, disregard for human life and corruption are the hallmarks of the military that seized power nearly four decades ago. Burma, one of the biggest countries in southeast Asia, is rich in natural resources. But while the generals have grown rich, its 50 million people are among the poorest in the world.