What is Freedom? Ask ASSK

September 21, 2012 | Elizabeth F.

In 2008, Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) received the United States Congress’ highest civilian honor – the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yesterday, she was finally able to accept it in person.

After spending fifteen years under house arrest for leading peaceful democratic efforts against Myanmar’s military junta, ASSK has, well…had her hands tied with bigger priorities. After being released from prison in November 2010, she was busy campaigning for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In April 2012, her efforts helped the NLD win 43 out of 45 seats, including a seat of her own. Despite this victory, the parliament is still largely ruled by the military, and thus ASSK’s struggle for freedom and democracy is far from over.

With ASSK’s humble and much-overdue reception of the Medal of Honor, it is fitting for each of us living in the land of the free to (re)consider for what exactly this strong yet modest woman has been struggling all of these years? As America approaches a highly partisan election this November that is already displaying the frustrating and ugly side of politics, perhaps we should consider the greater cause at hand. What is freedom? Just ask ASSK.


…is worth it. After the NLD won a large majority in the 1990 parliamentary elections, ASSK and her party were forbidden by the ruling military to take power. She was instead interred as a political prisoner and detained under house arrest for fifteen years. She was even forbidden from visiting her husband before he died from cancer in 1999. After all of her sacrifices, however, ASSK is finally beginning to see the fruits of her efforts.

…unites.  The above photograph is special not just because it documents ASSK’s award, but because it shows that her struggle for freedom and democracy unites even the most bitter of political foes. A photo in which Speaker Boehner, Leader Pelosi, Secretary Clinton, and Leader McConnell are seen enthusiastically supporting a single effort represents something truly remarkable. All sarcasm aside, ASSK’s efforts for freedom are uniting both her country and ours.

…is a sound. In her famous poem, In the Quiet Land, ASSK depicts freedom as something so true and tangible it is audible. A lack of freedom, her poem describes, creates a quiet, mysterious land in which citizens are scared and silent. As frustrating as American politics can be when we constantly hear political ads or rhetorical attacks, we should remember that freedom is a sound. The incessant political dialogue is better than the alternative of a Quiet Land.

In the Quiet Land, no one can tell
if there’s someone who’s listening
for secrets they can sell.
The informers are paid in the blood of the land
and no one dares speak what the tyrants won’t stand.
In the quiet land of Burma,
no one laughs and no one thinks out loud.
In the quiet land of Burma,
you can hear it in the silence of the crowd
In the Quiet Land, no one can say
when the soldiers are coming
to carry them away.
The Chinese want a road; the French want the oil;
the Thais take the timber; and SLORC takes the spoils…
In the Quiet Land….
In the Quiet Land, no one can hear
what is silenced by murder
and covered up with fear.
But, despite what is forced, freedom’s a sound
that liars can’t fake and no shouting can drown.

…is both a means and an end. In one of her most famous speeches, “Freedom from Fear,” ASSK asserts that freedom from fear is the only way to take the steps to achieve the goal of a free society:

Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end.

Fear is the only impediment to freedom, and freedom is a goal worth overcoming our deepest fears.

…is hard work. This brief reflection on ASSK’s accomplishments makes it obvious that freedom is hard work. In the same “Freedom from Fear” speech, ASSK likens freedom advocates to saints whose sin doesn’t keep them from trying:

So free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society.

The work of freedom never seems to end, but it is work for which we should be thankful; it is work worth doing.

So the next time we as free people loathe the seemingly excessive political talk, complain about the burden of driving or walking the five blocks to the polling station, or misconstrue some comment to be able to conveniently take offense to it, let us remember the freedom work of ASSK and then get back to freedom work of our own.

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