Friday, June 15, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Aung San Suu Kyi's "Freedom from Fear"

Many people think of fear as the emotion belonging to persecuted people, not their controllers. But Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi felt otherwise. In her now-famous “Freedom from Fear” speech in 1990, she pointed out that oppressors are motivated by fear: "It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

She knows persecution well. She is the only daughter of Aung San, the founder of modern Burma, who negotiated its independence from the British and was later assassinated. She echoed his well-known courage in this speech, using his memory to motivate her listeners: “Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.” The words are poignant because she might well have been speaking of her own persistence in the face of persecution.

It’s no mistake that her voice was so powerful that it had to be silenced. After the military called a general election in 1990 and then nullified the results, she was placed under house arrest for 15 of the following 21 years, making her one of the world’s political prisoners of longest standing. She was freed earlier this year. This week, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Norway to receive her Nobel Prize in personand deliver her acceptance speech, 11 years after it was awarded to her. This week's trip marks the first time she has left Burma in more than two decades.

Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Start strong: The words "It is not power that corrupts, but fear" come right at the start of this speech, rather than after a long build-up of arguments--and these are the most-quoted words in this speech. It's the one-two punch, the throwing down of a gauntlet, the bald statement that grips the listener from sentence word. And, from a woman who was prevented from using her time as she might have wanted to, it ensures that her speech doesn't waste a moment getting to the point.
  • Share innermost feelings: Emotion and inner feelings form a strong thread that connects this speaker to her audiences around the world. She speaks of grace under pressure, fear and fearlessness, humiliation and peace, giving voice to the unseen forces that shape the oppressors and the oppressed, rather than relying on descriptions of the physical actions and surroundings of that oppression. This helps underscore her point that revolutions must include "revolutions of the spirit," as well as the physical overthrow of individuals and offices.
  • Give everyone something they can do: In an oppressive regime, and in her situation, not every listener can take up arms or storm the capital. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi directs them to something they can do: Rid their minds of fear, and embrace courage and grace under pressure. It's consistent with her peaceful approach to protest, and also a practical call to action for her listeners.
The image above, via the Nobel Women's Initiative, is just the right size for a Facebook cover photo, if you want to honor Suu Kyi today. Below is a BBC interview in which she describes her detention, and what her life has been like since she was freed from house arrest: