Freedom from Fear speech
by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, 1990
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. Most Burmese
are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption.
Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the
right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves.
Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom
one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance.
But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only
does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right
and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds
of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer
avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill
of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or
injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And
it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom
to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship
between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society
where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.
Public dissatisfaction with economic hardships
has been seen as the chief cause of the movement for democracy
in Burma, sparked off by the student demonstrations 1988. It is
true that years of incoherent policies, inept official measures,
burgeoning inflation and falling real income had turned the country
into an economic shambles. But it was more than the difficulties
of eking out a barely acceptable standard of living that had eroded
the patience of a traditionally good-natured, quiescent people
- it was also the humiliation of a way of life disfigured by corruption
The students were protesting not just
against the death of their comrades but against the denial of
their right to life by a totalitarian regime which deprived the
present of meaningfulness and held out no hope for the future.
And because the students' protests articulated the frustrations
of the people at large, the demonstrations quickly grew into a
nationwide movement. Some of its keenest supporters were businessmen
who had developed the skills and the contacts necessary not only
to survive but to prosper within the system. But their affluence
offered them no genuine sense of security or fulfilment, and they
could not but see that if they and their fellow citizens, regardless
of economic status, were to achieve a worthwhile existence, an
accountable administration was at least a necessary if not a sufficient
condition. The people of Burma had wearied of a precarious state
of passive apprehension where they were 'as water in the cupped
hands' of the powers that be.
Emerald cool we may be_As water in cupped
hands_But oh that we might be_As splinters of glass_In cupped
Glass splinters, the smallest with its
sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try
to crush, could be seen as a vivid symbol of the spark of courage
that is an essential attribute of those who would free themselves
from the grip of oppression. Bogyoke Aung San regarded himself
as a revolutionary and searched tirelessly for answers to the
problems that beset Burma during her times of trial. He exhorted
the people to develop courage: 'Don't just depend on the courage
and intrepidity of others. Each and every one of you must make
sacrifices to become a hero possessed of courage and intrepidity.
Then only shall we all be able to enjoy true freedom.'
The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted
in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence
is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live
in states governed by the rule of law. Just laws do not merely
prevent corruption by meting out impartial punishment to offenders.
They also help to create a society in which people can fulfil
the basic requirements necessary for the preservation of human
dignity without recourse to corrupt practices. Where there are
no such laws, the burden of upholding the principles of justice
and common decency falls on the ordinary people. It is the cumulative
effect on their sustained effort and steady endurance which will
change a nation where reason and conscience are warped by fear
into one where legal rules exist to promote man's desire for harmony
and justice while restraining the less desirable destructive traits
in his nature.
In an age when immense technological advances
have created lethal weapons which could be, and are, used by the
powefful and the unprincipled to dominate the weak and the helpless,
there is a compelling need for a closer relationship between politics
and ethics at both the national and international levels. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations proclaims
that 'every individual and every organ of society' should strive
to promote the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings
regardless of race, nationality or religion are entitled. But
as long as there are governments whose authority is founded on
coercion rather than on the mandate of the people, and interest
groups which place short-term profits above long-term peace and
prosperity, concerted international action to protect and promote
human rights will remain at best a partially realized struggle.
There willcontinue to be arenas of struggle where victims of oppression
have to draw on their own inner resources to defend their inalienable
rights as members of the human family.
The quintessential revolution is that
of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need
for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the
course of a nation's development. A revolution which aims merely
at changing official policies and institutions with a view to
an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine
success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which
produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be
operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and
regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy
and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere
in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths,
to resist the corrupting influences ofdesire, ill will, ignorance
Saints, it has been said, are the sinners
who go on 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.
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. A people who would build a nation in which
strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee
against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their
own minds from apathy and fear.
Always one to practise what he preached,
Aung San himself constantly demonstrated courage - not just the
physical sort but the kind that enabled him to speak the truth,
to stand by his word, to accept criticism, to admit his faults,
to correct his mistakes, to respect the opposition, to parley
with the enemy and to let people be the judge of his worthiness
as a leader. It is for such moral courage that he will always
be loved and respected in Burma - not merely as a warrior hero
but as the inspiration and conscience of the nation. The words
used by Jawaharlal Nehru to describe Mahatma Gandhi could well
be applied to Aung San:
'The essence of his teaching was fearlessness
and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare
of the masses in view.'
Gandhi, that great apostle of non-violence,
and Aung San, the founder of a national army, were very different
personalities, but as there is an inevitable sameness about the
challenges ofauthoritarian rule anywhere at any time, so there
is a similarity in the intrinsic qualities of those who rise up
to meet the challenge. Nehru, who considered the instillation
of courage in the people of India one of Gandhi's greatest achievements,
was a political modernist, but as he assessed the needs for a
twentieth-century movement for independence, he found himself
looking back to the philosophy of ancient India: 'The greatest
gift for an individual or a nation . .. was abhaya, fearlessness,
not merely bodily courage but absence of fear from the mind.'
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.
Within a system which denies the existence
of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day.
Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear ofdeath, fear oflosing
friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty,
fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear
is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning
as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily
acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and
inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned
by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right
to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even
under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again
and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.
The wellspring of courage and endurance
in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the
sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense
that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate
course for both spiritual and material advancement. It is his
capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes
man from the mere brute. At the root of human responsibility is
the concept of peffection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence
to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if
not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual
limitations and environmental impediments. It is man's vision
of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him
to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear.
Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed
as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against