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Commentary: The long road to freedom for Aun San Suu Kyi

At a time when Americans are increasingly preoccupied the upcoming elections, some of San Francisco’s expatriates recently had a chance to hear from a political fighter of their own. Burmese opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi visited San Francisco at the end of last week, and thousands of members of the city’s Burmese community – which is one of the largest in the US – turned out to hear her speak.

Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest for her political activities in Burma (officially known as Myanmar), and has since been elected to the Burmese parliament. While in San Francisco she received the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, named for the former Czech dissident and later president.

The event, titled the San Francisco Freedom Forum, gathered human rights activists from all over the world, who gave powerful addresses on human rights issues from Uganda to Kazakhstan, China, and Saudi Arabia. The appearance of security service and police officers with dogs signaled that Suu Kyi was approaching.

Her speech was entitled “The Long Road to Freedom,” but she made it clear that it was not a topic she chose herself – she would have preferred to speak about Havel and his support for the Burmese political opposition.

The main message of her speech was personal responsibility as a key to democracy building. But while listening to Suu Kyi, I couldn't stop noticing her delicate choice of words. Her politically safe message was a sharp contrast with the words used by other human rights activists earlier that day.

At the same time, it wasn't surprising, since Burma’s democratic transition has just begun. What progress will take place depends on cooperation between Suu Kyi and the country's president Thein Sein; the role of military generals is still very significant as well. Thus, what made an impression was the long road to freedom that Suu Kyi herself personifies, rather than the words she actually said.