Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi Formally Accepts Nobel Peace Prize 21 Years Later

PHOTO: Nobel peace prize laureate, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives her Nobel lecture in Oslo on June 16, 2012.
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Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi formally accepted her Nobel Peace Prize today, more than two decades after it was awarded to honor her fight for democracy.

"We have been waiting for you for a very long time," Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland told Suu Kyi. "In your isolation, you have become a moral leader for the whole world."

Suu Kyi won the award in 1991 but for more than 20 years was either forbidden from leaving her country, or too afraid she would never be allowed to return. Today, as a free woman and member of parliament in a newly open Burma (now called Myanmar), she finally gave her acceptance speech.

"When the Nobel Committee chose to honor me, the road I had chosen...became a less lonely path to follow," Suu Kyi said. "The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart."

It was a remarkable moment.

A woman who had lived a difficult and lonely life as a prisoner of conscience was met by trumpet fanfare and an adoring crowd of dignitaries in Oslo's Town Hall, who gave her a pair of long standing ovations.

A Burmese musician played her favorite piece, the same one played here 22 years ago, when an empty chair marked Suu Kyi's absence.

Today, she spoke of her years under house arrest, when "it felt as though I were no longer part of the real world." What the Nobel award had done, she said, was send an unmistakeable message, to her supporters and to the Burmese regime. "The Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world," she said. "We were not going to be forgotten."

The ceremony capped a stunning turnaround.

Twenty three years ago I met Suu Kyi in her villa in Rangoon. At the time she was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the generals who ruled Burma - leading large rallies against the regime when gatherings of more than three were illegal.

There the crowds had been adoring, too, but it was a dangerous time. Soldiers had shot and killed hundreds of student demonstrators the previous year, and while Suu Kyi said she could not "remain indifferent to what was going on" she also preached a peaceful opposition, sprinkling her speeches with references to Ghandi and Martin Luther King. "I certainly don't want any more people to be shot," she told me. "But this does not mean we are going to sit back weakly, and do nothing."

Twelve days after she spoke those words, Suu Kyi found her home cordoned off by soldiers. She was placed under house arrest, the beginning of a two-decade-long repression.

Time and again the regime made conditional offers - in particular the prospect of exile to Great Britain, where Suu Kyi might join her family.

The catch was always that she could not expect a safe return. When her husband, an Oxford scholar, was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, the government refused to grant him a visa that might have let him see his wife. He died later that year.

Suu Kyi always preferred house arrest to any deal that would bar her from returning, or compromise her campaign against the junta. So she stayed and suffered, and galvanized an international effort that imposed sanctions against the Burmese government and ultimately led to this year's moves toward democracy.

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