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Oxford To Honor Suu Kyi After Years Of House Arrest


She lived for more than 20 years in virtual isolation in her home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Now, pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi is midway through a European tour in which she's meeting statesmen, celebrities and others who have admired her from afar. She has formally accepted the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and today she's collected an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Oxford University. But amidst all this, there are suggestions that her philosophy of civil disobedience and what's called spiritual revolution might have to change to fit her new role back home. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Oxford.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: One of the most dramatic moments in Suu Kyi's nonviolent confrontation with the military came during the election campaign of 1988. The actual incident was dramatized in last year's movie "The Lady," in which Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh plays Suu Kyi.


KUHN: In a small Burmese town, soldiers level their rifles and threaten to shoot Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy if they try to pass.


MICHELLE YEOH: (as Aung San Suu Kyi) We will continue in a calm and orderly fashion. (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: Suu Kyi stares them down and walks alone, right through their line. In a speech broadcast by the BBC last year, Aung San Suu Kyi says she found inspiration for her tactics in the independent struggle of Burma's neighbor, India.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I was attracted to the way of non-violence, but not on moral grounds, as some believe, only on practical, political grounds. It is simply based on my conviction that we need to put an end to the tradition of regime change through violence, a tradition that has become the running sore of Burmese politics.

KUHN: But Krishna Mallick, a philosophy professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, says Suu Kyi draws on Mahatma Gandhi's idea of not defeating an opponent, but transforming him or her by moral example.

KRISHNA MALLICK: The whole idea of this nonviolence is to help make the other side realize that what they're doing is wrong. So it is changing their morals, but without using any force.

KUHN: She says Suu Kyi also drew on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his tactic of making injustice visible.

MALLICK: Like Martin Luther King, Jr. had done, you know, where he says in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," that you have to make the injustice visible. So I think she has accomplished that. She has made the injustice visible to the Western world.

KUHN: Juliane Schober, an anthropologist of religion at Arizona State University in Tempe, says that Suu Kyi's Buddhist faith also contains traditions of protest.

JULIANE SCHOBER: I would characterize her as being part of a broader Buddhist movement called socially engaged Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is part of that. So is Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam - the idea being that first, you need to take care of people's material needs.

KUHN: In Saturday's Nobel lecture, Suu Kyi suggested that her spirituality grew more intense as a result of her confinement. Cut off from the outer world, she withdrew into an inner world of meditation.

KYI: It felt as though I were no longer part of the real world. There was a house which was my world. There was a world of others who also were not free, but who were together in prison as a community. And there was the world of the free. Each one was a different planet pursuing its own separate cause in an indifferent universe.

KUHN: But now, some critics say Suu Kyi's so-called spiritual revolution is a distraction from more concrete issues of politics and policy. Schober argues that Suu Kyi will have to be careful to speak in less religious terms in order to represent all of Myanmar's people, including non-Buddhist minorities.

SCHOBER: The power of the state in Myanmar, as it is about to unfold, can't be based on Buddhist sources. It must be based on the sense of the constitution and secular power in the modern state.

KUHN: Here in Oxford and elsewhere in Europe, Suu Kyi's political ascent is being feted as a triumph of democracy and nonviolence. But any sense of vindication could quickly disappear if the accommodation she's reached with the government collapses and her freedoms are once again curtailed. Also, her legacy as a protest leader could be tarnished if her policies as a politician back in Myanmar fail to make a dent in the country's endemic poverty, corruption and ethnic strife. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Oxford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.