This page is Aung San Suu Kyi - Empowerment for Peace and Development



Excerpts from chapter 23 of the book
Freedom from Fear, Penguin Books 1995

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please buy Freedom from Fear. You will surely enjoy the text and the book fine 16 photos of Suu Kyi's life. And you will help her and her party in their long struggle against the Myanmar's military rulers that stubbornly oppose democracy and human rights.

Address presented on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi by Mrs Corazon Aquino, former President of the Philippines, to a meeting of UNESCO's World Commission on Culture and Development in November 1994. The address was composed at the invitation of the Commission's chairman; Aung San Suu Kyi has been an honorary member of the Commission since it was founded in 1992.


At its third meeting held in Costa Rica in February 1994, the World Commission on Culture and Development stated that 'a culture of peace, culture of democracy and culture of human rights are indivisible. Their effective implementation must result in a democratic management and ... the prevention of cultural conflicts'.

Peace as a goal is an ideal which will not be contested by any government or nation, not even the most belligerent. And the close interdependence of the culture of peace and the culture of development also finds ready acceptance. But it remains a matter of uncertainty how far governments are prepared to concede that democracy and human rights are indivisible from the culture of peace and therefore essential to sustained development. There is ample evidence that culture and development can actually be made to serve as pretexts for resisting calls for democracy and human rights. It is widely known that some governments argue that democracy is a Western concept alien to indigenous values; it has also been asserted that economic development often conflicts with political (i.e. democratic) rights, and that the second should necessarily give way to the first. In the light of such arguments culture and development need to be carefully examined and defined that they may not be used, or rather, misused, to block the aspirations of peoples for democratic institutions and human rights.

The unsatisfactory record of development in many parts of the world and the ensuing need for a definition of development which means more than mere economic growth became a matter of vital concern to economists and international agencies more than a decade ago. In 1983, Francois Perroux gave a firm place to human and cultural values within any scheme for progress, economic or otherwise. The United Nations Development Programme too began to spell out the difference between growth and development in the 1980s. With the beginning of the 1990s the primacy of the human aspect of development was acknowledged by the UNDP with the publication of its first Human Development Report. And the special focus of the 1993 report was people's participation, seen as 'the central issue of our time'.

While the concept of human development is beginning to assume a dominant position in the thinking of international economists and administrators, the Market Economy is increasingly regarded by many governments as the quick and certain way to material prosperity. It is assumed that economic measures can resolve all the problems facing their countries. Economics is described as 'the most important key to every lock of every door to the new Asia we wish to see'; and 'healthy economic development' is seen as 'essential to successfully meeting the challenge of peace and security, the challenge of human rights and responsibilities, the challenge of democracy and the rule of law, the challenge of social justice and reform and the challenge of cultural renaissance and pluralism.'

The view that economic development is essential to peace, human rights, democracy and cultural pluralism, and the view that a culture of peace, democracy and human rights is essential to sustained human development, may seem on the surface to differ only in the matter of approach. But a closer investigation reveals that the difference in approach itself implies differences of a more fundamental order. When economics is regarded as 'the most important key to every lock of every door,' it is only natural that the worth of man should come to be decided largely, even wholly, by his effectiveness as an economic tool. This is at variance with the vision of a world where economic, political and social institutions work to serve man, instead of the other way round; where culture and development coalesce to create an environment in which human potential can be realized to the full. The differing views ultimately reflect differences in how the valuation of the various components of the social and national entity are made; how such basic concepts as poverty, progress, culture, freedom, democracy and human rights are defined and, of crucial importance, who has the power to determine such values and definitions.

The value systems of those with access to power and of those far removed from such access cannot be the same. The viewpoint of the privileged is unlike that of the underprivileged. Many 'economic' concerns are seldom just that, since they are tied up with questions of power and privilege. The problem of poverty provides an example of the inadequacy of a purely economic approach to a human situation. The poor are powerless and have no voice, incapable of either imposing, coercing or, in many cases, having any influence at all. And it is not enough merely to provide the poor with material assistance. They have to be sufficiently empowered to change their perception of themselves as helpless and ineffectual in an uncaring world.

Empowerment decides who has the means of imposing on a nation or society their view of what constitutes culture and development, and who determines what practical measures can be taken in the name of culture and development. The more totalitarian a system, the more power will be concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite, and the more culture and development will be used to serve narrow interests. The 'national culture' can become a bizarre graft of carefully selected historical incidents and distorted social values intended to justify the policies and actions of those in power. At the same time, development is likely to be seen in the now outmoded sense of economic growth. Statistics, often unverifiable, are reeled off to prove the success of official measures.

Many authoritarian governments wish to appear in the forefront of modern progress but are reluctant to institute genuine change. Such governments tend to claim that they are taking a uniquely national or indigenous path towards a [particular] political system. In the decades immediately after the Second World War socialism was the popular option. But since the 1980s democracy has increasingly gained ground. The focus on a national or indigenous way to socialism or democracy has:

the effect of stressing cultural continuity as both process and goal, -obviating the necessity of defining either democracy or socialism in institutionally or procedurally specific terms; and finally, it elevates the existing political elite to the indispensable position of final arbiter and interpreter of what does or does not contribute to the preservation of cultural integrity.
It is often in the name of cultural integrity, as well as social stability and national security, that democratic reforms based on human rights are resisted by authoritarian governments. It is insinuated that some of the worst ills of Western society are the result of democracy, which is seen as the progenitor of unbridled freedom and selfish individualism. It is claimed, usually without adequate evidence, that democratic values and human rights run counter to the national culture and therefore, to be beneficial, they need to be modified - perhaps to the extent that they are barely recognizable. The people are said to be as yet unfit for democracy; therefore an indefinite length of time has to pass before democratic reforms can be instituted.

The first form of attack is often based on the premise that the United States of America is the supreme example of democratic culture [but it is has defects]. Many of the worst ills of American society, increasingly to be found in varying degrees in other developed countries, can be traced not to the democratic legacy but to the demands of modern materialism. But could such a powerful and diverse nation as the United States have been prevented from disintegrating if it had not been sustained by democratic institutions guaranteed by a constitution based on the assumption that man's capacity for reason and justice makes free government possible and necessary?

It is precisely because of the cultural diversity of the world that it is necessary for different nations and peoples to agree on those basic human values which will act as a unifying factor. The values that democracy and human rights seek to promote can be found in many cultures, and the longing for a form of governance that provides security without destroying freedom goes back a long way. So support for the desirability of strong government and dictatorship can also be found in all cultures, both Eastern and Western: the desire to dominate and the tendency to adulate the powerful are also common human traits arising out of a desire for security. {The result is that] a nation may choose a system that leaves the protection of the freedom and security of the many dependent on the inclinations of the empowered few; or it may choose institutions and practices that will sufficiently empower individuals and organizations to protect their own freedom and security. The choice will decide how far a nation will progress along the road to peace and human development.

As poverty can no longer be defined satisfactorily in terms of basic economic needs, 'minority' can no longer be defined merely in terms of numbers. Minorities are those people with poor access to power. It is ultimately a question of empowerment. The provision of basic material needs is not sufficient to make minority groups and indigenous peoples feel they are truly part of the greater national entity. For that they have to be confident that they too have an active role to play in shaping the destiny of the state that demands their allegiance.

The Commission for a New Asia notes that:

the most rapid economic transformation is most likely to succeed within the context of international peace and internal political stability, in the presence of social tranquillity, public order and an enlightened and strong government; and in the absence of societal turbulence and disorder.
This comment highlights the link between economic, political and social concerns. But there is a danger that it could be interpreted to imply that peace, stability and public order are desirable only as conditions for facilitating economic transformation rather than as ends in themselves. Such an interpretation would distort the very meaning of peace and security. It could also be used to justify strong, even if unenlightened, government and any authoritarian measures that such a government may take in the name of public order.

If material betterment, which is but a means to human happiness, is sought in ways that wound the human spirit, it can in the long run only lead to greater human suffering. The vast possibilities that a market economy can open up to developing countries can be realized only if economic reforms are undertaken within a framework that recognizes human needs. The Human Development Report makes the point that markets should serve people instead of people serving markets. Further, 'both state and market should be guided by the people. The two should work in tandem, and people should be sufficiently empowered to exert effective control over both.' Democracy, as a political system which aims at empowering the people, is essential if sustained human development, which is 'development of the people for the people by the people', is to be achieved.

The argument that it took long years for the first democratic governments to develop in the west is not a valid excuse for African and Asian countries to drag their feet over democratic reform. The history of the world shows that peoples and societies do not have to pass through a fixed series of stages in the course of development. Moreover, latecomers should be able to capitalize on the experiences of the pioneers and avoid the mistakes and obstacles that impeded early progress.

There will be as many kinds of democracies as there are nations which accept it [democracy] as a form of government. Each democratic country will have its own individual characteristics. No single type of 'Western democracy' exists; nor is democracy limited to a mere handful of forms such as the American, British, French or Swiss. With the spread of democracy to Eastern Europe the variety in the democratic style of government will increase. Similarly there cannot be one form of Asian democracy; in each country the democratic system will develop a character that accords with its social, cultural and economic needs. But the basic requirement of a genuine democracy is that the people should be sufficiently empowered to be able to participate significantly in the governance of their country. The thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are aimed at such empowerment. Without these rights democratic institutions will be but empty shells incapable of reflecting the aspirations of the people and unable to withstand the encroachment of authoritarianism. The democratic tradition of free discussion and debate allows for the settlement of differences without resort to armed conflict. The culture of democracy and human rights promotes diversity and dynamism without disintegration; it is indivisible from the culture of development and the culture of peace.

Let me, in conclusion, summarize my argument. The true development of human beings involves much more than mere economic growth. At its heart there must be a sense of empowerment and inner fulfilment. This alone will ensure that human and cultural values remain paramount in a world where political leadership is often synonymous with tyranny and the rule of a narrow elite. People's participation in social and political transformation is the central issue of our time. This can only be achieved through the establishment of societies which place human worth above power and liberation above control. In this paradigm development requires democracy, the genuine empowerment of the people. When this is achieved, culture and development will naturally coalesce to create an environment in which all are valued and every kind of human potential can be realized. The alleviation of poverty involves processes which change the way in which the poor perceive themselves and their world. Mere material assistance is not enough; the poor must have the sense that they themselves can shape their own future. Most totalitarian regimes fear change but the longer they put off genuine democratic reform the more likely it is that even their positive contributions will be vitiated: the success of national policies depends on the willing participation of the people. The challenge we now face is for the different nations and peoples of the world to agree on a basic set of human values, which will serve as a unifying force in the development of a genuine global community. True economic transformation can then take place in the context of international peace and internal political stability. Only then will we be able to look to a future where human beings are valued for what they are rather than for what they produce. If the UN and its agencies wish to assist this development they must support these movements which seek to empower the people, movements which are founded on democracy and which will one day ensure a culture of peace and of development.


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