Despite being halfway around the world, a Nobel Prize winner personally accepted an award from the University last night.
Aung San Suu Kyi — a Burmese nonviolence activist and 1991 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize — accepted the Raoul Wallenberg Medal for humanitarianism via telecommunication and Skype. More than 500 people watched her accept the award in Rackham Auditorium.
Suu Kyi, who currently heads the National League for Democracy in Burma, recorded a 30-minute lecture accepting the award in which she spoke about her experience as a humanitarian.
“(Democracy) is not an end in itself but the means to achieve a particular kind of society,” Suu Kyi said in her recorded lecture. “… The people of Burma have made democracy their cause because they want the freedom to be able to help themselves.”
The Wallenberg Medal is awarded to humanitarians whose actions on behalf of persecuted people represent the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, a University alum who saved an estimated 100,000 people from Nazi execution during World War II. Other recipients of the medal include the Dalai Lama, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Suu Kyi is the 21st recipient of the medal.
Suu Kyi closed her lecture by paying tribute to Wallenberg.
“To deny freedom means to deny life,” Suu Kyi said. “That is, those who love life cry out: ‘Give me freedom or give me death.’”
Following the viewing of her speech, a panel of students was invited to the stage to ask Suu Kyi questions via Skype.
Because it was 7 a.m. in Burma, John Godfrey, Wallenberg executive committee chair and Rackham Graduate School’s assistant dean for international education, prefaced the question-and-answer session by telling the audience that Suu Kyi “might still be waking up.”
As her face appeared on the screen, the audience rose to their feet in resounding applause. Following the ovation, Lester Monts, the University’s senior vice provost for academic affairs, awarded Suu Kyi the Wallenberg Medal to which she responded with a smile.
Undergraduate and graduate students on the panel asked Suu Kyi questions ranging from her inspiration as an advocate for Burma’s new constitution to the current situation in Libya.
“Her discussion with the students was brilliant,” Godfrey said in an interview after the event. “If anyone can bring a message of endurance and hope and persistence on behalf of what is right on justice and human rights, it is this woman.”
Godfrey proceeded to explain how Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Burma for 15 years until 2010. She was released on the condition that she was not to leave the country.
“The (Wallenberg) Committee had talked about her for years, but she had been under house arrest and completely isolated,” Godfrey said. “When she was released from house detention … we began to think, ‘Well, she’s not going to be able to leave Burma, but is there any other way to do it?’”
Suu Kyi is best known for her fight for democracy and pursuit to ensure human rights in Burma.