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Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was on Tuesday presented with the European Union’s Sakharov Prize – an award she won in 1990 but was unable to collect as she was placed under house arrest by the previous ruling military junta.
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, was established in December 1988 by the European Parliament as a means to honour individuals or organisations who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought.
The Burmese pro-democracy icon was the third winner of the award, joining Nelson Mandela and Soviet leader Anatoly Marchenko in 1988, and Czechoslovak leader of the “Velvet Revolution” Alexander Dubček in 1989.
“Twenty-three years later, we welcome you here and it is a great moment,” said European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
Suu Kyi accepted the prize to a standing ovation. She began her speech by thanking her hosts for the support she has received during her long fight for democracy in Burma, and she talked briefly about how under military rule in 1990, people in Burma were afraid of asking too many questions.
“It was taken for granted that those who had power and authority could do exactly as they pleased,” she said. “This was something that we [the pro-democracy movement] could not accept.”
The main focus of Suu Kyi’s speech was freedom of thought, and how the countries of the European Union have given Burma the strength to carry on in their quest for democracy and freedom.
“We are in the age of globalization, which has its drawbacks, which has its problems, but it also has great advantages in that nowhere in the world, can people ignore what other people think,” she said.
“He [Professor Sakharov] would have wished us to be in a place, where freedom of thought was the birth right of every single citizen of our country.”
At a short question and answer session after her speech, Suu Kyi was asked if China would fill the EU’s place if aid and development funding were not available from her European ally.
“China is our neighbour and will always be our neighbour,” she responded, adding that she wished to continue “good friendly relations” and a “very healthy foreign policy” with China.
She said Burma wishes to maintain and improve relations with all neighbors and friends, including Western countries.
Suu Kyi was also awarded in absentia the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. After spending more than 15 of 21 years under house arrest she was finally released in November 2010. She won a parliamentary seat at a Rangoon by-election in 2011 and now sits in Burma’s lower house where she has been involved with various issues including chairing the inquiry committee on the controversial Latpadaung copper mine project earlier this year.
Speaking in Brussels at the weekend, she said that the 2015 general election could not take place in a free and fair manner unless certain constitutional changes were made, one of which is a provision that would allow her to seek the presidency.