By Hilary Gridley
Planning a birthday celebration for Aung San Suu Kyi may sound like a daunting task, but if there’s anyone fit to welcome the Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate to Ireland on her first trip to Europe after 24 years of intermittent house arrest, it’s Bono. Together with Amnesty International, the U2 frontman celebrated the civil rights leader’s 67th birthday at Electric Burma, the first concert she has attended in her honor outside Burma.
Last night’s celebrations included performances from such singer/activists as Bono, Damien Rice, Bob Geldof and Lupe Fiasco, and an opening presentation from Ireland’s Riverdance troupe. Bono and Rice played songs they had written in honor of Suu Kyi during her imprisonment, “Walk On” and “Unplayed Piano.” The cast came together during many portions of the night, delivering such apt favorites as Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
Other musical performers included Grammy-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo, French-Romanian violinist Sarah Nemtanu, Tibetan singer-songwriter and exile Yungchen Lhamo, and the Dublin Gospel Choir. Nobel Literature Laureate Seamus Heaney was also on hand, and Geldof and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Saoirse Ronan read his work.
Suu Kyi received Amnesty International’s highest accolade, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, in 2009. However, she was unable to accept it until this event. The award, given to “individuals who demonstrate exceptional leadership in the fight to protect human rights,” was inspired by Heaney’s poem, “From the Republic of Conscience.”
2000 people arrived at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin to honor the pro-democracy leader, including three Burmese friends who trekked across the country to show their support. During the evening, the entire crowd joined together to sing the guest of honor a birthday song. In a moment of solidarity with those who remain prisoners of conscience in Burma, several members of the audience held up their palms, which each showed the name of a political prisoner in Burma.
Despite the incomparable collection of accolades Suu Kyi has received since she began her involvement in Burmese opposition politics, she appeared truly humbled onstage. “To receive this award is to remind me that 24 years ago I took on duties from which I shall never be relieved but you have given me the strength to carry out,” she told Bono and the crowd. “I have discovered how much more people care. I had not expected this. I had not known how much they cared. This has come as a surprise to me and a very moving one.”
Indeed, the violence in Burma is far from over, but there is hope. Aung San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat in April’s elections despite concerns of voting fraud and corruption. While this is not the first time she has won an election, she was unable able to fulfill parliamentary duties while under house arrest.
Her imprisonment also prevented her from accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, although she did successfully start the The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Trust for Health and Education, to which she donates any money associated with the prizes she receives. All proceeds from Electric Burma benefitted the Trust and Amnesty International.
Aung San Suu Kyi receives Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience award.