By Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International researcher on Myanmar
I arrived back in Bangkok this afternoon with ears still ringing but most of the jet-lag cancelled out by nearly back-to-back return flights. “Nearly”, because in between were some of the most memorable moments of my almost two years as Amnesty’s Myanmar specialist and almost 20 years as one of U2’s most devoted fans.
On their massive “360 Degrees” tour in their hometown of Dublin on Monday night, U2 announced that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been recognized with Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2009. Hearing this was gratifying, but hearing—and seeing—what came next, was enough to stir the conscience as well as the senses.
A full-voice rendition of U2’s “Walk On” (which they wrote for her), accompanied by photos of her on their enormous 360 Degrees screen, and dozens of Amnesty International volunteers taking the circular stage with the band wearing Daw Suu Kyi masks.
And more than that: 80,000 people standing, singing, swaying, and raising their voices with the band so loudly that one wondered if Daw Suu Kyi herself couldn’t hear them in faraway Yangon. With her trial for allegedly breaching the conditions of her house arrest scheduled to conclude the following day—and a verdict expected this Friday—it’s doubtful she knows of her latest award. But that she should inspire the world’s most spectacular rock band to make her a focus of their 360 Degrees tour is testament to why she has won it.
The Ambassador of Conscience Award recognizes outstanding witness to human rights, and though having spent more than 13 of the past 20 years behind walls or bars, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal witness to human rights has been singularly irrepressible. Through what she has done and refused to do, what she has said and refused to say—through simply bearing witness—Daw Suu Kyi has demonstrated time and again that you cannot silence the voice of human rights simply by locking it up and trying to throw away the key.
And witness is contagious. Though I had no clear answer to press queries before the show as to whether the award would have an effect on Daw Suu Kyi’s immediate situation, what I do know is that her witness to human rights has inspired countless others to do the same. Among them are more than 2,100 other political prisoners in Myanmar, who should also be freed.
And, as of Monday night, 80,000 other people were among them as well. Far from being silenced, their voices were raised. It was beautiful and it was powerful. But most importantly, it was loud. It was very, very loud.