Freedom from fear is the "master key" that clears the way for other liberties, Nobel Peace laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said late Tuesday as she was honored by the University of Michigan.
Suu Kyi is the most prominent pro-democracy campaigner in Myanmar and spent 15 years on house arrest before the Southeast Asian country's military leaders freed her last year. The university honored her with its annual Wallenberg Medal, named for alumnus Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II.
Although she has not been expressly banned from leaving Myanmar, Suu Kyi didn't travel aboard because of concerns she may not be allowed back in Myanmar. She spoke to the crowd through a live Internet feed.
"Fear renders us dumb and passive. Fear paralyzes," Suu Kyi said during a pre-recorded speech, before answering live questions from the audience. "If we are too frightened to speak out, we can do nothing to promote freedom of speech.
"If we are too frightened to challenge injustices, we will not be able to defend our right to freedom of belief. Neither will we dare to ask for the rectification of the social and economic ills that make our lives a misery."
Myanmar, which was under direct military rule for decades until this year, has been saddled with trade, economic and political sanctions from the U.S. and other nations. It has a population of roughly 54 million people.
Since taking power in March, Myanmar President Thein Sein has adopted policies that could lead to an easing of international sanctions, including the recent release of 200 political prisoners.
Suu Kyi, 66, said she didn't feel different when released from house arrest because "my mind had always been free." Nonetheless, she said, her freedom means she "can work to take our country further along the road to democracy."
She added: "I have emphasized freedom from fear in our struggle because I see it as the master key that will open the door" to other freedoms.
Coincidentally, the United States' special envoy to Myanmar met with Suu Kyi and government officials but no details were released when the trip ended Tuesday. Ambassador Derek Mitchell departed without coverage by the state-controlled media of his visit, despite speculation it involved talks about possible U.S. responses to reform by Myanmar's new government.
No one in the audience asked Suu Kyi about Mitchell's visit during a question-and-answer session at the university's Rackham Auditorium. Appearing via Skype, she answered questions about violent and non-violent revolution, her role models and the chances for a peaceful transition to democracy in Myanmar.
"Wasn't there oppression in the United States? You worked your way out of it," she said. "There can be no democracy without genuine peace."
She said all political prisoners must be released before Myanmar can become a true democracy. She said parts of the country's constitution are "not compatible with democratic values" and might need to be changed.
The university has been awarding the Wallenberg Medal since 1990, when Nobel laureate and World War II concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel was the first recipient. Suu Kyi is the first honoree not to accept the award in person.