Toward a true Refugee

The Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture

Refugee Studies Programme

University of Oxford


19 May 1993


Towards A True Refuge


Aung San Suu Kyi

Honorary Fellow of St Hugh's College

Nobel Peace Laureate



     When I was told that I had been invited to deliver the Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture for 1993, I felt very honoured. I also felt warmed by all that I had heard about Miss Pearce's Ockenden Venture, especially from Patricia Gore-Booth and her late husband Paul, dearly-loved friends who taught me much about kindness and caring. The thought that the lecture would be held under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth House gave me particular pleasure.  It is a place where I have spent many fruitful hours attending seminars and lectures and meeting people from different parts of the world.  Those hours now appear to me suffused in Oxford tranquility and reason and good fellowship.  So I would like to thank the Refugee Studies Programme and the Committee of the Annual Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture for more than just the invitation.  I would also like to thank them for the delightful recollections conjured up by their invitation.


     As Joyce Pearce put so much of her life and talents into her work for refugees, I wondered whether the lecture should not be related to refugee issues. But I felt very reluctant to take up a topic with which the audience is probably well acquainted while I am not.


     Then it occurred to me that the Burmese expression for refugee is dukkha-the, "one who has to bear dukkha, suffering".  In that sense, none of us can avoid knowing what it is to be a refugee.  The refuge we all seek is protection from forces which wrench us away from the security and comfort, physical and mental, which give dignity and meaning to human existence.


     The answer as to how such protection might be provided can be found only when the destructive forces have been identified.  Well-publicised catastrophes that rock the sensibilities of the world have small beginnings, barely discernible from the private and contained forms of distress which make up the normal quota of everyday suffering.  No man-made disaster suddenly bursts forth from the earth like warring armies sprung from dragon's teeth.  After all, even in the myth the dragon's teeth were procured and sown by a man for reasons quite unrelated to innocent zoological or agricultural pursuits. Calamities which are not the result of purely natural phenomena usually have their origins, distant and obscure though they may be in common human failings.


     But how common need those failings be?  In a world which no longer accepts that "common" germs and diseases should be left unchecked to take their toll of the weak and defenceless, it would not be inappropriate to ask if more attention should be paid to correcting "common" attitudes and values that pose a far more lethal threat to humankind.  It is my thoughts on some of these attitudes and values, which seem to be regarded as inevitable in an increasingly materialistic world, that I would like to communicate to you on this occasion.


     The end of the cold war has been represented as a signal for shifting the emphasis of national and international concern from ideology and politics to economics and trade.  But it is open to debate whether policies heavily, if not wholly, influenced by economic considerations will make of the much bruited "New World Order" an era of progress and harmony such as is longed for by peoples and nations weary of conflict and suffering.


     As the twentieth century draws to a close, it has become obvious that material yardsticks alone cannot serve as an adequate measure of human well-being.  Even as basic an issue as poverty has to be reexamined to take into account the psychological sense of deprivation that makes people feel poor.  Such a "modern" concept of poverty is nothing new to the Burmese who have always used the word hsinye to indicate not only an insufficiency of material goods but also physical discomfort and distress of mind -- to be poor is to suffer from a paucity of those mental and spiritual as well as material resources that make a human being feel fulfilled and give life a meaning beyond mere existence.  It follows as a matter of course that chantha, the converse of hsinye, denotes not only material prosperity but also bodily ease and general felicity.  One speaks of chantha of the mind and of the body and one would wish to be possessed of both.


     It is widely accepted, if not too often articulated, that governments and international agencies should limit their efforts to the elimination of the more obvious forms of suffering rather than take on a task so uncertain, so abstruse and so susceptible to varying interpretations, as the promotion of happiness.  Many believe that policies and legislations aimed at establishing minimum standards with regard to wages, health care, working conditions, housing and education (in the formal, very limited sense of the word) are the most that can reasonably be expected from institutions as a contribution towards human well-being.  There seems to be an underlying assumption that amelioration in material conditions would eventually bring in its wake an improvement in social attitudes, philosophical values and ethical standards.  The Burmese saying "Morality (sila) can be upheld only when the stomach is full" is our version of a widely held sentiment that cuts across cultural boundaries. Brecht's "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" (First comes fodder, then come morals) also springs to mind.


     But such axioms are hardly a faithful reflection of what actually goes on in human society.  While it is undeniable that many have been driven to immorality and crime by the need to survive, it is equally evident that the possession of a significant surplus of material goods has never been a guarantee against covetousness, rapacity and the infinite variety of vice and pain that spring from such passions.  Indeed it could be argued that the unrelenting compulsion of those who already have much to acquire even more has generated greater injustice, immorality and wretchedness than the cumulative effect of the struggle of the severely underprivileged to better their lot.


     Given that man's greed can be a pit as bottomless as his stomach and that a psychological sense of deprivation can persist beyond the point where basic needs have been adequately met, it can hardly be expected that an increase in material prosperity alone would ensure even a decline in economic strife, let alone a mitigation of those myriad other forces that spawn earthly misery.


     The teachings of Buddhism which delve into the various causes of suffering identify greed as lust -- the passion for indulging an intemperate appetite -- as the first of the Ten Impurities that stand in the way of a tranquil, wholesome state of mind.  On the other hand much value is attached to liberality or generosity which heads such lists as the Ten Perfections of the Buddha, the Ten Virtues which should be practised, and the Ten Duties of Kings.  This emphasis on liberality should not be regarded as a facile endorsement of alms-giving based on canny calculation of possible benefits in the way of worldly prestige or otherworldly rewards.  It is a recognition of the crucial importance of the liberal, generous spirit as an effective antidote to greed as well as a fount of virtues which engender happiness and harmony.  The late Sayadaw Ashin Janaka Bivamsa of the famous Mahagandhrun monastery at Amarapura taught that liberality without morality cannot really be pure.  An act of charity committed for the sake of earning praise or prestige or a place in a heavenly abode he held to be tantamount to an act of greed.


     Loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity Buddhists see as "divine" states of mind which help to alleviate suffering and to spread happiness among all beings.  The greatest obstacle to these noble emotions is not so much hatred, anger or ill will as the rigid state that comes of a prolonged and unwavering concentration on narrow self-interest.  Hatred, anger or ill-will which arises from wrongs suffered, from misunderstanding or from fear and envy may yet be appeased if there is sufficient generosity of spirit to permit forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation.  But it would be impossible to maintain ore restore harmony when contention is rooted in the visceral inability of protagonists to concede that the other party has an equal claim to justice, sympathy and consideration.  Hardness, selfishness and narrowness belong with greed, just as kindness, understanding and vision belong with true generosity. 


     The act of willingly subtracting from one's own limited store of the good and the agreeable for the sake of adding to that of others reflects the understanding that individual happiness needs a base broader than the mere satisfaction of selfish passions.  From there, it is not such a large step to the realization that respecting the susceptibilities and rights of others is as important as defending one's own susceptibilities and rights if civilized society is to be safeguarded.  But the desirability of redressing imbalances which spoil the harmony of human relationships -- the ultimate foundation for global peace and security -- is not always appreciated.  Buddhism and other religious and ethical systems, however, have long recognised and sought to correct this prejudice in favour of the self.  A Jewish scholar commenting on the Torah wrote: "In morals, holiness negatively demanded resistance to every urge of nature which made self-serving the essence of human life; and positively, submission to an ethic which placed service to others at the centre of its system." [1]


     It would be naive to expect that all men could be expected to place service to others before service to the self.  But with sufficient resolve on the part of governments and institutions that influence public opinion and set international standards of behaviour, a greater proportion of the world's population could be made to realize that self-interest (whether as an individual, a community or a nation) cannot be divorced entirely from the interests of others.  Instead of assuming that material progress will bring an improvement in social, political and ethical standards, should it not be considered that an active promotion of appropriate social, political and ethical values might not only aid material progress but also help to ensure that its results are wisely and happily distributed? "Wealth enough to keep misery away and a heart wise enough to use it" was described as the "greatest good" by Aeschylus who lived in an age when, after decades of war, revolution and tyrannies, Athenian democracy in its morning freshness was beginning to prove itself as a system wonderfully suited to free, thinking men.[2]


     A narrowly focused materialism that seeks to block out all considerations apparently irrelevant to one's own well-being finally blocks out what is in fact most relevant.  Discussing the "culture of contentment" which poses a challenge to the social and economic future of the United States of America, Professor John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out that the fortunate and the favoured are so preoccupied with immediate comfort and contentment they have ceased to contemplate or respond to their own longer-term well-being.  "And this is not only in the capitalist world, as it is still called: a deeper and more general human instinct is here involved", he wrote[3]  the instinct to opt for narrow, short-term benefits can present a significant threat to the continued prosperity of a rich, industrialized state shored up by strongly established institutions, how much more of a threat might it be to nations which have but recently embarked, rather unsteadily, on the grand adventure of free market economics and democratic politics?  And it would surely be of the utmost danger to those societies still hovering on the edge of liberty and justice, still dominated by a minority well content with its monopoly on economic and political power.


     In newly emergent democracies many who have been disappointed in their expectations of immediate material betterment have sought to work out their frustrations by subscribing to outmoded and obscure conspiracy theories that foster prejudice, paranoia and violence.  The search for scapegoats is essentially an abnegation of responsibility: it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.  The valuation of achievement in predominantly material terms implies a limited and limiting view of human society, denying it many of the qualities that make it more than a conglomerate of egoistic consumer-gatherers who have advanced little beyond the prehistoric instinct for survival.


     It is perfectly natural that all people should wish for a secure refuge.  It is unfortunate that in spite of strong evidence to the contrary, so many still act as though security would be guaranteed if they fortified themselves with an abundance of material possessions.  The greatest threats to global security today come not from the economic deficiencies of the poorest nations but from religious, racial (or tribal) and political dissensions raging in those regions where principles and practices which could reconcile the diverse instincts and aspirations of mankind have been ignored, repressed or distorted.


     Man-made disasters are made by dominant individuals and cliques which refuse to move beyond the autistic confines of partisan interest.  An eminent development economist has observed that the best defence against famine is an accountable government.  It makes little political or economic sense to give aid without trying to address the circumstances that render aid ineffectual.  No amount of material goods and technological know-how will compensate for human irresponsibility and viciousness.


     Developed and developing nations alike suffer as a result of policies removed from a framework of values which uphold minimum standards of justice and tolerance.  The rapidity with which the old Soviet Union splintered into new states, many of them stamped with a fierce racial assertiveness, illustrates that decades of authoritarian rule may have achieved uniformity and obedience but could not achieve long-term harmony or stability. Nor did the material benefits enjoyed under the relatively successful post- totalitarian state[4] Yugoslavia succeed in dissipating the psychological impress of brooding historical experiences which have now led to some of the worst religious and ethnic violence the Balkans has ever witnessed.  Peace, stability and unity cannot be bought or coerced: they have to be nurtured by promoting sensitivity to human needs and respect for the rights and opinions of others.  Diversity and dissent need not inhibit the emergence of strong, stable societies, but inflexibility, narrowness and unadulterated materialism can prevent healthy growth.  And when attitudes have been allowed to harden to the point that otherness becomes a sufficient reason for nullifying a person's claim to be treated as a fellow human being, the trappings of modern civilization crumble with frightening speed.


     In the most troubled areas of the world, reserves of tolerance and compassion disappear, security becomes non-existent and creature comforts are reduced to a minimum -- but stockpiles of weapons abound.  As a system of values this is totally mad.  By the time it is accepted that the only way out of an impasse of hats, bloodshed and social and economic chaos created by men is for those men to get together to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and compromise, it is usually no longer easy to restore sanity.  Those who have been conditioned by systems which make a mockery of the law by legalizing injustices and which attack the very foundations of harmony by perpetuating social, political and economic imbalances cannot adjust quickly -- if at all -- to the concept of a fair settlement which places general well-being and justice above partisan advantage.


     During the cold war the iniquities of ruthless governments and armed groups were condoned for ideological reasons.  The results have been far from happy.  Although there is greater emphasis in justice and human rights today, there are still ardent advocates in favour of giving priority to political and economic expediency -- increasingly the latter.  It is the cold argument: achieve economic success and all else will follow.  But even long-affluent societies are plagued by formidable social ills which have provided deep anxieties about the future.  And newly-rich nations appear to be spending a significant portion of their wealth on arms and armies.  Clearly there is no inherent link between greater prosperity and greater security and peace.  Both prosperity and peace -- or even the expectation of greater peace.  Both prosperity and peace are necessary for the happiness of mankind, the one to alleviate suffering, the other to promote tranquility.  Only policies which place equal importance on both will make a truly richer world, one in which men can enjoy "chantha" of the body and of the mind.  The drive for economic progress needs to be tempered by an awareness of the dangers of greed and selfishness which so easily lead to narrowness and inhumanity.  If peoples and nations cultivate a generous spirit that welcomes the happiness of others as an enhancement of the self, many seemingly insoluble problems would prove less intractable.


     Those who have worked with refugees are in the best position to know that when people have been stripped of all their material supports there only remain to sustain them the values of their cultural and spiritual inheritance.  A tradition of sharing instilled by age-old beliefs in the joy of giving and the sanctity of compassion will move a homeless destitute to press a portion of his meagre rations on strangers with all the grace and delight of one who has ample riches to dispense.  On the other hand, predatory traits honed by a long-established habit of yielding to "every urge of nature which made self-serving the essence of human life" will lead men to plunder fellow-sufferers of their last pathetic possessions.  And of course the great majority of the world's refugees are seeking sanctuary from situations rendered untenable by a dearth of humanity and wisdom.


     The dream of a society ruled by loving kindness, reason and justice is a dream as old as civilized man.  Does it have to be an impossible dream?  Karl Popper, explaining his abiding optimism in so troubled a world as ours, said that the darkness had always been there but the light was new.  Because it is new it has to be tended with care and diligence.  It is true that even the smallest light cannot he extinguished by all the darkness in the world, because darkness is wholly negative.  It is merely an absence of light.  But a small light cannot dispel acres of encircling gloom.  It needs to grow stronger, to shed its brightness further and further.  And people need to accustom their eyes to the light to see it as a benediction rather than a pain, to learn to love it.  We are so much in need of a brighter world which will offer adequate refuge to all its inhabitants.  [End]

[1] Isidore Epstein, Judaism: A Historical Presentation (Harmondsworth, 1959), p.23.

[2] The quotation is from Agamemnon, 378-9, translated in Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York, 3rd ed. 1964), p. 51

[3] John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (London, 1992), pp. 6-7.

[4] I use "post-totalitarian state" in the sense given to it by Vaclav Havel in his essay on "The Power of the Powerless"(1979), when he applies the term to the neo-totalitarianism so the now-dissolved Soviet bloc and the forms of state repression found there which are markedly different from those obtaining in classical dictatorships.  See Vaclav Havel et al., The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, ed. John Keane (New York, 1985).