Aung San Suu Kyi Joins CGI 2011 via Skype

Archbishop Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi at CGI 2011

This morning’s plenary at the Clinton Global Initiative was less crowded than yesterday’s. Perhaps it was the fact that the day wasn’t kicked off by a conversation among eight heads of state, or a bit of burn out already, half-way through UN week. For those of us who made it to this session, we were treated to a unique and inspirational conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

Moderated by the inimitable Charlie Rose, with Aung San Suu Kyi joining live via Skype, the discussion began with Archbishop Tutu speaking about the launch of “Girls Not Brides“, a new global partnership launched by The Elders to end the harmful practice of child marriage. Speaking of how the new initiative will seek to end child marriage, Archbishop Tutu explained that it was about more than just raising awareness, but “enlisting the support of significant players in the community.” He spoke about a recent visit to Ethiopia, where the incidence of child marriage is high, and how he was encouraged by meetings with traditional, community and religious leaders which made him think that child marriage can be abolished, can be defeated.

On being a remarkable leader

Archbishop Tutu was in fine form this morning, and laughed his way through the conversation. It was really refreshing and so human, I think it reminded people why the man has been such a source of inspiration and so admired around the world. When Charlie Rose asked him what makes his life remarkable, “what makes Archbishop Desmond Tutu?”, he first gave out a hearty laugh and said, “without trying to sound falsely modest, the fact of the matter is when you stand up in a crowd, it’s only because you are being carried on the shoulders of others. If the people at home had repudiated me when I stood up and said “we want sanctions” – I would have been nothing.”

He shared a metaphor to further explain his thoughts on what makes greatness. When a light bulb is in a socket, it shines brightly, illuminating darkness around it. When it is out of the socket, no matter how hard it tries, it can’t shine and goes cold and black. “That’s because it forgot that it’s the million of invisible wires connecting it to the dynamo that allow it to shine. When Tutu appears spectacular, it’s only because there are many people doing a great deal to support me.”

This sentiment was echoed by Aung San Suu Kyi. She said that she gets “enormous strength from the unknown soldiers of the struggle”, those who are not in the limelight like she is, but, who like her, have dedicated their lives to fighting for democracy.

A mutual admiration

Archbishop Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi shared some genuinely touching moments. Archbishop Tutu laughed and said “I’m like a smitten young man. I love you!” Aung San Suu Kyi said she “must return the compliment”, and she loved him, too. Archbishop Tutu then said “I want you to know how much you have inspired many people because you continue to believe in the humanity even of those who have sought to dehumanize you over these many years. God is proud of you and smiles at you even through the pain, as he looks at the incredible things you’ve done – your compassion, your beauty.” At that point, Charlie Rose quipped “There he goes again!”, and Archbishop Tutu launched into his characteristic hearty laughter. It’s not everyday that you hear two majorly inspirational leaders speak of their mutual admiration in such an open, real way. It was a powerful yet light-hearted moment, one which I think will stay with me for a long time.

On fighting for freedom & security

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the fight for freedom and security in Burma. She said that while some people say that democracy is a western concept, the notions of freedom and security “resonate with people across the world. We all want to be free, have the freedom to search and build up our own passions. When we talk about democracy, we want the kind of freedom and security that everyone in the world wants.” When asked whether the events of the Arab Spring had an impact on her, Aung San Suu Kyi said “yes, of course, movements like the Arab Spring are meaningful all over the world to people who are fighting for freedom. Of course, our societies are very different, but in the end we’re all human beings and we can understand each other’s dreams and aspirations.”

Aung San Suu Kyi explained that it’s important for people to “cultivate an awareness” of what is happening in Burma. It’s not simple, she said, noting that she often wasn’t sure what was happening because so much is happening at once. She, like Archbishop Tutu, emphasized that the fight against injustice is a shared one. Charlie Rose asked her to elaborate on the idea that she’s expressed previously that the struggle is not just about changing regime, but about changing values. Aung San Suu Kyi reaffirmed that belief, and noted that what was needed are institutions that protect freedom and security, a more open society, with better education, health care and opportunities for people to realize their potential.

On courage

Charlie Rose asked Aung San Suu Kyi if she felt fearful. She said that while of course she often felt fear, it doesn’t govern her behavior. “Freedom from fear doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear; it means you don’t let fear control you,” she said. Throughout the discussion, both Aung San Suu Kyi and Archbishop Tutu emphasized the importance of popular support and of broad-based engagement. Both of them have an extraordinary ability to mobilize good will, and a capacity to move people to action.  At the end of the session, Charlie Rose thanked both leaders for their “words of affirmation and inspiration,” which indeed they brought to CGI attendees and viewers today, as well as to millions of people across the world every day.

Photo credit: Todd_France / Clinton Global Initiative

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's beautiful charisma shines through