Tomorrow, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, on the final leg of her 17-day Europe visit, is meeting both President François Hollande and French Nazi resistance figure Stéphane Hessel at the Élysée Palace.
Mr. Hessel, who helped author the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and counted Eleanor Roosevelt among his friends, has tried to meet Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi before, without success. His life is storied: He escaped Nazi prison camps three times, was the son of the couple “Jules and Jim” in the famous French film, and last year came out of retirement to write a bestseller that has made him a sort of celebrity intellectual at age 94.
His 30-page tract “Get Indignant,” which urges younger generations not to give up hope, is widely seen as helping spark the European version of the “Occupy” movement in Spain last spring. That protest then partly morphed into the “99 percent” movement in the US.
As Suu Kyi arrives in France, the Monitor caught up with Hessel for a brief chat.
Monitor: What does Aung San Suu Kyi represent for you?
Hessel: All my philosophy, if you want to call it a philosophy, all my political philosophy, goes more and more in the line of nonviolence and determination. My little book, which we called “Indignez-vous!” said essentially, “We must be brave, we must have confidence, we must work for basic human values that are in democracy and human rights, etc. … And of course, from that point of view, Aung San Suu Kyi is the best possible example.
Can you say more?
It’s not only that she is a woman, already very important — we need women now, some of them are very good, as she is — but she has this quality of determination and at the same time nonviolence. She has never preached violence. Therefore, her image can be put close to … Nelson Mandela, or Mikhail Gorbachev, or Vaclav Havel, and Gandhi himself, of course, and these people have something in common that puts them close to Buddhist philosophy as well…. The idea that one can be efficient by being determined and nonviolent is something on which I think we can try to build the future of our unfortunate mankind.
Are there other globally recognized figures of conscience comparable to Aung San Suu Kyi today?
I keep searching. She is really for the time being a very exceptional figure. I don’t see anywhere a similar figure. There are people like Mary Robinson [former Irish president] who has been a great figure in human rights, and Gro Brundtland [former Norwegian prime minister] who has been very active for Rio+20. … But no one is as exemplary as Aung San Suu Kyi.
You recently published a dialogue with her.
More than 15 years ago my wife and I were sent to Rangoon to try to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and deliver a message from Danielle Mitterrand [wife of former French President Francois Mitterrand] … She wanted us to visit Aung San Suu Kyi and tell her how strongly French [human rights activists] supported her.
This failed. We arrived in Rangoon at a time there were student movements and the government wanted nobody in contact with her. She was already under house arrest for some time…. But we stayed in contact with this very important movement called Info Birmanie [French Association for a Free Burma]. And many times, over the years we would go and [demonstrate] in front of the Burmese embassy. That went on for some time. And then, recently … we did [speak] with each other. She was in Rangoon and I was in Paris … and I said, “Are you sure they are not going to put you in jail again?” and she said “No, no, I think we can go forward,” and I said “We all think of you dearly, and please do not take unnecessary risks.”
It was a half-hour conversation and Info Birmanie decided to publish a book, which we called “Resistances, for a Free Burma.”
You have urged younger French not to give up their ideals. Does Aung San Suu Kyi offer something here?
Absolutely, she is an example for the young generation. She is an example for all my friends who try to get over violence. When I hear [former French Prime Minister] Michel Rocard declaring yesterday that we should give up our nuclear military facility, I feel that he is in the right direction. We need people determined to go against violence, but to do it without violence.
How is it possible to remain idealistic without being or seeming naïve these days?
It is extremely difficult and people are easily discouraged. I think, for instance, of the terrible situation under which our Palestinian friends are laboring, trying to get something and never getting any progress. Therefore, discouragement, unfortunately, is there for all of us and it needs the kind of stamina that is needed if one wants success. And that is where Aung San Suu Kyi gives us an example.