Vaclav Havel never received the Nobel Peace Prize. He probably could have gotten it but, in 1991, when he was most celebrated as the dissenter and long-term political prisoner who had become the hero of Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” and then its democratically elected president, he campaigned for its presentation to someone else. He said it should be given to Aung San Suu Kyi and, with his support, she was chosen. Not long before that, the Burmese military junta had cancelled an election after voting had taken place and it became clear that her political party, the National League of Democracy, would win more than 80 percent of the seats in Parliament. She had been placed under house arrest.
Right now, a political opening may be taking place in Burma. Some political prisoners have been released (though many more remain behind bars) and Aung San Suu Kyi says she is thinking of running for Parliament. In the 20 years since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she has endured long periods of house arrest and also a period of actual imprisonment. Yet the fact that she has survived and that her country now has a chance to emerge from its long nightmare of repressive rule has a lot to do with the protection provided by the Nobel Peace Prize. Vaclav Havel was not only the hero of the Velvet Revolution. He is also a hero of the transformation that is still to come in Burma and in such other countries as Belarus, Cuba, and China, to which he devoted his energies in recent years.
I met Vaclav Havel only a few times. One occasion that stands out in my memory is when he came to the headquarters of Human Rights Watch in New York, where I was then the executive director, to thank us for our efforts on behalf of Czech dissenters during the period of communist rule. This took place when he visited New York to attend a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations not long after he became president. Visiting our office to meet with the entire staff was a thoughtful gesture that made everyone there feel good about the work they were doing.
My last opportunity to see Havel took place a few weeks ago when I visited Prague to speak at the Forum 2000 conference that he has organized every year. Because he had been ill, it was not certain that he would appear at his own conference. Many of the participants knew that it would probably be their last chance to see him. When he did appear, and expressed solidarity with those still struggling against repression, it provided a palpable thrill that I think was shared by all of us listening to him. Not inclined to politics, he was more intent on practicing his profession as a playwright. Yet he had become a central figure in the most important political struggles of our time, always as the champion of those whose cause seemed most hopeless. His death is an occasion for deep mourning and, simultaneously, for celebration of the triumph of the human spirit.