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Courage and caution

Patricia d'Ardenne on different women's voices at the 2011 Reith Lectures

After eight years of men only talks, Gwyneth Williams, Controller of BBC Radio 4 and Sue Lawley, Chair of BBC Reith Lectures, have introduced us this summer to five lectures, given by two extraordinary women Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former Director-General of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. The lectures, broadcast in June and September respectively, entitled Securing Freedom, gave two very different voices to the topics of democracy, freedom, security, terrorism and our many responses to it, including how we preserve our liberties, and what we lose in the so called 'war on terror'. All of these topics have arisen from great changes in the nature of political conflict where terrorism and freedom fighting are often distinguished only by whose side you were on at the time.

Aung San Suu Kyi's two lectures - smuggled out of Burma - showed complete mastery of her subject, told with compassion, style, and wisdom. Her lectures centred on the struggle for democracy inside an authoritarian regime, and made comparisons with the Arab Spring, with the longing for freedom that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts had created. She reminded us that we are able to know about them because of the internet and social networking, resources that they could only dream of in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi discussed the dangers inherent in the feeling of 'separateness' experienced by the dissident, be they Burmese, Yemeni, Czech or Korean- a poignant reminder of her enforced separation from her people and her family during house arrest. She recorded that she and her party have had to focus on tangible objectives, such as freedom of speech, the freeing of political prisoners, or democratic elections, rather than the broader academic or philosophical benefits of liberty. But it takes courage, and nobody defined courage better with grace, passion or eloquence, "Whenever I was asked at the end of each stretch of house arrest how it felt to be free, I would answer that I felt no different because my mind had always been free. I have spoken out often of the inner freedom that comes out from following a course in harmony with one's conscience."

Back in the UK, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Eliza Manningham-Buller discussed how, once secured, a country maintains its freedom. Her three lectures covered the impact of 9/11 and our understanding of terrorism; the role of security services in response to terrorism, including the use of torture; lastly she looked at foreign policy. Success she said is not the absence of terror; rather a reduction in its extent and impact. Politicians have to seek peace and conciliation, as they have already done in South Africa and Ireland. Security can provide space for the political process, but it can never replace it. She also referred to the Arab Spring; the protesters are different but all have a desire for what we have in the West- a free democracy; jobs; education; a fair share of wealth. She was more cautious about an ethical foreign policy, where the world was described as 'a messy place', and she sincerely believed that talking reduces risk but does not imply approval. But she disappointed her audience who wanted to know much more about her position on collusion between the West and tyrants around the world, not least with the complicity of security services.

Her replies were crisp, balanced, rational, but ultimately the cautious and uncritical voice of the person she finally described herself as, a public servant.

These two women made compelling listening- one passionate- the other dispassionate about freedom. Yet each told her story with conviction and eloquence, based on extensive personal experience and conviction. A memorable event.