Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Reith lectures

The issue of strategic importance in relation to human rights came up in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Reith lectures (, a moving analysis of political activism under a repressive regime.  She was asked after her second lecture by Xenia Dormandy of Chatham House whether there are lessons for the international community concerning action in Burma similar to that there has been in the Middle East.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s answer was:
I don’t think the world was as interested in what was going on in Burma as it is now in what is going on in the Middle East. It may be because we are much more aware of what is happening there. It may be because there are differences between the strategic position of Egypt and the strategic position of Burma. But I think that I would like the world to care for each and every bit of the world in the same way when it comes to basic human needs.
Later in the discussion Xenia Dormandy asked:
Is there a narrative that can be explained as to why democracy in Burma is so important that the international community should be taking actions that are otherwise not directly perceived to be in their national interest?
And the reply was:
[...] I think I would like to say that we would like more done on the basis not just of democracy in Burma but fairness and justice throughout the world. And we are part of the world, and it is not just that you’re doing something for Burma when you help us in our democracy movement. I think you are helping the whole world to have greater access to fairness, to justice, to security, to freedom. I would like people to think of it like that - not just that we’re helping this particular country or that particular country but as promoting more security, more freedom and more justice in this world. 
Despite an increasingly global world we still seem to be some distance from being able to act on this simple basic principle.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

“God wants you to die”

Time passes more quickly as you get older.  I have been taking advantage of a few weeks’ illness to catch up on some reading.  Among the books I have read is Mitra Lager’s Gud vill att du ska dö (“God wants you to die”, for which I “recently” attended a launch party.  Turns out that was in 2008!

The book is an account of Mitra’s experiences as a teenage opponent of Khomeini in Iran in the early eighties.  It does not spare you the details, ranging from exactly how it feels to be tortured (“The first lash that hit the sole of my foot was so painful that I got up in an attempt to escape.  Two men got hold of me and tied me so that I could not move.”) to toilet arrangements when there are three toilets for between 200 and 300 prisoners (“I learnt early on that I had to go and stand in the queue in good time [...]”).  The story is presented in cool, uncomplicated Swedish prose – just the facts and an account of how it felt at the time.  The effect is both heart-rending and riveting.  Even though we know that Mitra made it to Sweden and lived to tell the tale you cannot help fearing for her future as you read this story. And then there are the stories of her friends and family members who did not make it (“They attacked my nineteen year old friend Mehbod, beat him and dragged him around the town behind a car.  People saw him completely covered in blood and with almost no skin left on his body.  They [...] executed him in the middle of the street.  I felt physically sick when I heard this [...]”).

There are lighter parts to the story, like when, presumably because of foreign pressure, young prisoners were allowed to prepare for the university entrance examination.  Books other than the Koran were allowed and older prisoners were allowed to teach the youngsters.  “[...] many of the girls got brilliant results [...] They perhaps had not thought about the fact that in many cases those who were imprisoned were among the best students [...] It was almost a scandal [...] The authorities fought hard to hide the facts.  The news was not allowed outside the prison.  In desperation they began to clear out all the schoolbooks from our part of the prison, all teaching was forbidden and we had to forget about studying in prison.”

If you are interested in anything relating to political freedom, women’s or children’s rights and you read Swedish then you should read this book.  It won’t be an easy read and you may cry, but you should know what happened.  It makes you wonder how the rest of us can share the planet with somebody who has had the courage to go through the experience in the first place and then to revisit it and document it in later life.  How can it be that we go about our daily lives at the same time as these things are happening?

One excuse, I suppose, might be that information was not as immediately available back in the eighties as it is now.  But still, despite floods of information and opportunities for comfortable one-click activism, we do not seem to have learnt how to prevent atrocities without getting bound up in our own strategic interests or creating yet more violence.

[Translations provided in this article are my own.]

Friday, 8 July 2011

Elderly forgetfulness

One of the positive things about becoming a bit forgetful as you get older is that you receive some pleasant surprises.  When I order extras with our weekly vegetable box I'm not always sure what to expect when it comes a week later.  But it always turns out to be something I wanted.