The Melancholy Difficulties of Freedom

The Leader Who Silently Leads

Monks protest in Burma

Over the last month images have begun appearing in newspapers around the world of monks walking along streets, sometimes wading through water, in protest in Burma. “Armed only with upturned begging bowls, chanting Buddhist monks in Myanmar have caught the country’s military rulers off guard with their peaceful protests,” reported ABC News. “The monks have emboldened the public to take to the streets by the thousands to support the most dramatic anti-government protests the isolated Southeast Asian nation has seen in a decade.” It’s a story told mostly silently, related symbolically, through actions and gestures. “The monks’ peaceful protests, which have drawn thousands of people onto the streets clapping and smiling in Yangon and other cities, have turned into the most prolonged show of defiance in nearly 20 years against the junta,” wrote Agence France Presse. “Deeply respected in the devoutly Buddhist country, the monks have breathed new life into the anti-junta movement after initial street protests broke out one month ago following a massive hike in fuel prices.” Yesterday the protesters were allowed to march past the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightful leader of Burma, who has been detained for much of the past seventeen years.

“We were overwhelmed and some of us could not control our tears,” one witness told Reuters after 1,000 monks held a 15-minute prayer vigil at the lakeside home in Yangon where Suu Kyi is confined. “Aunty Suu also prayed for the well-being of all. Making a gesture of respect with her two palms, Aunty Suu came out through a small door of the gate. She was flanked by two women. She looked quite okay,” the witness said. “The monks chanted prayers and wished her good health.”

In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won the first multi-party election to be held in Burma since 1960 but the military refused to let her take office. With calm dignity and equanimity she has stayed in her country, accepting the years and years of house arrest and detention imposed upon her. In 1991 her son, Alexander Aris, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf.

Poster image from

Speaking as her son … I personally believe that by her own dedication and personal sacrifice she has come to be a worthy symbol through whom the plight of all the people of Burma may be recognised. And no one must underestimate that plight. The plight of those in the countryside and towns, living in poverty and destitution, those in prison, battered and tortured; the plight of the young people, the hope of Burma, dying of malaria in the jungles to which they have fled; that of the Buddhist monks, beaten and dishonoured. Nor should we forget the many senior and highly respected leaders besides my mother who are all incarcerated. It is on their behalf that I thank you, from my heart, for this supreme honour.

The Burmese people can today hold their heads a little higher in the knowledge that in this far distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded. We must also remember that the lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection. The Prize, I feel sure, is also intended to honour all those engaged in this struggle wherever they may be.

Jose Ramos Horta. Photograph from The Sydney Morning Herald

The Melancholy Difficulties of Freedom

The President sets an earnest pace on his dawn walk to Jesus. He nods a morning hello at the gate of his compound, then pounds his way down the street he renamed Robert F. Kennedy Boulevard. It’s a road of stunted gums and barren soils, like Broken Hill by the sea. Across the water, through mangroves and mud, the morning lights of Dili are bobbing on the bay, while the headland in the distance is dominated by the enormous statue of Christo Rei — Christ the King.

In a story as exquisitely observed as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Greg Bearup writes of the sadness and challenges that freedom can bring, in his Sydney Morning Herald profile of President Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful persistence for his country’s freedom. (He shared the 1996 prize with Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.) It’s a profile that’s reported with a deep attentiveness that makes the reader feel transported to the “impoverished, fragile” East Timor, and breathes life into the complex hero of the story capturing his flaws as well as his strengths.

Bearup was in East Timor just after the recent elections when it fell to Ramos-Horta to appoint who would lead the country after an indecisive result. Former President and fellow freedom fighter, Xanana Gusmao, who had been East Timor’s first President threaded together a co-alition and was eventually declared Prime Minister over former Prime Minister Mari Alkitiri, who he’d worked with during the struggle to try and gain independence for East Timor. The fighting and rioting that had been going on periodically since May erupted again.

Greg Bearup concludes the story with Jose Ramos-Horta commenting on the rioting in East Timor. “Sometimes we should look at ourselves in the mirror and say what a bunch of f…ing idiots we are. The moment the Portuguese granted us an opportunity to be free, after 500 years, we fought our first civil war. So who do we blame? The Indonesians for stirring trouble? The Australians for not paying attention? Or should we blame ourselves? And now, again we have the chance. I will do everything I can to make it work this time. If we fail again, only God can help us.” Earlier in the story he’d quoted him saying, “I said to Xanana yesterday he had always been a champion for negotiations. I said to him, ‘You talked to the Indonesians. You embraced them. You hugged and kissed them. And now, you don’t even talk to your own comrade.’ At crucial times, like now, we should all unite. I fear I will not be able to bridge the two extremes. And if I cannot, only God can.”

Jose Ramos-Horta, who worked as a journalist after leaving school spent 24 years in exile, campaigning tirelessly for his nation’s freedom, travelling the globe, talking to anyone who might listen, undaunted by the lack of interest in his cause. He tells Bearup that this campaigning has prepared him to be an effective eventual United Nations Secretary General, a position he plans to lobby for. “I know the world like no one,” he tells Bearup. “None of the previous UN secretaries-general has had my field experience and visited as many countries as I have visited. I have visited over 100 countries. I was born barefoot in one of the poorest areas of East Timor, that means one of the poorest areas of the world. No UN secretary-general has had this type of poor background. I am far more sensitive to issues of poverty than anyone — from UN secretaries-general to Jeffrey Sachs or those heads of the World Bank.”

The images of poverty and suffering that Bearup describes in East Timor are powerfully affecting. The barren land, the poor and starving people, the aid money that goes unspent because it’s difficult to set up plans to make use of it. When the rioting broke out earlier this year Ramos-Horta opened the gates to his property and 500 people ended up living in his house and garden. “I told my staff, open the gates — anyone who feels unsafe and wishes to come in may come in — so they came in. There were beds everywhere.” Several dozen still remain.

Ramos – Horta says he has set up an anti-poverty taskforce and written a plan to overhaul the tax system, so that only the rich, like him, would pay tax. He will push the new Parliament to allocate him funds, bypassing the bureaucracy, to allow the allocation of small grants to the poor. “I want to be a friend and an advocate of the poor,” he says with conviction. “I don’t think there is any more noble mission in life for me, or for any leader, than to fight poverty. I really don’t care all that much about the abstract notions of democracy if it doesn’t bring food to the table.”

From “Local Hero” by Greg Bearup. Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Good Weekend’ supplement, September 22, 2007.

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra Assesses Sixty Years of Indian Democracy

Pankaj Mishra begins his New Yorker essay on the sixtieth anniversary of the partition of India by commenting that a few hours before making the formal declaration, the ViceRoy of India, Lord Mountbatten and his wife Edwina watched the Bob Hope movie “My Favorite Brunette”.

Large parts of the subcontinent were descending into chaos, as the implications of partitioning the Indian Empire along religious lines became clear to the millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs caught on the wrong side of the border. In the next few months, some twelve million people would be uprooted and as many as a million murdered. But on that night in mid-August the bloodbath—and the fuller consequences of hasty imperial retreat—still lay in the future, and the Mountbattens probably felt they had earned their evening’s entertainment.

Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had arrived in New Delhi in March, 1947, charged with an almost impossible task. Irrevocably enfeebled by the Second World War, the British belatedly realized that they had to leave the subcontinent, which had spiralled out of their control through the nineteen-forties. But plans for brisk disengagement ignored messy realities on the ground. Mountbatten had a clear remit to transfer power to the Indians within fifteen months. Leaving India to God, or anarchy, as Mohandas Gandhi, the foremost Indian leader, exhorted, wasn’t a political option, however tempting. Mountbatten had to work hard to figure out how and to whom power was to be transferred.

On July 26, the national Indian newspaper, The Hindu, reviewed an essay by Ravi Kalia about the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s urban planning concepts conceived with the architect Le Corbusier, which sought solutions to the resettlement of refugees, and the question of what form freedom should take in Indian cities.

Nehru demanded the creation of a city ‘unfettered by tradition’. To him and the internationally influential Swiss architect and city planner Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier (originally, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), “the machine age held the promise of liberating individuals and improving society, to be achieved by the simple, but powerful dictum: modernise your house and your life will follow,” narrates Kalia.

“For both men, India offered unimaginable freedoms played out in a vast and exotic landscape: skyscrapers and steel/chrome/aluminium factories announcing the aesthetic potential of new materials that were already transforming life outside the home. Modernism offered a shimmering vision of escape from everything conservative, tradition, and limited.”

By D. Murali. The Hindu

Pankaj Mishra grew up in small towns in north and central India in the 1970’s and 1980’s and published a book on his travels through small Indian towns in 1993. In an editorial in The Guardian on August 14 he writes of the dwindling Indian middle-class that had been made possible by Nehru’s reforms and their replacement by “long-muffled peoples (who) are building their own vindictive new hierarchies of power and wealth. Given the long decades of darkness they have known, they are in no mood to accommodate old elites. Democratic ideals and beliefs have aroused in them not so much a sense of reciprocal citizenship as an impatient expectation of what is owed to them.”

“Perhaps this dwindling of middle-class culture was inevitable, part of the price of “progress”. A generation ago, my own parents and their peers had moved out of their restricted settings and taken up jobs in remote cities and towns. Their children are now scattered across India (and increasingly across the world). Besieged by the usual middle-class anxieties of jobs and careers, we lose touch, forgetting names and faces. Few people show up when some of these children get married or have their thread ceremonies. Deaths and funerals have turned into lonely, often desolate affairs. Two years ago, one of my uncles, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, watched his wife bleed to death after an accident at his home in a Lucknow suburb – a fate unimaginable in the close-knit world of his childhood.

Of course, the destruction of old bonds of family and community and shared culture has been faster elsewhere, in Europe, America – even China. Poverty and crime are more vicious in many American cities than in Lucknow and Allahabad. And, compared with the Indian poor, who are perennially at the mercy of criminals and corrupt policemen, the old middle class is still relatively protected. Still, it is hard today, 60 years after independence, not to see poignancy in the Nehruvian elite’s tryst with destiny; to realise how little the makers of modern India knew of their suburban future: the high-rise apartment complexes in which they would die pining for a patch of weak wintry sun on a green lawn.”

Pankaj Mishra. “Death of the Small Town.” The Guardian. August 14, 2007

Pankaj Mishra is direct and open about the problems modern India faces while celebrating its strengths and diversity, and writes about the complex issue of religious divisions and violence with clarity and great heart. In an editorial for The Guardian on September 14, he contrasted India and Europe.

The scale of political-religious violence in India dwarfs anything suffered by western Europe in the postwar era. Yet India’s unique liberal tradition, which respects minority identity and community belonging, remains central in the country’s intellectual life. Indian economists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, novelists and journalists are deeply divided on many political and economic issues. But, apart from a minuscule few, they remain wedded to India’s founding vision of pluralism.

Not surprisingly, these postcolonial Indians are bewildered to see liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe embrace a majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what, by Indian standards, seems a very limited experience of social diversity and political extremism. Acts of terrorism in the post-9/11 period have shocked many Europeans into a new awareness of an alienated minority group in their midst. It is clear that recklessly globalising capital and technology, and the failed modernisation of much of the formerly colonial world – of which religious extremism and migration are consequences – pose daunting challenges to European societies. But instead of facing them squarely, many Europeans have retreated into old insecurities about Islam and Muslims.