Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for June 2012

Watching Aung San Suu Kyi’s belated Nobel prize acceptance speech last week, I found myself pondering three matters. The first was how far we in Asia still have to go, compared with nations in Latin America and even sub-Saharan Africa, when it comes to women political leaders. There are plenty of women academics, diplomats and business CEOs, but the only women who have made it to the top in politics are those who have been wives or daughters of popular male leaders. Suu Kyi is no exception, though she stands head and shoulders above the rest; and having British family connections has no doubt helped her cause. I say this not to belittle her achievements (her courage, resilience, intelligence and eloquence were evident to all who heard her), but to honour the many brave women in Burma and elsewhere who have also suffered in the fight against tyranny and yet have never enjoyed the world’s media spotlight or even been recognized by their own political electorates.

My second thought was one of admiration for Suu Kyi’s decision to make her first stop (on her first trip out of Burma in twenty years) in Thailand, to express her solidarity with the thousands of Burmese refugees in that country. Many people in Western nations forget that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are not making their way to Western Europe, North America or Australia, but to neighbouring countries often as poor as their own. The rich nations do precious little to support these host countries, even though many of the disasters that refugees are fleeing are the direct or indirect results of the rich nations’ policies, whether historical or current.

The long-standing ethnic conflicts in Burma, some of the most protracted in the world, are a direct legacy of British colonial policy and the broken promises of British colonial rulers. “Illegal” migrants crossing the US-Mexican border are peasant farmers unable to compete against the heavily subsidized agribusiness giants who sell cheap corn in Mexico under the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. Others flee the brutal violence of drug cartels whose chief markets are in the US. Many conflicts in Africa are fuelled by the mining interests of Western (and now increasingly Chinese) companies. And, as global warming and its attendant climate changes increase desertification, water shortages and new disease epidemics in the global South, scores of environmental refugees will undertake perilous journeys of escape- only to find a wall of hostility in the nations responsible for their plight in the first place!

Suu Kyi spoke about “donor fatigue” and appealed to rich nations not to forget the plight of refugees and to aid their host nations and the non-governmental organizations that seek to support them. But donors, whether governments, churches or individuals also need to be educated as to the factors, local and global, that precipitate conflicts and mass migrations. In my experience, the educational systems and popular media in rich nations do little to counter the knee-jerk anti-refugee/immigrant hysteria that is fuelled by right-wing politicians. The latter promote a politics of fear, scapegoating recent immigrants and refugees either as social-welfare “cheats”, criminals, or threats to national security. It is here that the opening words from one of her most famous speeches, ‘Freedom from Fear”, may be apt even for those in liberal democracies: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

My third reflection was prompted by her plea for ethical investment in her country. Suu Kyi is realistic in her appraisal of the prospects for democracy in Burma. The journey has only begun, she kept saying. But it is impossible to separate freedom from fear and freedom from hunger. Economic development- of the right kind, equitable as well as sustainable- must go hand in hand with the nurturing of the rule of law and participatory political institutions. Not only did many foreign companies breach UN-imposed sanctions on Burma, but their investments were predictably siphoned off by the Burmese junta into their offshore banking havens. (See my earlier post on Burma, “Burmese Tears”, 18 Sep 2009) She rightly called on foreign companies not to enter into partnerships with state companies in Burma without insisting on public transparency and the rights of workers.

On the same day as Suu Kyi’s speech in Oslo, Coca-Cola announced that it was starting operations in Burma. No doubt, McDonalds, Burger King and KFC will follow.  Is this the investment that Suu Kyi called for? How about companies that invest in providing drinkable water on tap, renewable energy or better public transport? As Burma opens up to the world which aspects of globalization will its citizens embrace?

Another Nobel laureate, a champion of liberty who tirelessly instigated the downfall of political tyranny in his country only to see a new economic tyranny of homogenized consumerism, was the Czech dramatist and politician Vaclav Havel. He recounts in his diary of 9 April 2005, while on a visit to Washington, DC: “Yesterday I watched Pope John Paul II’s funeral on television. It was a grand and moving spectacle. …But America is a rather odd country. It’s very religious, and at the same time it allows the broadcast of the pope’s funeral to be interrupted by advertisements, many of which were the direct embodiment of what he had criticized for his entire life. I found it truly hard to understand, and it made me more and more uncomfortable, until I finally switched the television off.”


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