Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 2009

What should the “international community” do to help people living under repressive states?

Despite great strides in electoral democracy and human rights conventions around the world, billions of men and women continue to experience the suppression of basic human freedoms such as the freedom to travel, choose a job or school, criticize their governments, express their views openly, and practice their religious faith. The state, one of whose important functions is to provide security for innocent citizens, has become the principal source of insecurity and fear in many parts of Asia and Africa. At the same time, there are flourishing “think tanks” and a veritable PhD industry on human rights legislation and international law. What is clearly and urgently needed is less talk and more action.

Writing truthfully about my own country in a blog like this can actually get me into serious trouble. So let me, in a cowardly-or, if you prefer, prudential- way, consider the more pathetic situation of Burma/Myanmar. The farcical trial of Aung San Suu Kyi a few weeks ago was only the latest incident in the long history of violence, corruption, ineptitude and complete disregard for the lives and rights of Burma’s citizens. When Burma applied to join the regional conglomeration known as ASEAN, I begged my Singaporean and Malaysian friends to appeal to their respective governments to refuse membership until Suu Kyi was restored as the elected head of state. I was told by some Singaporeans that the “Asian way” would be bring about change through quiet diplomacy rather than open challenge. The generals could be wooed towards democracy by trade and friendship. Today, twenty years later, the repression is worse. Clearly, and predictably, the so-called “Asian way” (an euphemism for legitimizing local autocrats!) is not working.

Why? Because we don’t follow the money. Generally, I am not in favour of general economic sanctions, as they hurt the common people much more than those responsible. The latter can “salt away” their fortunes in foreign banks and find ways to keep on consuming luxuries even as the country languishes economically. But, in the case of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi herself called repeatedly for international sanctions. If the sanctions are carefully targeted- for instance, a complete stop to arms shipments and a total “freeze” of all foreign assets held by members of the regime- it would make life harder for those whose power now seems unassailable. If the people of Burma, who suffer daily under the junta, are asking us to help them, why are we not listening? The US and EU have belatedly imposed strict sanctions, but some oil companies continue to operate hand-in-glove with the military.

But Western nations do not rank among Burma’s top trading partners. India and China seem to be the worst culprits, openly selling arms in exchange for access to Burma’s rich oil and natural gas reserves. ASEAN nations and their leaders have not exerted much pressure on the Burmese regime. On the contrary, Singaporean banks are home to the junta’s ill-gotten wealth and the wives of the generals go on regular shopping sprees to  Singapore and Bangkok. Thailand alone purchases 44% of Burma’s exports each year. Sanctions by ASEAN member states would deprive the generals of a large portion of the more than $11 billion they earn from foreign trade annually. The junta spends less than 1.5% of GDP on health and education. The public education system has deteriorated so much that many parents rely on free, monastic schools for their children’s education. Infectious diseases, including AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are rampant. How much longer is ASEAN willing to be dictated to by Burma’s human rights violators?

The ancient creeds of the Church tell us that Christ descended into hell. He is therefore close to those who are cast into it, transforming their despair into hope. This is not to belittle the suffering and anguish of our Burmese brethren, but to enclose their narrative within a wider narative of hope borne through sufferng- the narrative of the crucified, risen and returning Judge of history. If you are an Indian, a Chinese or a citizen of an ASEAN nation, what are you willing to do for the people of Burma that would also serve as a sign of that hope?

My father died last week. Death was a merciful release, as he had been afflicted with severe dementia for four years. He died at home quickly and painlessly with my mother , one of my sisters and myself at his bedside. Although we had been experiencing a prolonged bereavement over the past few years, his final passing away was still a sad moment for all of us.

We laid out my father’s body in an open casket at my parents home, as is the local custom, and  we received a steady stream of people from all faiths and all walks of life coming to pay their respects. My father had touched many lives, both as a government surgeon and a teacher (at the North Colombo Medical College). I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at a thanksgiving service just before taking the body to the cemetery for burial. I give below an extract from what I shared at that service.

I shall remember my father not for his achievements but for his character. Especially his simplicity and his integrity. He shunned all luxury and ostentation, pomp and humbug. He refused to kowtow to politicians. As a government surgeon he would travel on public buses and trains from the various stations where he worked. Indeed his refusal to do private practice but to remain in government service, despite all its frustrations was due, I believe, to his sense of responsibility towards the so-called “common people” as opposed to the rich elites of our land. This simplicity was part of his integrity. He did not wear masks, but was in public what he was in private, speaking his mind in a way that sometimes won him enemies. He was utterly incorruptible. Whatever he was assigned to do, he did so meticulously and responsibly. Such integrity is rare in the medical profession today as well as in our wider society.

However, whenever I gazed at my father’s gradually shrinking and wizened frame, and grieved the loss of his fine mind, I would also think, “One day, he is going to be a  glorious and radiant creature!” For as Christians, we don’t simply look back nostalgically to what people once were. We also look towards what they will  become one day.

The great philosopher of medieval Europe, Thomas Aquinas, once defined human beings as “animals with an orientation towards friendship with God and friendship with one another”. Yes, we are animals, part of a wider animal kingdom, and the perishable animal remains that lie in my father’s casket remind us of that fact. We didn’t, as human beings, drop from heaven. But we are also more than animals. We are that mysterious entity we call persons. We live our animal lives in a personal way.

My personhood is what demands that I be recognized as a someone and not something. And that every single human being is to be treated as a someone and not as a something. Our personal identities are formed through relationships- with God and with one another in the human family. And though our frail bodies perish at death, our personal identity- everything that has made me uniquely me and not you- continues in God. And God has pledged, and given us a foretaste of that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that our personal identities will be re-embodied, “re-expressed” if you like, in new bodies in which will all that was true and good and just and beautiful in our lives will be re-focused and contribute to the life of a renewed world.

So we should not wait till the end of our days to realise that what is truly worth pursuing in life are our friendships with God and with others. The reality and depth of these relationships are what define us, not our cars, houses or bank balances. And they are infinitely more precious, because more outlasting, than status or money or power.



September 2009