Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 2011

Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of Camila Vallejo. Now I am fascinated by this charismatic student leader in Chile who has been shaking the political establishment in her country. She is spearheading a populist movement that has the right to “quality education” at its core. Boldly outspoken, Vallejo is only the second female leader in the 105- year old history of the student union in the University of Chile. Hundreds of thousands of university and high school students have been boycotting classes since early June, clamouring for better and more affordable education and an end to the two-tier system that creates a few affluent, elite institutions amid many underfunded public ones.

Last month, transport workers and other public sector employees joined the student movement in public strikes that led to a two-day nationwide shutdown. The government has promised to spend a further US $4 billion on education and to cut the interest rates on student loans by more than half. Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Vallejo as she has been receiving death threats. A government official lost his job after suggesting that the protests would end if she were assassinated. Chile’s President is the billionaire business tycoon, Sebastian Pińera, whom opinion polls reveal only enjoys 26% of electoral support. Meanwhile, Vallejo has become a cult figure with songs about her appearing all over Youtube. She is tipped to be a future President.

She tells reporters: “Why do we need education? To make profits? To run a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute.”

Here is a 23 year-old woman taking on the whole educational and political system!

The typical response of Christian students, especially in the privileged universities of the world, whenever I talk to them about engaging in acts of social transformation is either “That sounds idealistic…” or “But, we are only students…” And in the case of many graduates (even those in the mass media and politics), they shrug their shoulders and say, “We are so powerless…”

What needs to change in Christian university groups and churches for them to be attracting students like Camila Vallejo, let alone producing people like her?

At the same time as these momentous events are unfolding in Chile, students in New York and other cities in the USA have also been out on the streets every day since 17 September in peaceful protests against the takeover of American politics by corporate power. They call themselves “Occupying Wall Street” and describe themselves as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”

Last Saturday, more than 80 of them were arrested by police in NYC.  But this has not deterred them. They write on their website: “As members of the 99 percent, we occupy Wall Street as a symbolic gesture of our discontent with the current economic and political climate and as an example of a better world to come.”

All these are signs of hope. It is poles apart from the irrational violence that gripped parts of London in August. It expresses the “Direct Democracy” I called for in my Blog post of 2 July. To Christian students and churches, all I can say is, “Get involved!” (You can listen, too, to my plenary Bible exposition on Loving God & Neighbour at the IFES World Assembly in Krakow, 31 July, available at

Ten years on, media commentary on 9/11 is legion, while other events, equally horrific, are quickly forgotten. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Howard Zinn, the distinguished American historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, wrote: “The images on television horrified and sickened me. Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. I thought: they have learned nothing, absolutely nothing,  from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.”

Zinn continued: “We need new ways of thinking. A $300 billion dollar military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines, a ‘missile defence shield’, will not give us security… We should take our example not from our military and political leaders shouting ‘retaliate’ and ‘war’ but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firemen and policemen who have been saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts are not violence, but healing, not vengeance but compassion.”

Since Zinn penned those words, the U.S military budget tripled to nearly a trillion dollars, and American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which have claimed far more lives than were lost on 9/11) have squandered the deep sympathy for Americans that was widespread immediately after the attacks on American soil. Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US and Western Europe are no less vulnerable to terror attacks than they were ten years ago.

The New York Times of 31 December 2007 carried an editorial insisting that the United States could no longer be called a “democratic” society. The editorial listed a succession of state-sanctioned abuses of American citizens, including eavesdropping, illicit body searches, arbitrary arrests, torture by the CIA and repeated violations of the Geneva Conventions, all done by government officials without apology and under the aegis of waging a “war on terror”. Other governments took a leaf out of the Bush administration’s book and re-described all their civil conflicts as “wars on terror” which justified introducing or extending draconian “emergency laws” and brutal policies of repression against any dissidents.

It is incumbent on governments to provide security for their citizens. But when “national security” overrides all moral considerations, one is forced to ask whether such a society is actually worth defending. If my “security” is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of innocent others, then I should be willing to forego that security. Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; and once we go down that path, whether as individuals wanting to live in “secure environments” (e.g. gated condominiums) or governments pursing every potential “security threat’, it is difficult to change direction. Groups and persons targeted as “threats” are turned into objects and excluded from the moral universe. They can be the targets of “pre-emptive” eliminations, unilaterally undertaken.

The only people who are ever arraigned before war crimes tribunals are those on the defeated side. Victors have never had to answer for war crimes and other abuses of human rights. (If the Sri Lankan regime is ever arraigned by the UN for war crimes, as is currently being threatened, it will be a historical “first”!). The inquiry into the Abu Ghraib outrage never reached the top echelons of the American military command; let alone the top men in the political administration who sanctioned the use of torture.

In an interview with an online American journal in late 2008, I was asked what difference Obama’s election as the new American President would make worldwide. I said that, while Obama’s election was a good thing for US domestic politics, it would not make an iota of difference to foreign policy. Look back over the past sixty years and you will not observe much difference between Republicans and Democrats where U.S military and corporate interests are concerned.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has refused to prosecute any members of the Bush regime who were responsible for war crimes, including some who admitted to torture. Obama has claimed the right to assassinate anybody, including American citizens, suspected of belonging to terrorist networks, merely on grounds given by the CIA, something Bush never claimed publicly. Also, the US has greatly expanded the use of unmanned drone attacks in Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan, violating humanitarian rules of engagement by shifting the risks to non-combatants away from American military personnel.

US “exceptionalism” is deeply paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a nation, the first liberal democracy in the world, with a great Constitutional tradition recognizing natural human rights.  On the other hand, however, it is the single biggest cause of cynicism about human rights and the single biggest obstacle to the implementation of those rights by governments around the world. The cynicism is prompted not only by the vast gulf between rhetoric and reality within the US; but also by the way the US, while denouncing other governments’ human rights records (excepting, of course, Israel), refuses to abide by key international human rights conventions, shields its own officials from prosecution, and consistently invokes national sovereignty and American “national interest” over the global common good.



September 2011