Documents on Democracy

Issue Date October 2012
Volume 23
Issue 4
Page Numbers 181-185
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Burma

Twenty-one years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Burmese opposition leader and newly elected member of Parliament Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to travel to Oslo and deliver her acceptance speech on June 16. Below is an excerpt:

Often during my days of house arrest, it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe. What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. This did not happen instantly, of course, but as the days and months went by and news of reactions to the award came over the airwaves, I began to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize. It had made me real once again; it had drawn me back into the wider human community. And what was more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten.

To be forgotten. The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: “Don’t forget us!” They meant: “Don’t forget our plight. Don’t forget to do what you can to help us. Don’t forget we also belong to your world.” When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me, they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world; they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. So for me, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. . . . [End Page 181]

If I am asked why I am fighting for democracy in Burma, it is because I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights. Over the past year there have been signs that the endeavors of those who believe in democracy and human rights are beginning to bear fruit in Burma. There have been changes in a positive direction; steps towards democratization have been taken. If I advocate cautious optimism it is not because I do not have faith in the future but because I do not want to encourage blind faith. Without faith in the future, without the conviction that democratic values and fundamental human rights are not only necessary but possible for our society, our movement could not have been sustained throughout the destroying years. Some of our warriors fell at their post, some deserted us, but a dedicated core remained strong and committed. At times when I think of the years that have passed, I am amazed that so many remained staunch under the most trying circumstances. Their faith in our cause is not blind; it is based on a clear-eyed assessment of their own powers of endurance and a profound respect for the aspirations of our people.

It is because of recent changes in my country that I am with you today; and these changes have come about because of you and other lovers of freedom and justice who contributed towards a global awareness of our situation. Before continuing to speak of my country, may I speak out for our prisoners of conscience. There still remain such prisoners in Burma. It is to be feared that because the best known detainees have been released, the remainder—the unknown ones—will be forgotten. I am standing here because I was once a prisoner of conscience. As you look at me and listen to me, please remember the often repeated truth that one prisoner of conscience is one too many. Those who have not yet been freed, those who have not yet been given access to the benefits of justice in my country number much more than one. Please remember them and do whatever is possible to effect their earliest, unconditional release.

Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities, and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union. Since we achieved independence in 1948, there never has been a time when we could claim the whole country was at peace. We have not been able to develop the trust and understanding necessary to remove causes of conflict. Hopes were raised by ceasefires that were maintained from the early 1990s until 2010, when these broke down over the course of a few months. One unconsidered move can be enough to remove longstanding ceasefires. In recent months, negotiations between the government and ethnic nationality forces have been making progress. We hope that ceasefire agreements will lead to political settlements founded on the aspirations of the peoples and the spirit of union.

My party, the National League for Democracy, and I stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation. The reform measures that were put into motion by President U Thein Sein’s [End Page 182] government can be sustained only with the intelligent cooperation of all internal forces: the military, our ethnic nationalities, political parties, the media, civil society organizations, the business community and, most important of all, the general public. We can say that reform is effective only if the lives of the people are improved, and in this regard, the international community has a vital role to play. Development and humanitarian aid, bilateral agreements and investments should be coordinated and calibrated to ensure that these will promote social, political, and economic growth that is balanced and sustainable. The potential of our country is enormous. This should be nurtured and developed to create not just a more prosperous but also a more harmonious, democratic society where our people can live in peace, security, and freedom.

© 2012 The Nobel Foundation

Russia

On August 17, Judge Marina Syrova ruled that three young women belonging to the band Pussy Riot had “committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred,” and sentenced them to two years in prison. Just before the March 4 presidential elections, the three had been arrested for their role in an impromptu concert at Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral that included a song imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin. During the trial, former Yukos oil company head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who along with his business partner Platon Lebedev has been imprisoned since October 2003 on dubious charges of embezzlement, fraud, and tax evasion, issued a statement criticizing the proceedings. Below is an excerpt:

It is painful to watch what is taking place in the Khamovnichesky Court of the city of Moscow, where Masha, Nadya, and Katya are on trial. The word “trial” is applicable here only in the sense in which it was used by the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages.

I know this “aquarium” [glass enclosure] in courtroom number seven well. They made it especially for me and Platon—“just for us”—after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had declared that keeping defendants behind bars [in courtrooms] is degrading and violates the Convention on Human Rights.

This is a subtle and sophisticated way of mocking people who dared to file a complaint with the ECHR: Ah, okay, so you say that a cage with bars is bad; well then, here’s a cage made of glass for you, a beaker with a little porthole through which you can talk to your lawyers, but you need to twist and contort yourself every which way to actually be able to speak through it. In the summer you feel like a tropical fish in that glass cage—it is hot, and the air from the air conditioner in the courtroom does not circulate through the glass. It was hard for me and Platon—two people—to [End Page 183] be in the aquarium together the whole day. I cannot even imagine how all three of those poor girls manage to fit in there at once. . . .

I am very ashamed and hurt. And not because of these girls—the mistakes of youthful radicalism can be forgiven—but for the state, which is profaning our Russia with its complete and utter lack of conscience.

We have been deprived of an honest and independent judiciary, of the opportunity to defend ourselves and to protect people from lawlessness. But what we can do, if we happen to recognize those who are perpetrating arbitrariness for money and privileges—be it on the street, in a shop, or in the theater—is explain to them and to those around, politely but in no uncertain terms, just what we think of them, why we do not respect them, why we do not want to give them any help with anything, and why, on the contrary, we are going to stand against them in every little thing.

That way we shall be able to retain respect for ourselves.

I call on all thinking, educated, and simply good and kind people to send words of hope to the girls. Your support . . . is now very important to those who have ended up in confinement by the will of evil forces!

Egypt

On June 29, one day before officially taking the presidential oath of office, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, delivered a speech in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Below are excerpts:

Let us remain steadfast, men of the revolution, boys and girls, men and women. I am one of you—that is how I was, still am, and will always be. During the revolution, in this place, we used to say that the revolution is led by its own objectives. Well, the revolution continues to achieve its objectives. It is reshaping [itself] to reflect the free will of the Egyptian people, with an elected president steering the ship home, leading this revolution, standing in front of patriotic revolutionaries, leading them on the path to full democracy, and doing all he can to achieve all the objectives of the great revolution.

I came to talk to you today, because I believe that you are the source of power and legitimacy. There is no person, party, institution, or authority over or above the will of the people. The nation is the source of all power; it grants and withdraws power. I say to everyone now—to all the people, the Ministries and the government, the army and police of Egypt, men and women, at home and abroad—I say it with full force: No authority is over or above this power. You are the source of power. You are the owners of the will. You grant power to whomsoever you choose, and you withdraw power from whomsoever you choose.

I come to you, today, my beloved Egyptian people, and I wear no bulletproof [End Page 184] vest because I am confident, as I trust God and I trust you, and I fear only God. And I will always be fully accountable to you.

I come today to Tahrir Square after it placed this responsibility on my shoulders to renew my pledge to you, to remind you that you alone are always, always the first station for me to call. I say to all the Egyptian people that, after God’s help, I seek their support and their assistance. Are you ready? Will you stand by me to fully regain our rights? . . .

I stand here with you, O great people of Egypt, before the usual formal proceedings, and I say to all honorable Egyptians—those who elected me and those who did not—I’m for all of you at the same distance from all. I will never subtract from the rights of those who told me “no,” nor will I subtract from the rights of those who said to me “yes.” This is democracy. And that is how we set out on our journey to rebuild our homeland.

Prior to his election, Morsi announced a 64-point program for his first 100 days in office that focused on improving governance. A group of seventeen Egyptian nongovernmental organizations issued a statement urging a greater focus on strengthening the rule of law and protecting human rights. Below is an excerpt:

While we congratulate Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party on his presidential victory, we stress that the president must adopt an ambitious program that responds to Egyptians’ aspirations and the enormous sacrifices they have made over the decades for the sake of freedom, social justice, and human dignity. He must seriously address Egypt’s legacy of human rights crimes, which did not cease with the ouster of [former President Hosni] Mubarak and some members of his regime. He must also deal with the challenges created by the mismanagement of the country’s affairs during the transitional period, including the supplementary constitutional declaration introduced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the run-up to the announcement of election results in which SCAF established itself as the guardian of the process of drafting the new constitution, reclaimed legislative authority, and effectively turned the military establishment into a state within a state by granting it autonomous decision-making powers not subject to accountability. This is the result of the SCAF’s misguided roadmap from the beginning, the latest development of which is the election of a president without clear prerogatives and authorities.

For the elected president to meet these challenges, he must rebuild bridges of trust with broad sectors of the Egyptian population which, for various reasons, did not vote for him in the recent elections. . . . The 100-day plan shows no interest in improving civil and political rights and offers no clear vision for the advancement of citizens’ economic and social rights; nor does it offer any practical solutions for the pressing crises created by the transitional period under SCAF’s rule. [End Page 185]