A Rose for the 'Unfree'
Wednesday, June 15, 2005; A25
On Sunday Aung San Suu Kyi will celebrate her 60th birthday, which in a Buddhist culture marks an important milestone in one's life. I would like to meet her and give her a rose like the one she is seen holding in a photograph in my study. Such an ordinary wish, however, in the case of such an extraordinary woman as Aung San Suu Kyi may seem a silly idea. The last time I wrote about her in The Post [op-ed, Oct. 12, 2003] was shortly after "unknown" assassins tried to deprive her of her life and Burmese generals put her under house arrest for the third time since 1989. Since then, except for the occasional purge of senior generals, an ever-increasing population of political prisoners and multiplying human rights abuses, nothing in Burma seems to have changed.
Aung San Suu Kyi is still kept under strict house arrest, and the Burmese generals have fortified themselves even more against any attempts at a dialogue. A dialogue? To conduct a dialogue with a regime that consistently disdains basic human rights and freedoms -- that uses arms instead of words and harassment and violence instead of discussion -- probably does not make any sense.
This is something that the European Union recently learned the hard way when it thought -- partly out of naivete, partly out of expediency -- that a more forthcoming attitude toward Fidel Castro's regime would lead to a more forthcoming attitude on the part of Castro toward his political prisoners and dissent in general. But Castro made a fool of the E.U. He released a few critically ill prisoners, secretly jailed some others and did not let some European parliamentarians into the country. Those parliamentarians who somehow managed to slip in were unceremoniously expelled.
I hope that the European Union will draw a lesson from this experience -- for example, when it again negotiates lifting the arms embargo on China. It makes sense to keep up the pressure on the military junta in Burma, which considers all the justifiable calls to free Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, as well as calls to begin democratic reforms, to be unjustifiable interference in the country's internal affairs.
Even a decade and a half after the fall of communism there, the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe still vividly remember that their communist rulers made the same arguments. Abuses of human rights and freedoms have never been and will never be solely internal affairs of any country. As someone who years ago experienced firsthand the arbitrary rule of a dictatorial regime but then lived to see better times -- to a large extent because of the international solidarity extended to us -- I appeal to all those who have the opportunity to act against such arbitrary acts to express their solidarity with people who to this day live in a state of "unfreedom."
This is also why -- together with my friends His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, former presidents Richard von Weizsaecker of Germany and Frederik W. de Klerk of South Africa, and others -- I founded the Shared Concern Initiative. The first public manifestation of this initiative was an open letter in support of Aung San Suu Kyi. This is why I welcomed it when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations moved beyond its "non-interference" policy and began publicly debating whether Burma should assume the chairmanship of that organization. This is why I support U.S. sanctions against the Burmese regime and why I find it easy to identify with resolutions by U.S. legislators. This is also why I appeal to the European Union to learn from its Cuban fiasco and step up the pressure on the Burmese regime both within the framework of the United Nations and in other international forums -- and to do it in clear and comprehensible terms.
The current situation in Burma is bad. Since 1990 the ruling State Council for Peace and Development has repeatedly promised that it would take steps leading to gradual democratization of the regime. Not a single one of these promises has been even partially fulfilled.
But I am still an optimist. After all, I come from a country where, as late as mid-1989, while all around us totalitarian icebergs were cracking and thawing, the stupid, repressive regime remained strong. I, together with other people of a similar mind-set, was in prison. Yet, by the end of that same year I was elected the president of a free Czechoslovakia.
Seemingly unshakable totalitarian monoliths are in fact sometimes as cohesive as proverbial houses of cards, and fall just as quickly. Continuing democratization of the whole region, together with growing dissent inside the country, must eventually have a positive effect. As Aung San Suu Kyi celebrates her 60th birthday, I wish for her that those changes will happen as soon as possible, and that my silly idea -- to hand her a rose -- becomes a simple and easy thing to do.
The writer is former president of the Czech Republic.
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