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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

SEEKING THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS

January 6, 2011

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It’s almost the end of the year now, and nearly two months since Aung
San Suu Kyi was released, but I haven’t quite gotten over the dopamine
rush of that event. I’ve been waiting a long time to see her a free
woman. Not as single-mindedly and passionately, to be sure, as her loyal
Burmese followers, but waiting, nonetheless, with some anxiety but also
with a conviction of sorts, that she would be able to tough it out. That
she would never ever give in to the junta, and one day they would have
to let her go. Just like that.

So when I saw the video of her first appearance before her followers, I
expected to feel lofty and profound emotions. But all I found myself
doing was worrying that she might injure herself, or at least cut her
fingers on the wicked looking spikes on top of the closed gate of the
compound where she had been confined. She was behind the gate but
someone had put a table or something for her to stand on, so you could
see her quite clearly. She was smiling but those damned spikes were
getting in her way. At one point she even rested her forearms on them.
Then someone from the crowd handed up a bouquet of flowers. She tied a
spray to her hair, it might have been her trademark jasmine. Whatever it
was, it did the trick for me. All was right with the world.

When the first signs appeared that Suu Kyi would be released, but before
the experts could hold forth on the possible reasons behind the junta’s
motives for freeing her, quite a few reports (The New York Times, the
BBC, The Inquirer.com, etc) pressed into service the convenient phrase
“the power of the powerless” to provide at least a broad, partial
explanation of why Suu Kyi had prevailed over her captors. Ambiguous as
the explanation was it was certainly not incorrect. When she was awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 (accepted by her son, Alexander) the
Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Francis Sejested, had
described Suu Kyi as “an outstanding example of the power of the
powerless”.

This clever oxymoron had been thought up by the Czech playwright,
dissident and political leader, Vaclav Havel, as the title for an essay,
“Moc bezmocn?ch”, in its original Czech, which appeared sometime in
October 1978. It soon became one of those rare pieces of political
reflection that outlive their time of birth and come to be regarded as a
classic. The piece was written in a hurry, as Havel later mentioned, and
was intended not as an academic or literary exercise, but as a call to
action for all dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc. In fact
after its publication in a volume of essays on freedom and power, Havel
and some of the other contributors to the volume were arrested.

The essay’s impact on the frail political opposition in Eastern Europe
was profoundly transformational. A Solidarity activist, Zbygniew Bujak
who had for years had been trying to rally and organize workers in
Polish factories explains why: “There came a moment when people thought
we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks?
Not seeing any immediate and tangible results we began to doubt the
purpose of what we were doing… Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it
gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained
our spirits; we did not give up…”

Havel’s plays are marvelously accessible. I saw a BBC (or ITV?)
performance of Audience, an absurdist drama of an hour of Havel’s life
after he was banned from the Czech theatre and forced to take a job in a
brewery. It is the only thing on TV that’s ever made me deeply depressed
and weak with laughter at the same time. On the other hand I have always
found the dense 76 odd pages of “Power of the Powerless” heavy going. I
have tried to cobble together a simple précis of Havel’s thesis, as I
consider it one of the few political documents from that period that is
still relevant to understanding the “theoretical underpinnings” of
repressive regimes and systems in our day and age. Moreover, and more
crucially, the essay provides a genuinely doable, though painful and
high-sacrifice way, for the oppressed to successfully challenge their
oppressors.

The first and crucial thing that Havel does in his essay is define the
nature of the regime in the Eastern Europe. It was not a traditional
dictatorship or a classic totalitarian regime like Stalin’s or Mao’s.
Havel called this post-totalitarianism, but emphasizes that it was still
totalitarian in spite of the prefix “post”. Nonetheless, this system was
able to present a superficial appearance of normalcy by putting on a
bland faceless facade, and very cunningly doing away with the trademark
“great leader” or “Führer figure”. But Havel tells us that in spite of
its ordinariness this system was in was in fact the “dictatorship of a
bureaucracy.”

Havel then opens people’s eyes as to the nature of the power that held
them in subjugation. He maintained that this power should not be
mistaken for the instruments of that power: the military, the
secret-police, the bureaucracy, the propaganda, the censors, et al.
Though the regime still had its torturers and labor camps and was still
capable of tremendous and arbitrary cruelty, the true source of its
power lay in its ability to coerce people in a variety of ways (even
with consumerism) to “live within the lie”; i.e. to accept the complex
web (or for sci-fi fans, the “matrix”) of lies it had created to provide
a cover of justification for its perpetual hold on power.

Because post-totalitarianism was so fundamentally based on lies, Havel
maintained that truth “in the widest sense of the word” was the most
dangerous enemy of the system. The primary breeding ground for what
might be understood as an opposition in the post-totalitarian system was
“living within the truth”. This operated initially and primarily at the
existential level, but it could manifest itself in publicly visible
political actions as street demonstrations, citizens associations and so
on. Havel mentions the creation of Charter 77 by Czech writers and
intellectuals, who demanded that the government of Czechoslovakia
recognize some basic human rights. It was a far from radical document
but the Communist government cracked down hard on the authors and
signatories. But it inspired subsequent efforts.

Whether Havel intended it or not his essay has a very Gandhian feel to
it. Havel tells us that “living within the truth” (which one might
accept as a form of satyagraha) “… is clearly a moral act, not only
because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not
self-serving. The risk may bring rewards in the form of a general
amelioration in the situation, or it may not”. Havel emphasized that by
“living within the truth” he did not just mean “products of conceptual
thought,” or major political action, but that it could be “… any means
by which a person or a group revolts against manipulation: anything from
a letter by intellectuals, to a workers strike, from a rock concert to a
student demonstration.”

My last post but one, was about the student demonstrations in Tibet in
October, which I think fits in nicely with Havel’s “living with the
truth” and as an expression of “the power of the powerless”. The Tibetan
plateau hasn’t had a major rock concert yet but a young singer from
Amdo, Sherten, has released a Bollywood style music video extravaganza
“The Sound of Unity” calling on all Tibetans from the three provinces of
the “Land of Snows” to unite (against you know who). Even such
counterrevolutionary characters from “the bad old days” as an aristocrat
lord and lady from Lhasa (in full regalia) are conspicuously depicted in
one segment to press home the message of Tibetan unity. Two other
similar music videos (“The Telephone Rang“, and “Mentally Return“) have
appeared, with similarly subversive messages calling on “ruddy face”
Tibetans to unite and await the return of “The Snow Lion”. In spite of
the effort by the lyricists to hide their political meaning behind
euphemisms and double entendre, such compositions are not without risk.
A year ago, the singer Tashi Dondrup, was arrested for his bestselling
album, Torture Without Trace, and in 2008 the singer, Jamyang Kyi was
incarcerated and tortured for “subversive activities”.

Havel saw the significance of such singers and musicians in social and
political revolutions, and he supported the Czech rock group, The
Plastic People of the Universe, which the Communist government had
harassed and forced underground, and whose members were arrested and
prosecuted in 1976. The Plastic People and Havel were in turn great
admirers of the subversive music of the New York based Velvet
Underground. Havel once told Salman Rushdie that the final non-violent
revolution of 1989 that overthrew the Communist government was called
the “Velvet Revolution” after the American band. Rushdie thought that
Havel was joking but later found out that Havel had said exactly that,
and quite seriously, to Lou Reed, the principal songwriter for the
Velvet Underground.

Tibetan scholars, writers and students have, since the late nineties,
effectively used the internet to communicate with each other and spread
their writings around the world. They write near exclusively in Tibetan
and Chinese, but the website High Peaks Pure Earth provides English
translations of a representative sampling of their works. One of the
most well known and outspoken bloggers has been the poet, Woeser, who
recently received the “Courage in Journalism” award, but whose computer
was hacked last month by the ultra-nationalist China Honker Union, and
all her writing deleted. She lives in Beijing, under near constant
surveillance. Chinese censors have regularly shut down many Tibetan
language blogs and blog hosting services, both in Tibet and China, but
Tibetan bloggers have somehow managed to keep on writing, though with
ever increasing difficulty. One way many Tibetans have managed to
circumvent censorship and shutdowns has been by posting on Chinese
social networking sites, such as the popular renren.com.

All these activities reflect a broadening of the political and social
opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet, and a growing sophistication in the
way people have begun to exercise the “power of the powerless”, without
it become an absolutely perilous or terminal exercise, as it had been
before. Earlier, all public manifestations of opposition to Chinese rule
was direct and confrontational. If we look at the Tibetan Uprising of
2008, and also those from 1987 onwards, nearly all of them have been
direct clashes with Chinese central authority, with demonstrators waving
the forbidden national flag of Tibet and shouting slogans calling for
Tibetan independence and the return of the Dalai Lama. These
demonstrations, or rather uprisings, have, on every occasion, been met
with overwhelming force, shootings, beatings, imprisonment, labor camps,
executions and disappearances. But this new phase of the struggle
emerging in Tibet just might, because of its awkward (for Beijing)
nuances, have a better chance of getting off the ground, before the
authorities come up with a way to crush it.

For the first thirty years of exile the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan
community practiced “living in the truth” with unwavering resolution,
holding on to the goal of Rangzen or “independence”, in spite of the
disheartening turn of events from the mid-seventies when Communist China
became an ally of the West against the Soviet Union, and when most
intellectuals and celebrities in the free world (even western visitors
to Dharmshala) then, appeared to be besotted with the thoughts of
Chairman Mao.

The Dalai Lama was not welcome in the West as he is now. In fact he only
managed to visit the USA in 1979, although he had been in exile for
twenty years before that. He wasn’t, of course, under house arrest in
India, but his movements were restricted. There were practically no
Tibet support groups in the West and no influential supporters or
lobbies in Washington DC or Brussels. But the Dalai Lama stuck to his
guns, metaphorically speaking. If you walked into a home, monastery,
office, classroom or restaurant in exile Tibetan society then, you would
probably have noticed a dull green poster with a quotation (in English
and Tibetan) by His Holiness, that eloquently expressed his moral
resolve. It had no photograph of him and design-wise was minimal, but it
was effective and genuinely inspirational. “Our way may be a long and
hard one but I believe that truth and justice will ultimately prevail”.

And quite unexpectedly Tibetans did prevail – up to a point. With the
fall of Berlin Wall and with China’s leaders openly confessing the
failure of their economic and social programs, and with the opening up
of Tibet to Western tourism, the world suddenly became aware of the
enormous tragedy that had befallen the roof of the world. Everywhere
around the world, political leaders, celebrities and the media, began to
pay attention to the issue of Tibet. There were Beastie Boys benefit
concerts, Richard Gere and Harrison Ford embraced the Dalai Lama and
Hollywood stepped in with two feature films on Tibet. The high-water
mark of this period was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to His
Holiness. The Nobel committee recognized that the Dalai Lama “in his
struggle for the liberation of Tibet has consistently opposed the use of
violence.”

But this period also saw the opening up of China and, more significantly
“the China trade”. Slowly and very subtly, from every quarter
imaginable, pressure began to be put on the Tibetan leadership to give
up its goal of independence. China was going to become a democracy soon,
anyway – the argument ran – and everything could be worked out then.
Even the fairly successful Tibetan campaign in the US Congress to hold
trade with China conditional to improvement of human rights conditions
in Tibet, was effectively derailed by the Clinton administration. The
president wanted to de-link human-rights and trade and induct China into
the World Trade Organization. His administration essentially “persuaded”
the Tibetan lobby (The International Campaign for Tibet or ICT) to go in
for “constructive engagement” with Beijing. This term now became the new
mantra in Tibetan activism circles. One support group in Britain that
had campaigned successfully to get Holiday Inn to leave Lhasa had its
knuckles rapped publicly by the director of ICT and told, in so many
words, to engage China more constructively.

It was made attractively convenient and often profitable for exile
Tibetans to “live within this lie”. ICT moved into a posh office suite.
The exile government which had till then operated virtually on a
shoestring now began to receive funding from a number of Western
nations. Tibetan organizations, especially the Dalai Lama, began to
receive invitations to attend all sorts of international confabs. But
behind the gestures of sympathy, the invitations, the awards, the
grants, and the aid, there often appeared to be a kind of unspoken
condition that this might all go away if Tibetans raised the issue (or
the “core issue” as the PRC menacingly calls it) of Tibetan independence.

The growing interest in Tibet’s unique traditional culture, art and
spirituality also gave Tibet a more substantial presence on the
international scene than other comparable conflict areas as East
Turkestan (Xinjiang). But in a bizarre way this interest and enthusiasm
for Tibetan culture also seemed to provide some in the West a kind of
convenient rationalization to ignore the on-going destruction of that
ancient nation and the real suffering and even potential extermination
of its people. The late celebrity photographer, Galen Rowell, actually
justified this approach in the introduction to his book, My Tibet : “To
dwell on the agony the Chinese have imposed upon his (the Dalai Lama’s)
land is to lose most of the essence of his being and his message to the
world.” The Dalai Lama seemed to endorse this attitude by his statement
that the preservation of Tibetan spiritual culture was more important
than struggling for Tibetan political freedom.

It should be emphasized that much of this new attention and assistance,
especially from small nations, some organizations and even leaders as
Nancy Pelosi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was genuine, well-meant and
unquestionably welcome. No doubt, the influence and reach of the “China
lobby” (very broadly speaking) was widespread and effective, but it was
not ubiquitous. There was a real possibility that the Tibetan leadership
could have stuck to its fundamental national goal, and though
encountering temporary setbacks and some cold-shoulders in Western
capitals for a time, have hung on to a significant (and more genuine)
segment of its support base, and eventually, as China dropped its “soft
power” mask (as it is beginning to do right now) rebuilt its
international support in a more real and meaningful way.

But Dharamshala chose to see the new reality as inescapable and
unalterable, and used it as a part excuse, part self-fulfilling prophecy
to warn the exile public that if the issue of independence were raised
Tibetans would loose their support in the West, that the Dalai Lama
would not be welcome anywhere anymore, and that Tibetan refugees might
even be deported from the countries where they had found refuge.

As all exile Tibetans had till then considered themselves to be engaged
in a life-and-death freedom struggle, some kind of “displacement
activity” (as Konrad Lorenz would have put it) had to provided for them
to deal with the new reality. Experts from various “conflict
resolution”, “conflict management” and “conflict mediation” groups and
institutions descended on Dharamshala to organize lectures, workshops
and symposiums, which even members of the Tibetan cabinet were sometimes
obliged to attended. The overriding thinking pushed at these gatherings
was that everything depended on finding a way to accommodate China.
Hence anything that might impede the process (i.e. talk of independence)
had to be summarily dropped. No one seemed to have caught on that these
groups were not there to deliver justice, or even begin a process to
seek justice for Tibet, but, as their organizational names made
abundantly clear, were there to make “conflict” go away, even if that
conflict was a necessary one between survival and extermination – even
between good and evil. The simplest way of doing that, especially when
one side was invincible, immovable, and a valued trading partner of the
West, was to make the other and weaker side give up its dispute.

Besides Tibetan officialdom, even some individual Tibetans living and
studying in the free world were seduced into this new way of thinking. A
Tibetan MBA made the far-reaching discovery that doing business with
China was the only way to save and modernize Tibet. One PhD deployed his
newly acquired academic skills to re-interpreting Havel’s actual phrase
“the power of the powerless” to mean the conference hopping, resume
bolstering, grant seeking and other essentially self-serving activities,
that passes for “activism” in a section of the Tibetan exile world. A
few previous independence activists now set up “outreach” and “bridge
building” projects inside Tibet (in collaboration with Chinese
authorities, of course) and on a a few occasions even spoke out publicly
against Tibetan independence and those still contending for it.

The Indian novelist (The God of Small Things) and social thinker,
Arundhati Roy, has commented on a similar phenomenon in India. In her
talk/essay “Public Power in the Age of Empire” Roy mentions that one of
the most insidious threats facing social movements in the sub-continent
was, what she called, the “NGO-ization of resistance”. She points out
that the political resistance of the Indian public to globalization and
its terrible impact on the victims of economic liberalization,
especially farmers, coincided with the NGO boom in the late 1980s. She
does concede that some NGO’s did valuable work, but insists that the NGO
phenomenon should be considered in a broader political context. That the
impression that NGO’s gave of contributing to social alleviation, that
contribution was materially inconsequential and not the main part of
their actual agenda:

Their (the NGOs) real contribution is that they defuse political anger
and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right
…They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims
and blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer
between … Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the
interpreters, the facilitators. In the long run, NGOs are accountable to
their funders not to the people they work among.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s celebrated “Freedom From Fear” speech begins: “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.” The Tibetan exile government and certain Tibetan
individuals in the free world do not have to fear the Chinese military,
the PSB, slave labor camps, prisons, torture or execution, but they fear
loosing access to opportunities and privileges they enjoy at present in
the free world, which they have convinced themselves is conditional to
their silence on the most crucial issue of Tibetan freedom and
sovereignty. And that fear corrupts them and undermines the
revolutionary struggle that is being carried on inside Tibet, and even
outside still, in a small way, by a marginalized but committed number of
Tibetans and friends.

After her release some media commentators suggested that Aung San Suu
Kyi, might be sidelined in the present Burmese political scene, since
she had been out of touch with the Burmese public and new leaders had
emerged from within the opposition groups. But the ecstatic and
universal public response to her release, even from young Burmese who
had probably never actually seen her in person, demonstrated that she
had lost none of her appeal. She was soft-spoken and levelheaded as
always. She spoke politely of the military dictatorship and even
respectfully of the army as a national institution. She made no calls
for “regime change”, but on the fundamental issue of her life-long
struggle for democracy there was no question that the power of the
powerless would ever be relinquished.

In a telephone interview with The New York Times she made it clear that
now she was free she intended to lead what she called a nonviolent
revolution, rather than an incremental evolution. She said her use of
the term “revolution” was justified because, “I think of evolution as
imperceptible change, very, very slowly, and I think revolution as
significant change. I say this because we are in need of significant
change.”
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