The first autobiography I ever read was providentially, or prophetically, or perhaps both, Seven Years Solitary, by a Hungarian woman who had been in the wrong faction during the Communist Party purges of the early 1950s. At 13 years old, I was fascinated by the determination and ingenuity with which one woman alone was able to keep her mind sharp and her spirit unbroken through the years when her only human contact was with men whose everyday preoccupation was to try to break her. It is one of the most basic needs that those who decide to go into, and to persevere in, the business of dissent have to be prepared to live without. In fact living without is a huge part of the existence of dissidents.
What kind of people deliberately choose to walk the path of deprivation? Max Weber identifies three qualities of decisive importance for politicians as passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. The first – passion – he interprets as the passionate dedication to a cause. Such a passion is of crucial importance for those who engage in the most dangerous kind of politics: the politics of dissent. Such a passion has to be at the core of each and every person who makes the decision, declared or undeclared, to live in a world apart from the rest of their fellow citizens; a precarious world with its own unwritten rules and regulations. The world of dissidence.
There are no external signs by which the strange denizens of this world can be recognised. Come any week day to the headquarters of the NLD, a modest place with a ramshackle rough-hewn air of a shelter intended for hardy folk. More than once it has been described as the NLD ‘cowshed’. Since this remark is usually made with a sympathetic and often admiring smile, we do not take offence. After all, didn’t one of the most influential movements in the world begin in a cowshed?
In our shabby, overcrowded office, you will find very ordinary looking people. That elderly man with poetically unstylish hair is a veteran journalist. He is also a dissident supreme, and when he was released after 20 years in prison immediately set about writing a book about his harrowing experiences entitled Is This A Human Hell? He always wears a prison blue shirt to keep alive the awareness that there are still thousands of prisoners of conscience in Burma. This neat, bespectacled woman with a face free from lines of worry or despair is a doctor who spent nine years in prison. Since her release three years ago, she has been busily involved in the social and humanitarian projects of our party. There are some sweet old ladies in their 80s.
They have been coming regularly to our office since 1997. That was one of our ‘Tsunami’ years when a big wave of repression swept away large members of our democracy activists into jail. At one of our party meetings, I called on the wives and small children and old parents of those who had been taken away to rally to our cause to show the Junta that we will not be defeated; that those of us who remained free would take up the standard of those whose freedom had been curtailed. The sweet old ladies were among the brave who picked up the standard. They are still holding onto it with great tenacity.
You will also see in our NLD office women and men whom the Burmese would say were of ‘good age’. That means they’re in their forties. When they joined the Movement for Democracy, they were in their twenties or even still in their late teens, fresh faced and flashing eyed, passionate for the cause. Now they are quieter, more mature, and more determined, their passion refined by the trials they have undergone. You do not ask them if they have ever been to prison. You ask them how many times they have been to jail.
Then there are young people, but not too young to be strangers to interrogation and incarceration. Their faces are bright with hope, but sober, free from the flush of illusion. They know what they have let themselves in for. They threw down the gauntlet to the future with clear eyes. Their weapons are their faith; their armour is their passion – our passion. What is this passion? What is the cause to which we are so passionately dedicated as to forego the comforts of a conventional existence? Going back to Vaclav Havel’s definition of the basic job of dissidents, we are dedicated to the defence of the right of individuals to free and truthful life. In other words, our passion is liberty.
Passion translates as suffering and I would contend that in the political context, as in the religious one, it implies suffering by choice: a deliberate decision to grasp the cup that we would rather let pass. It is not a decision made lightly – we do not enjoy suffering; we are not masochists. It is because of the high value we put on the object of our passion that we are able, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to choose suffering.
In May 2003 a motorcade of NLD members and supporters accompanying me on a campaign trip to Dabayin, a small town in North Burma, was surrounded and attacked by unknown assailants thought to be operating under the orders of the Junta. Nothing has been heard to this day of the fate of the attackers, but we, their victims, were placed under arrest. I was taken to the notorious Insein jail and kept alone, but, I have to admit, kept rather well in a small bungalow built apart from the quarters of other prisoners.
One morning, while going through my daily set of physical exercises – keeping fit, as fit as possible was, in my opinion, one of the first duties of a political prisoner – I found myself thinking this is not me. I would not have been capable of carrying on calmly like this. I would have been curled up weakly in my bed, worrying my head out over the fate of those who had been at Dabayin with me. How many of them had been severely beaten up? How many of them had been dragged away to I did not know where? How many of them had died? And what was happening to the rest of the NLD? I would have been laid low by anxiety and uncertainty. This was not me here, working out as conscientiously as any keep fit fanatic. At that time, I had no recollection of Akhmatova’s lines: ‘No, this is not me. This is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that and all that happened.’ It was only much later, back in my own house but still under arrest, that these words of requiem came back to me. At the moment of remembrance, I felt almost as a physical force the strong bond that linked those of us who had only our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance.
Poetry is a great unifier that knows no frontiers of space or time. U Win Tin, he of the prison blue shirt, turned to Henley’s Invictus to sustain him through the interrogation sessions he had to undergo. This poem had inspired my father and his contemporaries during the independent struggle, as it also seemed to have inspired freedom fighters in other places at other times. Struggle and suffering, the bloody unbowed head, and even death, all for the sake of freedom.
What is this freedom that is our passion? Our most passionate dissidents are not overly concerned with academic theories of freedom. If pressed to explain what the word means to them, they would most likely reel off a list of the concerns nearest to their hearts such as there won’t be any more political prisoners, or there will be freedom of speech and information and association, or we can choose the kind of government we want, or simply, and sweepingly, we will be able to do what we want to do.
This may all sound naïve, perhaps dangerously naïve, but such statements reflect the sense of freedom as something concrete that has to be gained through practical work, not just as a concept to be captured through philosophical argument.[…]
A basic human right, which I value highly, is freedom from fear. Since the very beginning of the democracy movement in Burma, we have had to contend with the debilitating sense of fear that permeates our whole society.
Visitors to Burma are quick to remark that the Burmese are warm and hospitable. They also add, sadly, that the Burmese are in general afraid to discuss political issues.
Fear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom, and often it is the one that remains until the very end. But freedom from fear does not have to be complete. It only has to be sufficient to enable us to carry on; and to carry on in spite of fear requires tremendous courage.
‘No, I am not afraid. After a year of breathing these prison nights, I will escape into the sadness to name which is escape. It isn’t true. I am afraid, my darling, but make it look as though you haven’t noticed.’ The gallantry embodied in Ratushinskaya’s lines is everyday fare for dissidents. They pretend to be unafraid as they go about their duties and pretend not to see that their comrades are also pretending. This is not hypocrisy. This is courage that has to be renewed consciously from day to day and moment to moment. This is how the battle for freedom has to be fought until such time as we have the right to be free from the fear imposed by brutality and injustice.
Akhmatova and Ratushinskaya were Russians. Henley was English. But the struggle to survive under oppression and the passion to be the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul is common to all races.
This article has been excerpted from the first of the two 2011 BBC Reith Lectures, delivered by Aung San Suu Kyi in July. This lecture was on the subject of ‘Liberty’ and the second one was on ‘Dissent’. The theme of this year’s Reith Lectures was ‘Securing Freedom’.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)