Isabel Hilton: A triumph for moral authority

When strong regimes show their fear of weak individuals, their own vulnerability stands revealed. So it is with Burma's generals
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The Independent Online

All who watched Aung San Suu Kyi's short walk to freedom on Saturday had waited a long time for a moment that was full of both joy and uncertainty about the future.

As millions around the world caught their first glimpse of this resolute and courageous woman, who has borne her nearly two decades of confinement with dignity and integrity of purpose, other moments in recent history inevitably came to mind: would her release signal that change is coming to Burma, as that of Nelson Mandela did in South Africa? Would she be able to lead a people-power revolution, as Corazon Aquino did in the Philippines in 1986, or Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia in 1989? Would her return to public life in Burma bring the first rays of a political dawn, or will darkness return?

There are as many reasons to hope as to fear a new disappointment, but whatever the final impact of her release, there is no questioning the power of her presence. However we marshal the many arguments against the likelihood of a restoration of democracy to Burma, the mesmerising impact of those first images reminds us of the exemplary catalysing force of personal courage and moral purpose.

It is not a good time for politics: in America, politics has descended into a destructive, dysfunctional condition in which popular frustration is channelled into a corporate-funded, poisonous populism. The conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has fatally damaged the West's ability to argue for human rights elsewhere: how can Washington lecture Beijing or Burma on human rights when it has itself embraced torture and imprisonment without trial? Western governments still wave their rhetorical moral flags, but they are too tarnished to be convincing.

Yet the desire to believe that political leaders can embody the moral values essential to fair, equitable and tolerant societies refuses to die. We continue to hope for a politics that upholds humanity and justice against greed and violence. For many, the prospects of such a leadership seem unbearably distant. Most of us struggle to match the moral claims of our leaders with political reality. Out of this disappointment comes the extraordinary power of those individuals who display personal courage against overwhelming odds.

The government of Burma's giant neighbour, China, has spent more than two decades hoping the world – and its own citizens – will forget the devastating brutality of its suppression of the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But the unforgettable image of that tragic episode is one unidentified man in a white shirt and dark trousers, a shopping bag in one hand, facing down an advancing column of tanks and bringing it to a standstill with nothing more than unshakeable individual courage. To this day, Chinese contemporary art works are scrutinised by the security forces for images that might be read as coded references to that iconic moment.

We measure political power in material terms: how strong is the party, how big the army, how full the coffers, how secure the grip on the levers of state? By those measures, the Burmese generals hold all the cards, just as the apartheid regime did in South Africa when Nelson Mandela made his walk to freedom. But that assessment leaves out of account the unmeasurable power of moral authority, a power that derives not from the ability to coerce or to marshal fear, but to inspire citizens to acts of individual and collective courage, to keep hope alive and to engender actions that may bring tragedy to the individual but that can create an unstoppable collective force.

Who would have predicted that an unarmed Czech playwright would catalyse a peaceful revolution against the armed might of the Soviet Union, or that an Indian campaigner for non-violence would drive the British from India? Such symbols take root in our memories and endure, long after the tanks have rusted. Does anyone doubt that the Dalai Lama is able to inspire – or that Hu Jintao is not? How many citizens would shout for joy at the sight of one of Burma's military dictators? Would any real tears be shed if they were never seen again?

No doubt the Burmese regime does not seek to be loved, as long as it is sufficiently feared. Nevertheless, it has shown that it is not immune to the need to pretend that its mission is the general good. The election that the generals staged last month was an empty attempt to paint a coat of popular assent on coercion. That a regime that holds all the material cards needs to indulge in such pretence reveals both the limits of force and the fragility of a power that must suspect subversion everywhere. By every conventional measure, Aung San Suu Kyi is weak: a 65-year-old widow with no troops, few funds and, formally at least, no party. When strong regimes show their fear of weak individuals their own vulnerability stands revealed.

Aung San Suu Kyi's release is one of those universal moments that resonate far beyond the borders of her suffering country. When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was already in detention. Her late husband, Michael Aris, and her two sons accepted the prize on her behalf. A photograph of the imprisoned laureate sat in the centre of the stage, a reminder to all of the regime's brutal intransigence.

On 10 December, China will undergo a similar moral rebuke when the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese public intellectual currently imprisoned for calling, amongst other things, for the Chinese government to respect its own constitution and to respect its own laws.

China is both Burma's neighbour and economic mainstay. China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported Aung San Suu Kyi's release in a few short paragraphs that led with her willingness to work for "national reconciliation". China's state television news led their report with the Burmese government's announcement of her release. Neither mentioned that she, like Liu Xiaobo, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Liu is not someone who inspires a mass following in China as Aung San Suu Kyi does in Burma, but his moral courage, like hers, serves as a mirror that magnifies the lack of it in his jailers. Ever since the Nobel announcement in October, Beijing has been on the horns of a painful dilemma: they cannot release Liu to attend the ceremony without acknowledging the injustice of his imprisonment, but his absence at a ceremony makes the case against them even more powerfully.

Beijing has been attempting to coerce other countries into boycotting the ceremony, while detaining, or restricting the travel, of an ever wider circle of friends and sympathisers who might be suspected of planning to represent him in Oslo. The greater the effort to limit the impact of the Nobel prize, the worse the Chinese government looks; their impotence eats away at the one thing that no regime can enforce – the abstract but potent qualities of credibility and legitimacy.

Without the legitimacy of popular consent, even a lone, unarmed, imprisoned individual is a potential threat. Their example shows us that we can decline to believe in a lie and that fear can be conquered. Once a people conquers its fears, the outcome is no longer in doubt. It is only a matter of time.

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