Delivering her Nobel Lecture after a 21-year delay, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi offered a timely reminder from the front lines of struggle.
“To be forgotten,” she said in her October 16th address in Oslo, “… 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,” she added, “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.”
Across the West, and particularly in Washington, leaders often face the question of whether, and when, to speak out on behalf of political dissidents, labor leaders, students, and others who are fighting to attain basic rights – to choose their government, speak their minds, worship their God, and pursue their dreams.
U.S. presidents are sometimes reticent, fearful that their public support of dissidents can enable authoritarian regimes to paint them as American spies or dupes, giving the regimes an excuse to arrest and imprison them.
Though understandable, such reticence flies in the face of what the dissidents seem to most fervently want. Rather than break new ground, Suu Kyi was echoing the long-held view of her predecessors of many decades as well as those who, today, are on the front lines in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere.
Mihajlo Mihajlov, a prominent Yugoslavian dissident of the 1960s and 1970s, spent seven years in prison – half for writing that Lenin had established camps for political dissidents after the Russian Revolution, the other half for criticizing Tito.
“The most frightening thing that can happen to a person,” he wrote later, “is to be forgotten in prison.” Once released, Mihajlov encouraged the West to speak out more forcefully for human rights – and he was not alone.
After the Soviets expelled him in 1974, Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn encouraged
Washington to raise the public pressure on Moscow. Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became
Czechoslovakia’s president, later thanked Washington for its support when he led the “Charter 77” movement.
So did labor leader Lech Walesa, who became Poland’s first non-Communist president. So, too, did Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who said Reagan’s denunciations of Moscow over human rights “had brought more clarity to the [Cold War] and started the chain of events which led to the end of Soviet communism.”
Lest you think we’re discussing ancient history, today’s successors to Mihajlov, Solzhenitsyn, and the others feel similarly. Presidents may fear they will complicate things if they speak out for the oppressed, as President Obama apparently did when he was slow to criticize Tehran in the aftermath of its fraudulent 2009 presidential elections, but today’s dissidents argue for a strong moral voice from the Oval Office.
To make their case, leading dissidents often make their pleas on the op-ed pages of America’s leading newspapers, which they know presidents read. In recent years, such dissidents have included Egypt’s Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who urged Obama to break with Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 as protests mounted; Yang Jianli, who urged Obama to pressure Chinese President Hu
Jintao to free 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and other political prisoners; Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader who urged Obama to stop supporting tyrants around the world; and Russia’s Garry Kasparov, the activist who urged Obama to throw his support behind the people of Iran.
Nor are the calls for a stronger U.S. voice limited to the leaders of democratic movements. Their followers echo the message.
When hundreds of thousands of Iranians jammed the streets to protest in 2009, demonstrators who were under attack in Tehran were heard to shout: “Obama, Obama – either you’re with them [the regime] or you’re with us.”
A U.S. president retains enormous power to influence events across the globe. With his voice, he can inspire dissidents and pressure authoritarian regimes, sometimes helping to tip the balance toward the former. As people in Africa, Asia, Latin American and elsewhere rise up to demand the same rights that so many others have won in the last two centuries, this and future presidents should be less hesitant to stand with them.
As Suu Kyi put it in Oslo, in words that President Obama should take to heart, “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.”