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When pixels, bytes and VJs unite

Everyone could hear the collective gasp that filled the auditorium – and no one would forget – the very moment when the first signal transporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s animated face to a large screen in London arrived last week.

That is, everyone of the 400 students, faculty and invited guests, including Burmese dissidents exiled in the greater London area, her dialogue partners and an Al Jazeera presenter, and last but least the joint team of event organizers from Al Jazeera English and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), all of whom were gathered inside the School’s Shikh Zayed theatre. We were there to participate in, watch and record the first ever live dialogue with the world’s best known dissident, who has come to personify the Burmese people’s uphill battle for ‘the government of, for and by the people’ – that’s if you don’t want to use such ‘loaded’ terms as ‘democracy or human rights’.

In front of us all she sat with her eyes blinking, looking fully human, calm, tired after a routinely full day; excited that she was to interact with the outside world in a more intellectually substantive fashion, and slightly baffled – even incredulous – that thanks to today’s communications technologies, she was being beamed into a theatre some 6,000 miles away from Rangoon.

The LSE-Al Jazeera English event is the first ever for Suu Kyi and the Burmese movement at large, not simply because it was live and interactive – involving the iconic dissident in Rangoon with an audience seated in a theatre in London – but because it was also designed to provide her with a more meaningful and substantive opportunity than most since her release from house arrest a month ago. As a hybrid event between academia and mass media, the forum was designed to go beyond the standard format and length of media interviews, thereby allowing her, and the participants, one and half hours of discussion time to address some of the most fundamental challenges facing Burma:  political and ethnic conflicts (and the need for their peaceful resolution), the contested notion and complex realities of ‘civil society’, the painfully difficult task of transforming a half-century of military dictatorship into a more humane and democratic government, and bringing to one of the world’s poorest countries more balanced and desperately needed economic development.

From Harvard, Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, whose profoundly influential contributions to re-linking economic development with ethics and economics, as well as political freedoms and development, are recognised worldwide, sent his contributions in a two-part pre-recorded narrative to the dialogue. While Professor Sen’s intellectual contributions are known globally, his personal ties to Southeast Asia’s last remaining international pariah aren’t. The young Amartya Sen spent part of his childhood in Mandalay where his father taught at Mandalay Agricultural College during British rule. Sen, who was on the plane from Boston to New Delhi at precisely the time the LSE-Al Jazeera forum kicked off, considered it “his loss” that he was unable to join the live dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom he has great admiration and affection. The latter studied at Delhi University before she went on to Oxford, and is one of Sen’s old pupils when he sat on the economics faculty at Delhi.

First, Sen spoke very movingly about his phone conversation with Michael Aris, his late friend and Suu Kyi’s husband, as he lay on his deathbed in UK, during which Dr Aris was still rallying support and solidarity for the cause of freedom in Burma. Michael died a few days later.  Professor Sen then moved onto share his fond memories of the Burmese people he mingled with as a young boy in Mandalay, before presenting in the second and final segment of his pre-recorded message his hard-hitting ’10 things the world can do to help advance the cause of freedom and human rights for the Burmese people’.  Here is a glimpse of how Sen views Burma’s sorry state of affairs: “Ninth, there has to be an end to the sense of dejection and hopelessness that is so dominant now.  The fight, we have to remember, is for the restoration of democracy in Burma, not for tiny bits of concession.”

The two distinguished British discussants were Timothy Garton Ash and Mary Kaldor.  Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxord, a columnist for The Guardian, and was a dear friend of Suu Kyi and Aris whilst at St Antony’s College, Oxford.  He was one of the two European scholars whom George W. Bush invited to discuss politics and policy at the White House during the latter’s first 100 days as US President. Kaldour, a Professor of Global Governance and co-director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at LSE, was Suu Kyi’s contemporary at Oxford, whose substantial contributions to both international activism aimed at nuclear disarmament and in the academic and policy areas of rethinking modern wars, human (in)security, and civil society, are well-known. In addition to her own writing, Mary is helping to incubate a nascent Burma Research Initiative out of LSE Global Governance.

As a Burmese dissident who came from an extended military family and an engaged scholar who has first-hand knowledge of non-violent and armed Burmese resistance, as well as engagement with the Burmese military, I joined Kaldour and Ash on the panel as a ‘reality check’ and a co-host with Veronica Pedrosa, Al Jazeera English presenter and a native of the Philippines.

Pedrosa flew in from Kuala Lumpur where she is based in order to help organise the event in London and, perhaps equally important, provide her expertise as the principal facilitator of the live dialogue. She has years of professional experience in the global media working for BBC and CNN, prior to her joining the Third World-focused Al Jazeera English, and proved incredibly competent in stepping up to the plate and running the dialogue single-handedly when it became clear that technical glitches in getting smooth audiovisuals from Rangoon were not going to be resolved during the planned one and a half hours.

Based on his travels and conversations with dissidents in Burma in 2000, Ash published in the New York Review of Books a reflective essay on Aung San Suu Kyi, her dissident movement and Burma’s ruling generals, entitled “Beauty and the Beasts”, arguing that Suu Kyi has all the moral authority and legitimacy while the generals have all the guns. At the LSE-Al Jazeera dialogue, Tim shared his insight as to why Burmese revolts against tyranny have not succeeded vis-à-vis the Eastern Europe’s victorious colour revolutions: the opposition’s weaknesses and shortcomings notwithstanding, it is, in the final instance, the geo-economic and political alignments which help determine the outcome of domestic struggles, he said, whilst lamenting India’s shameful act of siding with what Sen called the “butchers of Burma” as opposed to the people and the courageous dissidents.

On her part, Kaldor talked about how “new wars” benefit the parties in conflict who don’t feel any political will to end them – the wars and conflicts, she said, offer them commercial benefits and ideological justification for their abusive power, while she stressed the role of natural resource extractive industries in propping up tyrannies in places like Burma. Based on her in-depth research knowledge, Kaldour was equally scathing towards donor-driven, so-called ‘civil society’ initiatives, citing a colleague of hers who argues that “international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) kill civil society”. She also brought into focus the public’s dialogic and communicative acts, both domestically and globally, as the main vehicle in creating the type of civil society that promotes democratization (as opposed to priming local communities for ‘free market’ and outside commercial interests in the disguise of NGO-driven ‘civil society’).

One of the forum’s most memorable moments came during the Q&A when the LSE audience asked Suu Kyi questions about her source of personal inspiration (her answer: her parents and other freedom fighters like Desmond Tutu who personifies a universal view of compassion and human solidarity), and reconciliation with the generals. It is worth stressing that Suu Kyi reiterated her long-standing, genuine offer of working together with the Burmese military, the generals, as well the rank and file members, and made it unequivocally clear that there is nothing she would like more than all-around-reconciliation in Burma among all the parties in the country’s tragic conflicts, and the emergence of a genuinely ‘inclusive politics’ which will serve all stakeholders, including the country’s military.

For me this dialogue was more than an intellectual exchange with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It was also inevitably personal. I view Daw Suu’s participation in the LSE-Al Jazeera English dialogue as a sign that she not only talks the talk of reconciliation, but also walks the walk. For I was the first Burmese dissident who publicly challenged her stance on western economic sanctions as early as 2003 when such criticisms were viewed as ‘political suicide’ for a dissident, and attempted to engage with the then General Khin Nyunt and his deputies when her own good-faith dialogue with the same men was smashed into pieces by a senior leadership who didn’t feel a need to reconcile with anyone, Burmese or ethnic nationalities. Reconciliation ought to be pursued among dissidents with common mission for genuine change.

As Gandhi said, we must be the change we pursue.

Personal is political, not just for the American feminists in the 1960s, but for all participants, including the Al Jazeera host Pedrosa – now on the regime’s bad book for her critical coverage of human conditions in Burma –  who watched a Burmese baby die in the mother’s arms during her visit to the cyclone Nargis-devastated Irrawaddy delta in 2008. Ash, who travelled to Burma and, at Suu Kyi’s request gave a lecture at the NLD headquarters 10 years ago, began his participation, shouting excitedly – as we all had to struggle to be heard due to the bad telephone connection with Rangoon, “Suu, Merry Christmas. Greetings from all your old friends in Oxford”, at which Daw Suu shouted back, “Merry Christmas from me too!”.

Ash’s Guardian comment on the forum ended with the perceptive observation that “people (not technology) set people free”. In fact, it is not just iconic dissidents and public intellectuals who make contributions to human liberation movements, but a countless number of faceless foot-soldiers like the Burma VJs (video journalists), whose risky and courageous actions on the ground made possible such global dialogue on Tuesday designed to connect Burma’s decades-long freedom struggle with “global civil society”. Pixels and bytes may transport images and sounds, but it is the human VJs on the ground that facilitate solidarity through communicative actions.


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