What Burma Should Learn from Nelson Mandela

Madiba passed away on Thursday night. Though it was expected for some time, given his long hospitalization, I was saddened, and guilty. I owed him an apology.

I had the opportunity to enjoy a one-on-one conversation with Nelson Mandela in 2003, when MTV was preparing a 60-minute special feature in honor of his 85th birthday.

I was one of four young people selected to speak with Mandela and seek his advice during the special. We were chosen because our stories resonated with Mandela's life and the South Africa he sought to change. My own life was meant to parallel his experiences under the Apartheid regime and, more generally, we were both familiar with the struggle of building democracy. When my country's army executed a military coup in 1988, I was deeply invested in the student-led, pro-democracy movement. Since then, Burma has struggled to establish democracy, as the decades-long conflict between the military and ethnic minorities continues. Mandela and I exchanged our stories: his life in prison and my life on the run, evading arrest by the Burmese military junta.

We both had family members that suffered from the persecution of ruling regimes because of our political activities. I explained to him that my dad was arrested because of my activism, and held hostage while the military came to my home and tried to arrest me. It was 1989, and I was 15 years old. Since then, almost all of my family members have been arrested and interrogated. I asked Mandela, whose family suffered a similar fate during his imprisonment, whether he felt guilty -- and if so, how he had transformed his feelings of guilt into moral strength and positive action.

His answer was firm and encouraging. He told me that we should not take persecution personally, or feel guilt for the pain repressive governments inflict on our families. With his resolute voice, Mandela urged me to reconnect with my cause -- which is larger and more worthwhile than I am -- whenever I feel frustrated with personal misery or the lack of progress in the political struggle. After he finished speaking, he offered me a reassuring, broad smile and comforting nods; that struck me most of all. I still remember how fatherly Mandela was in his treatment of me.

Our conversation became a bit tense when I insisted that he speak out, publicly, in support of the Burmese democracy movement. My meeting with Mandela took place a few weeks after Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was attacked by state-organized thugs on May 30, 2003. An unknown number of people died in the attack, and Aung San Suu Kyi only narrowly escaped the alleged assassination attempt.

I therefore requested that Mandela release a public statement denouncing the Burmese junta, and urged him to pay attention to the civil war and the miseries of ethnic minorities in my ill-fated country. I wore a T-shirt featuring a well-known student political prisoner, Min Ko Naing, under my shirt, and gave Mandela a gift of a traditional bag made by a Karen ethnic refugee women. I begged him: "Please join your fellow Nobel Laureates and do something public for Burma." In response, he looked me carefully in the eyes and said, slowly: "Min Zin, it is sometimes not a good idea to climb up to the top of the mountain and scream." When I gave him a puzzled look, he continued, "We often need to work on quiet diplomacy and engagement."

I responded to his words with disappointment and irritation. I thought it was a rude response. Mandela, however, stressed the importance of strategy in politics. He advised me to envision a positive outcome, rather than becoming stuck in the vicious circle of political polarization. Mandela used imagination and vision, rather than memory, to break out of the apartheid system. It's been ten years since I met Mandela, and though I still believe he could have done more for Burma's cause, I have now come to realize the core wisdom of his words, and the lesson Burma could learn from it.

These days, Burma's transition from tyranny to democracy is partly stymied by the opposition's attempt to institutionalize the memory of our past political divisions. Instead of putting forward a vision for the future and policies to make that vision a reality, the opposition leadership tends to employ a "good-versus-evil" political narrative as a key frame of reference in mobilizing the public. The opposition, of course, can gain a significant advantage by using this polarizing ploy. The public's distrust and hatred of the previous junta still poisons its opinion of the current pseudo-civilian government. However, using history as a campaign instrument has only encouraged dark forces within the establishment to defend themselves using "biology" in campaigns advocating racial and religious purity. These have ranged from an attempt to prohibit interfaith marriage, to rampant anti-Muslim hate speeches, to outright communal violence. The country is gradually sliding into a history-versus-biology political battle as it approaches the 2015 elections. What we really need is a truly democratic contest of vision and policy. The country lacks a sense of unity. True reconciliation and healing remain elusive in this fragile transition.

Mandela was right. When invoking memory becomes a political strategy, society suffers from a lack of imagination. Without a new vision for the future, we cannot move on and be reborn.

After our conversation ended, he introduced me to his grandchildren. He said to them, "Although Min Zin disagreed with me on some issues, I respect him." After a short pause, he continued: "Because he is a freedom fighter." His words electrified me. Now Mandela has passed away. I have had ten years to learn to appreciate the value he placed on vision and imagination over history and memory. I understand now. I owe him an apology -- but Madiba has already gone.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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Tunisia's 'Black Book' Strikes at Media Freedom

The office of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has compiled a book that lists journalists and intellectuals accused of colluding with the former authoritarian regime and assisting in polishing its image in Tunisia and abroad.

The communications arm of the presidency stated in the report that the list is based on the archive that was found in the Carthage presidential palace after Marzouki took office December 2011.

Entitled The Propaganda Apparatus Under Ben Ali: The Black Book, the report looks into how the previous regime used the media to serve its own political agenda and sought to control the flow of information coming out of Tunisia. The regime conveyed its instructions through the Tunisian Agency of External Communication, known by its French acronym ATCE, which was dissolved after the Jan. 14 revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime.

The report reveals how the ATCE acted as the regime's PR agency, using its huge budget to implement the instructions of Ben Ali's political advisers. The ATCE recruited local journalists to write articles praising the system and camouflaging the human rights violations in return for large sums of money. The rewards ranged between 50 and 3,000 Dinars ($30 to $1,800), depending on the article and the service.

Ben Ali's propaganda apparatus not only controlled the media coverage in Tunisia, but also sought to direct how the whole world viewed the country. According to the report, the ATCE, operating through Tunisia's diplomatic representatives abroad, managed to get some correspondents working for foreign press agencies like AFP, Reuters, UIP, and AP to agree to favorably orient their coverage in exchange for money.

The Black Book has stirred controversy in Tunisia. While some people enjoyed airing the dirty laundry and sharing the juicy details on social networks, others criticized the presidency's handling of the archives. Lawyer Wahid Ferchichi, a transitional justice consultant, questioned the very legality of the publishers' use of the archives. "The president's team does not even have the right to look at the archives. Before going as far processing, selecting and publishing the information, one ought to question whether or not they have the right to open those files and look at their content," Ferchichi said.

Ferchichi's position was echoed by media expert Hichem Snoussi, who said that the report is ambiguous and was not conducted according to vigorous standards of research. "We don't even know its methodology or the people who drafted it. It is a narrow report and it might bear a partisan dimension," Snoussi said.

Snoussi added that publishing such a book cannot be considered a step forward in reforming and ameliorating the media scene in Tunisia, especially when taking into account the government's poor record on media freedom. "This government did not achieve the necessary progress in media reform. They obstructed our efforts to reform the media sector. They refused to pass the new press code. They prosecuted journalists and artists," said Snoussi.

The current government came under attack when it froze the new press code drafted after the revolution by the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform, an independent body tasked with liberalizing and reforming the media sector in Tunisia. Instead of enacting the newly drafted code, the government went back to using Ben Ali's penal code to try journalists and artists. (In the photo above, leaders of the Tunisian Union of Journalists rally to demand the release of jailed journalist Zied el-Heni.)

Journalists widely viewed the book as an attempt to intimidate them. "This is another political maneuver to tame the media. They want to threaten us," stated a journalist who worked for the newspaper of the former ruling party for more than 15 years, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

"Many journalists who surrendered to the pressures of the previous regime are now trying break with the practices of the past and improve the quality of their work," she continued. "But the government is not content with that because it wants media to serve its political agenda."

The journalist also noted that publishing the book would hamper the path of transitional justice in Tunisia. The Tunisian minister of human rights and transitional justice, Samir Dilou (who is part of Marzouki's ruling coalition government) explained that the timing was badly chosen given that the country's Constituent Assembly is scheduled to examine the transitional justice law in the next few weeks. The transitional justice law, drafted jointly by the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice and civil society associations, aims to reveal the truth about the abuses perpetrated under Ben Ali's regime, hold the offenders accountable, and provide reparations for the regime's victims.

"The presidency did not respect the process of transitional justice," he said.

Commenting on the publication of the Black Book, the International Center for Transitional Justice said that "specific and ad hoc efforts may undermine an overall project for transparency and accountability for human rights abuses.... Transitional justice must not be selective or vindictive."

In anticipation of such criticism, the authors of the Black Book said in its introduction that it was not written "with the aim of retaliation or schadenfreude." Rather, they aimed to help Tunisia break from the old practices and avoid reproducing "the same propaganda apparatus" because it is "dangerous for the nascent democracy."

Marzouki said last year in a televised interview that he would not publish the archives he found in the presidential palace without a law in place, and that it would be unethical to use the archive to serve one's political interests.

One year later, not only did his government use the archive, but it accompanied its publication with 12 pages recounting the activism history of the current President Moncef Marzouki, who was introduced as "one of the most prominent figures to resist dictatorship in spite of the harassment of the security forces and judicial pressure."

It's hard to see such language as anything other than a new kind of propaganda.

Asma Ghribi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She was formerly managing editor of the Tunisia Live website.