Peace prize tarnished by silence over persecution

Peacemaker or not: Suu Kyi’s reputation on the line

There is the rhythm of poetry in her name, and for a generation Aung San Suu Kyi was the champion of democratic values in southeast Asia. Bravely she stood against a military regime that had controlled Burma since 1962.

Burma is a country in conflict, and even its name is subject of ideological dispute – many refusing to use the military’s preferred name: Myanmar.

Like many countries, Myanmar has a colonial past. The British held sway until the Second World War when the Japanese swept in. The Union of Burma emerged from the ruins of war as an independent country.

The negotiations with Britain were led by Aung San, regarded as the father of Burmese independence, although assassination ensured he did not live to see it. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, was only two when he died. Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford and worked with the Burmese-born Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, for three years.

The military-led one party state presided over the collapse of the Burmese economy. By 1988 outrage overwhelmed fear and the people took to the streets.

Suu Kyi was in the frontline. In the election of 1990 her party – the National League for Democracy – won overwhelmingly. The junta did what juntas do and declared the vote invalid. She was placed under house arrest, and her dignified defiance over the next two decades won admirers around the world.

Her advocacy for human rights has been lionised by many pivotal figures in global politics – Tutu, Mandela, Obama. Universities have showered her with honours, in 2012 she was invited to address both houses of Parliament at Westminster, she has been given the freedom of Dublin, and Bono has anointed her as one of his heroes.

“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity,” she has said. “It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.”

For her championship of democracy, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a year after the election that propelled her into the international limelight.

Accepting the prize on her behalf, her son Alexander said: “This prize belongs not to her but to all those men, women and children who, even as I speak, continue to sacrifice their wellbeing, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a democratic Burma. Theirs is the prize and theirs will be the eventual victory in Burma’s long struggle for peace, freedom and democracy.”

Stirring words, and words fulfilled by the 2015 election when her party took the reigns of power. Constitutionally blocked from the presidency by her foreign marriage, she is now Burma/Myanmar’s State Counsellor – president in all but name – and leader of her nation.

That election was the end of a dream for all those who supported her through her trials. But that dream has become a nightmare for proponents of human rights around the world. A tide of human misery – hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims – has flooded neighbouring Banglashesh.

Suu Kyi’s silence in the face of such human misery was bad enough. Last week she resorted to the weasel words of discredited politicians when she said the world did not know what was happening because of “fake news”. A chilling phrase which is fast becoming the last refuge of the damned.

Condemning the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Desmond Tutu (also a Nobel laureate) said: “It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

The Buddhist majority in Burma does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens of their country, they have been systematically persecuted, and the emergence of Rohingya militants has been used by the military, and Buddhist activists, as an excuse to crack down on the beleaguered minority.

Suu Kyi is trapped by the military on one side who remain a potent force in the country, and her own supporters on the other who support the suppression of the Rohingya people.

As John F Kennedy once said, when caught on the horns of a dilemma, one must do what is right.

Suu Kyi must use her position as a voice for peace; she must demonstrate to her people and the world that human rights does not discriminate between peoples. Every day she fails to act she further tarnishes her reputation, and brings the Prize that saw her through years of persecution into disrepute.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 12 2017

China must put stop to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition

World faces frightening future if Jong-un is not stopped

I am old enough to remember Emperor Hirohito, the god who fell to earth amid the ruins of the Second World War. Hirohito, known now to the Japanese by his posthumous name Emperor Shõwa, was the 124th emperor of Japan reigning for much of the 20th century and dying in 1989.

Hirohito translates as ‘abundant benevolence’, and Shõwa means ‘enlightened peace’, but the regime he presided over was anything but benevolent. The first part of his reign was distinguished by a rise in militarism; and the country used its economic and military power malignly in Asia.

It ignominiously entered the Second World War with an unprovoked attack on the United States, when it tried to wipe out America’s naval might at Pearl Harbour. Japan’s execution of that war, and its treatment of allied prisoners of war, rankles still today. Some have not yet forgiven them, although Hirohito made peace with London at a state visit in 1971 when the rode with the Queen down the Mall, and then America in 1975 when he was entertained by President Gerald Ford.

When Hirohito visited London, Private Eye’s front page carried the strapline “Nasty Nip in the Air, Hirohito Flies in” above a headline “The Eye says Piss Off Bandy Knees”.

When he ascended the throne, the Emperor was regarded as divine. And, although forced to set aside his divinity as the price for retaining the throne, many in Japan still think of the Emperor with the type of reverence reserved for gods. His son, Akihito has attempted to cement the role of Emperor as a constitutional monarch – much against the wishes of the Imperial Household which remains one of the most conservative forces in Japan today. He is expected to take the almost unprecedented action of abdicating the throne.

Japan has been much on my mind in recent days as I have been reading John Hersey’s book Hiroshima in preparation for a module I am teaching this coming semester. Hersey deals with the aftermath of one of the most momentous episodes in modern history – the bombing of the city at the end of the Second World War.

This was no ordinary bombing. It was the first time a nuclear device had been used to destroy a city. The number who died in Hiroshima that day remains unknown today, but it is believed that more than 100,000 lost their lives in the explosion itself, and from the effects of radiation in the months after the bombing.

Hersey’s book is remarkable for a number of reasons – not least the way he brought together the skills of a journalist and a novelist (shortly before he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel). But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hiroshima (published in the New Yorker in 1946) was the way he rejected the racial stereotyping of the Japanese – the enemy as they would still have been regarded – and brought to public attention the impact the bombing had on six individuals, five ordinary Japanese men and women and a German Jesuit priest.

It is one of the most remarkable humanitarian acts to come out of the Second World War – and it says a lot about the American people of that time that the responded so positively to what must have been a tough message. Hersey, in his dispassionate prose, brought home the fact that in war, the people who suffer are ordinary men and women like you and me.

Whatever the debate about the rights and wrongs of using this weapon, and whether or not it brought an earlier end to the war than might otherwise have been the case, Hiroshima makes explicit the human cost of mankind’s failure to fight its quarrels by peaceful means.

It is worth remembering that as we look at how to respond to North Korea’s unacceptable infringement of Japan’s right to peaceful existence with this morning’s missile test.

Tension is being ramped up on all sides, and we have in the White House a President who cannot be trusted to behave in a rational way. But Kim Yong-un cannot be allowed to continue in his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Yong-un is paranoid about the threat to North Korea from the West. That is the primary reason for the course he has chosen to take. Yet the more he pushes his nuclear ambitions, the more likely he is to get the type of response that feeds further his paranoia.

Rather than sabre rattling, the West must look to China to bear down on North Korea. It is the only world power with the capacity to make a meaningful intervention with the Yong-un, and it should do so.

Its people are in the front line should this conflict descend into war, so it has a strong self-interest. But more importantly China is on a mission to transform its economy and drive up the quality of life of its people. Instability is the last thing it needs. If it can deal with North Korea, the entire world will be in its debt.

Japan carries still the scars of what Hersey called “a noiseless flash”. There must be no more Hiroshimas.


Threat to world peace: Kim Jong-un



It’s time Sinn Fein took Westminster seats

Sean Donlon: former Irish diplomat

By any measure the Irish diplomat Sean Donlon is a man to be reckoned with.

One of the pivotal figures in Irish Foreign affairs over the past generation, he served successive Irish governments. He played a key role securing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, a precursor to the peace process that emerged from John Hume’s engagement with Sinn Fein.

As Irish Ambassador to the United States, he helped cement American support for peace in Ireland, and his advice to the Irish government was crucial as it sought an end to the use of violence for political ends.

He knows his history, and has an intimate understanding of the complicated relationships within this island, and between these islands. He has tangled with the British often enough to have a good understanding of what makes them tick.

So when he speaks, it is worth listening.

This week he was one of the guests at the MacGill Summer School. Now in its 37th year, the summer school’s theme was almost apocalyptic – Global Turbulence and Uncertainty: Ireland and Europe must prepare for a new era.

The backdrop to the school’s deliberations is Britain’s exit from the European Union – a political catastrophe made greater by the inept and incoherent behaviour of a crippled British government. In committing this act of national self-harm, Britain threatens the very safety and security of Ireland, north and south.

For Ireland, never mind the UK, Brexit is an existential crisis. It is perhaps the single biggest challenge to Ireland’s future in the history of the state – and I include the demise of the Celtic Tiger in that.

In his address, Donlon turned his attention to the outcome of last month’s British general election resulting in a minority Conservative government – propped up by the DUP.

Sinn Fein’s electoral success was a gift for the Conservatives because its long-standing policy of abstention effectively gives the Tories a cushion of seven votes. Sinn Fein’s success also means that, for the first time in living memory, there is no Irish nationalist voice in the House of Commons.

On the face of it, that is not Sinn Fein’s problem. The party position on abstention is clear, and has been since it first contested Westminster seats in 1917. Immediately following the June election, Gerry Adams confirmed there would be no shift in policy. Given the growing discontent with politicians, the party’s commitment to principle is to be applauded.

But if a week is a long time in politics, I do not know how you would describe100 years. We now live in a very different age, with a different political dispensation to that which existed in the heady years between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.

Republicans have committed themselves to change through peaceful means. Sinn Fein sits comfortably in the post-partition Dail, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In calling on them to take their seats, Donlon said Sinn Fein’s mandate was strong enough for it to “brave and generous”. Generosity has little to do with it. Sinn Fein need not kow-tow at the bar of the house, or play the arcane games demanded of this antiquated parliament. By attending it would not be doing Britain a favour.

But it could use its power and influence in the best interest – short and long term – of its electorate, and voice the expressed wish of the Irish people to remain within the European Union.

Abstention was a tactical choice in 1917, it may have been right for its time. It is not right now.

Frank Maguire, who helped bring down the Callaghan government by abstaining in person, demonstrated it is possible to be a republican and a sitting MP without compromising integrity.

Quoting Gerry Adams’ recent call for a “new approach, one which unlocks unionist opposition to a new Ireland by reminding them of their historic place here and of the positive contribution they have made to society on this island”, Donlon said a decision to take their seats would help “translate those very fine words into action”.

The current Oath of Allegiance to the Queen is anathema to republicans and must be challenged and replaced. And it is difficult to see how Sinn Fein could take their seats on their current mandate.

But another election cannot be far off. The party should use this time to reconsider and revoke this policy. Each generation must make its own choices for its own time.

As Donlon said: ”This is their moment and I hope they use it.”

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on July 21



Arrogant Britain must repent over Brexit decision

Theresa May is wrong over Brexit… she needs to stop lecturing Europe and start listening

I admit it. I am a bad loser. Nothing in the past year has done anything to reconcile me to Britain’s exit from the European Union. It is a mistake of monstrous proportions, and must be reversed.

Brexiteers would call me a ‘remoaner’, as if it is a condition of democracy that, having lost a vote, you turn your back on what you believe. If democracy means anything, it is about people arguing for what they believe and trying to persuade those who oppose them of the rightness of their cause.

If the vote had gone the other way, Brexiteers would by now have regrouped, ready to fight on to leave the Union. Why shouldn’t those who believe last year’s vote was an act of self-harm on a grand scale, do the same?

Britain is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, but it has ceased to operate like one. There is little point in picking over the entrails of David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum. It was an abdication of responsibility of the highest order. But the vote was always ‘advisory’ only.

We elect members of parliament to make the right decisions, not necessarily popular ones. Edmund Burke, the Irish parliamentarian, understood well the dangers of an elective dictatorship. An MP, he asserted, was not a delegate slavishly following the electorate’s whim. Voters “wishes ought to have great weight with him”. But an MP did not surrender his “enlightened conscience”.

In a phrase that should be required reading for all elected to office he said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

With every day that passes, the scale of the damage done to Britain, and the wider world, becomes clearer. We have already seen a reversal of economic fortunes, a worsening of household incomes, and a rise in hate crime. And in Ireland, we know Brexit will mean the reimposition of the border. Soft or hard, it matters little; it will be there. And no amount of fanciful thinking in Dublin or London will wish it away.

At the end of last week, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could be no such thing as a ‘frictionless border’ post-Brexit.

Barnier’s words are worth examining. “I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits. That is not possible.

“I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a customs union to achieve frictionless trade. That is not possible.

“The decision to leave the EU has consequences and I have to explain to citizens, businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel what those consequences mean for them.”

Britain’s arrogance in expecting EU benefits without EU membership is quite simply astonishing.

If the ‘border’ between Britain and the continent is not frictionless, you can be sure that the very real border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will not be either. While the DUP continues to prop up the May government, we must assume that it is content with that scenario too.

While it would be wrong to overplay the risk to the peace process of such a scenario – we must all hope and pray that the commitment to use peaceful means alone to effect constitutional change is absolute – the simple truth is that the return of a border will hamper economic development, and undermine prosperity for unionists and nationalists alike.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister, the Tories got us into this mess, and they need to get us out of it. Within the parliamentary party there remains a majority who understand that Brexit is a disaster, though sadly they lack the will to use what power they have to fight their corner.

The fact that this is a Tory mess does not excuse Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated the voice of the left in British politics. But it is clear that his agenda is a hard Brexit too – whatever the emollient words of Brexit shadow spokesman Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour needs to face up to the fact that exiting the European Union will damage the very people it claims to represent. Until it does, the party will continue to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  • This article appeared in the Irish News on July 11 2017

In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.