Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Burma’

Syria and R2P

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th April, 2013

Syria devastationBashar al-AssadToday at the Liberal International Executive in Beirut there was a special session on Syria, its title asking the provocative question whether the crisis and the international community’s failure to find a resolution to it signals an end to the Responsibility to Protect. Keynote speakers included former LI President John Alderdice, who I have often worked with, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who I had dealings with when I was doing project evaluation and training for his Democrat Party in Bangkok a few years back. I not surprisingly agreed with almost everything John said though I argued that to call R2P a “doctrine”m as he did, was unfortunate as it is rather a principle of evolving International Law. Kasit, as a good Buddhist, argued that the lessons from Indonesia (Suharto) and Burma (the military junta) suggest that we should not seek revenge for what Bashar al-Assad and his family and cohorts have done, but rather show forgiveness. I countered that the Syrian regime’s crimes have been so heinous that for justice to be done he and his brother Maher should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague (which got a gratifyingly hearty round of applause from the Lebanese present, in particular). I maintained that Western military intervention in Libya had been correct, under R2P, even if the outcome is not entirely smooth, whereas I fear any Western military intervention in Syria would only make things worse. Instead, the Arab League — possibly with the addition of Turkey — should take the lead and try to convene a workable peace conference, though in the meantime considerable diplomatic pressure needs to be brought to bear on Russia and China, two of Syria’s strongest allies.

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A Cool Look at Burma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 5th December, 2012

Burma - photo Nic Dunlop

Burma – photo Nic Dunlop

Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based photographer and author who has spent most of the past two decades covering my old stomping ground, South East Asia. But this evening he was the guest speaker at a Liberal International British Group (LIBG) Forum at the National Liberal Club, giving his take on what is happening in Burma. He has recently completed a book which uses many of the striking black-and-white images he took in Burma, particularly in the mid-1990s but also since. Many of the photographs are chilling, including a series of a former political prisoner acting out the stress positions he was forced to adopt while he was being tortured. There is sullen resignation on the faces of peasants drafted in to do forced labour building roads and so forth. As Nic said inNic Dunlop his commentary to a slide show tonight, there was no need for armed guards to watch over them because they have been conditioned by years of fear. He had some good shots of Aung San Suu Kyi — including one of her at Oxford, receiving an honorary degree — but he is not starry-eyed about ‘The Lady by the Lake’. He pointed out that the woman who was rightly hailed as a political inspiration by many in the West has nonetheless deeply disappointed many human rights activists since her release from house arrest by refusing to condemn outright violence against specific ethnic minorities. Nic also made the interesting observation that it is not just the military, who have in principle now handed over to a civilian government after decades in power, who are firm believers in superstition and astrology. It is deeply engrained in the Birman people. I was struck that many of the scenes shown in his pictures, even in the capital Yangon/Rangoon, look exactly how I remember it on my one and only visit there in the summer of 1969. It is as if Burma is frozen in aspic, though under tropical rain. But now the country is opening up that is likely to change fast, in that some people with the right connections will make a killing by funding new developments, rather as happened in post-Communist states, though the poor masses are unlikely to benefit for the foreseeable future. Link: www.nicdunlop.com

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Pete Pattisson’s Burma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th June, 2012

The Liberal Democrats’ Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA) has produced several editions of Who’s Who in the Liberal Democrats, listing the parliamentary and civic achievements of leading members of the Party (or at least those who filled in the necessary form, as is indeed the case with ‘the’ Who’s Who). But I can’t help feeling that it would be more entertaining if a volume were produced which highlighted the creative side of Liberal Democrat activists. Some people might be surprised by the revelations. Pete Pattisson, Councillor for Whitefoot ward in Lewisham om south-east London, for example, is a notable photographer and film-maker who in recent years has particularly focussed on Burma (aka Myanmar). Over the last few years he has done a number of shorts for the Guardian, sometimes by entering Burma through Rangoon (Yangon), sometimes crossing the border from neighbouring countries. And this evening he shared some of these films with attendees at a Lewisham Liberal Democrats’ Pizza and Politics at his home. There is a lot that can make us hopeful about developments in Burma, after decades of military rule and repression, not least the release of hundreds of political prisoners and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (from house arrest). ‘The Lady’, as she is widely known, was successfully elected to the Burmese parliament in a by-election not so long ago, though she got her knuckles metaphorically rapped the other day by the men still in power for calling her homeland Burma (the old Britsh appelation) and not Myanmar, the name imposed by the junta. But as Pete’s clips — some of which you can find easily find on YouTube — vividly portray, life for many in Burma is still difficult, endemic poverty exacerbated by natural disasters and even the plague of rats attracted by the  twice-in-a-century flowering of bamboo. I have only been to Burma once, way back in 1969, when I was making my way slowly back from Vietnam, where I had been a cub reporter covering the War. The lasting image that stays in my mind, even at that time of a closed, impoverished country very much under the military’s heel, was the sublime atmosphere of the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. I circled it barefoot at sunset with Buddhist pilgrims, not a tourist in sight; visas were not readily given. Moreover, for years since then people in the West were urged to stay away from Burma, in protest at the junta’s restrictions. But today Aung San Suu Kyi has put out the welcome mat, saying that foreign visitors should go, not only to savour Burma’s special quality, but to link up with the people and help them along the road to a more open society.

 

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Scrutinising Belarus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th February, 2012

Belarus is often portrayed as the Bad Boy of Europe — the only European state that is not a member of the Council of Europe, thanks to its retention (and use) of the death penalty, the apparently fraudulent nature of its elections and its poor record on human rights. Opposition figures are regularly imprisoned (often for short periods), harrassed and denounced in the official media, and the KGB — which still keeps its Soviet-era name — is a looming, ominous presence, with a large headquarters on the main drag in the capital, Minsk. When I went there a few years ago to meet political and human rights activists, I felt I had walked onto the set of a film of one of John Le Carré’s novels. Rendezvous were made with people at their request in parks or noisy restaurants; Even the head of the Communist party insisted on meeting clandestinely in a café. Yet it is an over-simplification to denounce Belarus blithely as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, for all the self-evident shortcomings of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. People can access the Internet in the numerous cyber-cafés, and young Belorussians with enough money to pay for a Schengen visa can travel West, notably to Lithuania and Poland. They don’t need a visa for Russia, to which Belarus remains tied with an umbilical cord, And even if Lukashenko has sometimes irritated Putin and other Kremlin figures, Belarus is a useful ally for Moscow. Some of the subtleties of the situation came out in a meeting that I chaired this evening at the National Liberal Club, on behalf of Liberal International British Group (LIBG) and Liberal Youth. This was the first such joint venture, which not only packed out the room but also produced some high-level debate, not only from the panel — Jo Swinson MP, Dr Yaraslau Kryvoi of Belarus Digest and Alex Nyce, former East European specialist at Chatham House — but also from the floor. Several members of the audience had had direct or indirect experience of working in or with Belarus and there was considerable discussion about what sort of stance the European Union should take on relations with the recalcitrant state. Intriguingly, a parallel was drawn between Belarus and Myanmar (Burma) and the question was posed as to whether constructive engagement might be a way forward in the hope of encouraging reform — though Lukashenko would have to release prominent dissidents before his good faith would be taken seriously.

http://libg.co.uk and www.belarusdigest.com

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Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution and the New Media

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th June, 2011

There’s been a tendency to label the momentous changes that have taken place in Egypt over the past five months as the Facebook Revolution, but as was stressed by the panelists at an excellent seminar hosted by ThomsonReuters at their Canary Wharf HQ this evening, although new media helped, the real victors were the Egyptian people, who overcame their fear of the Mubarak regime and its state security services and held out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square until the regime fell. Former Google rep Wael Ghonim, who was one of the Revolution’s stars, joined us all on video link from Dubai, where he is busy writing a book about the whole experience. Dr Sally Moore, a British Egyptian psychiatrist who was in the thick of things in January/February, reminded us how many women were involved in the popular uprising and emphasized how important it is that their voices are not lost. Srdja Popovic, Executive Director of the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) brought an interesting Serbian perspective from someone who had been at the heart of the action that brought down Milosevic. He argued that the three essential components for any such exercise of People Power are unity, planning and non-violent discipline — all of which the Egyptian revolution had (though sadly not the Saffron Revolution in Burma, for example). The panelists were not worried about the fact that the Egyptian Revolution was leaderless, though now it is important that strong political figures emerge who can appeal to the electorate in September. Sally, for one, thought the elections ought to be postponed, as there is no way that the scores of new political parties, groups and coalitions can get their act together in time, especially as life as normal will shut down during August because of Ramadan. But the likelihood is that the elections will indeed take place as planned and it must not only be the Muslim Brotherhood that has the organisation to succeed.

Link: www.Trust.org

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Aung San Suu Kyi Birthday Celebration photos

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd June, 2010

Photos of the commemorative event at the Barnet Multicultural Centre in Hendon on Sunday (courtesy Rosalind Izard:

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Aung San Suu Kyi: 65 and Still Not Free!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th June, 2010

Earlier today I joined several of my fellow members of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, numerous red-bandanna’d young Burmese and other well-behaved protesters outside the Burmese Embassy in London’s Mayfair, marking Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday, which actually falls tomorrow (19th June). I’ll be taking part in a big commemorative gathering in Hendon on Sunday as well. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) had an election stolen from them by the military in 1990 and she has spent 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest. Many of her NLD colleagues and other political activists — including monks — have suffered far worse imprisonment, torture and death. Alas the world seems impotant to do anything about it, although the condemnations of the military’s behavious has been widespread. US President Barack Obama marked Suu Kyi’s birthday with a plea for her release. She has received many prizes — including Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom — but prizes and pleas are not enough. The Burmese regime, which is oe of the nastiest and least accountable on earth, needs to be brought to its knees or its senses.

[right hand photo courtesy Robert Sharp and English PEN]

 Link: www.burmacampaign.org.uk

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Freedom of Expression in Thailand

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th January, 2009

king-bhumibol-1    One doesn’t normally think of Thailand as a repressive society, especially not in comparison with some of its neighbours, particularly Burma. But there is one striking feature of the Thai legal framework that sticks out like a sore thumb: its laws on lese majesté. Criticism of the monarchy is illegal and can land the unwary into deep trouble, as the  young Australian writer, Harry Nicolaides, has discovered to his cost. He has just had a three-year jail sentence confirmed for writing a few lines about a dissolute fictional Thai Crown Prince in his novel, Verisimilitude. He has already been in detention for five months and had originsally been sentenced to six years. No wonder he has described the whole affair as an Alice in Wonderland experience — especially as his novel sold precisely seven copies.

According to the BBC’s correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head (who is facing lesser, unrelated charges of lese majesté himself), it is not clear why the authorities have dealt so severely with Harry Nicolaides, who says he has suffered severely in prison, but there has been a rise in similar cases taken out against Thai nationals as well, as the military (amongst others) seek to protect the image of octogenarian King Bhumibol and his family. The King is genuinely revered by most Thais, which makes the current laws and their stringent appplication somewhat unnecessary. Moreover, sending people to prison for expressing views about the monarchy — even in fiction — is only going to heighten the debate about the Thai succession and the future role of the monarchy, which has been one of the side-effects of recent political turmoil in Thailand. As far as the international community is concerned, the new Liberal-led (Democrat Party) government in Bangkok will now come under scrutiny regarding its response to this situation.

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The Good Tourist

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th October, 2008

  The Good Tourist sounds like it ought to be a novel by John Le Carré, but in fact it is a fascinating and highly personal exploration of ethical tourism by the former Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Lucy Popescu. Most books on the subject concentrate on the environmental and social impact of tourism in developing countries, but The Good Tourist (Arcadia Books, £11.99) takes a different tack, devoting individual sections to some of the world’s favourite exotic tourist destinations — such as Cuba, Egypt, the Maldives, Mexico and Morocco — in which the attractions are first set out in fairly broad-brush terms (enlivened by anecdotes from Lucy’s own travels, or those of her friends), followed by often harrowing descriptions of human rights abuses there.

Syria and Uzbekistan are examples of a particularly acute contradiction between beautiful countries and fascinating history on the one hand and hideous repression and torture on the other. Lucy does not spare us some of the gruesome detail, but it is all well-sourced, relying mainly on the testimony of local writers, journalists and human rights activists whose causes have been taken up by PEN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the like. When it comes to Burma (Myanmar) in particular, the question has often been asked: should tourists go there at all, as much of the income generated goes straight into the hands of the ruling junta? Lucy sets out the arguments both for and against and invites the readers to make up their own minds.

At times the book is delightfully quirky (though I fear some Ukrainians will bristle at seeing the Crimea discussed under ‘Russia’). I laughed out loud at the image of Lucy cornered in a quiet Istanbul back street by jeering, leering policemen who had confiscated her passport and refused to give it back, until she shouted repeatedly ‘Margaret Thatcher!’ But otherwise there is much to make one rage and even cry. Frustratingly, there is no index, which rather reduces the book’s worth as a reference volume, but amongst its strengths is a list of useful things a good tourist can do (as well as organisations that will help) and a very well-selected booklist of recommended books to read before, during and after one’s trip.

Link: www.arcadiabooks.co.uk

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Salford, Give Aung San Suu Kyi Her Freedom!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th September, 2008

  I spent the first 17 years of my life in Salford (though I was born in the Manchester Royal Infirmary, on the Protestant side of the River Irwell). I remember the council knocking down the magnificent Victorian mansions of ‘Millionaires Row’ and the tram lines being ripped up. The city’s only claim to fame at the time was ‘Coronation Street'; as a schoolboy in short trousers, I got a hair-netted Violet Carson’s autograph when I visited the Granada filming lot. These days, of course, it has all gone terribly up-market, what with the Lowry Museum and the BBC.

Now, thanks to Unison, the trade union, a new spotlight has fallen on Salford, as the debate rages as to whether the Freedom of the City should be given to the Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi — who has been under house arrest in Rangoon for yonks — or the Manchester United left-winger and occasional forward, Ryan Giggs. Well, I was almost brought up with a red scraf round my neck, but I hope Ryan Giggs is enough of a gentleman to recognise that Suu Kyi deserves it more than he does. Some people will complain that she has no real link to Salford, but then neither did Nelson Mandela, who was previously made a Freeman.

Aung San Suu Kyi has received numerous awards for her brave and dignifed struggle in opposition to Burma’s hideous junta. These include the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov prize and Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom (which I was pleased to see acknowledged in today’s ‘Guardian’). But as a Salford lad, albeit now a London immigrant, I would be thrilled if the city gave her its plaudits as well. I’ll even be writing to the MP for my own home seat (Eccles) about it, none other than Labour’s Red Squirrel, Hazel Blears.

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