What testimonial therapy does is try & bring private suffering into public & political spheres.
Inger Agger (IA) is a psychologist, currently working with the Danish Institution Against Torture,(DIGNITY) and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. She visited Hong Kong in early March to conduct a workshop on Testimonial Therapy, which is her area of expertise. Basil Fernando (BF), Director Policy & Programmes, Asian Human Rights Commission, spoke with Ms. Agger, exclusively for Torture magazine. 1)
BF: First, could you start by sharing your personal background? How did you get involved with developing Testimonial Therapy?
IA: Actually it goes more than 40 years back, all the way back to the 1970s, when I was part of a consciousness-raising group, in a women’s movement known as the “Red Stockings Movement”, and there we worked with testimony. That was the first time I tried giving testimony. One of the main methods of the consciousness-raising groups was for women to give testimony about their private lives and try to see their personal experiences in a political perspective. Our slogan was “to make the private political”. So we tried in giving testimony about our own lives to see how we, as women and girls, had been oppressed by the patriarchal society, in which ways this oppression had shown itself in our own lives and become conscious of that. So that was the main objective of the consciousness-raising method. In this consciousness-raising group I gave testimony about my own early childhood trauma. For the first time I was able to speak about the loss of my mother and my separation from my family when I was four to five years old, and to see how this painful story related to the post-war situation in Danish society in the 1940s, in which many women – of which my mother was one – could not get any education that enabled them to support their children if they got divorced. When a child is separated from their parents they will often blame themselves and feel shameful about not being like other children. The consciousness-raising group helped me to see my “private pain as political”, and this empowering experience gave me the initial strength to start a lifelong process of liberating and healing myself. I was gradually able to formulate a “life project” of exploring ways of healing trauma – both for myself and for others. I actually wrote my thesis about it for my masters in psychology. So that was the first time I tried giving testimony and I thought it was such a powerful experience that I never forgot it and I have worked with it in different variations ever since, in everything I’ve been doing.
BF: Your Masters was in that?
IA: Yes, on the Consciousness-Raising Method in the Women’s Movement 2). It was published in 1977, in Danish, by the Danish Pedagogical Institute. This method included testimony as a main principle for connecting the private, individual level with the political level. One of the aspects of testimony that I experienced at that time and have met many times since is the fascinating way that testimony can change the energy in a group. When someone says: “Let me tell you what happened…” it can have an almost palpable, electric effect on the audience.
BF: You are touching the heart of the issue here. So what testimonial therapy does is try to bring private suffering into the public and political spheres.
IA: Exactly. I spent my first six years of in a so-called “free school” which had been created by a group of parents opposition to the “black” authoritarian school system we had in Denmark at that time. The “Free School Movement” was amongst others, inspired by Grundtvig, and think that the method of creating liberating testimonial narratives, which I met in the Movement, touched me at a deep because this spirit of freedom, poetry, creativity, and discovery had also been an important part of my learning experience in “free school”. It is so interesting that you Basil, have also been inspired by Grundvig have promoted his ideas in the “Folk School Movement” among human rights in Asia.
BF: Grundtvig was very important to my own development and that of the Asian Human Rights Commission. I fact, I discovered N.F.S. Grundtvig on my own.I came across one of his quotes in a book, and felt, it said something very close to the way I was beginning to see things. I then inquired about him and I was told that the library in the Lutheran seminary, may have some of his writings. In fact, I found three books there. Later, I told some friends at the Danish Institute of Human Rights that I wished to know more about him and his work. The Institute provided me a fellowship for three months. I came to Copenhagen, met many people associatedwith the Folk School Movement and was able to read a lot more about Grundtvig. I visited the home for elderly people where there is a large statue of him, close to the central bus stand in Copenhagen. During those three months I wrote a book, comparing the ideas of Gruntvig and the Indian political leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It was later published under the title “Demoralization and Hope”. At the AHRC we adopted the folk school approach as a framework for our discussions and educational work. Everyone who participated in our programmes have expressed appreciation for the “folk school style”.
Now returning to your work, this, in fact, has quite strong philosophical roots. The whole idea of the development of consciousness and what you are really advocating is not just that public politics, but also that the private lives of individuals should be brought into the public sphere, and that a working method for implementing this should be created.
IA: Yes exactly, and I think it’s all connected with the radicalization that was also happening at that time among the students in the Western World – in the sixties and seventies. I thought a lot about that when I was in Hanoi last week, and visited the Hoa Lo Prison museum (called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots that were detained there during the Vietnam War). There I saw photographs from the demonstrations of the Vietnam Movement in France and the US, and I remembered how it was a very powerful experience for myself to participate in these demonstrations. In 1967 I worked as a volunteer at the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, which was a private body organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. One of its sessions, concerned with the US aggression towards Vietnam, took place in Roskilde, Denmark. Representatives of the Black Panther Movement also participated in the Tribunal and told us how “Black is Beautiful”. Of course, as everybody else I knew, I participated in the Vietnam demonstrations in front of the American embassy in Copenhagen, where we met regularly and in which we ran while we shouted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”. All this happened while I was studying psychology, and so I realized when I was standing there in the Hanoi museum, how important that had been for my own radicalization or politicization of my consciousness and that this inspiration had given me the wish to work politically with psychology, not just to view a person’s psychology as an individual phenomenon, but as connected with their context – their surroundings and society. It was very important for us at that time, for the radical psychologists, to fight for this viewpoint: we were not trying to change people so that they became better at accommodating a repressive system; no, we wanted to support them in liberating themselves from oppressive structures. This meant that we had to see and understand people’s suffering in political terms and not as an individual trauma or mental health problem. “They are not ill, they are suffering from the dictatorship and the oppression”, as the Latin American psychologists said at that time, and that brought me into the Latin American understanding of things which helped me connect psychology and the fight for human rights. In 1969 I had gone to Cuba and lived there for a year, and as many others at that time, I also went on pilgrimages to other communist countries: the Soviet Union in 1973 and to China in 1976 in search of alternatives to our own, capitalist societies. Later on, many of us became disillusioned with the ways in which these utopian dreams had been realised by authoritarian, centralized governments. Instead we turned towards the development potential of grassroots movements in local communities, and searched for other ways in which people could organize and liberate themselves.
I travelled to Latin America in the eighties and experienced the approach of the Latin American psychologists and psychiatrists, who saw mental health as strongly linked to human rights. Their discourse was based on the principle of connecting “human rights and mental health” (derechos humanos y salud mental). This was an approach they had developed as a response to the various dictatorships in Latin America, in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay at that time. Many doctors, psychologists and social workers who were part of the left-socialist movement had been imprisoned and tortured, and they developed their approach as a resistance against these dictatorships. As I had learned Spanish in Cuba I was able to read the documents of the Latin American psychologists, and in reading these conference papers I read – for the first time – about the testimonial method that Chilean psychologists had developed as part of their resistance movement. This method was very similar to the consciousness-raising method I had met in the Women’s Movement and I felt very familiar and “at home” with it. The Chileans had – sort of accidentally – discovered that when the lawyers from the resistance movement made testimonies with victims to keep as evidence against the dictatorship, it also had a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the victim. Lawyers of the resistance collected testimonies of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile under the protection of the Catholic Church. They kept these testimonies of torture hidden with the purpose of using them after the end of the dictatorship as evidence. But then, while recording these legal testimonies they discovered that this process also had a psychotherapeutic effect on victims. So they started working more consciously with this method and started writing about it. Later, in 1983, a Chilean psychologist and a psychiatrist under pseudonyms published a very famous article in English about their testimonial method3) . The real name of the main author was Elizabeth Lira, a prominent Chilean psychologist whom I interviewed later as part of a research project in Chile in 1988-89.
In 1984, I started working for the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) 4) in Denmark, as a clinical psychologist, and this gave me a unique opportunity to work with political refugees from Latin America, and in this way work “politically” with psychology. I have to thank Inge Genefke for giving me that opportunity. I tried using the testimonial method with the refugees and I published my first international article about it in 1990 – that’s 23 years ago 5) . I also used the testimony method in my PhD research, in which I had made testimonies with 20 Latin American and 20 Middle Eastern women who had been tortured and were political refugees in Denmark 6) .
BF: Could you say more about the Chilean approach? You said you started reading their papers during your visit to Chile. Can you say more about what they were doing, what those people were trying to do?
IA: Are you familiar with their work? The radical mental health professionals in Latin America worked on basis of the same understanding as the radicals in Europe and the US: that “the private is political”. Their way of phrasing it was by connecting human rights and mental health, and they were always emphasizing that we should not pathologize victims. They are not “ill” – they are suffering from the dictatorship. So the Latin Americans emphasized that we should always see the suffering of torture victims in a political perspective and that this approach would be the most healing for victims of human rights violations. One of the objectives of these Latin American psychologists was to try to re-establish the connection of the victim to his or her political project – the “life project” as they called it. At that time, torture victims in these countries were often politically active people in the socialist movement. They could be political party or trade union leaders – people who were active in politics and whom the dictatorship tried to crush. And so the therapeutic goal was then to strengthen the victim so that he or she could re-establish this project, the life project, which gave their life meaning. I describe this approach in detail in a book based on our research in the Chilean Human Rights Movement 7).
BF: Is this in English?
IA: Both in English and it was also published in Spanish, in 1996, in Santiago de Chile. The Spanish edition was edited and revised by Elizabeth Lira 8) . I had received a grant to do a post-doctorate research project in Chile and based on this research I wrote the book in cooperation with my ex-husband, who is a psychiatrist. We went to Chile and interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers from the Human Rights Movement and that was just in the transition period at the end of the eighties, when Pinochet was ousted and they had their first democratic elections. So that was happening at the time of our arrival, actually. It was a very interesting period to be there. So, now the mental health people could talk freely about their work and we interviewed many mental health professionals who had been in prison and tortured themselves.
BF: Could you say more? Because I think you are now touching something dynamic. You are really linking the element of mental health and the political ethos. In the post-Hitler period, the psychologist, Alexander Mitscherlich, who wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, did his clinical work with patients and then he came to the conclusion that the things that his patients were complaining about had nothing to do with illness, but was a result of their inability to come to terms with Germany’s political past. The repression of the political problems that were associated with the Hitler’s regime period was causing the mental illnesses. In Asia, this has not been brought forth in a forceful way. Still, psychology is about individual health, the individual person. You try to< help them get out of depression or something like that, but the larger issue, that political repression is a cause of disturbed mental health, is ignored.
IA: I would say that the main conclusions we drew from the research in Chile was the importance of a movement, the Chilean Human Rights Movement, as a protective shield or context for the victims and for the mental health workers in the resistance movement: they were not alone. They were part of this large movement which they had developed very expertly in Chile. We also noticed the way in which the mental health people had developed a system of helping victims organize themselves in groups, such as groups of former political prisoners, or family members of torture victims, or mothers of disappeared people. These groups were very good at organising in Latin America and seemed to have a great therapeutic effect on the victims.
So we observed the activities of the groups and wrote about it. I guess that was the main conclusion from our research, how important it was to support these kind of protected networks in situations of human rights violations, and in Chile, the Catholic Church had an important role as a part of this protective network. When I later worked as a researcher from 2010-2012 in Cambodia, I did not see this type of protective organisations for victims to the same extent, although some NGOs were trying to promote it. In Cambodia, I found that Buddhism had an important protective and healing role.
BF: That’s very important. I think it was the Jesuit priest from El Salvador, Ignacio Martín-Baró, who, in his work on social psychology, pointed out the need for dealing with the structural issues, which cause mental illness.
IA: Yes he was a great inspiration for me also, and for the Chileans, definitely. I have during my whole career been opposed to a medical, clinical approach to torture, to what the Chileans call a “medicalizing” of political problems.
BF: Can you explain that, why you are opposed to it?
IA: Yes, because by medicalizing, by diagnosing, and pathologizing victims of torture, and victims of political oppression, you are in a way giving them the responsibility for their pain. It’s like saying they are sick or “crazy” because they are “weak” and could not resist. Mostly, victims do not appreciate that. You should instead place their cause of their mental suffering where it belongs, in the political structures. By doing this you might also support them in becoming conscious of the reasons for and the meaning of their mental symptoms, of how they have been persecuted, and learn that their symptoms are a result of that outer pressure, not because a personal illness or weakness or of being mentally ill, crazy, suffering from PTSD, or whatever people believe about themselves. This can enable them to become survivors and participate again in their “life project”.
BF: So it is getting a person to come to a recognition, or understanding, that his problem is related to what has taken place in his society and giving him a method of understanding the process of healing, while also trying to support him in engaging with his society.
IA: Yes absolutely. Many other psychoanalytic or psychological theorists have also emphasized re-connecting to the “life project”, but they have used other terms for it. I have found the writings of Carl G. Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst, very important, especially his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in which he describes his own self-actualization process which has involved what he calls “transcendence”, the integration of the diverse systems of the self toward the goal of wholeness and identity with all of humanity. Transcendence also includes a spiritual or religious dimension, which is an integrated part of self-actualization.
BF: That is a very dynamic thinking process.
IA: Yes, and that is what you can encourage when you are making a testimony with an individual victim. That’s why the attitude of the human rights defender who is helping the victim make their testimony is so important, because the human rights defender can help the victim to become conscious of this. So the human rights defender is active in his or her response to the victim, and should help victims to contextualize their suffering. This includes helping victims to understand how their testimony can help other victims and how it can become a weapon in the fight against dictatorships. Essentially, this means helping victims to see the political meaning of their private pain.
You can work with testimony in many ways, and the model, which includes a culturally adapted testimony ceremony at the end of the therapy process, is a special Asian brief therapy version of the method. Supported by the RCT, I developed this model in an action research project from 2008-2010 with the RCT’s local partners. We started with a pilot project in India 9), and continued in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. This work with testimony ceremonies also brought me in closer contact with Asian spirituality and the great resources for healing, which are part of many Asian cultural and religious traditions, and inspired me to continue my testimony work with a research project in Cambodia on local approaches to healing of trauma.
BF: So the idea of developing the document, the testimony, is working with the victim to get him to realize that what he is going through is related to much larger issues, helping him to come to that recognition, and then holding a public ceremony where he makes a declaration about it.
IA: Completely correct and very well expressed. Yes. And this is why it’s so important to train human rights defenders to understand that this story is not just something which is out there that they just need to record, but that they are helping the victim to come to that understanding – to see their suffering in another perspective and to record that. The public ceremony at the end of the testimony process also plays a very important role, because it links the victim to the community through a public acknowledgement and mobilisation on basis of the narrative about the human rights violations suffered by the victim 10). This public ceremony can also be seen as a re-connection with the life project or, in Jung’s terms, a ritual in which the victim can re-connect with his or her spiritual and transcendent self.
BF: So the testimonial therapy method is really not a teaching process, it’s a dialogue?
IA: It’s a dialogue! Just as you and I are having an important dialogue right now about certain aspects of my life story.
BF: To get him or her to come out, to express their story.
IA: Yes, but one of the problems is, of course, to help those victims who were imprisoned by accident, or who were not politically active. It is quite common that people are arrested and tortured maybe because they have the same name as someone that the police is looking for, or by another error or just by accident. So it’s actually more difficult to provide psychotherapeutic help to these victims who maybe do not have a life project or a cause they are fighting for.
BF: So a person develops a meaning. A meaning! They are developing something to fight for; to live for. See, this is very different. Victor Frankl’s idea of looking for meaning comes in.
Now, the difference is now in Asia, in a number of places, there is an idea of dealing with mental illness by helping people to forget. Now, for example, in Cambodia, before this new period with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, they had many ceremonies, rituals, conducted by the Buddhist monks, and various other people, including water purification ceremonies. The victim, who is feeling down and dark, is encouraged to go through a whole process in which the monk tries to make him feel happy internally. By these methods, the monks help him to become a little lighter and then the monk says “forget this”. The same thing was done in Sri Lanka.
IA: Of course I would be very much against that approach. You shouldn’t forget, but maybe forgive! In Buddhist Vipassana meditation and “mindfulness” which I have been working with over the past five or six years, the main principle is not to forget, but to accept and then let it pass. That is a very different process. I also think that meditation is very good for calming the nervous system. By including the body in the therapeutic process the victim can be supported to restore self-regulation and the sense safety and goodness, (which has often been destroyed by torture) as explained by Peter Levine in his book In an Unspoken Voice. In later years I’ve been very interested in combining the Asian spiritual knowledge – represented in the West by, for example, mindfulness andyoga – with the more political approach represented by testimonial therapy. In the testimony ceremony the two approaches come together. The political and the spiritual dimensions mutually reinforce each other. A human being is both mind and body and we must pay attention to both when we search for the restoration of resilience and involvement in the world.
2 Agger, I. (1977). Basisgruppe og kvindebevidsthed: En analyse af basisgruppemetoden som udviklingsproces (Consciousness-raising group and women’s consciousness: An analysis of the consciousnessraising
method as developmental
6 Agger, I. (1994). The blue room: Trauma and testimony among refugee women. London: Zed Books. Spanish edition (1994). La Pieza azul: Testimonio femenino del exilio. Santiago de Chile: Cuarto Proprio.
9 Agger, I., Raghuvanshi, L., Khan, S.S., Polatin, P., & Laursen, L.K. (2009). Testimonial therapy: a pilot project to improve psychological wellbeing among survivors of torture in India. Torture: Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture, 19 (3): 204-217.
10 Agger, I., Igreja, V., Kiehle, R. & Polatin, P. (2012). Testimony ceremonies in Asia: Integrating spirituality in testimonial therapy for torture survivors in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and he Philippines. Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(3–4): 568–589.
This article was originally published in
By Mai Corlin, Ph.D. student, Aarhus University
Gender inequality is not simply the unfair treatment of men and women. It is a complex issue tied to a whole range of disparities in society at large, argues Professor Min Dongchao, who has just been awarded a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship and will be a guest professor at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies for the next few years. Her object of study is the travels of gender theory between the Nordic countries and China.
Just another day at the factory
Like many other researchers and academics of her generation, Professor Min Dongchao was young during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Most of China’s schools and universities were closed down during that period, and the youth were sent to the countryside or to factories to learn from the working class. Professor Min spent the Cultural Revolution as a worker at the Tianjin Machinery and Tool Factory, beginning her factory career at the age of 15 in 1969 and staying there for eight years.
“During the Cultural Revolution, society was turned upside down. We grew up in a transformed environment with no language to talk about gender or differences between the sexes, because there wasn’t supposed to be any difference. Everybody wore the same kinds of clothes, did the same job, got the same pay, and so forth. There was basically no sexual division in society — at least not on the surface,” says Professor Min Dongchao.
The open door
It was only after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 that schools and universities reopened, and it became possible for at least some of the so-called “sent down youth” to return to the education system. Once again, society was turned upside down: Foreign cultures and influences entered the country, spurring an irreversible development of Chinese society.
“Suddenly we could watch films and television from abroad, films that often demonstrated a clear gender differentiation, where men looked like men and women looked like women. So we wanted to look good, and we wanted to look different from men. Women started wearing makeup, and clothes in general became more colorful. Suddenly, a more diverse expression and mode of behavior were allowed again,” explains Min.
But there was another side to the new developments. It soon became more difficult for women to find employment, and they were paid gradually less, as men were generally favored in job situations. The factories started to lay off workers, and women were often the first to go. Other problems such as prostitution and men taking second wives also resurfaced and, according to Professor Min, this laid some of the foundation for why women and gender studies started taking off in China in the 1980s.
Professor Min returned to China in 2004 after almost ten years in the UK, and discovered a country in rapid transition. The new generations of young girls had reversed the Cultural Revolutionary tradition of going to the countryside. Instead, they were heading to coastal cities to work in factories — a mixed experience, to most. On the one hand, they experience the freedom of getting their own job, earning their own money, and freeing themselves from the pressure of country life. On the other, they work under exploitative conditions, are paid very little, and without any unions to protect them.
The introduction of gender
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women Opens in Beijing, September 1995. Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant
Gender as a concept was introduced into China in connection with preparations for the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing in 1995. There was growing awareness of increasingly visible gender inequality, and a new conceptual language to discuss these issues was made available to concerned academics and activists.
One of the gender-related issues under discussion in recent years is quotas. During the Mao era, the sex ratio was 50-50 in most party and government organs. In 2008, the government introduced gender quotas stipulating that 22% of the congress should be female, and last year, in collaboration with the All-China Women’s Federation, it was decided that there should be at least one woman on village committees. Professor Min, however, argues that the solution to gender inequality issues doesn’t lie only in quotas or the recognition of gender issues. Rather, it is a matter of general inequality in society at large:
“Gender equality should be addressed as a very important issue, and by this I don’t just mean gender difference — it is not a matter of achieving complete similarity between the sexes. Gender inequality has to do with general inequality in the society at large, the gap between rich and poor, inequality between the regions, between city and countryside. There are males and females of all classes and walks of life, so there are very rich females and very poor males. Gender inequality exists and can only be understood in the context of all levels of society, and within all classes. The inequality gap in general is growing bigger, which in turn affects gender inequality. When you conduct your research you may forget this, you may think in different categories, but you always have to see the society as a whole. The conditions for life in China are so dependent on geography and class. In many rural places, there are no proper schools, and children run around hungry. And then you have Shanghai with its multimillionaires — even billionaires. If you only look at one class or one geographic location, you get a skewed picture of what is actually going on in China,” Professor Min emphasizes.
The local is not subordinate to the global
Many academics agree that you cannot separate globalization and the local; they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, you cannot take the local out of the global. Globalization happens in the local. Professor Min argues that this is the case even for places with myriad global connections, like London: Even though all the money flowing through the financial center influences London from abroad, there is still a feature of something “local.” Understanding the global in relation to the local is a way to give prominence to people, because they are the ones who experience the changes on an everyday basis, and they are the ones who actually “practice” globalization.
As Professor Min notes, “We often see the railway as a symbol of globalization, because it links places together, but what we tend to forget is that there are places and people in between the stations. As with railways, there are different routes for gender studies in China. Some people go to Beijing and Shanghai and read Judith Butler, and then others go to the poor areas, like Yunnan. In Yunnan they have gradually changed the gender discourse and related practice, and as a result, the Yunnan Province Women’s Federation has managed to obtain more funding for larger projects than they have in places where they have not yet incorporated the new discourse.”
“Yunnan Province Women’s federation is a good example of how the global and the local are linked, of how things change in a local environment,” she argues.
The next generation
The new generation of women has begun to stir up radical performances and protests in the big cities. One example is a domestic violence protest last year in which young women painted their faces so it looked like they’d been beaten, and posted pictures of it on the Internet. Another incident was the Occupy Toilet Movement, where women occupied men’s rooms to protest the lack of women’s toilets in most public places.
“They might have gotten the idea from Taiwan or Hong Kong,” Professor Min adds.
Last year, some universities refused female applicants even though they had the same scores as their male counterparts. The Ministry proclaimed that for the sake of the country the universities needed more men, not girls. The women reacted by staging a happening where they shaved their heads and stood out on the street in defiance.
“Because of the Internet, this protest became a big deal. I think it’s good that young women have started to react to society’s gender inequalities; it is a good sign. I think it’s important that they protest, that they fight for something. My generation is about to retire, and we need the younger generation to take over and do the job. I hope that is what we’re seeing now,” Professor Min concludes.
Professor Min Dongchao, director of the Centre for Gender and Culture Studies at Shanghai University, has received the Marie Curie Actions International Incoming Fellowship and will be a guest professor at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) at the University of Copenhagen from April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2015.
Professor Min’s project is titled “Cross-Cultural Encounters — The Travels of Gender Theory and Practice to China and the Nordic Countries” and is concerned with the cross-cultural translation of knowledge and practices that may or may not take place when different cultures interact, and the resulting production of new knowledge. Taking the travelling routes of gender theory and practices to, and also between, China and the Nordic countries as the empirical object of study, the project will focus on the crucial questions of why and how knowledge travels or fails to travel.
This interview with Professor Min Dongchao can also be found on ThinkChina.dk – Blogging on Denmark and China.
On December 15, on his way back from work, the Laotian director, activist and award winner, Sombath Somphone, mysteriously disappeared. The last people to see him, according to leaked surveillance footage, were the Laotian authorities at a police control post, where he was pulled over, and then driven away in a different car.
Despite that, the Laotian government still went out with a full denial of any knowledge as to why Sombath Somphone was detained…by their own officers. Since then, there has been no sign of the director, and no explanation as to why he disappeared.
Just weeks before, another activist had a run-in with the Laotian authorities – the director of the Swiss NGO Helveta, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, were expelled with a 24-hour warning for writing a critical letter.
The Laotian government explained that she “dismayed” the government with her “improper behavior.” Whatever that means – a quite surprising argumentation for throwing a peaceful activist out of a country.
Somehow , though, Laos has still managed to successfully present themselves as a charming little nation with a slow pace and idyllic farm life for the ever-smiling population. Relaxation, leisure and spirituality are key words in any glittered tourist brochure on Laos.
Truth is that the life in Laos is far from idyllic, and the pace is very, very far from slow. Since the 90s, the Laotians have built dams, constructed hydropower plants and made deals with neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam so efficiently that the economy is today the fastest growing economy in ASEAN.
The country has recently joined the World Trade Organization, hosted an ASEM-summit – the biggest diplomatic event ever to take place in the country – and they have co-signed a range of international agreements, putting them into a world market that they could only dream of entering just a few years ago.
The main reason for the excellent economical performance is the energy sector. 30 percent of the country´s BNP comes out of natural resources converted into energy, mainly hydro electricity from plants and dams on Mekong and it´s many tributaries.
And while making this profit and shining in the spotlight of international recognition, Laos – quite on par with the behavior in the cases of Somphone and Gindroz – ignores that there are people living on and off these rivers.
Right now, Laos is constructing a dam called the Xayaburi Dam. Since the proposal of the project in 2007 it has been met with protests from experts, governments, activists, NGOs…pretty much everyone, who knows anything about water: It will hurt the migration of fish, it will endanger a number of species of fish – including the rockstar of Mekong; the Mekong giant catfish – and it will affect crops cultivated in and near the river. WWF estimates that a whopping 60 million people will be affected by the dam in its present form.
Naturally, there are negotiations going on, both with international experts and with the neighboring countries, on how to construct the dam with minimal damage. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have officially called for a halt in construction.
The Laotian response? Well. They ignore all the fuss and carry on building.
Laos has risen from dirt-poverty into a flourishing trading nation, and the fact that it will hurt some groups in the population – namely the poor and the minorities – seems to be of minor importance. The logic is: You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
But you know what, Laos? Economy is not an omelet and people are not eggs. There are ways to have economic growth without shattering the lives of the most vulnerable groups in your nation.
It is so, though, that the cases of horrible governance, the breaches of basic human rights, the bypassing of negotiations and good advice – all these things factor in, when you new lucrative, international friends are to do business with you.
You don´t seem to realize it, but the spotlight is on you now, Laos. What are you going to do with it?
Anya Palm, Journalist and NIAS Associate
After 50 years of isolation Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is finally opening up to the outside world. According to the media the country is now welcoming tourists, foreign investment and development aid. But exactly what does the picture of openness look like in reality?
Photo taken in a small village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: children curious to see what is happening at our meeting inside the monastery.
Having spent a month (restricted time period for tourist visa) collecting empirical data for a master’s thesis in Myanmar, the general picture of ‘openness’ has become more nuanced and complex. The mysterious Myanmar is a country known for a variety of reasons ranging from its beautiful landscapes decorated with golden pagodas, Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes to a repressive military rule followed by fear and poverty. As a master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication I had a desire to explore the country and to study how the development of civil society in Myanmar is influenced by the political changes in the country, and what role development organisations play in this process. This required a field visit to Myanmar.
With the help of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok a collaboration with ActionAid Myanmar was established. ActionAid Myanmar is managing two projects, amongst others, implemented by a consortium of local (and international) NGOs named the Thadar Consortium. The two projects are implemented in the Dry Zone, in the central part of Myanmar, and in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, in the southern part of Myanmar, respectively, and both projects focus on the strengthening of civil society and improvement of livelihood.
The field visit was an eye-opening experience, based on positive as well as negative surprises, and by sharing this experience I am hoping to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to do fieldwork in a country like Myanmar that has just “opened up” to the outside world. What challenges can you expect to meet when working under these circumstances?
Before getting into a detailed description of my fieldwork I consider it necessary to briefly describe the country Myanmar and to highlight the most important historical and political events. In 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win and the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) changed Myanmar from being a wealthy country to a country of repression, isolation and gradually increasing poverty. From 1962 – 2010 the situation in Myanmar was characterized by a number of uprisings against the military regime. One of the most well-known uprisings was in 1988 where large groups of students took to the street and, despite continued military ruling, managed to generate the resignation of the unpopular General Ne Win. However, the uprising was violently suppressed, and a large number of students died.
Seeing her country in that stage of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San (assassinated in 1948), made her entrance into the political arena to fight for a free and democratic Myanmar. She established the political party NLD ‘National League for Democracy’, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. 1989 was also the year when the government decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which caused further anger and frustration. In 1990 an election was held and the NLD won a landslide victory, but unfortunately, the military regime refused to recognize the election results, allowing the regime to stay in power.
The second well-known uprising, named the Saffron Revolution led by monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes, took place in 2007. This event was violently suppressed and the action made the outside world aware of the critical situation in Myanmar.
Another event that attracted the attention of the outside world was when Cyclone Nargis struck and killed around 150.000 people in the southern part of Myanmar in 2008. For months NGOs were denied access to the areas.
From 2010 onwards the country started changing. In fall 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest – by this time she had been in house arrest for 15 years. A week before her release the government held a Parliamentary Election, but the NLD decided to boycott it. In 2011 a new democratic government was officially formed, with the leadership of the pro-democratic president Thein Sein, and this gave birth to a number of democratic reforms. In April 2012 the NLD won a landslide victory in a by-election, which meant that the party was now represented, although with a minority part of Parliament.
Fieldwork in Myanmar
Freedom of speech
Judging by national and international media channels it appeared that Myanmar had actually opened up, allowing tourists, development aid and foreign investment to enter the country. This, however, didn’t necessarily mean that the Burmese people were ready to express their opinions on sensitive issues like politics, the military government, civil society or democracy, topics upon which my master’s thesis is based. In order to adapt to these circumstances the research and interview questions were moderated accordingly.
The streets of Yangon: a young nun talking on her blue smart-phone
On arrival in Yangon, and all during the two weeks spent in Yangon, the picture given by the media appeared to reflect reality. To my surprise the changes in the country were visibly and audibly reflected in the city-life in Yangon. The majority of the taxi-drivers were eagerly explaining, in well spoken English, how the new government is better than the old one, and that they believed this transition would change their lives to the better. Many had a picture of the national hero, Bogyoke Aung San in the car, indicating that they were now free to voice their opinion. Others explained how Aung San Suu Kyi had saved the country. Judging by the Burmese history the people have been suppressed and restricted for the past 50 years, particularly in regards to freedom of speech. In my opinion, this openness characterizing the people of Yangon is an indicator of the changes in the country.
The prospects of the fieldwork now appeared more promising, as open-minded people are easier to interview. Unfortunately, the hope for success faded already after the first meeting with the Thadar Consortium. The Consortium emphasised the need to be extremely cautious with sensitive issues, like the political reforms, when entering the project areas. This obviously came as a surprise to me, as I got the impression from people in Yangon that they were now free to voice their opinion.
Village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta Region
Obtaining permission to enter the project areas turned out to be more challenging than expected. Through correspondences prior to the field visit to Myanmar it was decided that the empirical data should be collected in the Dry Zone project, as this project seemed more relevant for the research. However, after arrival in Yangon, the Thadar Consortium didn’t succeed in obtaining permission to visit this area. In fact, no foreigner apart from project staff had ever been granted permission to enter that area, and even local people have to apply for permission to enter. After this discovery, which also seemed to be a surprise for the Consortium, efforts were made to obtain permission to visit the Delta project. Unfortunately this did not prove successful in the first place, and after a new attempt was made for the Dry Zone (also unsuccessful), a visit to the Delta finally worked out. This process cut a week off the limited time available for fieldwork.
Based on the impression from the media that Myanmar has opened up, it came as a surprise to me, and apparently also to the project staff, that it was this difficult for foreigners to enter certain areas of the country. In fact, before leaving Denmark a Burmese friend of mine, living and working in Denmark, encouraged me to stay a couple of nights in the homes of local people, as this would give me a deeper understanding of the Burmese culture. With this encouragement in mind it was particularly surprising to discover that even local Burmese people need to apply for permission to stay at the house of a friend or relative – and foreigners shouldn’t even bother applying, as they would not get the permission. This is today’s Myanmar.
During the preparatory meetings in Yangon I was briefed by the Consortium on how to present myself and on what to be aware of when operating in the field. First of all, I could not introduce myself as a student doing research in the villages. Apparently, the word ‘research’ is extremely sensitive, as it may raise suspicion among the local authorities of interference in local affairs. Under these circumstances I was given an “undercover” title as employee from the Thadar Consortium, and the purpose of my presence in the local villages was to collect information to write the Thadar Consortium newsletter. On the one hand, this new title made it possible to travel and conduct research in the project area. However, on the other hand, these precautions may have affected the answers given by the interview persons. They considered me as part of the Thadar Consortium, placing them in a position where they did not feel free to express their true opinions, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship to the organisations supporting them. This was of course unfortunate, but without the support of the Thadar Consortium it would not have been possible to enter the villages.
Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: poor family
Furthermore, words like “political reforms” and “democratic reforms” could not be used – not during the interviewing and not even casually. In fact, it was extremely important that the interview questions were not in any way political or critical of the former military regime. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, ActionAid as a non-political organization is emphasizing the importance of not interfering with national or local political affairs. Secondly, the local authorities do not want outsiders spreading political information, possibly for fear of local resistance or unrest. Thirdly, despite the fact that the country has opened up the villagers living in the local communities still may feel insecure when being confronted with political issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to obtain information about the changes in the country, and they therefore may have a lack of knowledge about which rules have been abolished and which still apply. For example, during the fieldwork it turned out that the term ‘civil society’ was banned until after 2008.
These restrictions made it challenging to obtain comprehensive information from the interview persons. As an alternative to the sensitive terms I used the term “change” anticipating (and hoping) it would be understood as “political changes”. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. However, despite the restrictions and different understandings of “change” it was possible, by re-phrasing the questions and thus approaching the central issues in alternative ways, to achieve satisfactory outcomes of the interviews.
Travelling by boat to the villages in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: interpreter and interviewer taking a nap after a long day in the field.
One morning, when travelling by our usual motorised boat to one of the small villages, one of the project officers received a phone call from the police. He explained to me that he functioned as the contact person for the police in the township where we were staying, because they wanted to know our exact whereabouts every day, and they wanted to make sure that we returned from the villages before nightfall. The project officer assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Whatever the reason for their concern, I now decided to save the interviews recorded in the villages on three different digital devises – two of them located on our bodies. If the recordings of the interviews were confiscated by the police it would of course be devastating for my research, but my greatest concern was the safety of the interview persons. Later that night, when returning from having dinner at a small restaurant, our trishaw driver told us that the police were in our hotel. They were concerned because a Californian project officer, the only other foreigner in the township – and entire area, had not returned from the villages. We, on the other hand, didn’t need to worry, because the police knew where we were – having dinner at the small restaurant by the water. This constant surveillance emphasised the necessity in saving the interview recordings in a number of different places. This could have been an over-reaction, but after thus far having encountered numerous surprises in this country I was not going to take any risks.
It appears that the authorities have a need to constantly be in control by knowing the exact whereabouts of foreigners staying within their area of responsibility. Before the country started changing the NGOs, international NGOs in particular, were denied access to the rural areas. Today the situation has changed, but in my opinion it seems that the fear and need of control is still evident in the behaviour of the authorities.
The changes in Myanmar
Without doubt, Myanmar is changing. In cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, the pro-democratic president Thein Sein and his government is working to democratize the country, a political development that was unimaginable a few years ago. However, it appears that these changes are mostly evident on a national level. In the poor villages in the rural areas the changes are still tentative, and as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to get access and to operate in these areas. There is still a long way to go.
Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: grandma smoking a cigar
Master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University
Workplace student at NIAS
Intervention at a conference arranged by South Asia Democratic Forum on the occasion of the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review of “Pakistan”, Palais des Nations, Geneva, October 30, 2012.
Stig Toft Madsen
Senior Research Fellow
NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
This intervention will cover the period from the return of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 till now. I am speaking as a person who has worked as a sociologist and anthropologist mainly with India, but who has kept an interest in Pakistan as well. For lack of time I have not been able to study the UN reports (e.g. A/HRC/WG.6/14/PAK/1) presented elsewhere today.
Pakistani politics has always had periods of military rule and democratic rule alternating in rather long cycles. Therefore, the return to democracy in 2008 would not necessarily mean the institutionalization of democracy in Pakistan once and for all. But at that time there was a hope that this time around Pakistanis had finally realized the benefits that democracy could bring, that they had learnt to recognize the problems of military rule, that they had become better informed by the electronic media, that they had come to desire the rule of law as, indeed, it appeared at the time from the wide support given to the dismissed Chief Justice Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary and the Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan and, if nothing else, that middle class Pakistanis had amassed sufficient property that they would support democracy to secure political stability.
In fact, the elections held in 2008 were technically fair confirming that the Election Commission is one functioning institution in Pakistan. After the elections, President Musharraf made a rather dignified exit. For a time, the two main political parties stood together in their common opposition to military rule. I remember TV-footage of political leaders joking among themselves and with assembled journalists, and exchanging Urdu couplets in those golden days. But as Shaheryar Azhar reminded his readers, “great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes”.
What does a democratic transition entail? When does a transition get consolidated? When is it completed? According to an article by Schedler
“The consolidation of democracy concludes when democratic actors manage to establish reasonable certainty about the continuity of the new democratic regime.… While the task of transition is to push open the window of uncertainty and create opportunities for democratic change, the challenge of consolidation is to close the window of uncertainty and preclude possibilities of authoritarian regression. Transitions create hopes of democratic change, processes of consolidation confidence into democratic stability” (Schedler 2001).
Transitions, he also argued, may be gradual and even, or they may contain a few defining moments or focal events, or they may be more erratic and fuzzy with many high and lows.
How does Pakistan look in this perspective? Elections put democracy back on the rails in February 2008. That marks a shift, but not a full shift. There was a controlled or guided democracy even under Musharraf with parties and elections, but without the two main civilian leaders in the country, i.e. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. It was the return of these two persons to take part in the elections that marked the beginning of the transition.
The reinstatement of Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary as Chief Justice in March 2009 was a further focal point. Another was the transfer of power from the office of the President to the office of the Prime Minister by the 18th Amendment in 2010. As regards the troubled frontier regions, one may note that for the first time ever political parties have been allowed to operate there. Moreover, one should note that the present regime is now completing its 5-year period in office. That is no mean feat considering that no elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its full term! Do these events add up to a consolidation of democracy in Pakistan? I would say “no”, they do not create full confidence in democratic stability.
Why not? For a start, there has been no systematic reform of the military which would include reducing the economic privileges that officers enjoy, reworking its “doctrines” to further de-escalation rather than escalation in Pakistan’s relation with its neighbours, and breaking the close links with the militant organizations that the military has cultivated.
The attack on Mumbai, it should be remembered, took place not under Musharraf, but in November 2008 after the return of democracy. Investigations have testified to the continued links between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was behind the attack, and the Pakistani military, but the LeT still operates more or less as it has done before.
It is true, on the other hand, that the Pakistani military did stage a major counter-offensive against the Islamic militants in Swat. The operation was relatively successful, but the attack on the pro-schooling activist Malala Yusufzai shows that the same militants are still around. Indeed, militias of various hues have grown stronger in many parts of the country.
The transition, therefore, involves not only the political parties and the military, but also the militants, whose capacity to intimidate and harm, and to set the agenda, and to rule in many areas and across many institutions precludes the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan and even in parts of Afghanistan.
How much of a threat are the Islamic militants? In early 2009, a leading human rights activist, IA Rehman, known for his long work for human right in Pakistan, was willing to give up FATA and PATA (the federally and provincially administered tribal areas), if not the whole of the NWFP. He wrote:
“The sole option will be to buy a truce by separating the Shariah lobby from the terrorists and creating FATA and PATA as a Shariah zone, which may quickly encompass the Frontier province. The question then will be whether Pakistan can contain the pro-Shariah forces within the Frontier region… In such an eventuality, the hardest task for the government will be to protect the Punjab against inroads by militants”. (Rehman 2009).
Pakistan did not break up, but Rehman’s willingness to consider dividing the country stands as a sad testimony to the despair at that time. Remember also that the Government of Pakistan actually did sign an agreement with the militants to turn Swat into a Sharia zone (Shah 2009).
But it was to get worse. The breaking point to me and, I suspect, to many others, was the murder in January 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab. It marked a new low even by Pakistani standards because the murder was done by his own bodyguard, because the other bodyguards did nothing effectively to stop him, because the assassin was affiliated to the ostensibly moderate Barelwi-branch of Islam, because the bodyguard was lionized by members of the legal community otherwise supposed to be a relatively enlightened class, and because many clerics boycotted Taseer’s funeral. The bodyguard killed Taseer because of his support to Asia Noreen Bibi, the poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy about whom we will probably hear more today. This was followed in March by the murder of another Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs. These murders did not occur to further the return of military rule. They occurred for religious reasons. They were the harbingers of a possible transition to theocratic rule which already affects not only Christians: Ahmadiyas, Ismailis, Hindus, Shias, and Barelwis as well as Jews, Americans, Danes and many others, including schoolgirls, are among the legitimate targets.
To deal with this threat to democratic consolidation and to human rights requires an efficient state, and here lies another fault-line. The conflict between the legislative and the judiciary has been carried over from Musharraf’s time, most obviously in the conflict between President Zardari and the Chief Justice who wants to re-open old corruption cases with roots in Switzerland against Zardari. These old cases have been zealously pursued by the judiciary in a manner that has made an ex-member of the Supreme Court of India chastise his Pakistani colleagues for not exercising judiciary restraint (Katju 2012).
In Pakistan itself, the unofficial Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its 2011 report that
“While this expanded role gained the SC immense popularity, it also raised many questions regarding the impact of frequent and extensive invocation of suo motu powers on the courts’ normal work, the difficulties in avoiding the side effects of selective justice, and the consequences of the executive-judiciary or parliament-judiciary confrontation.” (Taqi 2012)
What emerges is the image of a Chief Justice and a Supreme Court overreaching their allotted space within the division of powers, whether for reasons good or bad.
Let me add to this that the fourth pillar of power has also not been as efficient in furthering democratic consolidation as one could hope for. Reasoned political debate is not absent in the Pakistani press. Since I come from Norden, I will take the opportunity to draw your attention to a book written by a Pakistani living in Sweden, i.e. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed about the period around 1947. This book has been meticulously and reasonably debated in both the Pakistani and Indian press. One may also come across provocative and humorous interventions in the Pakistani press, such as Ziauddin Sardar’s little article “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, and the daring satire/desperate sarcasm in the online magazine Viewpoint. However,Pakistani political debate is often an exercise in mud-slinging and venom-spitting which belies any hope that the Pakistani obsession of securing a world without defamation of the Prophet will limit other forms defamation.
Similar unprofessional conduct extends into “the fifth pillar” of the state, i.e. academia, where most recently the journal Nature has written about “predatory journals” where publications-hungry academics pay large sums to be published in sham journals emerging from especially Pakistan, India and Nigeria (Beall 2012). To round off this lament let me mention also the rot in Pakistani sports exemplified by the two Pakistanis who were jailed in the UK and banned from cricket for a period for fixing a cricket match at the Lords in London – only to reappear later as TV commentators in Pakistan (Dawn.com 2012).
I do not think I need to belabour the point any more. What I have been saying is that while a democratic transition from a largely military regime to a largely civilian regime has occurred, there has been little in the way of democratic consolidation. Pervez Musharraf in 2004 said he wanted “enlightened moderation”, but unenlightened extremism is what the Pakistanis still get as the country moves from Crisis to Crisis, in the process earning a bad name for democracy. I have been able to give you only a limited number of examples of this. However, they are no mere incidents. They form a coherent pattern.
(Slightly revised 6 November 2012)
Ahmed, Ishtiaq, 2012, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford University Press.
Azhar, Shaheryar “The Way Forward”, Daily Times, 27 February 2008, www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C02%5C27%5Cstory_27-2-2008_pg3_6
Beall, Jeffrey, “Predatory publishers are corrupting open access” Nature 489: 179, 13 September 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/predatory-publishers-are-corrupting-open-access-1.11385
Dawn.com, “Butt and Amir on TV as pundits during World T20”, 18 September 2012, http://dawn.com/2012/09/18/salman-butt-mohammad-amir-tv-experts/
Feldman, Herbert, 1972, From Crisis to Crisis: Pakistan 1962-1969, London.
Katju, Markandey, “Pakistan’s Supreme Court has gone overboard”, The Hindu, opinion, 21 June 2012, www.thehindu.com/opinion/article3553558.ece?homepage=true
Noorani, AG, “A right to insult”, Frontline, 2 November 2012, pp. 80-86.
Rehman, IA, 2009, “Shariah Zone: One Solution for Pakistan?” Dawn.com, 12 February, http://archives.dawn.com/archives/142170
Schedler, A, “Taking Uncertainty Seriously: The Blurred Boundaries of Democratic Transition and Consolidation”, Democratization, 8:4, 1-22, 2001.
Shah, Waseem Ahmad, 2009, Pak govt signs Malakand sharia deal”, Dawn.com, 16 February, http://archives.dawn.com/archives/124111
Taseer, Shehrbano, “The Girl Who Changed Pakistan”, Newsweek, October 29, 2012, pp. 30-35.
Sardar, Ziauddin, “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, Emel, November-December 2004, www.emel.com/article?id=9&a_id=1830
Sulehria, Farooq, “Pakistan awaiting the clerical tsunami: Pervez Hoodbhoy”. Viewpoint, online issue 125, November 2, 2012, www.viewpointonline.net/pakistan-awaiting-the-clerical-tsunami-pervez-hoodbhoy.html
Taqi, Mohammad, “Judging the Judges”, View from Pakistan”, Outlook India, 19 April 2012, www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?280620
 Shaukat Aziz did complete his 5-years term as Prime Minister under Musharraf.
 On blasphemy, see the article in Newsweek by Shehrbano Taseer, a daughter of Salman Taseer (Taseer 2012), the interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy in Viewpoint on the rising tide of extremism (Sulehria 2012), and AG Noorani in Frontline (2012) for a problematic liberal defense of the Islam that hardly exists, but in whose name others are required to stay silent to avoid holy wrath.
 For those conversant with Urdu, and even for those without such knowledge, watch “MQM & PML-N showing his Ethics & Character (Live on Talk shows)”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?=BKLpZ60u_Bo where two leaders trade insults, and “Malik Riaz Planted Leaked Interview with Mehar bukhari and Mubashir Lukman on dunya tv Part 1”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoNuNPMR5kI where TV anchors at Dunya News engage in a manipulative interview of a businessman who had accused the son of the Chief Justice of corruption.
 From Crisis to Crisis was the title of Feldman’s 1972 book about Pakistan.
Svenska Akademiens beslut att 2012 års Nobelpris i litteratur går till den kinesiske författaren Mo Yan är ett val som får enorm uppmärksamhet i Kina. Det är svårt att överskatta Nobelprisernas betydelse i ett land och en kultur där dessa utmärkelser – i synnerhet de naturvetenskapliga – varit stora nyheter alltsedan reformpolitiken inleddes 1978. I en kultur som kännetecknas av konfuciansk lärdomstradition har mytbildningen runt priserna och ceremonierna i Stockholm och Oslo befunnit sig i ett avlägset stjärnsystem dit man innerligt önskat att en kines någon gång skulle nå.
Denna längtan är starkt förknippad med erkännande och upprättelse. Ända sedan den kommunistiska revolutionen 1949 har generationer kineser genom skolböcker och av statligt kontrollerade nyhetsmedier internaliserat ”de hundra åren av förödmjukelse” som tiden från det första opiumkriget 1842 via kejsardömets fall 1911 till Mao Zedongs bonderevolution har beskrivits.
Kina och den kinesiska kulturen som västerlandet dömde ut som ”Asiens sjuke man” i slutet av 1800-talet hade visserligen rest sig, som Mao yttrade när Folkrepubliken Kina utropades den 1 oktober 1949 på Himmelska fridens port i Peking. Men kineser drömde fortfarande om att komma ikapp väst på alla de sätt om utmärker en moderniserad och avancerad kulturnation, inte minst inom litteraturens domän.
Döm därför om den besvikelse som det officiella Kina och kommunistpartiet kände när Nobelpriset i litteratur år 2000 gavs till den regimkritiske författaren Gao Xingjian, som har franskt, inte kinesiskt, medborgarskap. Det priset har regimen länge tigit som muren om, även om det inom intellektuella kretsar visserligen finns de som uppskattar Gaos författarskap. Tio år senare tillfogade den norska Nobelkommittén enpartistaten en än värre kalldusch, när man beslutade att tilldela Nobels fredspris till regimkritikern och dissidenten Liu Xiaobo.
Sedan 2010 har det verkat som att Kina närmast gett upp hoppet om att få ett ”riktigt” erkännande av kinesisk kultur trots de senaste årens allt starkare ekonomiska och politiska ställning i världen. Bara några dagar innan Svenska Akademiens ständige sekreterare Peter Englund stegade ut inför den samlade världspressen och den kinesiska statstelevisionens kameror, kritiserade kommunistpartiets populistiska flaggskepp Global Times de humanistiska Nobelpriserna, det vill säga fredspriset och litteraturpriset, för att vara bemängda med västerländska värden, per definition endast sken-universalistiska och egentligen diskriminerande av andra världskulturer.
Efter beskedet om att 2012 års litteraturpristagare blir den 57-årige författaren Mo Yan syns den negativa kritiken och dåliga stämningen vara som bortblåst. I kommunistpartiets språkrör Folkets Dagblad, den statliga centraltelevisionen CCTV, temasektioner på kinesiska nyhetsportaler och i deras kommentarsfält kan man bevittna den stolthet och glädje som helt självklart följer på erhållandet av ett så oerhört prestigefyllt pris.
Frågan är om Kinas Nobelkomplex slutligen har övervunnits. I varje fall fylls de traditionella massmedierna och de sociala medierna som till exempel mikrobloggarna med nationalistiskt färgade yttringar i stil med ”Otroligt glädjande, grattis Mo Yan, grattis Kina” och ”För ett gammalt land och en gammal civilisation som Kina är detta stora pris alltför sent kommet. Men trots det – mina varmaste gratulationer till Mäster Mo Yan”.
Hur ska man tolka denna stolta nationalkänsla – som andas ett ”äntligen” och ”till slut” – som är såväl folkligt förankrat som statssanktionerat? Betyder somligas suck av lättnad och glädjen över att icke-västliga värden, den kinesiska ”verkligheten” och kinesiska sanningsanspråk erkänns av en länge ointresserad, okunnigt, och ovänligt sinnad västvärld? Kanske upplever de röster i de officiella medierna som har uttryckt att Kinas ekonomiska och politiska uppstigande medför att utlandet måste intressera sig mer för allt kinesiskt nu viss upprättelse?
Dessa frågor är ytterst angelägna när Kinas inflytande i, men också starka nationalism gentemot, omvärlden ökar. På Kinas största nyhetsportal Sina toppade nyheten om Mo Yans Nobelpris nyhetsagendan den 11 oktober, och som nummer två fanns nyheten att kinesiska utrikesdepartementet hårt kritiserar Japans ”illegala kontroll” över Senkaku-öarna som Kina anser vara en del av Kinas territorium.
Under hösten 2012 har den territoriella konflikten mellan Kinas och Japans regeringar om ögruppen trappats upp, ivrigt påhejad av nationalistiska hetsporrar i både länderna. I kinesiska städer demonstrerade under september tusentals människor som brände japanska bilar och manade till bojkott av örikets varor. På kinesiska internet fällde hundratusentals människor hatfyllda uttalanden mot grannen i öst. Många hävdade att krig med Tokyo inte alls var otänkbart, utan tvärtom nödvändigt och till och med önskvärt.
Denna nationalism har inte uppstått ur tomma intet. Som i många andra kinesiska författares och konstnärers verk finns också hos Mo Yans ”Det röda fältet” realistiska skildringar av den japanska arméns grymma frammarsch över den kinesiska jorden under motståndskriget mot Japan mellan 1937 och 1945. Inom kommunistpartiet gillas kanske inte hur Mo beskriver partiets relativa, och alls inte absoluta, betydelse för de kinesiska styrkornas militära framgångar mot japanerna. Men ändå framstår hans ämne som patriotiskt korrekt, i en tid och samtidskontext när nationalism alltmer blir det kitt som håller samman både kommunistpartiet och det omgivande samhället. Det går därför inte heller att bortse från den nye Nobelpristagarens medlemskap i kommunistpartiet.
Bortsett från hans obestridliga litterära kvaliteter och den kritik mot sociala strukturer, lokalt maktmissbruk och ekonomisk vanskötsel som finns i Mo Yans verk, finns det någon vidare politisk betydelse i författarskapet för Kina i dag? Hur ser han som författare i ett auktoritärt styrt land på brännande frågor om censur och kontroll av massmedier och internet? Finns det alls ett moraliskt ansvar att utkräva eller är det endast en störande fråga som skymmer hans bokproduktion?
Den världsberömde konstnären och ständige nageln i ögat på den kinesiska regimen, Ai Weiwei, uttryckte på sitt Twitterkonto att ”Författare som inte förmår stå upp för sanningen inte kan skiljas från lögnare”. Den kände bloggaren Bei Feng var ursinnig över den kinesiska internetcensur som helt spärrade ut honom ur internetlandskapet efter kritik av Mo Yans Nobelpris: ”Efter en avvikande åsikt på Sina Weibo om att Mo Yan tilldelats priset utraderades mitt konto – medan Mo Yan sade att priset illustrerar en tid då man kan yttra sig fritt. Jag anser de här händelserna bäst illustrerar nivån på den Svenska Akademien”. Troligen kommer åsikterna mellan liberala konstutövare och mer systembevarande nationalistiska intellektuella att brytas hårt under kommande månader – på internet där de i väntan på censurens näve ibland kan mötas i debatt.
Vissa hävdar att man ändå bör vara försiktig med pekpinnar. Och det finns förutsättningar för att kinesisk politik kan förändras också genom reformsinnade krafter som verkar inom kommunistpartiet och genom det som den amerikanske sinologen Timothy Cheek har kallat för ”de etablissemangsintellektuella”. Men om dessa personer utomlands får frågor om arbetsläger, dissidenter och mänskliga rättigheter blir det förstås plågsamt. Att yttra sig kritiskt om tillståndet för mänskliga rättigheter i Kina skulle innebära utraderade möjligheter för dem att verka för det fria ordet inom etablissemangets strukturer.
Detta gäller också för Mo Yan. Ombedd att kommentera statens behandling av Liu Xiaobo, mottagaren fredspriset 2010, blev svaret att han ”visste för lite om det hela”. Vid något anat tillfälle ska han ha uttryckt att ”skrika på gatorna är något för vissa, medan andra försöker förändra genom arbete på kammaren”. Det är en hållning som den berömde kinesiske idéhistorikern Wang Hui i ett samtal med mig anslöt sig till: ”Vad tycker ni i väst att vi borde göra, springa ut på gatorna och demonstrera? Inte säkert det är mödan värt!” Inte bara kan offentliga protester innebära slutet på en yrkeskarriär, menade Wang, det kan också vara mindre effektivt än att gradvis påverka partikulturen inifrån.
Och även om en författare som Mo Yan helst håller sig på armlängds avstånd från dagsaktuell politik och frågor om dissidenter, är han i romaner och noveller starkt kritisk till sociala missförhållanden på landsbygden i Shandongprovinsen. Bitande sarkasm och beskrivningar av lokalt maktmissbruk och översitteri finns också i ”Vitlöksballaderna”. Landsbygdens kvävande patriarkala ordning är något som Mo Yan kritiserar i sina verk, liksom hur ettbarnspolitiken i inlandsprovinserna leder till överskott på pojkar.
Dessa förvisso vassa skildringar av Kinas sociala liv och lokala pampvälden gör honom dock inte till en subversiv samhällsskildrare. Kritik mot samhällsfenomen som korruption, maktmissbruk, miljöförstöring och landkonfiskation är möjlig att framföra i dagens Kina bland fler än författare. Den subversive kritiserar kommunistpartiet som ”samhällets ledande kraft”, organiserar religiösa, politiska eller arbetarintressen i syfte att genomdriva politiska reformer för sin sak. Men kritik mot kommunistpartiets maktutövning på landsbygden är faktiskt relativt vanligt inom statskontrollerade medier och det finns reformsinnade krafter som premiärminister Wen Jiabao till och med i politbyråns ständiga utskott.
Mo Yan får Nobelpriset i litteratur när Kina befinner sig i en brytningstid mellan gammalt och nytt. Kommunistpartiets ömsar ledarskinn i år. Ekonomin är skakig och spänningarna mellan olika grupper och intressen i samhället ökar, inte minst mellan stad och landsbygd. Den nya politbyrå som tar form efter den 18:e partikongressen som inleds den 8 november kommer att regera landet och influera världspolitiken fram till år 2022. Det kommer att bli ansträngande. Under detta decennium ska svåra utmaningar hemmavid och från omvärlden pareras.
Den kanske största och svåraste frågan är hur länge ett alltmer pluralistiskt samhälle och dess intellektuella – konstnärer, författare och forskare – kan begränsas i sitt sanningssökande av den leninistiska enpartistaten. Kommer kraven från ett framväxande civilsamhälle med rötter i både arbetar- bonde-, och medelklass mötas med våldsam repression – eller med ny vilja till kompromisser, dialog och reformer? Kommer förväntningar från utlandet på ett ansvarstagande och än öppnare Kina mötas av lyhördhet, eller mer av det nationalistiska trummande som ljudit under den senaste tiden?
En stor berättare och skildrare av den kinesiska samtiden som Mo Yan skulle ha mycket intressant att säga om dessa viktiga frågor. Men troligen tiger han hellre, som när han tillfrågades om författarkollegan och numera Nobelpriskollegan Liu Xiaobos belägenhet i fängelse. I så fall ger det eftertryck åt pseudonymen som mannen som föddes som Guan Moye 1955 bär. På kinesiska betyder nämligen Mo Yan ”tala inte” eller om man så vill – ingen kommentar. För två år sedan stod Liu Xiabos stol tom under prisceremonin i Oslo. När Nobelpriset åter tilldelas en kinesisk medborgare kommer någon att sitta på avsedd stol, men vad kommer den som sitter där att säga? Vad kan han säga?
Johan Lagerkvist är docent i kinesiska och forskare vid Utrikespolitiska institutet.
Denna text är ursprungligen publicerad i Svenska Dagbladet 12 oktober 2012 .
Rohingya: Rohingya is an ethnic minority with dark skin, Muslim beliefs and, for the most part, no citizenship anywhere. Some groups live as sea nomads. Others live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, India or Bangladesh. Some live in refugee camps different places. Most live in poverty and most live in Burma.
Nobody likes the Rohingya here, though:
Since the group was collectively stripped of citizenship in the 80s by Burmese strongman, Ne Win, they have been systematically persecuted by authorities, and denial of basic human rights, humiliation, slander and ethnically motivated violence are existing circumstances in the life the Rohingya. This does not differ them from a range of other minorities, especially not in Burma, where the government frequently is at war with rogue militias representing repressed ethnic groups in the country.
But the scale of it does. The above is the preexisting condition. This is the current situation:
In May this year, a young Buddhist girl was raped by three Muslim. It happened in the Northern province of Arakan and that is an absolute disaster. It is horrible to that girl and her family.
But the retaliation… The retaliation for the incident was brutal and frightening:
A mob of Buddhist Burmese attacked a busload of Rohingya people, killing 10 of them. Fighting erupted and spread, and this is what happened over the next few weeks:
The already overwhelmingly larger group of Buddhists was aided in carrying out organized attacks on several Rohingya villages by the military. The attackers rounded up the villagers, put them in vans and took them to concentration camps. Several girls were raped, houses were burned down, people were beaten and tortured. 650 Rohingya is confirmed dead, 50,000 have been displaced and an unknown number is simply: missing.
The main reason why this was frightening was not the violence itself though, although that is certainly frightening enough.
The main reason was that these attacks are largely supported by the Buddhist people of Burma.
Yup. That´s the same dudes that marched so beautifully peaceful in their orange robes in 2008, and for the first time really gave the Burmese people the international focus it needed to make changes. It is the same people who through 20 years waited quietly and took abuse from a self installed government, only to turn out by the thousands at the house of Ang San Suu Kyi to see her released.
Those are the people, who, when asked, cannot see anything particularly wrong with ridding Burma of Rohingya all together. Burmese bloggers have deemed them “thieves, dogs, terrorists and black monsters.” Burmese historians have challenged their “burmeseness” due to their aforementioned black skin, dialect and religion.
Even The Lady is hesitant to denounce the violence, knowing that by doing so she will estrange a large part of her followers.
So congratulations, Burma, on all the positive changes you have achieved in the past year or so. Hooray for brave monks, for the Saffron Revolution, for the free Lady and for finally starting to move towards democracy. That is fantastic, no one in their right mind will argue otherwise.
By the way, the definition of Genocide, as per the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Freelance journalist and NIAS Associate, Bangkok