September 21, 2017
This is the real Aung San Suu Kyi.
September 21, 2017
December 19, 2017
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar, stood before a room of government officials and foreign dignitaries on Tuesday to at last, after weeks of international urging, address the plight of the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority.
But those who expected Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver an eloquent requiem for an oppressed people were disappointed.
In her speech, delivered in crisp English and often directly inviting foreign listeners to “join us” in addressing Myanmar’s problems, she steadfastly refused to criticize the Myanmar military, which has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village burning.
“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said.
As she spoke, more than 400,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority long repressed by the Buddhists who dominate Myanmar, had fled a military massacre that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The lucky ones are suffering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh where there is not nearly enough food or medical aid.
A stark satellite analysis by Human Rights Watch shows that at least 210 of their villages have been burned to the ground since the offensive began on August 25. Bangladeshi officials say that land mines had been planted on Myanmar’s side of the border, where the Rohingyas are fleeing.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to mollify her critics by saying she was committed to restoring peace and the rule of law.
“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she said. “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.”
But asking why the world did not acknowledge the progress made in her country, she also boasted that Muslims living in the violence-torn area had ample access to health care and radio broadcasts.
It was a remarkable parroting of the language of the generals who locked her up for the better part of two decades, and in the process made a political legend of her: the regal prisoner of conscience who vanquished the military with no weapons but her principles.
Officials in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have accused the Rohingyas, who have suffered decades of persecution and have been mostly stripped of their citizenship, of faking rape and burning their own houses in a bid to hijack international public opinion. She has done nothing to correct the record.
A Facebook page associated with her office suggested that international aid groups were colluding with Rohingya militants, whose attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base precipitated the fierce military counteroffensive. In a statement, her government labeled the insurgent strikes “brutal acts of terrorism.”
It has been a stunning reversal for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, who was once celebrated alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to her for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
During her address, made from a vast convention center in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to evoke a program of grand goals including democratic transition, peace, stability and development. But she also cautioned that the country’s long experience with authoritarian rule and nearly seven decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s frontier lands have frayed national unity.
“People expect us to overcome all these challenges in as short a time as possible,” she said, noting that her civilian government only took office last year. “Eighteen months is a very short time in which to expect us to meet and overcome all the challenges that we are facing.”
But there were worrisome signs from the moment she entered a power-sharing agreement with the military after her National League for Democracy won 2015 elections.
Myanmar’s generals — who ruled the country for nearly half a century and turned a resource-rich land also known as Burma into an economic failure — stage-managed every facet of the political transition. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, made sure to keep the most important levers of power for itself.
It also effectively relegated Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to the post of state counselor by designing a Constitution that kept her from the presidency.
“It’s always a dance with the generals,” said U Win Htein, an N.L.D. party elder. “She needs to be very quick on her feet.”
Mr. Win Htein, a former military officer who served alongside some of the Tatmadaw’s highest-ranking generals, warned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had to placate an army with a history of pushing aside civilian leaders under the pretext of defending national sovereignty.
“The army, they are watching her every word,” he said. “One misstep on the Muslim issue, and they can make their move.”
Yet even before the compromises that accompanied her ascension to power, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was already distancing herself from the hopes invested in her by the international community.
“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said in an interview shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010.
Such a recasting of her role has disappointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In an open letter, Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop, advised his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was even more pointed.
“She should not have received a Nobel Peace Prize if she says, sorry, I’m a politician, and the norms of democracy don’t suit me,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “The whole world stood by her for decades, but today she has become the mirror image of Aung San Suu Kyi by destroying human rights and denying citizenship to the Rohingya.”
“All we can do,” he said, “is pray for the return of the old Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Beyond her personal legacy, the direction of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership carries global consequence.
“People are invested in her because we need her to succeed. This is a democratic moment, and she represents Burma’s democratic promise,” said Derek Mitchell, the former American ambassador to Myanmar. “The country sits at the crossroads of Asia in a region where democracy is in retreat, which makes Burma’s success even more important.”
In Tuesday’s speech, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledged the state of democracy in her country.
“We are a young and fragile democracy facing many problems,” she said, “but we have to cope with them all at the same time.”
But she also stressed that “more than 50 percent” of Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine remained “intact.” And she seemed to borrow vocabulary from a self-help manual when she described the need to research why certain villages had not been touched by the violence.
“We have to remove the negative and increase the positive,” she said.
As the daughter of the assassinated independence hero Gen. Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese Army, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been unapologetic about her fondness for the military, even as it has driven out the Rohingyas and stepped up military offensives against other ethnic armed groups.
“We do not have any trust in Aung San Suu Kyi because she was born into the military,” said Hkapra Hkun Awng, a leader of the Kachin ethnicity from northern Myanmar, one of more than a dozen minorities whose rebel armies have fought the Tatmadaw over the decades. “She is more loyal to her own people than to the ethnics. Her blood is thicker than a promise of national reconciliation.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi belongs to the country’s Bamar ethnic majority.
Even before the mudslinging of the 2015 election campaign, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was sidestepping questions about the sectarian violence in Rakhine that disproportionately affected the Rohingya. Rather than condemning pogroms against the persecuted Muslim minority, she has dismissed accusations of ethnic cleansing and called, instead, for rule of law to solve any problem.
Because most Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship by the military, it has not been clear how any laws might apply to them. Indeed, even though Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday that Myanmar was prepared to repatriate refugees who can establish that they are residents of Myanmar, that may be a formidable task for people who are unlikely to have documents proving they lived in Myanmar before fleeing across the border.
“I can confirm now that we are ready to start the verification process at any time, and those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problems and with full assurances of their security and their access to humanitarian aid,” she said.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has largely shielded herself from the media and has holed up in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s bunkered capital, which was unveiled more than a decade ago by a junta paranoid that the former capital, Yangon, might be vulnerable to foreign invasion.
Earlier this month, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi chose not to attend the United Nations General Assembly, where her stance on the Rohingya would surely have met with criticism. Just a year ago, as the nation’s new civilian leader, she attended the annual assembly and was celebrated by world leaders.
Still, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is attuned enough to public sentiment to understand the deep reservoir of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. Even though a Muslim bloc had been a loyal patron of the N.L.D. for decades, the party did not choose to stand a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 polls.
If anything, her equivocations on the Rohingya have given currency to the widely held assumption in Myanmar that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Burmese.
Since Myanmar’s political transition began, a virulent strain of Buddhist extremism has pushed such attitudes further into the mainstream. Influential monks have preached anti-Muslim rhetoric and pushed successfully for a law that circumscribes interfaith marriage. N.L.D. elders have prayed at the feet of one of the movement’s spiritual godfathers.
“Buddhist nationalist radicalism has been allowed to spread basically unchecked,” said Min Zin, the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar. “The government is doing very little to stop it.”
September 17, 2017
“I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa, either.”–Aung San Suu Kyi
During her fifteen years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi—now the de-facto leader of Myanmar—found solace in the poetry and novels of authors such as George Eliot, Victor Hugo, John le Carré, and Anna Akhmatova. Another favorite, she has said, was Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” an epic travelogue about Yugoslavia written on the eve of the Second World War. West described a country that Aung San Suu Kyi would have recognized as being much like her own: a fragile mosaic of ethnicities, languages, historical backgrounds, and cultural traditions.
In a short essay called “Let’s Visit Burma,” published in 1985, Aung San Suu Kyi described the “colourful and diverse origins and customs” of her compatriots. Rakhine state, in the west of Myanmar, was something of a “mystery” in this respect, she wrote. Its population had originated from “Mongolian and Aryan peoples who had come over from India.” Owing to its geographical position, Bengal had also “played a major part” in its history and culture. Among the state’s numerous ethnic groups —Arakanese, Thek, Dainet, Myo, Mramagyi, and Kaman—others displayed “the influence of Bengali.” But she assured readers that while there are “more people of the Islamic faith to be found in [Rakhine] than anywhere else in Burma,” it had been “predominately Buddhist” for centuries.
By groups that “displayed the influence of Bengali”, Aung San Suu Kyi certainly meant the Rohingya, a stateless minority in northern Rakhine that most Myanmar people consider to be Bangladeshi immigrants. Since August 25, when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an Army base, as many as a thousand Rohingya have been killed and over three hundred and seventy thousand (more than third of the Rohingya population) have been forced into neighboring Bangladesh, human-rights groups estimate. Aung San Suu Kyi’s champions are now contemplating her fall from grace, appalled that the Nobel Peace Prize winner remains silent about and unmoved by a crisis described this week by the U.N.’s human-rights chief as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” There have been widespread calls for the Nobel Committee to strip her of the prize. But there is no statutory procedure for doing so, nor is it clear how this would end the murder, rape, and mass exodus of the Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s Army.
The most urgent and powerful appeals to Aung San Suu Kyi have come from her fellow Nobel laureates. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the prize for her advocacy of girls’ education, condemned the “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya. “I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.” Addressing a letter to his “dear sister,” the anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu wrote of his “profound sadness” and called on Aung San Suu Kyi to end the military-led operations. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he wrote. The Dalai Lama subsequently urged her to find a peaceful solution to the humanitarian crisis, saying that Buddha would have “definitely helped those poor Muslims.”
This is not the first time that laureates have spoken of their displeasure with Aung San Suu Kyi. In December last year, when the military conducted another brutal offensive against the Rohingya, thirteen Nobel winners, including Muhammad Yunus, Shirin Ebadi, and Leymah Gbowee, signed an open letter deploring the Army’s use of helicopter gunships, arbitrary arrests, and the rape of women. “Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” they concluded, using her honorific, “we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her own prize, in Oslo, in June, 2012, she said that, under house arrest, “it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. . . . What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. . . . I began to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize.” Since becoming State Counsellor, in 2016, however, she has retreated into the solitude of her former life. Her husband, Michael Aris, died, of cancer, in 1999—she was prevented by the military regime from saying goodbye to him—and she rarely sees her sons. People close to her describe a life of morbid isolation, living alone in the administrative capital, Naypyidaw—arguably the dreariest city on earth—pouring over state documents late into the night. She rarely gives interviews, and is reluctant to delegate responsibilities (there is no obvious successor to lead her party when she’s gone).
There’s no evidence that the laureates’ chorus of indignation has any bearing on Aung San Suu Kyi, or whether their declarations can break the spell of isolation and bring her back to the outside world. The only response she has made to the present crisis in Rakhine was a Facebook post, detailing a phone conversation she had with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In it, she criticized the “huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.” While Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent, the offices and ministries under her charge have not, describing the Rohingya as Bengalis and publicly advocating the use of force in certain situations. “If they are going to harm you, you can shoot them,” Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said. The most egregious case of the recklessness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came last month, when it accused international aid workers of supporting terrorists, prompting fears for the safety of thousands of people in Myanmar employed by charities and N.G.O.s. There have been demands that the U.S. government stop using the name “Rohingya”, and when a Rohingya women gave details of an alleged gang rape, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office dismissed it as “fake rape.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer, Peter Popham, writes in “The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy” that she “has become an object lesson in the slipperiness of the concept of heroism, and the folly of hero-worship.” Indeed, the tenor of the denunciations suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics are angered as much by a sense of personal betrayal as they are by her silence. She has exposed the artlessness with which many in the West reduced a complex personality into a Rapunzel of the East, emptied of her more illiberal traits, such as an authoritarian leadership style, and some potentially unsavory views on Muslims. The BBC correspondent, Fergal Keane, who probably knows Aung San Suu Kyi better than any other foreign journalist, has admitted that “we knew too little of Myanmar and its complex narratives of ethnic rivalries. . . . And we knew too little of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.” In a rare interview with Keane in April, she denied ethnic cleansing was taking place in Rakhine, and resisted the cruder perceptions of her persona: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa, either.”
Unlike Thatcher, a consummate political operator, many have commented upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s weakness as a politician. Her failure to act against the military operation in Rakhine, so the argument goes, is not a result of her bigotry but because she is unable to outmaneuver the generals in Myanmar’s very own game of thrones.
Few can blame Aung San Suu Kyi for her political impotence. The constitutional arrangements of Myanmar would foil the shrewdest operative. Designed by the military, in 2008, the constitution gives the armed forces control of three ministries—the interior, borders, and defense—that are beyond the oversight of the civilian government. It bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President, and allows the Army to veto any attempt at constitutional reform. The irony, then, is that if Aung San Suu Kyi once represented the power of the powerless, she is now powerless in power, taking the flak for the Army’s unrelenting inhumanity in its fight against ethnic rebels on the borderlands, and the Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s powerlessness hardly matters on this issue, anyway: hatred of the Rohingya is one thing that unites Myanmar. Despite their political differences, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, and the military are in lockstep when it comes to the problem of northern Rakhine. Years of xenophobic, anti-Rohingya propaganda, pushed from the late nineteen-seventies by the military government, endures in the nation’s collective memory, and is stoked by the hate sermons of Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu. By speaking up for the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi imperils her standing in the eyes of her fellow-citizens.
When she was thrust into the public eye, in 1988, it was her lineage, rather than her politics, that was the driving force. As the daughter of General Aung San, the nationally revered founder of modern Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi was at the mercy of activists who recognized the dynastic force that her name, and looks (she is the spitting image of her father), lent to their struggle against the generals. Responsible for negotiating Burma’s independence from the British Empire, Aung San was assassinated by paramilitary forces of the former Prime Minister U Saw, in 1947, six months before its official declaration. Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old at the time, but there’s no doubting her love and admiration for him. In a 2013 radio interview with the BBC, she described her father as “my first love and my best love.” This filial piety is perhaps the key to understanding Aung San Suu Kyi as saint and sinner.
Her father was an extraordinarily tenacious, even ruthless, man who navigated between the British and Japanese empires in order to achieve his objective—a unified, independent Burma. He was also a Burmese nationalist who cared little for the nation’s ethnic minorities. Today, he is universally venerated in Myanmar, while few outside the country know who he is. This has almost certainly influenced Aung San Suu Kyi, who mimics his leadership style, moral code, and political priorities. The Rohingya are a distraction from her overriding ambition: to complete her father’s dream of unifying the country and ending a civil war that has raged between ethnic rebel forces and the Myanmar government since 1948. As Rebecca West wrote in “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” in a passage that Aung San Suu Kyi likely associated with her father when reading the book under house arrest, “it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’ ”
August 8, 2017
July 15, 2017for
by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com
“…we owe it to ourselves and our fellows to progressively throw off the chains we are born with, or into, or otherwise shackled with, and seize our freedom to be, and do the best we possibly can”.–Dean Johns
Like so many famous rhetorical flourishes that come to be regarded as self-evident truths, French philosopher, and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ringing declaration that “man is born free, and is everywhere in chains” is, on careful consideration, ridiculous.
Tribute to Madiba and Liu Xiaobo
In fact, the reality is entirely the opposite. We are all born in chains – chains of genetic inheritance, of infantile ignorance and impotence, and of the familial, physical, cultural, political and other environmental circumstances in which we find ourselves – and can either submit to being constrained by such chains or struggle against them to try and set ourselves as free as possible.
And this state of affairs seems to me to be nowhere more evident than in China, or what I prefer to think of as “Chaina”, on the grounds that its people have been enchained throughout history by an endless series of dismal dictatorships.
Mostly imperial dictatorships, of course, but currently one led by a Communist Party as dictatorial as any emperor could possibly be, and so deceptive as to try and pass itself off as the “People’s’ Republic of China” into the bargain.
When the people protest, however, it quickly reverts to the “Party’s Republic of Chaina”, as it did on the occasion of the notorious massacre of protesting students and workers in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and again following the publication of Charter 08 on 10 December 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Liu Xiaobo, a hero of Tiananmen Square who had subsequently sought and found sanctuary in the US before courageously returning to China/“Chaina” to co-author Charter 08, was sentenced in 2009 by the regime to 11 years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power”.
And today, as I write this, it has been reported that Liu has died under guard in a hospital of cancer after being refused permission to seek treatment overseas for his illness.
Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, in honoured memory of Liu Xiaobo and in support of his fellow activists against the Communist Party overlords of the “Anti-People’s Republic of Chaina”, is the first paragraph of Charter 08, followed by a list of its demands of the regime:
“This year is the 100th year of China’s Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognising that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance.
“A “modernisation” bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity.
“Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a “modernisation” under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognise universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilisation, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided:
1. Amending the Constitution
2. Separation of powers
3. Legislative democracy
4. An independent judiciary
5. Public control of public servants
6. Guarantee of human rights
7. Election of public officials
8. Abolition of Hukou system
9. Freedom of association
10. Freedom of assembly
11. Freedom of expression
12. Freedom of religion
13. Civic education
14. Free markets and protection of private property, including privatizing state enterprises and land
15. Financial and tax reform
16. Social security
17. Protection of the environment
18. A federated republic
19. Truth in reconciliation
Of course, China is by no means alone in the world in urgently needing many, if not all, of these reforms for the sake of good government and honest governance on behalf of its citizens. Malaysia, for example, enchained as it has been for almost 60 years by its corrupt, illegitimate, and otherwise criminal UMNO-BN regime, has a crying need for items 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 19.
And a great many other nations, from Russia, Pakistan, and all the other “-stans”, to a great many more similarly freedom-impaired countries in Asia, Africa and South America could do with many, if not most of them.
My own country, Australia, could perform much better, in my opinion, on points 6, 11, 13 and 15. And of course the United States, as the self-proclaimed world leader in government of the people, by the people, for the people, could well do itself and the rest of the free world a favour by electing a president capable of thinking coherently and telling or at least tweeting the truth.
But to end on a personal level, it is worth making the point that we are, all of us, part of the problem and thus capable of making ourselves part of the solution.
In other words, whether Chinese or whatever other nationality or ethnicity, we happen to be, we are all chainees of various false “faiths”, “beliefs”, “customs”, “prejudices”, and other mental bonds and restrictions that prevent us living up to our full human potential.
And thus we owe it to ourselves and our fellows to progressively throw off the chains we are born with, or into, or otherwise shackled with, and seize our freedom to be, and do the best we possibly can.
July 14, 2017
China is facing a barrage of international criticism for its treatment of the Nobel laureate and democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, who died at the age of 61 on Thursday.
Liu, who championed non-violent resistance as a way of overcoming “forceful tyranny”, had been serving an 11-year jail sentence for demanding an end to one-party rule when he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in May.
He died of multiple organ failure while under guard at a hospital in north-east China, making him the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, the 1935 recipient, who died under surveillance after years confined to Nazi concentration camps.
News of Liu’s death sparked an immediate outpouring of international mourning and condemnation. His peaceful activism and biting criticism of one-party rule meant he had spent almost a quarter of his life behind bars.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, paid tribute to “a courageous fighter for civil rights and freedom of opinion”. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said he mourned the loss of a man who had dedicated “his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty”.
The leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the prize, said the Chinese government – which had stopped Liu traveling abroad for treatment despite appeals from world leaders – bore “a heavy responsibility for his premature death”.
“We find it deeply disturbing that Liu Xiaobo was not transferred to a facility where he could receive adequate medical treatment before he became terminally ill,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen.
The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said he was deeply saddened by the “huge loss” of the “lifelong campaigner for democracy, human rights and peace” and attacked Beijing for denying Liu and his family the chance to seek medical treatment overseas.
“Liu Xiaobo should have been allowed to choose his own medical treatment overseas, which the Chinese authorities repeatedly denied him. This was wrong and I now urge them to lift all restrictions on his widow, Liu Xia.”
One of the most forceful attacks on the authoritarian regime of China’s President, Xi Jinping, came from his Taiwanese counterpart, Tsai Ing-wen, who paid tribute to a “human rights warrior”. Tsai said Liu had striven to transform China into a nation where human rights and the rule of law were respected. “This was Liu Xiaobo’s Chinese dream,” Tsai said, alluding to Xi’s central propaganda slogan.
“We hope that the Chinese authorities can show confidence in engaging in political reform so that the Chinese people can enjoy the God-given rights of freedom and democracy … Only through democracy, in which every Chinese person has freedom and respect, can China truly become a proud and important country.”
Liu Xiaobo was famed for his Gandhian “no enemies” philosophy – but there was rage as well as grief among his friends as news of his death spread.
Liu Xiaobo and his wife, the poet Liu Xia, in 2002. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
“I hate this government,” said the author and activist Tienchi Martin-Liao, breaking down in tears as she learned of her friend’s death. “It is not only sadness – it is fury. How can a regime treat a person like Liu Xiaobo like this?
“This is unbearable. This will go down in history. No one should forget what this government and the Xi Jinping administration has done. It is unforgivable.”
The writer and activist Mo Zhixu, said he felt “bitter hatred”. “It is so cruel and inhuman.”
Hu Ping, a friend of almost three decades who edits a pro-democracy journal called the Beijing Spring, said: “Liu Xiaobo is immortal, no matter whether he is alive or dead. Liu Xiaobo is a man of greatness, a saint.”
Hu said his friend’s plight highlighted the bleak realities facing activists living under Xi, who has presided over what observers call the most severe political chill since the days following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
“I think the situation in China now is deteriorating – and the way in which Liu has been treated clearly shows us what the current situation is, and how it goes beyond our imagination.”
Born in the northern province of Jilin in 1955, Liu was part of the first generation of Chinese students to go to university after they reopened following the upheaval of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He studied Chinese literature and went on to become a revered writer and public intellectual.
When pro-democracy protests broke out in Beijing in the spring of 1989, Liu was lecturing in New York but decided to return despite having previously shown little interest in politics.
“He thought: ‘This is where I should be and this is where I can make a contribution. So I am going there’,” said Perry Link, a Chinese literature expert from the University of California, Riverside, who knew him.
Liu flew back to Beijing and headed to Tiananmen Square, where he played a central role in the protests. He led a hunger strike shortly before the 4 June military crackdown in which hundreds, possibly thousands of lives were lost. He was jailed for almost two years for his role in what Beijing called “counter-revolutionary” riots. The experience served as a political awakening that transformed Liu into a lifelong activist and champion of democracy.
The “crime” that led to Liu spending his final years behind bars was Charter 08, a 2008 declaration inspired by Charter 77, a manifesto published by Czechoslovakian dissidents in 1977. “The current system has become backward to the point that change cannot be avoided,” it warned, calling for an end to one-party rule.
Authorities did not approve. Hours before it was due to be published, Liu, who had been one of the document’s drafters, was detained at his Beijing home. The following year he was handed an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”.
“The charter was the first public document since 1949 to dare to mention the end of one-party rule,” said Link. “But of course the problem with having an influence is that the crackdown has been effective. A lot of young people don’t know about the charter and don’t know about Liu Xiaobo now.”
In 2010, Liu was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. He was represented at the award ceremony by an empty chair. When he was informed of his victory he reportedly said: “I dedicate this prize to the lost souls of 4 June,” in reference to the victims of the Tiananmen massacre.
Human rights and democracy campaigners saw Liu’s Nobel prize as a triumph for their cause. But for his wife, the poet and artist Liu Xia, with whom he had fallen in love during the 1990s, it was a catastrophe. She was immediately placed under house arrest and has spent recent years living in almost total isolation, under constant surveillance.
“She is a wonderful woman. A really wonderful woman,” says Jean-Philippe Béja, a French academic and longstanding friend. “I don’t even dare to imagine how she feels now.”
Eva Pils, an expert in Chinese law and human rights from King’s College London, said Liu Xiaobo would be remembered for his “wise and forceful” style of political resistance. Supporters had been counting the days until his expected release from prison in 2019. “Now this is extremely disappointing,” she said. “Naturally, I, like many others, had been counting down to the time of his release. It’s so unfair.”
Link said Liu would be remembered as “a stubborn truth-teller” and someone who opened “the possibility of a different kind of China”.
“That is a lasting legacy. The model of how an independent intellectual stands up to the state will be admired if it is not completely obliterated.”
Béja said Liu’s ideas would continue to inspire, long after his death. “It’s always very hard to evaluate the impact of a thinker or of an actor but I am sure that – despite all the efforts by the party – he won’t be forgotten.”
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen
I’ll never give up the struggle for freedom from the oppressors’ jail, but I’ll be your willing prisoner for life.
I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love
I want to live in your dark insides
surviving on the dregs in your blood
I hear your constant heartbeat
drop by drop, like melted snow from a mountain stream
if I were a stubborn, million-year rock
you’d bore right through me
drop by drop
day and night
I grope in the dark
and use the wine you’ve drunk
to write poems looking for you
I plead like a deaf man begging for sound
Let the dance of love intoxicate your body
I always feel
your lungs rise and fall when you smoke
in an amazing rhythm
you exhale my toxins
I inhale fresh air to nourish my soul
I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love
like a baby loath to be born
clinging to your warm uterus
you provide all my oxygen
all my serenity
A baby prisoner
in the depths of your being
unafraid of alcohol and nicotine
the poisons of your loneliness
I need your poisons
need them too much
Maybe as your prisoner
I’ll never see the light of day
but I believe
darkness is my destiny
all is well
The glitter of the outside world
I focus on
your darkness –
simple and impenetrable
Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press from No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Xiaobo Liu. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.