‘That Bastard Pardon’ –Writing on Myanmar Journalists for the New Statesman

English PEN banners protesting the imprisonment of Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuter’s journalists unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar, have been released.

I have written a short piece for the New Statesman, commenting on how presidential pardons do nothing to tackle the underlying injustice, and perpetuate the chill on freedom of expression.

Pardons have a particular place in judicial systems. There may be unusual circumstances where a person has indeed broken the law, but the sentence imposed is inappropriate. A pardon asserts that the conviction was correct, but alleviates the punishment.

That is wholly unsatisfactory in cases where the law has been abused, as it was in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Although they are out of prison, there has been no acknowledgement by the state that the convictions were a clear miscarriage of justice. In fact, the pardon reasserts the just opposite – that there was nothing wrong with the imprisonment.

Read the whole thing on the New Statesman website. Continue reading “‘That Bastard Pardon’ –Writing on Myanmar Journalists for the New Statesman”

Interviewed on Free Expression in Vietnam

The General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng was in the UK this week, so English PEN wrote a letter to David Cameron, asking him to raise our free expression concerns during their meeting.

I was interviewed about the visit by Voice of America’s Vietnamese Service.

There is an accompanying article.  This is the key quote:

Thủ tướng Anh nên quan tâm đến việc các doanh nghiệp Anh có nên đầu tư vào một nước như Việt Nam hay không khi mà nạn vi phạm nhân quyền, vi phạm quyền tự do bày tỏ quan điểm đã trở nên quá rõ ràng đến mức như vậy.

Essentially: When writers are being locked up, how can you trust what is reported from within Vietnam?  Why should British buinesses invest in a country where information about the economy and corruption may be suppressed?

Those of you who don’t speak Vietnamese may appreciate a Google Translate version of the page.


Lost Tribes and Human Nature

I found this video, of an uncontacted tribe meeting a white man for the first time, utterly compelling.

I admit that the Enigma style sound-track (actually Yeha-Noha by Sacred Spirit, a new feature on YouTube helpfully reveals) helps churn the emotions.

But there is a beauty in the images, in the actions of the startled men and women on film. Initially, they are clearly shit-fucking scared. Although they are armed, and could have let loose an arrow into the explorer’s gullet at any moment, they do not give in to their fear. Curiosity is the more powerful emotion. They dare to touch the hand of the explorer and his cameraman. And crucially, they trust him enough to shake his hand, taste the salt, and take him to their village. For his part, the white explorer (film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux) appears honest and sensitive, and the moment early on where he reaches out his hand is just sublime.

Its an imperfect experiment, but these uncontacted tribes are the nearest thing we habe to a tabula rasa, a mind unpolluted by the sensibilities and preconceptions of our infinitely connected world. And, untrained and unprepared for the moment, they win it. Its a blow to the idea that humankind is essentially destructive and violent, and that politics must essentially be about protecting ourselves from others, in the pursuit of self-interest.

The video is actually from 1978, but these tribes-people are totally outside of time and only Dutilleux’s short-shorts date the piece. But I came upon it because of a more contemporary campaign to help preserve uncontacted tribes in the Amazon Rainforests. There is a lot more fascinating imagery, and a petition to sign, at UncontactedTribes.org.

The Chilling Effect of Rarely Used Laws

Governor of the Punjab Salmaan Taseer visits Aasia Bibi, Christian woman condemned to death under the Blasphemy Law. (Creative Commons Licenced photo from salmaantaseer on Flickr)

A depressing story to kick-off the New Year: The governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, has been assasinated. The perpetrator cited Taseer’s support for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law as the motive for the murder.

Human Rights campaigners often spend their time lobbying for the formal abolition of laws.  For example, at the end of 2009 I was involved in a free speech campaign to repeal the archaic law of seditious libel.  Some argued that there was little point in wasting time abolishing laws that have fallen into disuse.  They are de facto abolished anyway:  Couldn’t parliamentary time be better spent?

Certainly not.  There is always the chance that the law might be used by some future, illiberal government.  And in the case of blasphemy in Pakistan, we see how an oppressive law (for that is what the offence of blasphemy is, and must always be) can be used as an excuse for violence.  Supporters of Mr Taseer’s killer now cite the existence of these little-used as their excuse for righteous murder.  You don’t actually need to charge someone under a particular law, for that law to have a horrible chilling effect.

Hindi versus English

Last Thursday was International Translation Day, and I spent a little bit of time at a translation conference, hosted by English PEN and the Free Word Centre. Plenty of rabble-rousing for more international fiction to be translated into English. Our Director Jonathan Heawood did a great job noting the key points on Twitter, under the hashtag #ITD.

We know that the use language can be ideological. My Welsh grandmother told a story about how my great-grandmother was punished at school for speaking Welsh in the playground… by teachers for whom Welsh was the native tongue: an act of class oppression, for sure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, South Africa’s Constitution provides for eleven official languages. It is a clear attempt to negate previous forms of oppression-through-language (perhaps at the price of confusion and cohesion?).

Last week I watched an interview with Bollywood superstars Priyanka Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor on a programme called Buzz of the Week. It was a very casual and undemanding piece of promotional puffery on a big red sofa, but the two actors different approach to language was striking. Priyanka insisted in answering all questions in English, even those that were asked mainly in Hindi. Meanwhile, Ranbir spoke nothing but Hindi. This was odd – both are clearly bilingual and laughed at each others’ banter – and I assume they are native Hindi speakers, yet both steadfastly refused to respond to the other in the same language!  I am told that this has an ideological component too:  Priyanka was “showing off” and putting on airs; while Ranbir was trying to be more down-to-earth.

However, what really puzzled me was the interviewer, who jumped between Hindi and English with no apparent pattern – some clauses in one language, some in another.  Moreover, the phrases she was using were fairly simple: It was not as if she was forced to use English for a complicated concept for which there was no Hindi equivalent.  What was going on there?

Priyanka Chopra, English speaker
Priyanka Chopra, English speaker

Another Demo for Aung San Suu Kyi

I am becoming quite the agitator these days.  English PEN has been on its second demonstration of the month… this time outside the Burmese Embassy in Mayfair.

Those with keen memories will recall the 64forSuu.org campaign we ran last year.  It is June again, and so the National League for Democracy Leader will be 65 years old, tomorrow. My photos recording the protest to mark her birthday tomorrow are below.

64 words for Aung San Suu Kyi

I didn’t know that Salman Rushdie and Aung San Suu Kyi shared a birthday:

On this day, my birthday and yours, I always remember your long ordeal and silently applaud your endurance. This year, silence is impossible. It is not any action of yours, but your house arrest, which symbolizes the suppression of Burmese democracy, that is criminal. It is your trial, not your struggle, that is unjust. On this day, on every day, I am with you.

Rushdie’s message launches the Sixty-Four Words for Aung San Suu Kyi project. Citizens of the world are invited to leave a 64 word message for Aung San, in honour of her 64th birthday on 19th June. Alternatively, you can leave a 64 character twitter instead, using the hashtag #assk64.


The project is led by the Burma Campaign UK and was created in only six days, which is a remarkable feat. In addition to Salman Rushdie, the site carries messages from Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and George Clooney. Why not add your message, and then let others know that you’ve done so?

Photographed at a press conference in her home, September 1996, after a government crackdown on her party. By flickr user taptaptap
Photographed at a press conference in her home, September 1996, after a government crackdown on her party. By flickr user taptaptap

Lobby the UN for Aung San Suu Kyi

Activists marked the 12th anniversary of the house arrest of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi by protests outside Chinese embassies worldwide, this one in London. Photo by lewishamdreamer
Activists marked the 12th anniversary of the house arrest of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi by protests outside Chinese embassies worldwide, this one in London. Photo by lewishamdreamer

As any news report worthy of the name will have told you this morning, the Burmese military junta have imprisoned the democracy campaigner and PEN Honorary Member Aung San Suu Kyi. The reason given in an apparent breach of her house arrest conditions, after an American man swam a lake and visited her.  As a correspondent at the Burma Campaign UK HQ just put it to me in an e-mail:

It seems Burma is the only country in the world where you can be sent to jail for someone breaking into your house.

Aung San Suu Kyi was nearing the end of her ‘term’ of house arrest.

The Burma Campaign have a handy form that allows you to quickly lobby the UN Secretary General, asking him to send an envoy.

Mightier than the Sword

Today I start a new job, as Campaigns Manager at English PEN, promoting literature and human rights worldwide.  A dream job for a blogger, I reckon.

As before, consider this full disclosure to the bloggers’ register of interests, and sufficient explanation should this site suddenly begin to feature more posts on imprisoned writers or UK libel law

One of my first acts will be to go an hear Giles Ji Ungpakorn speak about Thailand’s archaic Lese-Majesty laws at SOAS, 7pm. Its chaired by Carole Seymour-Jones, chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. PDF details here.

Sowing Division, Reaping Unity

Mumbaikars kept back from the scene of devastation, Colaba. Photo by Vinu.
Mumbaikars kept back from the scene of devastation, Colaba. Photo by Vinu.

Whoever these terrorists in Mumbai turn out to be, its clear that they are trying to sow division and hatred in a country of many cultures.  The fear is that Hindu will now turn against Muslim, and India will now turn against Pakistan.  This is certainly what the cynics expect.

I am hopeful, however.  Back in 2006, after the Malegon bombings, I was struck by the defiant attitude of the locals who refused to divide themselves along religious lines, as the terrorists (in that case, militant Hindus attacking Muslims) intended.

There is a lot of cynicism about the over-use of the word ‘Hope’, and about the potential of digital technologies to help create a genuinely new politics.  I think this atrocity, terrible though it is, presents an opprtunity to put these optimistic sentiments to practical purpose.  What is needed is a grass-roots response to the current crisis, similar to the We Are Not Afraid phenomenon, which wrestles the narrative away from a divisive blame-game.  Its a way in which advocates of peace, those who recognise our common humanity, can win another PR victory against these vicious ideologues.