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.
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.
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.
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.
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 elevenofficial 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?