My dearest Bo,
1. Life is deadly serious. Therefore take care how you run the race of life; lest after running, till you think you have won the prize, you find that in truth you have lost it all.
2. I write this caution having not slept a wink last night. But I must have somehow nodded off, because when I woke up this morning, I was bathed in sweat as if after a long night of bad dreams and indigestion. And, come to think of it, I did actually dream a dream – probably in the early hours of this morning. It was a strange dream, and as most dreams generally are, I am not sure whether it is worth telling again, as it is, on the face of it, a very foolish one. You have to wonder what odd incoherent things are often put together by a ludicrously fertile mind; for I dreamt about getting a good telling off from no less a man than Martin Niemoller. The interpretation of the dream is very likely going to be far-fetched anyway; I will therefore do nothing of the kind.
3. Now, you may not know who Martin Niemoller was. Martin Niemoller was a German pastor. He survived the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. I dreamt him rebuking me for my apparent silence at the number of traumatic events which are lately assaulting the world; they include the dreadful treatment of the Rohingya refugees and a certain man who died a prisoner. For some reason which I cannot fathom, Pastor Niemoller chose me of all people, for a telling off. But, as he himself made it clear to me in the dream, I was but a representative of all those people who actively choose to remain silent in the face of a great injustice – choosing instead to look the other way. It is easier.
4. Pastor Niemoller reminded me of those haunting words which are accredited to him. According to the established historical record, he is noted to have said: “In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade-unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
5. As I puzzled over this strange dream, I thought of you. I remembered you telling me in our Saturday morning class a little while ago, how you had heard a disturbing rumour concerning a well-known Chinese gentleman; a Chinese man about whom you obviously knew so very little, but as you recounted the rumour to me, you told me that the authorities in China apparently would not let him to go free even though it was very plain that he was dying. He died soon afterwards a prisoner. You wanted to know who the man was, and why no one both at school and in your home wanted to talk to you about the man. So, as a last-ditch effort, you said, you came to me – hoping that I might tell you as your teacher.
6. It so happens that there has lately developed a new global crisis involving the Rohingya people in Myanmar; thousands upon thousands of the Rohingya people are being driven out of Myanmar and are now camping in open spaces along the border of Bangladesh. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority people in the Rakhine state of Myanmar; they are not recognised as citizens by the authorities in Myanmar, because they are regarded as refugees who originally came from Bangladesh, and face strong hostility from a largely Buddhist population in Myanmar. They are stateless. How this crisis has come to flare up is too complicated a story, even for me. But their tragedy has come to international attention in part because of Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar.
7. Aung San Suu Kyi is a remarkable woman by any measure: she is the youngest daughter of Aung San, the founding father of modern Myanmar. She graduated from the University of Delhi and the University of Oxford; married an Oxford academic and historian, the late Michael Aris, with whom she has two children. She rose to public attention during the 1988 uprisings in Myanmar and subsequently became the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD); the NLD won the 1990 general election but the military junta refused to hand over power amid international outcry, detaining Aung San Kyi in the process. She remained a prisoner, under house arrest, for about 15 years thus making her one of the world’s most famous prisoners, after Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
8. But to cut a long story short, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party did win a landslide in the 2015 general elections, taking 86% of the seats in the Assembly of Union. But due to some constitution clause which had been inserted by the military junta, she could not become Myanmar’s president; she instead became the country’s first state counsellor – a role specifically created for her. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
9. My dear Bo, please note that men’s characters appear in their choices and desires. What would you have? Is a question which tries a man as much as, what would you do? I am telling you this because I stand astonished at what is happening to the Rohingya people, and I tremble at the thought that such a one as the current State Counsellor of Myanmar; who benefited much from many people’s campaign for her freedom, when she herself was under house arrest, should be dumb as a rock and silent as a grave, in the face of the extra ordinary suffering of the Rohingya people.
10. Few ordinary members of the public are experts in the finer details of international politics and their import on fundamental human rights – though most have a shrewd sense when official statements do not add up. Thus when on 19th Tuesday September 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi gave a much anticipated national address in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, condemning ‘all human rights violations;’ the official statement came across as decidedly out of touch with reality! How soon will a prisoner become a persecutor? Should it not be that those that have power ought to do a great deal for the protection of the persecuted and, when they so use their power they are using their good offices for the good of all?
11. However, let those who are better qualified than me play the judge; it is not for me to pass sentence upon any person. And, I should not be so rash as to condemn Aung San Kyi; though I must certainly condemn the error with which I am about to find fault. Countries which do not have a framework for the rule of law tend to have a limited understanding of the limits of government. I often remind myself that some countries are just discovering civil freedoms and their corresponding obligations, and do not have a living tradition of the workings of the complex relationship between freedom, democracy and the rule of law; it is extremely difficult for them to create an environment in which a civil society and democratic institutions can be built. These countries genuinely struggle to find a balance between freedom and executive power; thus making the issue of fundamental human rights a great deal more complicated in practice than it is in theory. But it is possible to have an instinct with regard to which cases to champion and how best to champion them. Aung San Suu Kyi’s conspicuous failure to stand up for the fundamental human rights of the Rohingya people is, I humbly submit, an error. It must be condemned.
12. I must now turn to your particular question; you molested me with, a while ago. China, as you know, is a giant of a nation; she may be numbered among those countries struggling to strike the balance which I have alluded to above. The balance is made all the more difficult to strike because China is at the moment waxing great financially; her leaders are therefore very anxious to cut a prestigious figure on the world stage. Appearances count for much in international dealings among nations. Therefore, the authorities in China are exceptionally sensitive about certain matters, especially matters that have something to do with how China is perceived on the international stage. It is for this reason that I plead with you, to please cut your teachers and adults around you, some slack. It is not easy for them. You should remember that you are still a child. It is not easy for adults to speak to a child such as your good-self; because you may not know very much about what it is you are asking. But for my part, I am not surprised that you are curious; you see, people, especially young children, always want to know what is forbidden to them.
13. The supposed rumour you claim to have heard is no rumour at all. All is clear as daylight. The man you are asking about is Liu Xiaobo. He is dead now – he died a prisoner on 13 July 2017. He was a writer and was China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner. He won it for his work as a human rights activist. He was one of those people, who have a unique instinct with regard to which human rights cases to champion; he was evidently very effective in championing them. But he was unlucky, very unlucky indeed; for the environment in which he worked was not very accommodating. I suppose, you will now ask me, as you have often done in the past, whether, when all is said and done, his life’s work was worth it…now that he is dead. Also, how does his life compare with that of Aung Sun Suu Kyi?
14. In answer, I believe both Liu Xiaobo and Aung Sun Suu Kyi deserved to be honoured as they were, with the Nobel Peace Prize. I have two reasons to recommend for your consideration. I will set them out by way of a lesson for your benefit. The first reason is this: a day may come, where it may fall upon your beautiful shoulders to don the mantle of leadership, as say, Madam President. If that day should ever come to pass, please promise me that when you do don the mantle of leadership, you will have the grace to continually remind yourself that you are not of anything like of so much importance as you may sometimes imagine; and that the particular work which has been entrusted to you as a leader of your country, though you should think well of it, is not, after all, the hinge upon which the whole universe turns. The Island of Taiwan managed very well before you were born, and she will most certainly manage quite as well – long after you have departed this world. The reason I am telling you this is because as a leader, however powerful you may be, you are after all a mere man; man is not the measure of truth, God is. And, when a leader dies, the power dies with him; whereas when a good man dies, his influence begins, and it begins at the very moment of his death. Hence the footprints of a good man cannot be erased; not even by time itself.
15. The second reason is as follows: there is a poem, a very good poem called, ‘If.’ I like it very much. If you should ever be lucky enough to superintend a great undertaking, such as standing up for the fundamental human rights of poor refugees, I should like you to keep this poem close to your heart; make sure to be well acquainted with it. It was written by an Englishman, a journalist, and a writer; his name was Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). The poem is taken from a little book entitled, ‘A Choice of Kipling’s verse (1943).’ I commend it to you for your consideration.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make your thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch – and – toss,
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Yours, as ever,
Stephen Kamugasa FRSA – is a non-practising barrister, an author, a consultant, a teacher, a podcaster, a blogger; and, an occasional opinion columnist for ‘Edge,’ the official journal of the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK.