Nonviolent activism around the Olympic Games: History and lessons learned

This article was originally published at openDemocracy.net on 24 November 2015 and is available here.

Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion.

A Tiananmen Square-themed Olympic logo. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.Bringing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act on human rights has been the product of decades of international and local resistance, from boycotting South Africa in 1968 to obstructing China’s torch relay in 2008. The key message of this resistance has consistently been that the Olympics is more than just a sporting event. Many campaigns have used the Games to draw attention to myriad rights violations ranging from minority discrimination and the loss of indigenous land to the treatment of political prisoners. There is an opportunity for civil society to build on its achievements, in particular by taking on a proactive role in holding future host countries more accountable.

The empowering spirit of the Olympics motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is increasingly out of step with the global decline in freedom and assault on human rights defenders over the past several decades. These problems are sometimes pronounced in Olympics host countries.

When the IOC votes to award cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting ongoing persecution. Until recently, the IOC could brush aside calls from the international community to acknowledge its place within the politics of repression. Today, that is no longer the case.

Indeed, following decades of pressure from civil society groups and activists, the IOC in October 2014 updated host city contracts with a reference to human rights. The 2024 bid — to be announced in September 2017 — will be the IOC’s first official opportunity to demonstrate its newfound stated commitment. And yet the entity is already coming under criticism for not going far enough with the new group of potential cities between now and 2024 — a sign that public opinion on just how “apolitical” the Olympics can really be has shifted.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

When the IOC votes to award the Olympics to cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders.

The history of the Olympics reveals its contentious nature and illustrates how civil resistance has shaped or been shaped by the Games. The narrative naturally begins in 1936 in Berlin. While Jesse Owens’ glory is widely remembered, what is not so well known is just how close the United States came to boycotting Hitler’s Olympics.

Concern that rising anti-Jewish discrimination should preclude Germany from hosting the 1936 Olympics began in earnest in 1933. In 1934, American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was invited to Germany to judge for himself whether or not Jewish citizens of the Third Reich faced discrimination. With no expertise in the matter, Brundage was a poor choice for such an important fact-finding mission and proved pliable in Hitler’s hands. In a trip that was deplored by the US ambassador to Germany, in Berlin Brundage was wined and dined. Following his trip, he argued that sporting events should not “interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group.” A few months later, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, stripping German Jews of citizenship and other basic rights.

Ignoring substantive grounds for concern, and the growing domestic movement for a boycott, Brundage succeeded in convincing the AAU to support US participation in Berlin. Advocates of a boycott were narrowly defeated.

Under pressure, Apartheid South Africa drops out of 1968 Games

Smith and Carlos raised fists in Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics in symbolic act of civil resistance. Thirty years later, Avery Brundage would again come under fire leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Formed in 1967, the Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was a central actor utilizing the Olympics spotlight to expose widespread, systematic racism and exploitation of black athletes in the United States. The organization had five central demands, among them the removal of Avery Brundage from his then role as the president of the US Olympic Committee, and the denial of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from participating in the 1968 Olympics.

Brundage had disregarded previous demands that South Africa be banned from participating in the 1960 Olympics following the Sharpeville Massacre in March of that year. During the massacre, South African security forces opened fire on a nonviolent demonstration of some 5,000 people. For OPHR, allowing South Africa to participate in 1968 would be tantamount to failing to revoke the 1936 Games from Berlin. They announced a boycott.

 Enthusiasts for the boycott included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, months before his assassination, offered his absolute support saying, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle.”

OPHR succeeded in one of its demands. Under the threat of boycott and related international mobilization, the IOC eventually advised South Africa not to participate. During the 1968 Games, in a well-known instance, OPHR members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute after receiving Gold and Bronze medals — in solidarity with the broader civil resistance campaign (see image).

In this way, OPHR also succeeded in establishing a repertoire for activists to utilize the spotlight of the Olympics to draw attention to oppressive conditions within host countries and also to more universal grievances.

A new millennium for the Olympics?

Activism around the 2008 Beijing Olympics was built on a similar repertoire of international mobilization to draw attention to widespread human rights violations within the host country.

When I first traveled to China in 2006, especially in Beijing, one could not escape banners proclaiming China’s motto for the Games, “同一个世界,同一个梦想,” (One World, One Dream), as China hoped to leverage the Games for increased soft power and a projection of a “harmonious society.” Two years later, this narrative was challenged at many stops along the international Olympics Torch Relay.

The torch was lit in Greece, on 24 March 2008, about a week after a security crackdown on what had begun as a nonviolent demonstration in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The demonstration resulted in an unknown number of Tibetan deaths and detentions. Images of crimson-clad monks surrounded and beaten by Chinese police shocked international audiences. For many around the world, it was the first they learned of widespread human rights concerns in China.

There were a few scattered incidents along the route but the first major demonstration took place on 6 April in London. Free Tibet flags and placards voicing myriad human rights concerns contrasted with Chinese flags and “One China” supporters. In similar rhetoric as Brundage’s toward the Berlin Olympics, Beijing torch relay spokesperson Qu Yingpu told the BBC, responding to events in England, that, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Other organized nonviolent actions in Paris, San Francisco, Southern China and elsewhere succeeded in interrupting the Torch Relay, drawing major international attention to a number of human rights issues. Sadly however, the international demonstrations ultimately had little concrete impact on the 2008 Games. What’s more, China has since then come to represent an even bigger missed opportunity for the IOC to demonstrate commitment to upholding human rights.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, human rights organizations have documented over 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention. A new criminal law along with legislation on national security and NGO management have increasingly constrained Chinese citizens from exercising their rights. Torture and enforced disappearances remain a state practice. Notwithstanding this regime’s deplorable track record, the IOC went ahead this July with awarding the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to Beijing.

Tibetan rights protesters come face to face with pro-China counter-demonstrators along the torch route in San Francisco.

No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the dominant narrative for many focused on the Olympic Games as an institution, as a corrupt or repressive symbol.

In 2010, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported it was an historic convergence as indigenous rights defenders and poverty and civil liberties activists joined together under coalition titles such as the “2010 Welcoming Committee” and the “Olympics Resistance Network” to protest the Games and the some $1 billion dollars spent on police and security. Advocates of broad-ranging issues from women’s rights and rights of the homeless to anti-war and globalization also took part in the demonstrations. The Seattle Times traced parallels in coalition formation and other tactics in Vancouver back to the 1999 anti-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, my own introduction to civil resistance.

Despite the fact that the 2010 Games made history as the first time indigenous people were recognized as official partners, for many the rallying cry in Vancouver was still, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

Vancouver activists raise concerns about land destruction and neglect for native peoples in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, undoubtedly LGBTI issues took center stage. Many of the tactics employed by activists over the preceding decade were repeated, from international coordination in multiple cities to boycott movements. There was also a sense of rising disgust with the IOC and the Olympics in general. How could the IOC allow such a blatant violation of IOC Principle 6 on discrimination, asked the eponymous movement.

The IOC responds to direct challenges

Human Rights Watch and others outlined the need for the IOC to change in a 2014 submission to the “Olympic Agenda 2020.” This included media freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression and association, and nondiscrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. ” Too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” 

In a February 2015 open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA) wrote, “As you know, too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” SRA identified the need for concrete and measurable indicators in the future host city bidding process.

In late 2014, the IOC added a human rights clause, meaning countries must meet minimum standards to be awarded host. The problem is, the IOC isn’t set up to be a human rights monitoring body. It will need help, from IOC member countries and civil society.

This is a good step forward and should be lauded, with caution. Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion. But without concrete action, the IOC may inadvertently continue legitimizing repressive regimes.

Eyes on 2024 and beyond

Ongoing innovation in civil resistance and organizations such as Principle 6 and the SRA have contributed to forcing the IOC to recognize its place within the politics of repression. Decades of civil resistance succeeded in shifting the narrative.

Nevertheless, the IOC lacks monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, other than the threat of refusal to award host city status. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations should take this on as a new objective in their work around the Olympics.

These actors would benefit from tactical innovation that engages with the IOC’s updated Charter in a new, more proactive and direct way. In addition to many of the previous tactics such as boycotts or collective action, this will also at times require less disruptive actions. For example, civil resisters should deepen coalitions with human rights law practitioners, especially those most skilled in practical fact-finding and reporting. Different tactics can be combined, but they must be done so as part of a broadly inclusive grand strategy that aims to hold the IOC accountable to its recently stated embrace of human rights. If the IOC is sincere, it should welcome such civil society participation and monitoring at all phases. If it is unwilling to do so, then it makes itself vulnerable to such visible, popular nonviolent actions as those chronicled in this article.

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In Myanmar, students test the sincerity of democratic transition

Originally published at openDemocracy on 10 June 2015. Also available here.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

In Myanmar, as university students around the world begin to exalt their summer freedom, a national student movement continues to demand greater political freedom. At the end of May 2015 Myanmar’s parliament was still discussing proposed amendments to a National Education Law put forth by a coalition of student groups. The students have expressed their concern over the lack of academic freedom and the centralized control inherent in the law, which was passed in September 2014. Since its adoption, students and other activists have been campaigning around the country. In many ways, the struggle around education reform can be seen as a prism through which to assess the sincerity of democratic transition in Myanmar today.

It began in March 2014 with the release of the draft law. Later, a national coalition of student groups issued an 11 point manifesto. They demanded, among other things, student representation in enacting education legislation, teaching that ensures the freedom of thought, multilingual education for ethnic minorities, inclusion of children with disabilities, and the expansion of compulsory education from primary school to middle school. In November 2014, students in Yangon, the capital, issued a statement explaining that if the government failed to negotiate within 60 days there would be nationwide mobilization.

With little progress toward their demands, on January 20, 2015, they held true to their word. Several hundred students from Mandalay and elsewhere began marching the some 400 miles to the capital to demand negotiation. Less than a week later the government agreed to hold four-party talks. As a show of faith several of the groups marching on Yangon agreed to halt their processions. However, after only a few days the talks stalled. More than 250 civil society organizations pressed for their resumption and several protests were staged around the capital in solidarity with the marching students.

Sustained pressure appeared successful in mid-February when government negotiators surprisingly agreed to the students’ demands. A few days later a new version of the law was sent to parliament for discussion.

Throughout the months of demonstrations students overwhelmingly maintained nonviolent discipline with one noting: “we don’t have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”

A tradition of student activism

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

These students are following a long tradition of student-led nonviolent civil resistance dating back to pre-independence Myanmar. Not long after General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup, students at Yangon University began demonstrating against the military dictatorship and the sudden loss of academic freedom. In early July that year, the military cracked down savagely, massacring between 100 and 1000 students and dynamiting the student union building, the epicentre of student activism since the colonial period. There would be no student unions again until 2010.

In 1974, following the death of U Thant, the United Nations Secretary General from 1961 to 1971, the regime denied him a burial with honours. Thousands of students and monks seized his body and marched to Yangon University, where they buried him close to where the student union stood. The armed forces soon drove tanks onto the university campus and exhumed his body. Upwards of 4,500 students were arrested in the ensuing melee, and some 100 were killed.

Student mobilization was salient in the better-known 1988 pro-democracy movement from March to August. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock calls this period the “Rangoon Spring” — Rangoon is the former name for Yangon — in reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that ended with military intervention. Amnesty International even established a short-lived office in Yangon at this time. But by September the state responded with pure brutality. The military assumed control under General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). More than 3,000 were killed by the end of the month. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, has called the ongoing impunity for these mass killings an unaddressed wound challenging the rhetoric of reform.

The inspiration and guidance of what became known as the 88 Generation would inspire incremental episodes of resistance and repression that followed. And in 2007, scattered demonstrations that began in April spread around the country reaching around 100,000 demonstrators in Yangon on September 24. This episode is known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the overwhelming presence of bright orange and red-clad Buddhist monks among the demonstrators. The spread of images, made possible by social media, of police and military savagely beating monks contributed to the international outcry and condemnation of the regime. In addition to monks, students made up sizeable numbers, as new student organizations such as Generation Wave, inspired by the 88 generation, began to organize and innovate strategies of resistance.

The government loses patience

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Despite a long tradition of student-organized civil resistance, those who began in November 2014 exhibited a stark difference with their predecessors. They were engaging in collective action in an ostensibly democratizing Myanmar.

In November 2010 Myanmar held its first general election since 1990, although they took place amid concerns of intimidation and corruption, as well as laws that strongly favored the military. International election monitors and foreign journalists were banned. Anyone serving a prison sentence was barred from party membership, a questionable regulation in light of the more than 2,000 political prisoners. In April, Lieutenant General Thein Sein resigned from the military and formed the ‘civilian’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), absorbing several military organizations. USDP won vast Parliamentary representation. A week later Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, although she is still banned from running in the 2015 election. In the years following, Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and has presided over certain welcome legislative reforms. In response, the United States and European Union have restored diplomatic relations and lifted decades of economic sanctions.

In light of this narrative of political liberalization, one would have hoped that the negotiation of a National Education Law would comport with Thein Sein’s attempts to maintain legitimacy by appearing more sympathetic to political reform. Unfortunately, after the student’s preliminary successes at convincing the Parliament to review their demands, the trajectory began to take a familiar arc.

In February 2015, even as positive negotiations were under way in the capital, several hundred security personnel were being deployed along the route of those marching south from Mandalay. Kyaw Thet, a student from Pathein, about 60 miles from Yangon, told The Irrawaddy: “if they shoot, we will be hit… We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If the government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Despite the agreement at the four-party talk, it soon became clear that the Parliament would not welcome student representatives. A few days later the government warned that action would be taken and Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko cautioned the organizers that demonstrators would be considered a threat to national stability. On February 16 two foreign freelance journalists were expelled from the country for documenting protests. In early March, police in Letpadan, about 85 miles from Yangon, surrounded the students marching from Mandalay. A tense standoff ensued with students demanding to continue, and the police, who outnumbered them 5 to 1, refusing to abandon their blockade. In Yangon, police assaulted a small group of activists on March 5 who had gathered in solidarity with those at Letpadan. Then, despite the authorities and students appearing to have reached a consensus in Letpadan, violence erupted on March 10.

In a move that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments, police and hired thugs, armed with truncheons and riot gear, mercilessly beat back the some 200 assembled students. Some passed out and others were badly cut from barbed wire or suffered broken bones, some were dragged into trucks, chased into the fields, or later snatched from their homes at night. The police also chased away journalists from documenting the abuse but evidence quickly spread through traditional and social media, such as the “We Support Myanmar Students” Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has generated more than 25,000 likes. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Information claimed to have arrested 127 people.

By truncheon or by gavel, the law as a repressive tool

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The police violence at Letpadan, although thankfully low in casualties, bears a striking similarity to the state-sponsored violence of previous military governments. It is a disturbing return to past tactics of repression, says Human Rights Watch. But what seems equally, if not more troubling, is the instrumentalization of domestic law as a repressive tactic. This is part of what Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink call a tactical concession. Repressive regimes will make certain concessions such as signing international treaties, passing new legislation, or releasing a few political prisoners. They do so to attempt to gain a little standing in the international community, to get human rights organizations off their backs, while not necessarily fully implementing such reforms. What this often means is that repressive regimes favour political crimes and show trials over mass killings or disappearances. It is a midpoint between traditional state repression and rule-consistent behaviour.

Of the 127 people arrested over Letpadan some 70 were later charged, such as Po Po, who had evaded initial detention but was rounded up in the weeks following. After the crackdown, the 20-year-old history student Po Po had gone home, where she was arrested on April 8 and brought to the infamous Insein Prison, while many others were held at Tharrawaddy Prison. Most of them have been charged with violations of the Penal Code and Peaceful Assembly Law, some facing the possibility of 10 years in prison. Enraged by the audacity of the state, activists and students in 11 cities around the country carried out protests in solidarity with the detained, prompting further arrests and charges of violating the outdated Penal Code.

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for the abolition or amendment of the antiquated Penal Code, in many ways identical to when it was first enacted in 1860, to ensure that it complies with international human rights standards if there is to be a transition to democracy. Assessing Myanmar’s transition should be based on far more than the upcoming election. As we move closer to the November election we should remain cognizant of the growing numbers of activists behind bars who have done nothing more than engage in nonviolent civil resistance.

In testimony to premature talk of transition, the number of political prisoners since Thein Sein’s much touted amnesty at the end of 2013 has actually increased by nearly 600 percent, according to some figures – the vast majority of whom have been placed behind bars for their parts in various nonviolent campaigns, for violations of the Penal Code and the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law. This law requires, in Article 18, that organizers obtain permission from township police chiefs five days prior to any demonstration and for any slogans or signs they intend to display. Each violation is prosecutable based on township, which means the students marching from Mandalay could theoretically be charged with a violation for each township they passed through without prior permission. As an indicator of scale, there are 33 townships in Yangon alone. A coalition of more than 50 activists and civil society organizations have been campaigning for years to amend Article 18. The group includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Generation Wave.

“I would say that Article 18 is related to everything, every issue. Because when people are repressed, while people’s rights are violated, they must have the right to express themselves.” Over an avocado smoothie at a roadside café in Yangon I speak with Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, one of the more active student movements that came out of the Saffron Revolution, about the detrimental impact of the Peaceful Assembly Law. “My worry about Article 18 is the first rank. It is the most important thing because it is the freedom of expression.”

The freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 20 also recognizes the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Reform must come from below

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Students have been mobilizing around the country, seizing the right of free, peaceful expression and assembly by protesting, marching, sending open letters, engaging through social media, and negotiating with the state. Those who have been beaten and detained are engaged in active civil resistance to renegotiate the meaning of political participation in a changing Myanmar. In many ways, it is about more than just the National Education Law. In their expression of resentment toward the state, and in the level of national coordination unachieved in decades, the opportunity for civil society to influence social or political policy in Myanmar is great, even in the face of Thein Sein’s demonstrably thin commitment to democratization.

While much of the international attention regarding democracy in Myanmar remains focused on whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate in the elections in 2015 or who will be the next president, the real hope for transition in Myanmar arguably rests with the burgeoning civil society seizing every political opening to demand accountability. The movement around the National Education Law has managed to do what few in Myanmar have achieved since independence: to create a lasting national, cohesive social movement united around a core set of grievances and demands. Students, monks, and other civil resisters will continue to face repression from the state. But Myanmar’s desire to reconnect to the world after more than two decades of isolation also guarantees that the state will be forced to make increasing tactical concessions, leaving further openings for civil resistance.

Revisiting Righteous Indignation

Originally published by Dissident Voice on 20 January 2014.

Revisiting Righteous Indignation: the Radical Tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a scene in Lee Daniel’s The Butler when the son of Forest Whitaker’s character is sitting in the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly before his assassination. Dr. King asks those assembled, “How many of your parents support the war?” All the young men gathered in the room raise their hands, and in one sentence King summarizes that his opposition to the war is because the Vietnamese do not prejudice blacks. There is something insidious in this scene, unintentional by the director, no doubt. It is the reproduction of the simplification myth of Dr. King the crusader of a narrowly conceptualized struggle, rather than the fiery radical that he was. His opposition to the Vietnam War was far more complex than the one liner afforded his character in the film, but the portrayal is sadly in line with the hijacking of his comprehensive philosophy. For King’s was a radicalism of total justice, for black, white, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, that bears remembering as we honor him with a federal holiday this week.

One year to the day before his assassination, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King delivered his most critical and divisive speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. It was an impassioned excoriation of imperialism and militarism, against the American government that King referred to as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” There was no ambivalence in his conviction. He had refused a first draft prepared by his close friend and legal counsel, Clarence Jones, which attempted to present multiple sides, favoring the total condemnation of war provided in Vincent Harding’s first version. The two men agreed; their conscience left them no other choice but to speak out. King says:

It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Four years earlier, in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He was certainly focused on combating the institutionalized terror of segregation and racism, which was the target of the direct action that found him in that Birmingham Jail on April 16th, 1963. But, his concern for justice everywhere extended beyond contemporary popular depictions that his campaigning was confined to concerns of race alone. King makes it very clear,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Of course, that same purveyor of violence abroad targeted in Beyond Vietnam, the United States, perpetrated and sponsored a great deal of violence against its own people and the struggle for human rights in the United States is a savage one still raging 28 years after the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as myriad incidents such as the killing and trial surrounding Trayvon Martin or Jena 6 illustrate. It is not my intention to downplay the brutality of racial injustice targeted by King and others. My intention is to point out that King acknowledged that the causes of these and other injustices were inherently linked to a certain structure of oppression. King and others targeted the totality of this violent power structure through sustained nonviolent action. It is that narrative of comprehensive resistance that has been sterilized. In sickening episodes of appropriation, King has become a plaything in the hands of those who seek to justify their profiting from that same structure of abuse that he fought against with the bastardization of his legacy.

King’s most famous oration is his I Have a Dream speech and rightly should it be hailed for its outstanding rhetoric and the power of change it inspired. But so is “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” far less threatening to the established structure of power than denouncing it as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Latching onto King as the desegregater and not King the fiery radical is more comfortable for the creation of King the symbol.

Vincent Harding explained in a 2013 interview that conservatives love to take hold of the I have a Dream speech when King talks about not being judged by the color of ones skin as a way to avoid discussing race at all. In the same interview Harding challenges us to find ways to discover the content of one’s character. It is through critical dialogue, through nonviolent engagement, he says. Meanwhile, as evidence of Harding’s concern, former Republican Florida representative, Allen West, wrote in an article for USA News on the 50th anniversary of that speech, that King’s dream had been derailed by liberal politics. While Dr. King advocated evaluation on the content of one’s character, he opined, Americans had instead voted for Obama strictly based upon the color of his skin.

The famous speech was uttered to an assembled crowd of more than 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. With reason it is remembered as a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. What is often altered through the lens of history, however, is the action at which the speech was delivered. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was as much about race as it was about economic inequality. Its chief architects remind us of the diversity of participation and the complexity of grievances within the Civil Rights Movement. The 1963 campaign drew its inspiration from the 1940’s desegregationist and labor rights March on Washington Movement organized by Philip Randolph, who began as a labor organizer and activist in New York in 1917, and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay former Quaker conscientious objector during World War II. It is this confluence of interests that better encapsulates the character of King’s resistance, so callously warped by Allen West 50 years later.

There is no greater bastardization of King’s legacy than Glenn Beck’s 2010 so-called ‘Restoring Honor Rally.’ In his characteristic histrionics Beck credited divine inspiration in the timing of his political theatre set to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King’s I have a Dream speech. He claimed to be picking up Martin Luther King’s dream in order to restore and finish it. But Beck’s narrative is one of resounding contradiction to everything epitomized by Martin Luther King.

A month preceding the farce Glenn Beck spoke with King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, who later also participated in his rally, alongside Sarah Palin and others. Shockingly the niece embraced Beck’s subterfuge on his television program. The two, joined by then Republican congressional hopeful Stephen Broden, went so far as to cite the Biblical idea of an individual relationship with God as the justification for neo-liberal individualism, and the implicit demonization of social welfare. The outrage is not in their personal interpretation of Biblical text but the way their discussion forced that argument into their constructed narrative of Martin Luther King. The obscenity continued when Alveda King claimed that her uncle would have approved of Beck’s message.

Not only did Beck use the platform of his rally to further his rhetoric of violence against the poor but the event was also billed to celebrate and promote the American military. Glenn Beck is a wild supporter of American militarism and most recently attacked a LA Weekly film critic because she gave a recent war movie a bad review. Glenn Beck is as good an antithesis to Martin Luther King as is available and because of the pomposity of his pulpit he represents an ideal lens through which to appreciate the various trends of abandoning King’s message and profaning his name to justify the very things he so fervently fought against. And yet, popular outrage at Beck’s appropriation of King’s legacy was equally culpable in neglecting King’s fervent posture against materialism and militarism, or so the majority of mainstream criticism seemed to be.

In response to this kind of theft of the King narrative, Union Theological Seminary philosopher and preacher, Dr. Cornel West explains,

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.

Despite the issues addressed by Dr. West, it is far from merely conservatives and right-wing populists who have distorted King’s inherent radical commitment, and subdued the awesome force of his righteous indignation. History has been contorted to shape a more consumer friendly image of Martin Luther King Jr. He is not hailed by popular commentary or honored by Obama on the federal holiday as the radical who would today be decrying the prison and military industrial complex, demanding the trial and incarceration of Wall Street executives, and sternly speaking against Obama’s continuation of Bush era disregard for human rights in the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ or the appallingly disproportionate numbers of convictions for people of color in the latter. Where would King stand on the Tea Party’s fetishism of state’s rights? One might recall the number of incidents necessitating federal troop intervention in Alabama, Arkansas, and elsewhere or the same rhetoric now employed by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul that echoes similar positions by “Bull” Connor or George Wallace. How might King relate to Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, or, as public intellectual Tavis Smiley has posed, comment on the more than a billion dollars raised between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election versus the money spent on poverty reduction?

Martin Luther King gave his final speech on April 3rd, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. What is often remembered of that last prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech is King’s, “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The speech is haunting in retrospect because it almost seemed as if King were prophesizing, much like Christ at the last supper, his impending assassination. But what drew King to Memphis that day is less repeated in popular retelling.

Dr. James Lawson, who like King had been baptized in the late 1950s by the nonviolent tradition of Ghandi and was a powerful figure in the movement, had encouraged Dr. King to join him in Memphis to show support at the Memphis sanitation worker strike that had begun two months earlier. The catalyzing incident for the strike was the gruesome death of two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death because of city rules that stated black sanitation workers were only allowed to shelter from the elements in the back of their garbage trucks. The incident served to highlight years of gross labor violations and sparked the strike, along with boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in support of the workers attempt to engage in collective bargaining for better working conditions. This episode in Memphis was about racial discrimination but it was also about abhorrent labor rights and the exploitation of the poor.

King often reiterated the call to struggle against all forms of atrocity, violence against people of color and violence against the poor, as they are inextricably linked, and so too is war, the enemy of the poor, as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are wont to repeat. Or in his own words from the August 16th, 1967 Where do We go From Here, “when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

The day after standing in solidarity with the Memphis strikers, King was gunned down by James Earl Ray, an outspoken racist and active campaign volunteer for George Wallace’s pro-segregationist presidential campaign. Despite the prima facie connection between Ray’s racism and the assassination, Vincent Harding is convinced that the most contributing factor to King’s murder was his vociferous condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his outspoken denouncement of American imperialism and militarism. We do at least know that the last poll taken on King’s popularity revealed that indeed fifty-five percent of black community and seventy-two percent of Americans at large had turned against King because of his opposition to the war.

By the late 1960s the US government, under the Johnson administration, had slowly become prepared to tolerate some of the notions of increasing racial equality and access to public space but the apex of intellectual and symbolic power, the capitalist war machine, was aghast that King would enter their world. The structure of power was warming to the idea of tolerating King the civil rights leader and desegregationist but it was unwilling to desegregate the symbolic power to be analyzed and critiqued. It is a segregation of thought and a demonization of those who would criticize America that still haunts whistleblowers and activists in Obama’s America today. It was King’s sophisticated and emboldening challenge to capitalist morality and militaristic or imperialistic motives that needed to be sterilized before he could become a politically viable symbol.

In a recent piece for Salon, historian David L. Chappell outlines the history of congressional objections to the creation of an MLK federal holiday. His article serves to refute the odd conservative claims to the legacy of civil rights going back to Lincoln, because of textual similarity in the name of their party. A few days after the assassination, Michigan Democratic congressman, John Conyers, first proposed honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday in 1973. Ten years later, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms loudly objected to honoring King with a federal holiday, specifically citing King’s stance on Vietnam and his war on poverty, calling him a Marxist and Communist. As reported at the time, Helms’ fanatical objections were crushed by a ‘scathing denunciation’ by senator Edward Kennedy and similar criticism from Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. But two recent Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul and John McCain were among those who agreed with Helms in objecting a federal holiday for MLK. After nearly two decades of discussion and puerile character assassination, Congress eventually passed Conyers’ proposal to remember King with a federal holiday. Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and it took effect in 1986. Shockingly not until 2000 did all 50 states recognize it as a state holiday. South Carolina was the last.

In observation of the 28th MLK day it is a moral duty to ensure that the legacy observed is honest to the content of his character. We should repeat his rhetorical question of August 16th, 1967. In his own words, “When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

King broadened the target of his resistance to encapsulate the totality of an oppressive power structure, moving beyond purely race-based grievances. The abhorrent racism prevalent in King’s America and its mutated contemporary manifestations are a byproduct of this power but King’s speeches reveal a more diverse synthesis for resistance. It was this unwavering challenge of the very foundations of that structure of power that needed to be sterilized, lest his posthumous words serve their intentions to mobilize. By stripping him of his radicalism, and simplifying his challenges against power to a selection of sound-bite grievances, the institutions of oppression maintained their monopoly on symbolic power and rebranded Martin Luther King into more comfortable and narrowly confined terms.

This is the alchemical disregard for truth that has attempted to warp the spirit of King’s radicalism for political expediency. It has become a convenient platform for some to spin King’s radicalism into a defanged demand for racial harmony and a colorless society, where claims of reverse racism are mingled with blanket denouncements of racial violence because we live in a post-racial America. It is a twisted appropriation of King’s words to blame the victim of abuse for continued victimization, and we see this in the surprisingly bipartisan attacks on the poor and people of color. For some, King’s Reverend status has become an argument for injecting fundamentalist evangelicalism into politics, as we noticed of Beck above.

These are the most flagrant bastardizations but what is more frustrating is the popular amnesia, the collective will to accept the sterilized form and neglect the righteous indignation that demands coordinated action in the face of all injustice. This is not to neglect active resistance such as the Occupy movement and myriad other campaigns. However, in certain contemporary radical movements we find the negative effects of the simplification of King’s sophisticated analysis of the diversity of oppression and the need for coordinated, strategic resistance. We can see this in the balkanization of resistance on the left, where interests vie for prominence rather than seeking consensus. A continuing frustration for those who have carried on with King, Lawson, and others’ efforts is the abandonment of strategic nonviolence, or treating King as nothing more than a symbolic tactic, for the same kind of commoditized radicalism that has made radical democratic theory or Anarchism a fashion accessory.

It is King’s righteous indignation at injustice everywhere and profound challenge to all forms of abusive power that should be reenacted in his name,  not the political pageantry of Obama’s community service. With that radical reenactment we must respond to the question “where do we go from here?” Dr. Cornel West hazarded a response in 2011, noting that rather than a holiday King would have wanted a revolution.

“5 overlooked activist victories in 2013”

On 31 December Wagingnonviolence published their 5 Overlooked Activist Victories in 2013. I am proud to be a contributor to Wagingnonviolence and especially proud that my contribution on cyber resistance in China was number five on their list.

The editors write:

Activists experienced some big wins in 2013 — from the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act to the ruling against stop-and-frisk in New York City to the revelations uncovered by NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden to an averted U.S. war with Syria. It’s not hard to find mention of these big stories on most year-end news lists. So rather than re-hash them here, we present you with a list of overlooked activist victories from the past year.

The five victories are (1) People power continues to win in the Philippines; (2) A big win against Big Coal in the Pacific Northwest; (3) A sleeping giant wakes up in Brazil; (4) A victory for millions of indigenous people in Mexico; and (5) Online activists gain political clout in China.

I have been on hiatus the last few months, partially traipsing around Southern China and Laos. I look forward to updating content with some travel narratives and some other exciting analytical pieces in the next few weeks. Back by popular demand, happy 2014…

American Prisons versus the World Population

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 716 people in prison for every 100,000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, that is a higher percentage of total population than any other country. Furthermore, based on a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Living Death: Sentence to Die Behind Bars for What?, there are more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. For some the offense that earned them life in prison was stealing tools from a shed or being the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that nationwide 65% are Black; while, in Louisiana, with its infamous Angola Prison, the number rises to 91%, a quantified testament to serious unresolved racism in the country. These numbers are appalling in their own terms but when they are compared to the prison populations of other countries, the ‘land of the free’ becomes an even more frustratingly antiquated trope for the United States.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, offers a simple explanation:

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The United States incarcerates 716 people out of every 100,000 citizens. Liptak noted in 2008 that if only adults were factored into the count then the United States incarcerates 1 out of every 100 citizens. Following the United States in incarceration rates as a percentage of the national population is St. Kitts and Nevis with 649. Rwanda incarcerates 527 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Cuba with 510 and Russia with 490. Belarus holds 438 and Azerbaijan 407. Not a particularly glowing list of human rights respecting countries. While China incarcerates far less than the United States, 121 people for every 100,000, the country does boast the highest number of prisoner executions in the world, based on estimated figures in light of China’s refusal to make these numbers transparent.

How do these figures compare with other democratic, advanced nations? Mexico holds 210 citizens per 100,000, and they are in the middle of a protracted civil war induced by the US led War on Drugs. Turkey holds 179 and the Czech Republic 154, while Argentina, Spain, and Scotland are tied at 147 per 100,000. The Netherlands and Switzerland both 82. Sweden incarcerates 67, while India only puts 30 out of every 100,000 people in prison.

Sweden recently announced that it is closing four prisons and many remand centers in response to a drastic decline in the number of inmates, the result, many analysts are saying, of a robust emphasis on rehabilitation and lenient sentencing, a stark refutation of the deterrent argument lobbied by many in the United States in favor of the prison industrial complex. The estimated additional cost to US taxpayers, says the ACLU, for current life without parole incarceration levels is around 1.8 billion dollars, a sizable earning for the nation’s many privatized prisons.

General social and political ideology, economic development, and quality of life in many European countries no doubt have played a role in decreasing levels of crime and prison populations compared to the USA. The differences between most of Europe and the United States when it comes to crime and incarceration are drastic, particularly with respect to prosecuting and sentencing non-violent offenders. In many ways the increase in life sentencing is a product of stalled death penalty reform, but a mandatory life sentence for violent and especially for non-violent offenses merely approaches capital punishment from an oblique and superficial understanding of why it is wrong and not from the perspective of fundamental human rights. The ACLU report’s author Jennifer Turner notes:

…today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for non-violent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe that still metes out the penalty at all, and even then only in 49 cases of murder.

The Huffington Post reported that the advance 2012 statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the prison population in the United States for the previous year was 1,571,013, which marks a decline for the third consecutive year. However, when local and city jails are included, the article continues, the population exceeds 2 million, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The same ACLU report noted above puts the incarcerated population at around 2.3 million people. That number is difficult to fathom outside of abstractions that either gloss over or do not register the severity. This number does not reflect the millions others, family members and loved ones, whose lives are irrevocably changed or shattered by a belligerent and flawed criminal justice system. Recent studies such as the one by the ACLU should engender a serious national discussion on prison reform in the United States. But the narrative continues to be dominated by politicized interests and the manipulated discourses of fear and otherness.

In an effort to lend more gravity to the discussion, below is a list of countries with entire national populations less than the US prison population. The following list has been composed using country population figures available through wikicommons.

Prison population of the United States… around 2,300,000.

List of the 100 Countries with a national population less than the US prison population:

1. Namibia… 2,113,007. 2. Lesotho… 2,074,000. 3. Slovenia… 2,061,349. 4. Macedonia… 2,062,294. 5. Qatar… 2,035,106. 6. Botswana… 2,024,904. 7. Latvia… 2,014,000. 8. Gambia… 1,849,000. 9. Guinea-Bissau… 1,704,000. 10. Gabon… 1,672,000. 11. Equatorial Guinea… 1,622,000. 12. Trinidad and Tobago… 1,328,019. 13. Estonia… 1,286,540. 14. Mauritius… 1,257,900. 15. Swaziland… 1,250,000. 16. Bahrain… 1,234,571. 17. Timor-Leste… 1,066,409. 18. Djibouti… 864,618. 19. Cyprus… 862,000. 20. Fiji… 858,038. 21. Reunion (France)… 821,136. 22. Guyana… 784,894. 23. Bhutan… 740,740. 24. Comoros… 724,300. 25. Montenegro… 620,029. 26. Macau (China)… 582,000. 27. Western Sahara… 567,000. 28. Solomon Islands… 561,000. 29. Luxembourg… 537,000. 30. Suriname… 534,189. 31. Cape Verde… 491,875. 32. Malta… 416,055. 33. Guadeloupe (France)… 403,355. 34. Martinique (France)… 394,173. 35. Brunei… 393,162. 36. Bahamas… 351,461. 37. Iceland… 325,010. 38. Maldives… 317,280. 39. Belize… 312,971. 40. Barbados… 274,200. 41. French Polynesia (France)… 268,270. 42. Vanuatu… 264,652. 43. New Caledonia (France)… 258,958. 44. French Guiana (France)… 229,040. 45. Mayotte (France)… 212,600. 46. Samoa… 187,820. 47. Sao Tome and Principe… 187,356. 48. Saint Lucia… 166,526. 49. Guam (USA)… 159,358. 50. Curacao (Netherlands)… 150,563. 51. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines… 109,000. 52. Kiribati… 106,461. 53. United States Virgin Islands (USA)… 106,405. 54. Grenada… 103,328. 55. Tonga… 103,036. 56. Aruba (Netherlands)… 101,484. 57. Federated States of Micronesia… 101,351. 58. Jersey (UK)… 97,857. 59. Seychelles… 90,945. 60. Antigua and Barbuda… 86,295. 61. Isle of Man (UK)… 84,497. 62. Andorra… 76,246. 63. Dominica… 71,293. 64. Bermuda (UK)… 64,237. 65. Guernsey (UK)… 62,431. 66. Greenland (Denmark)… 56,370. 67. Marshall Islands… 56,086. 68. American Samoa (USA)… 55,519. 69. Cayman Islands (UK)… 55,456. 70. Saint Kitts and Nevis… 54,000. 71. Northern Mariana Islands (USA)… 53,883. 72. Faroe Islands (Denmark)… 48,509. 73. Sint Maarten (Netherlands)… 37,429. 74. Saint Martin (France)… 36,979. 75. Liechtenstein… 36,842, 76. Monaco… 36,136. 77. San Marino… 32,509. 78. Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)… 31,458. 79. Gibraltar (UK)… 29,752. 80. British Virgin Islands (UK)… 29,537. 81. Aland Islands (Finland)… 28,502. 82. Caribbean Netherlands (Netherlands)… 21,133. 83. Palau… 20,901. 84. Cook Islands (NZ)… 14,974. 85. Anguila (UK)… 13,452. 86. Wallis and Futuna (France)… 13,135. 87. Tuvalu… 11,323. 88. Nauru… 9,945. 89. Saint Barthelemy (France)… 8,938. 90. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)… 6,081. 91. Montserrat (UK)… 4,922. 92. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)… 4,000. 93. Svaldbard and Jan Mayen (Norway)… 2,655. 94. Falkland Islands (UK)… 2,563. 95. Norfolk Island (Australia)… 2,302. 96. Christmas Island (Australia)… 2,072. 97. Niue (NZ)… 1,411. 98. Vatican City… 800. 99. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)… 550. 100. Pitcairn Islands (UK)… 56.

File:Prison cell block.jpg

The Buddhist King and Modern Politics

The following is an excerpt from In Quest of Democracy, an essay written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The original essay was written before Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 and had been planned as part of an anthology of essays on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of tumultuous house arrest and suffering, was released on 13 November 2010. Since her release she has continued to campaign for deeper democratic transitions in Burma as the leader, and founder, of the National League for Democracy. Around the same time as her release, the decades long military dictatorship began to initiate political liberalizations that permitted independent parties an unprecedented degree of freedom. Despite easily agreed upon positive steps toward Democracy Burma faces many obstacles and complex challenges to its ongoing democratization, particularly in terms of reconciling complicated group and individual identity politics. While this essay was originally written over twenty years ago, it presents a vision of a moral leader, a vision inspired by Buddhist legends and parables, with considerable transferability to not only guiding Burma’s democratic transition but in pointing to desirable qualities in all democratically elected figures and offers insight into discussions on resisting authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It begins…

Opponents of the movement for democracy in Burma have sought to undermine it by on the one hand casting aspersions on the competence of the people to judge what was best for the nation and on the other condemning the basic tenets of democracy as un-Burmese. There is nothing new in Third World governments seeking to justify and perpetuate authoritarian rule by denouncing liberal democratic principles as alien. By implication they claim for themselves the official and sole right to decide what does or does not conform to indigenous cultural norms.

This excerpt was taken from a version of the essay appearing in Freedom From Fear: And Other Writing (2010) p. 170-173.

—-

“The Buddhist view of world history tells that when society fell from its original state of purity into moral and social chaos a king was elected to restore peace and justice. The ruler was known by three titles: Mahasammata, ‘because he is named ruler by the unanimous consent of the people’; Khattiya; ‘because he has dominion over agricultural land’; and Raja, ‘because he wins the people to affection through observance of the dhamma (virtue, justice, the law)’…

The Buddhist view of kingship does not invest the ruler with the divine right to govern the realm as he pleases. He is expected to observe the Ten Duties of Kings, the Seven Safeguards against Decline, the Four Assistances to the People, and to be guided by numerous other codes of conduct such as the Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, the Eight Virtues of Kings and the Four Ways to Overcome Peril. There is logic to a tradition which includes the king among the five enemies or perils and which subscribes to many sets of moral instructions for the edification of those in positions of authority. The people of Burma have had much experience of despotic rule and possess a great awareness of the unhappy gap that can exist between the theory and practice of government.

The Ten Duties of Kings are widely known and generally accepted as a yardstick which could be applied just as well to modern government as to the first monarch of the world. The duties are: liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-opposition (to the will of the people).

The first duty of liberality (dana) which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens. In the context of modern politics, one of the prime duties of a responsible administration would be to ensure the economic security of the state.

Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example. When the king does not observe the dhamma, state functionaries become corrupt, and when state functionaries are corrupt the people are caused much suffering. It is further believed that an unrighteous king brings down calamity on the land. The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.

The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity  and sometime as self-sacrifice. The former would constitute  a duplication of the first duty, dana, so self-sacrifice as the ultimate generosity which gives up all for the sake of the people would appear the more satisfactory interpretation. The concept of selfless public service is sometimes illustrated by the story of the hermit Sumedha who took the vow of Buddhahood. In so doing he who could have realized the supreme liberation of nirvana in a single lifetime committed himself to countless incarnations that he might help other beings free themselves from suffering. Equally popular is the story of the lord of monkeys who sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm and who was the eventual cause of his death. The good ruler sublimates his needs as an individual to the service of the nation.

Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations. There is a Burmese saying: ‘With rulers, truth, with (ordinary) men, vows’. While a private individual may be bound only by the formal vows that he makes, those who govern should be wholly bound by the truth in thought, word and deed. Truth is the very essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who referred to himself as the Tathagata or ‘one who has come to the truth’. The Buddhist king must therefore live and rule by truth, which is the perfect uniformity between nomenclature and nature. To deceive or to mislead the people in any way would be an occupational failing as well as a moral offence. ‘As an arrow, intrinsically straight, without warp or distortion, when one word is spoken, it does not err into two.’

Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people. It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless. In Wizaya, a well-known nineteenth-century drama based on the Mahavamsa story of Prince Vijaya, a king sends away into exile his own son, whose wild ways had caused the people much distress: ‘In the matter of love, to make no distinction between citizen and son, to give equally of loving kindness, that is the righteousness of kings.’

The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoins the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline. The self-indulgent ruler who enjoys an extravagant lifestyle and ignores the spiritual need for austerity was no more acceptable at the time of the Mahasammata than he would be in Burma today.

The seventh, eighth and ninth duties — non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (khanti) — could be said to be related. Because the displeasure of the powerful could have unhappy and far-reaching consequences, kings must not allow personal feelings of enmity and ill will to erupt into destructive  anger and violence. It is incumbent on a ruler to develop the true forbearance which moves him to deal wisely and generously with the shortcomings and provocations of even those whom he could crush with impunity. Violence is totally contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. The good ruler vanquishes ill will with loving kindness, wickedness with virtue, parsimony with liberality, and falsehood with truth. The Emperor Ashoka who ruled his realm in accordance with the principles of non-violence and compassion is always held up as an ideal Buddhist king. A government should not attempt to enjoin submission through harshness and immoral force but should aim at dhamma-vijaya, a conquest by righteousness.

The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well-known stories from the Jakatas. Pawridasa, a monarch who acquired an unfortunate taste for human flesh, was forced to leave his kingdom because he would not heed the people’s demand that he should abandon his cannibalistic habits. A very different kind of ruler was the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation on earth, the pious King Vessantara. But he too was sent into exile when in the course of his strivings for the perfection of liberality he gave away the white elephant of the state without the consent of the people. The royal duty of non-opposition is a reminder that the legitimacy of government is founded on the consent of the people, who may withdraw their mandate at any time if they lose confidence in the ability of the ruler to serve their best interests.

By invoking the Ten Duties of Kings the Burmese are not so much indulging in wishful thinking as drawing on time-honoured values to reinforce the validity of the political reforms they consider necessary. It is a strong argument for democracy that governments regulated by principles of accountability, respect for public opinion and the supremacy of just laws are more likely than an all-powerful ruler or ruling class, uninhibited by the need to honour the will of the people, to observe the traditional duties of Buddhist kingship. Traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government.”

Fundamental Rights

The following list of fundamental human rights is taken from Jack Donnelly‘s book International Human Rights2007 p. 7. This compilation of fundamental rights is based on the key articles and substance of the three documents that make up what has become known as the International Bill of Human Rights. Namely, these are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). While the UDHR is not exclusively a legal document, many law scholars, activists, and practitioners have argued that it has, through practice and general acceptance, entered into customary international law. Meanwhile, the two International Covenants are international legal documents. They were both adopted by the United Nation’s General Assembly on 16 December 1966. The ICESCR achieved enough ratifications and entered into force on 3 January 1976 and the ICCPR on 23 March 1976. Since the ratification of these two treaties a number of additional international human rights instruments that greatly expand on the rights here enumerated have entered into force.

1976 also inaugurated the Human Rights Committee, charged with reviewing state implementation of the ICCPR and hearing complaints and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, charged with the same task for the ICESCR. As noted in an earlier post, a number of states parties to both conventions have either put forth reservations stripping these monitoring bodies of jurisdiction to specific countries or failed to ratify accompanying optional protocols that allow for independent complaint mechanisms. Aside from these monitoring bodies, known as Treaty bodies because their existence is tied to specific human rights treaties, the United Nations Human Rights Council is the principal body charged with monitoring human rights among the 193 member states of the United Nations. The Human Rights Council shall be composed of 47 member countries, chosen with set distribution from certain regions around the world. It has come under significant criticism from a number of sources for bias or hypocrisy. For example, the Philippines is a current member despite censure by the Committee to Protect Journalists that the Philippines is the second most dangerous place for press freedom advocates and journalists after Iraq and the fact that China has served, and is up for election in November.

In light of such contradictions and concerns amid declarations of humanitarian and international human rights conditions as a pretext for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), for example, a deeper understanding of the specific human rights guaranteed by international law is of paramount necessity. If the international order, composed of states most often acting in pursuit of their own interests, is to be taken seriously, far greater promotion and protection of human rights is needed. For regimes such as the United States in their support of R2P or China in their support for non-interference, both countries eliciting respect for international law, to be taken seriously their own domestic and international records have a convenient litmus by which to measure actual commitment against the rhetoric of political or economic expediency.

Donnelly succinctly outlines the following principle human rights by which we may measure state’s commitment to international law and fundamental human rights (UDHR=D; ICESCR=E; ICCPR=C):

Equality of rights without discrimination (D1, D2, E2, E3, C2, C3)
Life (D3,D6)
Liberty and security of person (D3, C9)
Protection against slavery (D4, C8)
Protection against torture and cruel and inhuman punishment (D5, C7)
Recognition as a person before the law (D6, C16)
Equal protection of the law (D7, C14, C26)
Access to legal remedies for rights violations (D8, C16)
Protection against arbitrary arrest or detention (D9, C9)
Hearing before an independent and impartial judiciary (D10, C14)
Presumption of innocence (D11, C14)
Protection against ex post facto laws (D11, C15)
Protection of privacy, family, and home (D12, C17)
Freedom of movement and residence (D13, C12)
Seek asylum from persecution (D14)
Nationality (D15)
Marry and found a family (D16, E10, C23)
Own property (D17)
Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (D18, C18)
Freedom of opinion, expression, and the press (D19, C19)
Freedom of assembly and association (D20, C21, C22)
Political participation (D21, C25)
Social security (D22, E9)
Work, under favorable conditions (D23, E6, E7)
Free trade unions (D23, E8, C22)
Rest and leisure (D24, E7)
Food, clothing, and housing (D25, E12)
Health care and social services (D25, E12)
Special protection for children (D25, E10, C24)
Education (D26, E13, E14)
Participation in cultural life (D27, E15)
A social and international order needed to realize rights (D28)
Self-determination (E1, C1)
Humane treatment when detained or imprisoned (C10)
Protection against debtor’s prison (C11)
Protection against arbitrary expulsion of aliens (C13)
Protection against advocacy of racial or religious hatred (C20)
Protection of minority culture (C27)