Our bit of the world, the UK, remains beleaguered by (if now beginning to win against) the Covid pandemic: it seems nonetheless readier to be convulsed about the massive falling-out between the Royal Family and its new Californian outpost. To be sure, this latest spat raises important questions about the racism endemic in our society and our media.
But some people, some entire populations, might justifiably regard it as a side-show at best: people, I mean, like those risking their lives as they take to the streets in desperate campaigns for what Churchill used to describe as the sunny uplands of democracy.
So let’s avoid becoming so self-absorbed that we forget to ask whatever happened to those sunny uplands. People fighting for freedom around the world need and deserve our support.
Some history, then. 1989 was a heady year for democracy. Cracks opened up across the communist world. The Iron Curtain fell, and the Cold War came to an end as protesters in former Soviet Bloc countries, and even in China, took to the streets in seemingly unstoppable protest. On 9thNovember the Berlin Wall came down. In December, images of Romanian women putting roses into the barrels of police rifles, were beamed around the world.
Much changed for the better. A decade later, I saw some of the fruits when I worked for the Council of Europe on its Education for Democracy programme. Even Russia had a representative there (though he seemed out of his depth whenever human rights and tolerance were discussed). Life became, and remains, better for people in many countries freed from the yoke of communism and/or dictatorship.
But not in all. Thirty years on, Belarus’s dictator continues to cling to power. Russia liberalised for a while but now, under the iron rule of Putin’s kleptocracy, wages a cynical, unannounced Cold War against the West while oppressing its own people. Unofficial opposition leader and Novichok-survivor Alexei Nalvalny is in gaol. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned the bogus conviction and demanded his release: Russia ignores it.
Too many countries have never known even a hint of freedom. From April to June 1989 the world watched Chinese students defy guns and even tanks in Tiananmen Square: had freedom reached even that vast country? Sadly, no. The UN reckons China slew some 10,000 of its citizens when it suppressed that demonstration in June 1989. Currently it’s clamping down on Hong Kong and – in the face of international condemnation – brazenly committing genocide against its Uighur population.
In Myanmar, so recently deprived of hope and freedom by yet another military coup and the arrest of its elected leaders (including Aung San Suu Kyi), protesters are being shot in the street or tortured and murdered while under arrest.
Around the world citizens risk similarly brutal treatment when they protest against their corrupt, dictatorial rulers. They demand our respect, and our support.
In Myanmar, public service workers are bravely fighting back, attempting to bring the country to a standstill by going on strike: government forces now use live ammunition on them. Just today film went viral of a nun, Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, who knelt in front of armed police to beg for the lives of young protesters. Her pleas were ignored, and two children killed.
In Russia, while Navalny’s supporters took to the streets some weeks back, police captain Nikolai Korolyov said he’d had enough of beating protesters, and publicly threw away his uniform. He expected to suffer persecution in his turn.
Inspired (or shamed) by such examples of selfless heroism, our government should be more grown-up than wrapping itself in the flag of nostalgic nationalism and sentimental royalism while declaring a bogus culture war against “woke activists”. It should be looking bravely outward: increasing international aid, rather than cutting it; speaking out loudly, unequivocally and forcefully against oppressors; and proving itself a beacon of democracy. (Admittedly, that’s a little tricky given its form on proroguing Parliament in order to get its way and proposing to break international law in the course of lamentable Brexit negotiations.)
Just as the vaccine roll-out brings a hint of light at the end of the dark pandemic tunnel, there remains a glimmer of hope for freedom and justice around the world, if only free countries would act in solidarity. But such action will call for a measure of courage, determination and selflessness that our ruling classes appear to lack at present.