Birtukan amplifies “power of the powerless”

[By Abebe Gellaw]

Washington DC—Ethiopia’s “Aung San Suu Kyi”, Birtukan Mideksa, democracy activists, politicians, diplomats and advocates of freedom around the world gathered Friday at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to celebrate the enduring legacies of Václav Havel (1936-2011).

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Birtukan amplifies “power of the powerless”

Birtukan amplifies “power of the powerless”

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In a memorial held at NED to pay tribute to the late Czech President, playwright and activist, President Obama said in a statement, read by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chairman of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), that it was a fitting tribute that the event was held at the 35th anniversary of the publication of Charter 77, which started a liberation movement in which Havel played a key role.
“His peaceful resistance shook the foundation of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved the moral, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon. He demonstrated what he called “the power of the powerless” to effect real change through individual action and civil disobedience, placing him amongst the giants of history from Gandhi to King Mandela who have demonstrated the moral force of nonviolence,” President Obama said.

In a speech that resonated with Obama’s message, Birtukan’s amplified Havel’s “power of the powerless” that she related to her own experience during her ordeals in the jails of tyranny in Ethiopia.

“As a result of my repeated detention and time I spent as a political prisoner, some of my compatriots call me “the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopia.” Regardless of the immense admiration and respect I have for this great lady, I have never considered myself worthy of this comparison. I relate more easily to the greengrocer who emerges from Havel’s imagination and ends up on the pages of his famous book, The Power of the Powerless,” she said.

Birtukan pointed out that her terrible experience in jail, coupled with the break-up of her own party, was too painful to endure. “But the truth illustrated by Vaclav Havel in “the power of the powerless” has always preserved my fervent dedication for the cause of free and dignified human life. It reminds me that even an individual’s act of defiance has the value and significance of a full-fledged revolution by threatening the integrity of the entire system,” she stated.

Birtukan quoted from Havel’s work to illustrate the immense power of ordinary individuals that defy injustice and tyranny. “The greengrocer has not committed a simple individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness but something more serious. By breaking the rules of the game he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game.”

She expressed optimism that freedom would eventually prevail in Ethiopia. She said: “I can remain cheerful while I feel the scars of those dark days of my life. I can see that the ideals of liberty and freedom will inevitably prevail in my country even though I am agonizing over the continuous suffering of the Ethiopian political prisoners like journalist Eskinder Nega.

“Even though the Ethiopian government is clamping down on all of its defying citizens harshly and without much criticism from the international community, even though those victims seem helpless and weak, I consider them victors since they have disrupted the system of coercion by despising living in a lie.”

Carl Gresham, President of NED said earlier in his welcoming address that Havel has left a great legacy to humanity. He said Havel was a great inspiration for freedom fighter around the world and would continue to do so for generations to come.

The iconic Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said in a video message that Havel was a great friend and an inspiration. She quoted from a letter he wrote to her a few days before he passed away. “After fifty years of totalitarian rule, the road to a pluralist society won’t be easy,” Havel wrote to her in his letter. She described him as lifelong inspiration to her and so many people around the world.
Prominent democracy activists from Cuba, Iran and China also took turns to pay tribute to the leader of the Velvet Revolution of 198 that culminated in the fall of totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia.

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The power of the powerless

Birtukan Mideksa’s tribute to Vaclav Havel, National Endowment for Democracy

It is a humbling and honoring moment for me to speak at this memorial service of Vaclav Havel. For some of you, Havel might have been your friend, your mentor, or your teacher. For me, he is an icon who provided a narrative of struggle that affirmed my own political conviction and the price I paid for it.

As a result of my repeated detention and time I spent as a political prisoner, some of my compatriots like to call me “the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopia.” Regardless of the immense admiration and respect I have for this great lady, I have never considered myself worthy of this comparison. I relate more easily to the greengrocer who emerges from Havel’s imagination and ends up on the pages of his famous book, “The Power of the Powerless.”

I was jailed for 21 months in 2005 after my party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won a remarkable victory in general elections. Soon after, tens of thousands of people, including the leadership of the party, were imprisoned. Though going to prison despite not committing a criminal offense is the painful experience of every political prisoner, the pain did not make us weaker. The elections had aroused a groundswell of optimism where little hope for change existed before. This hope and optimism gave us a clear meaning and purpose. So, we did not simply languish in jail for the 21 months of our imprisonment.

However, my second imprisonment was entirely different from the first. I was alone in every sense of the term. I had to bear the emotional pain of solitary confinement while the party I led was fragmenting. The attention and support of the international community to the cause of Ethiopian democracy was diminishing over time. After 19 long, horrendous months of confinement, I was released in October 2010. Coincidentally, Aung San Suu Kyi and I were released just days apart from each other. However, unlike her, when I came out I found my party weakened.

After all the pain inflicted on me and my dear ones, I had to ask myself if my struggle was worth it. Was it worth the price? I could not help but ask these questions when I saw the state of Ethiopia’s opposition in the face of increased repression.

But the truth illustrated by Vaclav Havel in “the power of the powerless” has always preserved my fervent dedication for the cause of free and dignified human life. It reminds me that even an individual’s act of defiance has the value and significance of a full-fledged revolution by threatening the integrity of the entire system.

To put this as Havel did, “The greengrocer has not committed a simple individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness but something more serious. By breaking the rules of the game he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game.”

In this seminal work of his, Havel has set this clear gauge of political success in place of the usual parameters. He just told us elegantly and logically that depriving a lie of its universality by stepping outside of it is tantamount to setting the truth in the highest place of order while the system appears intact. So I can remain cheerful while I feel the scars of those dark days of my life. I can see that the ideals of liberty and freedom will inevitably prevail in my country even though I am agonizing over the continuous suffering of the Ethiopian political prisoners like journalist Eskinder Nega. Even though the Ethiopian government is clamping down on all of its defying citizens harshly and without much criticism from the international community, even though those victims seem helpless and weak, I consider them victors since they have disrupted the system of coercion by despising living in a lie.
Yet it is important to recognize one of Havel’s noble truths. The powerfulness of the life of a dissident or the lives of all who are engaged in the struggles for greater freedom does not emanate from psychological features which are assumed to exhibit strength and might. We couldn’t find that real power in our resolve to see the destruction of our abusers. In fact, we will become one of them the moment we attempt to do that.
And that kind of switch may not necessarily be something dramatic. It can even happen before we noticed it. Even those of us who are victimized by dictatorial systems are co-creators of those systems in some sense. The supposed enemy is not just only out there.

Unfortunately it is within us too. So we should be vigilant and remind ourselves that the power of the powerless is directly correlated with features like friendship, compassion, forgiveness and humility, which might seem meek and weak, rather than vanity, hate and anger.
Had it not been for Vaclav Havel and others like him, I perhaps would not have the daring to speak to you as I am just now, since this world seems dominated by realpolitik and Machiavellian designs. Yet this impersonal, so-called “objective” power politics does not offer vindication of the suffering Havel encountered in his life—nor the suffering I have encountered in mine. Only the politics of the heart, which bases itself in capacities of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, and tolerance, are worthy of our hardship.

Obviously Havel will be missed by multitudes of his admirers like me. But I am sure his soul would smile down on the endeavors of all free men and women to constitute what he called the “family of man.” What we all owe to him is simple: to live in truth.

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Posted by on January 9, 2012. Filed under FEATURED. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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