Aung San Suu Kyi on freedom and the human cost of dissent

Burmese democracy leader delivers Reith Lectures.

The freedom to make contact with other human beings with whom you may wish to share your thoughts and your hopes, your laughter and at times even your anger and indignation, is a right that should never be violated.

So said Aung San Suu Kyi, in the first of her Reith Lectures, broadcast on Radio 4 this morning.

In a moving address, she discussed the notion of dissent and her personal experience as a democracy campaigner.

While the Reith Lectures are normally delivered in person in front of a live audience, Suu Kyi's two addresses were recorded in Burma last week. The second was played at a special event at Broadcasting House last night and will be aired on Radio 4 on 5 July.

A team of BBC journalists secretly entered Burma to record Suu Kyi and smuggled the tapes out again. "It's been a tense week," wrote Gwyneth Williams, BBC Radio 4 controller, on her blog.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the 1990 Burmese election. They were not allowed to take power and she spent 15 of the next 20 years under house arrest. She was released on 13 November 2010 but is unable to leave Burma.

She described the isolation of those who choose resistance and the toll this takes:

Human contact is one of the most basic needs that those who decide to go into, and to persevere in, the business of dissent have to be prepared to live without. In fact, living without is a huge part of the existence of dissidents. What kind of people deliberately choose to walk the path of deprivation?

Max Weber identifies three qualities of decisive importance for politicians as passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. The first -- passion -- he interprets as the passionate dedication to a cause. Such a passion is of crucial importance for those who engage in the most dangerous kind of politics: the politics of dissent. Such a passion has to be at the core of each and every person who makes the decision, declared or undeclared, to live in a world apart from the rest of their fellow citizens; a precarious world with its own unwritten rules and regulations, the world of dissidence.

Suu Kyi also referred to recent events in the Middle East:

In Tunis and in Burma, the deaths of two young men were the mirrors that made the people see how unbearable were the burdens of injustice and oppression they had to endure.

Do we envy the people of Tunisia and Egypt? Yes, we do envy them their quick and peaceful transitions. But more than envy is a sense of solidarity and of renewed commitment to our cause, which is the cause of all women and men who value human dignity and freedom. In our quest for freedom, we learn to be free.

You can listen to the first lecture here.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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