I have watched three films in short succession on oppressive regimes where freedom has been curtailed. One was a fictional story about a writer in East Germany, being spied on and censored by the secret police – something that happened to some of the cast of the film, one of whom died suddenly. This was the excellent Lives of Others or Die Leiben de Anderen. Then came The Lady, the Luc Besson film on Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent the best part of 20 years under house arrest, unable to take her voted in position of leader because the military rulers did not wish it. Lastly was Salman Rushdie’s novel brought to the screen, Midnight’s Children, about the struggles of India to regain independence from British rule, and then its own battles under Indira Gandhi. In all these, interrogation, torture, imprisonment, death were unleashed upon those who would speak out against the regime.
And much of me felt grateful to have never lived in such circumstances, but also great sadness and anger at the injustice – one my country has not faced in living memory.
But as much as some of the horrors in these countries and others are things I cannot say are experienced here, I also felt fearful. For some of the issues indeed resounded: bans against public meetings; surveillance (ever easier with the internet) of subversives; people taking power against the people’s wishes and making policies that clash with the values of the country, but are overridden for ideological reasons in the name of the interests of the people; and those who stand up to it being bullied into silence.
Just a peek at recent news reveals abuses of growing police powers – infiltrating political groups and having sexual relationship to gain information; and then wanting this to be tried in secret courts – if at all. I don’t feel free and safe in my country, where there are camera on every street corner, police have powers for compulsory stop and search; where the law that is meant to be part of the bedrock of a just and equal society is often not allowing ordinary people to claim that justice; creating poverty and increasing the power and wealth of the rich; forcing people into effective slave labour if they are not working or in a way that the government sanctions; forcing mind and body altering operations without consent. Our votes don’t get us who and what we ask for, and petitions and letters are often ignored or met with standard, disinterested responses. We too encourage fear of certain groups that are deemed a threat to those in authority who can be searched and arrested for vague reasons.
Countries like the above might look to those of us who have a supposed developed and running democracy, a freedom of speech, and their hopes and battles are to make their countries more like ours. We should be ashamed that I am not sure any country could really be a model for fairness and liberty. We’ve allowed a global system of greed to take over; we settle conflicts with warfare, and perhaps none of us can really feel we trust our leaders to be doing what they say and doing the best for us. Is anywhere above corruption yet? I cannot say my country is.
We should make this the year that we all strive to be the kind of democracy that has and is still being fought for – truly a rule of the people, for the people, without fear of reprisal for speaking out and wanting something different, achieved without the violence that sadly has come with so many other struggles. We want the world to follow an example of transparency, not be impressed by a veneer of deceit. What is the best kind of family – the one that rules by iron rod, or the one that supports its diverse children to grow, even if that means questioning the parents sometimes? For a true, strong leader can cope with questions; only the insecure and fearful try to quell the queriers.
I know what sort of country I’d like to live in, one that we all should strive for – and if even a shadow of this oppression resonates in our leaders, they need to be changing away from these old orders and into the fair, just and peaceful lands we all deserve and desire.