By DONNA URSCHEL
In a talk at the Library on Feb. 20, Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, provided words of inspiration to dissidents worldwide who are seeking the right to live in freedom and with dignity.
In a discussion titled "Dissidents and Freedom," Havel discussed the role of a dissident and then shared the stage with eight courageous men and women who are fighting for human rights in their native countries of Russia, Burma, Cuba, Belarus, China, North Korea and Iran.
Havel, who recently occupied the Chair of Modern Culture at the Library's John W. Kluge Center, was himself a dissident for many years during the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. His leadership in the movement for freedom resulted in a relatively smooth transition from a dictatorship to a democracy. First elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he resigned in 1992 and then won election to the presidency of the new Czech Republic in 1993 and served two five-year terms until 2003.
"I'm very happy that dissidents from different countries are gathered here together. I think it is very important to support not only them and their ideas but also their ability to cooperate among themselves. They are from different ideologies, but what they have in common is their fight for human rights," Havel said.
Dissidents, according to Havel, share similar goals and face many of the same risks and challenges.
"I remember from my experience as a dissident that we didn't like the term dissident, because it sounds like it's a special profession. It isn't any special profession. Dissidents are people of many professions who want to have freedom in their countries. They can be scientists or playwrights or workers. The term dissident is a product of the Western press. But after many years I began to use the word dissident, because it is a simple and practical term to use."
According to Havel, a big risk that dissidents face is choosing the right person to speak for the movement. "Who is the right man to speak; who is it important to support? Embassies or politicians never know who is the real leader or important man or future president, and who is only some crazy man who likes to drink at embassies. Dissidents are not elected. It means that you have not any control of who is who and who is an agent of state security or an agent of some foreign power. Who is a crazy man or a real politician?"
Nonetheless, a dissident movement is worth the risk. "I think the risk that you don't have the right person to speak is much cheaper than other risks, such as oppression in the state," Havel said.
Another risk is the possibility of failure. "Americans like … stories with happy endings. My story had a happy ending, but it doesn't mean that the work of all the people engaged in fighting oppression will be successful," he said.
"There are no guarantees for dissidents. They have only principles and values that they believe in, and they know it is necessary to speak the truth," Havel said. "It is necessary to talk about their values and to accept the risk that their efforts will not bring some visible change in the near future, some happy ending. In spite of that, I think it is very good and very important to hope for happy endings."
After Havel's brief lecture, the eight dissidents, some of whom have served prison terms in their native lands and are now living in exile in the United States, were introduced. Each spoke for about three minutes, recapping the situation in their respective countries.
Oksana Chelysheva is a member of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society, the leading nongovernmental organization in Russia that is trying to document human rights abuses and atrocities in Chechnya. Many of the Friendship Society's journalists in Chechnya have been beaten and some have been killed. The director was tortured, and Chelysheva has been threatened with death. In October 2006, a Russian prosecutor closed the organization. The decision was appealed to the Russian Supreme Court, which ruled against the Friendship Society in January 2007. Chelysheva said more than a dozen journalists have been killed during Vladimir Putin's rule. "Russian is now indisputably an autocracy, and few signs of a real democracy survive in my country," she said.
Min Zin is a leading activist in Burma's pro-democracy movement, having joined it in 1988 at the age of 14. He now lives in the United States and works as an international radio broadcaster in the Burmese service of Radio Free Asia. Zin said he wanted to thank Havel for his help in fighting for freedom in Burma, a country governed by a brutal military regime. He said Havel and Desmond Tutu wrote a report titled "Threat to Peace: A Call for United Nations Council Action in Burma," which resulted in a U.N. Security Council vote on a nonpunitive Burma resolution. Min said Russia and China, two countries that benefit from the regime, vetoed the resolution. "By their veto, Russia and China have granted license to kill Burmese people," he said. He also said that dissidents from Burma have a message for the Library's audience: "Please use your liberties to promote ours."
Ramón Humberto Colás is the founder of the movement of independent libraries in Cuba. In 1998, after hearing Fidel Castro declare at the International Book Fair in Havana that "in Cuba there are no banned books, only lack of funds to purchase them," Ramón and his wife Berta Mexidor created an independent library in their house, featuring books and magazines that the Cuban government considered enemy propaganda and had banned. Within nine months of the project, there were 13 independent libraries in Cuba. Today, there are 135. The Cuban government has responded by sending Colás and his wife into exile, jailing 20 of the independent librarians in 2003, harassing others and denying many of the librarians paid employment. Nonetheless, more than 240,000 Cubans are regular patrons of the libraries, and Colás continues to support the movement in exile. He said, "Independent libraries are small centers where one can live in freedom."
For more than a decade, Ales Mihalevic has been at the forefront of the democracy struggle in Belarus, which has been called Europe's last dictatorship. Since 1997, Mihalevic has been detained numerous times and imprisoned twice. Today, Mihalevic is a vice chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, the country's oldest democratic political movement. Mihalevic said, "We believe during the next few years democratic changes will come to Belarus. Belarusian society is ready for them and the growing part of the Belarusian society is ready to fight for them. We realize that economic prosperity can only be achieved in a democratic society."
Rebiya Kadeer is the most well-known human rights advocate of the Uyghur people, most of whom live in China's Xinjiang Province, also known as East Turkistan. The mother of 11 children, she began her career as a laundress and built a multimillion-dollar trading company and department store. She set aside space in the store to educate poor Uyghur children, and she also initiated the Thousand Mothers Movement to empower Uyghur women to start their own businesses. She was arrested in 1999 en route to a meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation to discuss human rights issues. She spent the next six years in prison, two in solitary confinement. In March 2005, the Chinese government succumbed to international pressure and sent her to the United States, where she continues to campaign for rights of the Uyghur people. In retaliation, the Chinese have arrested three of her sons and placed a daughter under house arrest. "Despite all this, I'm determined to struggle peacefully for the human rights of the Uyghur people," she said. Last year Kadeer was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kim Seung Min is one of the most prominent North Korean defectors. The son of a famous North Korean poet, Min became disillusioned with North Korea after serving 10 years in the Army as a propaganda officer. He escaped to China, was captured and returned to North Korea, where he was tortured. He escaped again by jumping off a train and wound up in South Korea. In April 2004, he launched Free North Korea Radio. He said that every month, North Korea threatens to blow up the radio station. "It is important to learn about freedom and human rights. That's why we are continuing this broadcasting."
Ali Afshari is an important leader in the Iranian student movement, which is on the cutting edge of the reform movement in Iran. He helped mobilize Iranian civil society to vote for reform-minded candidates in historic 1998 city council elections, the first such elections in Iranian history. As a result of his activism, Ali was jailed for three years, including 400 days in solitary confinement. Today, he is living in the United States. Afshari said, "Freedom is not something that is given to us. Mankind must constantly work for freedom and never take it for granted. The Iranian people will not give up the fight, despite how difficult or arduous the struggle may be."
Manouchehr Mohammadi is another important leader of the Iranian student movement. For his involvement in the massive student uprisings of 1999, he was sentenced to death by the Iranian regime. His sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison. But after his brother mysteriously died in prison in August 2006, Mohammadi escaped from Iran and arrived in the United States in October. "Today, students all over Iran are fighting for their freedom," he said. "Due to the support and integrity of organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and people like President Havel, our stories are heard and don't get lost."
At the event, Havel received awards from both the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. A question-and-answer session followed.
The webcast of Václav Havel's speech can be accessed on the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.