The Soul of a Nation (Vaclav Havel, October 12, 2003, Washington Post)
There are many politicians in the free world who favor seemingly pragmatic cooperation with repressive regimes. During the time of communism, some Western politicians preferred to appease the Czechoslovak thugs propped up by Soviet tanks rather than sustain contacts with a bunch of dissidents. These status-quo Western leaders behaved, voluntarily, much like those unfortunate people who were forced to participate in the massive government rallies: They allowed a totalitarian regime to dictate to them whom to meet and what to say. At that time, people such as the French president, Francois Mitterrand, and the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Max van der Stoel, saved the face of the Western democracies by speaking and acting clearly. By the same token, politicians such as Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople redeem the Asian reputation by not hesitating to speak the truth. The regime in Burma is, as a matter of fact, the disgrace of Asia, just as Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus is the disgrace of Europe and Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba of Latin America.
In Burma, thousands of human lives have been destroyed, scores of gifted people have been exiled or incarcerated and deep mistrust has been sown among the various ethnic groups. Human society is, however, a mysterious creature, and it serves no good to trust its public face at any one moment. Thousands of people welcomed Suu Kyi on her tours, proving that the Burmese nation is neither subjugated nor pessimistic and faithless. Hidden beneath the mask of apathy, there is an unsuspected energy and a great human, moral and spiritual charge. Detaining and repressing people cannot change the soul of a nation. It may dampen it and disguise the reality outwardly, but history has repeatedly taught us the lesson that change often arrives unexpectedly.
“To talk about change is not enough, change must happen,” said Suu Kyi during a tour among her people. The Burmese do not require education for democracy; they are and have always been ready for it.
This is certainly what we on the Right believed of Eastern Europe all through the Cold War, but the docility, even resentment, of the post-war Iraqis has to shake your faith at least a little, doesn’t it? Might people whose faith does not demand freedom in fact tend to become apathetic under tyranny? Or is the desire for freedom, as we’d like to believe, the birthright of all men? On the answer to these questions will turn the decision of whether we can just wait for the end of history to work itself out or whether it will be necessary to forcibly convert sufficiently divergent cultures to our Western faith in liberal values. That’s a decision of awesome moment, so we’d do well to get it right.