Speaking with the Voiceless: Principles and Perspectives.

litbonanza.jpgFor all who were lucky enough to see Stephen Lewis at UBC’s recent Student Leadership Conference, consider yourself honoured. It is to my continual wonderment that he can speak as he does without crashing into a sobbing heap. I would. It only takes seeing him persevere in such a talk where others would falter to imagine his perseverance in the field – a character of magnanimity, poise, and passion.

I’d like to call your attention to Stephen’s notion of leadership in order to make a distinction. He vociferated that the first quality of leadership was an unwavering set of principles; a steadfast idea of right and wrong, some rock to cling to when the world around you is in chaos. When you follow such a leader you know what you’re voting for. You are following a set of principles that you and your leader can adhere to, and this solidifies the relationship between the leader and the led.

What I claim is, in a confusing world, following a strong-principled leader is a simple and attractive prospect. However, this does not imply such unwavering principles are necessary for good leadership; in fact sometimes they are not only unnecessary, but serve to stunt social progress.

Bear with me for a moment now, as this distinction is not obvious, or exclusive. Stephen himself is a shining example of a strong-principled and successful leader. What I mean to highlight by saying unwavering principles are not an integral part of leadership is that there are many ways to lead. This might not seem intuitive, but I think I can make a case for it.

In Vietnam, we (in the Western sense) had an unwavering set of principles. Here, we were completely misunderstood. In Vietnam (it is termed the American War, for those who didn’t know), the approach was “Here are my principles! How are you living?” It lacked an all too important sense of perspective. This, of course, resulted in a quagmire of challenges.

Perhaps by conjecture, this experience is a reason why no one is in Burma right now – it’s because America is scared shitless of a situation they don’t understand. Vietnam II anyone?

And still we throw our masculine bulk about. The UN decides to stop trading with a regime in Burma they disagree with. Well no one exactly agrees with a terrorizing repressive military junta, but has keeping Burma isolated helped in the past? Burma has been in a bubble for over forty years – stewing, bubbling into a veritable powder keg. And the junta has a lid on it, barely. And what are we doing? Well we’re too afraid to go, so all we can do is stop talking to them, stop trading with them. Very clever. The UN tells China to put trade embargoes in effect. But don’t you think China would know a bit more about South East Asian diplomacy than we do? Perhaps China’s perspective in these matters is more nuanced. China is not stupid. I repeat; China is not stupid. You could boycott their Olympics and not help Burma in the slightest. Just more Western bullshit.

There is light, and it shines in Imbrahim Gambari, the UN special envoy to the area – notably, not a Westerner by birth. Reading his articles in Thai newspapers, his approach is one of integration and understanding – he talks to people; asks them what their principles are. He says not “Here are my principles! How are you living?” but rather “How are you living? What are your principles?” I have no doubt that Gambari also holds strong principles (by conjecture), but it is not his unbending principles that will lead to change, but an openness of mind more typical of a feminine approach, an Eastern approach. For an Eastern country I find this quite apt.

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At the end of the conference our student leaders had a chance to pose Stephen some questions. And then her angelic voice rang out “I too have a love affair with Africa.” All I could think was who here has a love affair with my Burma? Darfur made media, but 50 years in Burma have produced only snippets for the world to see. This last media splash was fortuitous, but the problem is still there and still under shroud.

So under shroud in fact, that it has only just appeared on the MSF (Doctors without Borders) list of the top 10 underreported humanitarian stories of 2007. The article acknowledges the Burmese plight since 1962, when the military junta seized power. The MSF article puts a voice to Burma’s plight; but the lack of Burma on such lists for the last forty-six years mightily screams their persecution in silence. MSF has highlighted refugees, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, drug resistance, and access to essential medicines in previous humanitarian lists. But only just now Burma – yet each of these concerns is working in concert to cripple Burma from within.

There are half a million (and likely more) internally displaced persons in Burma, and a hundred and fifty thousand in Thai refugee camps, according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium. There are camps in India as well, and untold deaths undocumented within the country. HIV/AIDS runs rampant and resistant malaria strains abound in great force. There is no appropriate scale for atrocity, but if your hearts go out to Darfur then send some love to Burma too.

One closing thought, and one to bring up those issues of principles and perspective. There is nothing more powerful than going and seeing it for yourself. Find some way to volunteer if you’re interested. Although, you can do much here, it is away from here where your foundations will be rocked to the core. Stephen went to Ghana when he was young. I just got back from Thailand/Burma. It matters to have people moved by the things they see. You don’t have to pretend you are unselfishly desiring some perspective. Volunteering is for you, too.

To the lovely girl who spoke of her longing to go to Africa: go and learn. Because until Africa loves you back this is no love affair, this is an infatuation.

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Once, Josh thought he was a physicist. Even an astronaut hopeful. Then he thought biology was neat (still does), and proceeded to become deeply dissatisfied with UBC regulations mandating my attendence at Chem 205 and other uninspired classes which were thought to be no less than highway robbery at ~ $500 a pop. After three and a half years he has landed in a combined honours math and biology degree; a degree with a name any grad school could love, without a trace of the indecision that produced it. In two years Josh will be a math grad student, full time mountaineer, math and science teacher in Burmese refugee camps, or a wandering treeplanter/vagabond of Northern BC, with near equal probability.