Home / Opinion / Meeting Vaclav Havel

Of all the revolutions of 1989, perhaps the most exhilarating one was in Prague. It was in Czechoslovakia in 1968 that Alexander Dubcek defied the Soviet might only to see the Prague Spring smothered by Soviet troops, a period captured so vividly in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When the students, artists, and workers began to march to reclaim their freedom in 1989, it had a special meaning; they were resuming the unfinished business of 1968.

The crowd erupted with joy on 17 November that year at Wenceslas Square when Dubcek emerged on a balcony to speak. That was poetic justice, and standing next to Dubcek was the playwright and dissident, Vaclav Havel. Czechoslovakia soon elected its philosopher-king—Havel was a thoughtful, reflective man with a deep moral impulse. He left the office quietly when his time was up, returning to writing plays and mingling with writers, which he liked the most. One of his books was To The Castle and Back, suggesting the temporariness of being in the castle; he always meant to go back, to his home.

In my years in journalism I have been lucky in getting to meet four great democrats of our time—Havel, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi. These individuals have stood tall against tyrants and paid the price by being jailed or living in exile. Comparisons are never easy and often odious. Depending on the litmus test applied, any of them would come out on the top, depending on the criteria. Commitment to non-violence? The Dalai Lama. Forgiveness towards one’s tormentors? Mandela. Courage under pressure? Aung San Suu Kyi. But Havel was special because he combined those virtues and spoke truth to power with hard-headed moral clarity, wielding power judiciously. He was to win the Nobel Prize—but he suggested Aung San Suu Kyi’s name instead. As the US Capitol unveiled a bust in Havel’s honour on Monday, marking the Wenceslas Square anniversary, it is time to tell a story.

In mid-1990s when I was a foreign correspondent in Singapore, Mandela and Havel were both in office and visited Singapore. At a news conference, one of us immediately asked Mandela the inevitable question: would he support his fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest in Myanmar, and thus challenge the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which had been pursuing a policy of constructive engagement with the military junta that ruled Myanmar? Mandela had been a strong critic of constructive engagement, as a business-like and conciliatory policy towards the apartheid regime came to be known during the Reagan era. From his prison on Robben Island, Mandela’s message to the West was clear—impose strict sanctions on South Africa. But many leaders in the West tended to see him as a Communist and a terrorist, and they delayed imposing effective sanctions until very late, by which time the Soviet Empire had begun to unravel, making the strategic importance of an anti-Communist ally in southern Africa less valuable. Surely Mandela would rise to the occasion?

But he declined. He said, as presidents do, that he did not wish to interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar or Asean, and he wished Aung San Suu Kyi well. He also parried a follow-up question about taking up the case of a political detainee in Singapore, who had spent more than two decades in jail. “That was prisoner Mandela; this is President Mandela; and a president is a prisoner of the presidential palace," he said while leaving for his next appointment.

A few months later Havel came calling. At that time, East Asian leaders—in particular Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed—often spoke against human rights as a Western construct, saying that Asian values were different from Western values. Havel had long argued for universal values, and considered human rights to be the foundation of any society. At his news conference I asked him if he thought Asian values were, indeed, different from Western values, and if he disagreed, would he challenge his hosts’ view? He thought for a moment, frowned, and stared at me, saying, of course not; there were only universal values, and indeed he would tell his hosts they were wrong.

Havel wasn’t perfect; nobody is. But look at South Africa today, where free speech and women’s rights face severe threats. The Dalai Lama has never had the opportunity to use political power. Aung San Suu Kyi may not get to run for office if the parliament won’t amend Myanmar’s discriminatory constitution, despite her gestures—she has muted early criticism of the army and refused to criticize Buddhist militancy. In comparison, Havel looks good. As Orwell wrote of Gandhi: “Regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political leaders of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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