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Eleanor Matthews has published 2 articles

A Candle in the Wind

Does protest really make a difference?
Eleanor Matthews on Thursday 22nd May 2008
Photograph: Library Image

Dr Binayak Sen is a human rights protestor and a public health specialist, imprisoned by the Indian Government for supposed links to the Maoist movement, an allegation which he strongly denies.

Like thousands of forgotten or little-known political prisoners, his plight is unfortunately only as important as the international community decides it is.

But now Binayak has received the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights award and, on the 14 of May, protests were held around the globe in support of his right to receive it.

Their protests were no doubt entirely peaceful, small, law-abiding, well-considered, andlargely ineffectual.

At a recent discussion at the Maison Francaise about the 1968 Parisian Riots, members of student societies across the political spectrum agreed that public apathy - the reluctance of our generation to join in large scale protest - was more about circumstance than culture.

The kind of protests we see in this country are largely peaceful and restrained because they are about things which are removed from everyday life.

It may sound trite but it is true that human nature allows us to feel outrage and empathy at the plight of Dr Sen but not the visceral national anger we felt about the poll tax.

Often we get more impassioned about local post office closures than the atrocities in Darfur, and there is very little point either trying to excuse this or flagellating ourselves about it.

Nor should we belittle the subjectivity of protests - only about one person in a thousand has the kind of personality which will allow them to put their life in danger.

More of us than we imagine probably have the capacity to do so for something which directly affects us.

We have lost our belief in protest as a cultural force or even a cultural phenomenon. Many of us, instead of choosing to show our dissent and disillusionment by joining an organised group or movement, now do so by abandoning politics altogether.

But this is by no means a universal state. Worldwide, the last year has been one in which protests have rarely been out of the headlines.

We have watched as the citizens of Burma, Kenya and Tibet have demanded the world’s attention. Before last September only a handful of campaigners knew the full extent of the Burmese military junta’s atrocities.

Not even experts predicted the monks’ uprising, but now, at a rather high price, the government’s oppressive policies have become apparent to the world, as well as the extraordinary courage of those opposed to them.

However, this has not alleviated the plight of the Burmese, nor have the international statements of solidarity or the thousands of letters and petitions calling for a halt to the violence.

So what is the point of a protest? Is it to show solidarity or is it to provoke action, and does it matter if it is successful? It’s back to that old irritating question about whether a tree falling in a forest can make a sound if no one is around to hear it.

If, as a recent facebook event invited me to do, I light a candle in my window before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games to show my solidarity with Tibet, does it matter that no one is likely to see it apart from the sheep in the field next door?

Is that little vigil at all the same as setting myself on fire in outrage?

It’s probably in rather bad taste to even suggest that the two actions are the same and I’m sure that none of the organisers of the event would condone a comparison.

Yet under different circumstances, outside the protection of a Western democracy, both could be potentially dangerous acts and I would not like to think too hard about whether I would still light a candle if the stakes were higher.

Although we are very lucky to live in a society where we have the right to protest, this does not mean this right is completely enshrined.

Is it more important than ever to protest in a society in which we now can request police permission to assemble in parliament square and do so, or should we count our blessings and focus on those who can voice no dissent at all?

Should we be more concerned that our own rights to protest are being curtailed than about protecting the rights of others or is that missing the point of protest altogether?

If politics is all about exposure and spin, the way in which events appear and the way in which they are reported, then in a sense acts of protest have one thing in common - their context affects their impact and significance.

We are probably much more likely to be able to change the mind of our government than we are that of Burma.

But to protest is also a rebellion against the idea that you have to work directly through the political system to achieve your aims.

This of course is widely dependent on what kind of system you are protesting within - a flawed democracy with a sometimes slightly dubious human rights record or a one party state with an extremely dubious human rights record.

However, now that events are interpreted internationally as well as nationally, these two worlds often collide.

Whether you think that protest is helpful or not, the sight of Chinese security guards clothed in blue jostling and threatening protestors among the path of the Thames as they ‘guarded’ the Olympic torch cannot have failed to send a slight shiver up the spine, or to remind us that we are never as far removed from the effects of political oppression as we might think.

This is why it is distressing that the outcome of the Burmese protests was not conclusive in the quest to achieve democracy, despite the fact that they had so much impact on international consciousness.

Binayak Sen’s wife Iliana argues that she and her husband are part of a wider movement supporting dissent, but this is not dissent for its own sake but the ability to improve life for his community.

To consider protesting worthwhile for just its symbolic value is not a luxury any of us really has.

Comments

Fil Munas
Thank you much for Eleanor Matthews' thoughtful article regarding Dr. Binayak Sen. I knew him in medical school and can attest to his gentle and caring nature. I find it utterly preposterous and unjust that the present government of the state of Chhattisgarh in India, very similar in my opinion to the one the Dark Lord, Voldemort, planned to establish in the Harry Potter universe, could incarcerate Dr. Sen on what I believe are just fabricated and bogus charges. It reflects very poorly on India as a whole. It seems to me that even merely thinking that the Maoists may have a point regarding the surly manner powerless and dispossessed people are treated in Chhattisgarh, is a crime - a "thought crime." George Orwell was right after all, this type of madness can and does exist!