Thursday, 6 December 2012

Uganda's Foreign Affairs Minister fronted for UN Assembly Chair

It is several months away but the next United Nations’ General Assembly, could be chaired by a Ugandan. The presidency of the Assembly is held on a regional rotational basis for a period of one year, and the next term which commences in September 2013 is the turn for Eastern Africa. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sam Kahamba Kutesa, has been fronted by government as a candidate for the position. Born in 1949, when the General Assembly had been four years in existence, Kutesa has been steering Uganda’s foreign policy since 2005 when he appointed to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The General Assembly is one of the six principal organs of the world body and provides a forum for representation and discussion for the 193 UN member states on a one-state-one-vote basis on issues raised. If elected, Kutesa would be president at a time when Uganda, together with Rwanda, has been fingered by a UN report for supporting rebels in D.R. Congo which could come up for discussion in the Assembly or one of the UN organs. (Published in People in the news section, Daily Monitor, December 5 2012)

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Meles Zenawi: A revolutionary bows out

It finally happened! After months of speculation about his absence fuelling many rumours about his health or death depending which side of the story you listened to, state-owned media in Ethiopia announced the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Asres early Tuesday morning.

It was made in a terse statement: “Prime Minister Zenawi suddenly passed away last night. Meles was recovering in a hospital overseas for the past two months but died of a sudden infection at 11:40 (on Monday night).” Though it did not divulge much in the way of words, the announcement revealed more in what is between the lines. So, it was true that he was seriously ill and was being treated in a hospital outside Ethiopia. And not on vacation at a location within the country as the government spokesperson had said in response to the rumours around his months-long absence from the public.

Since early July, there had been varying reports whether he was abroad for treatment or somewhere in the country. The government’s attempts to pour cold water on questions about the Prime Minister only seemed to add more fuel to the fire. Eyebrows were raised even higher when he missed an African Union summit that was held in his own backyard, Addis Ababa. The first time he had not attended the event since he came to power in 1991. Perhaps he was following his doctors’ advice “to rest after experiencing exhaustion resulting from long years of service without a break” as Ethiopia’s communications minister Bereket Simon said.

As Ethiopia appears at the crossroads on the direction it will take, Zenawi’s legacy is equally split. While there is a lot of good that will be credited to his leadership, there is also lot of blame that will put on him. Under his leadership, there was impressive economic growth, reduced infant mortality and HIV/AIDS infection rates as well as improved food security according to statistics though the usual challenges that dog developing countries remained.

He may have pushed for national development but severely curtailed democracy and personal freedoms; he brooked no opposition and crushed his opponents. While at the helm, he led his country into a disastrous war with neighbouring Eritrea that still has repercussions, and got sucked into the Somali conflict. Was it out of geopolitical considerations considering Ethiopia’s place in the volatile Horn of Africa region or was it positioning himself within Western interests in the area for self-preservation? It was a bit of both.

Born Legesse Zenawi in May 1955, to an Ethiopian father and a mother from Eritrea, he adopted the Meles as a nom de guerre during the war against Haile Mariam Mengistu’s government. Upon toppling that government, as head of the rebels he became a transitional president from 1991 to 1995. Following a change in the constitution and secession of Eritrea, he became an executive prime minister from 1995 up to this year.

And what a year it is turning out to be, a number of African leaders have died in office including Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi and John Atta Mills of Ghana; and for Meles Zenawi, it is just another one bites the dust.

Monday, 13 August 2012

When the high and mighty commit the unforgivable sin

Just like in Christianity, there is the unforgivable sin, in journalism it is perhaps plagiarism. And when it is an internationally celebrated columnist and television show host from one of the internationally reputable media networks, it is akin to an angel coming down from heaven to dine with the Devil. Fareed Zakaria, who writes a regular commentary in TIME magazine and hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS, a world affairs show on CNN, was suspended after plagiarism was uncovered in an article he wrote on gun control. A paragraph in Zakaria’s article “The Case for Gun Control” was suspiciously similar to an earlier feature by Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard University. The similarity was picked up the Mediabusters website and quickly spread across cyberspace forcing Zakaria to apologise for the “lapse” (Apparently, it was not the first time as this note shows). Born in India in 1964, Zakaria is now an American citizen who holds a Bachelor’s degree from Yale College and a PhD from Harvard University, and has received various honours for his work which includes as a best-selling author. Now, all that could come crashing down because of a mere paragraph. Will he ever get past that? For the journalism fraternity in Uganda, it is a point to ponder: How many of our journalists are plagiarising other people’s work?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Are there are hidden hands behind Sudan's oil war?

Once again Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir waved his walking stick in the air. Once again he spoke of splendid victories over his enemies as thousands of jubilant supporters danced and cheered. But this time around the stakes are too high. An all out war against newly independent South Sudan might not be in Sudan's best interest. South Sudan's saber-rattling is not an entirely independent initiative; its most recent territorial transgressions - which saw the occupation of Sudan's largest oil field in Heglig on April 10, followed by a hasty retreat ten days later - might have been a calculated move aimed at drawing Sudan into a larger conflict. Read more here

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Why you need a fire drill for your home


The shrill sound of an alarm interrupted my train of thought and distracted me from the task I was concentrating on. At first, I thought that someone somewhere in the building had accidentally triggered off the alarm or even set it off to pull off a Monday morning prank.

Being just a client at this place, I was at loss at what to do next as the people who work there seemed reluctant to leave their desks or work stations. Security officers herded us out of the building into the courtyard for the drill as the whole place was put on lockdown. There were gripes about how the fire alarms kept going off and why they should be subjected to fire drills, as security officers emphasised that it was very necessary.

At the website,, a fire drill is explained thus: “...a method of practising the evacuation of a building for a fire or other emergency. Generally, the emergency system (usually an alarm) is activated and the building is evacuated as though a real fire had occurred. Usually, the time it takes to evacuate is measured to ensure that it occurs within a reasonable length of time, and problems with the emergency system or evacuation procedures are identified to be remedied.”

Prior to this experience, I had never undergone a fire drill or, in this case, been caught up in one. But with the frequent reports of fire outbreaks in schools, business premises, markets and homes, knowing what to do in case of a fire is not only necessary but very important. It could save a life or lives.

Statistics from the Uganda Police Fire Brigade show that in January alone, there were 70 cases of fire reported in the Kampala city area and neighbouring districts. By the middle of the following month, there were 44 cases and five people injured. Basing on such figures, it is safe to guesstimate that by the end of March, there have been about 100 cases countrywide, both reported and unreported. In an earlier interview with Daily Monitor, the Training Officer at Fire Brigade Headquarters, Stephen Engwedu pointed out, “...fires in homes are caused due to negligence. They are usually caused by candles, short circuits, poorly maintained appliance, unattended to charcoal stoves, and a few arson cases.”

In some countries, fire drills in different types of places are governed by set laws, statutes or regulations. In the US, it is a requirement that fire drills are conducted at certain intervals though this varies from state to state. For instance, in some states, schools are obliged to carry out these drills once a month, others stipulate that there should be a greater frequency at the start of the school year, and in others, they should include a security drill. In UK, the Fire Precautions (Workplaces) Regulations say that all workplaces must have an emergency plan consisting of staff actions, evacuation plans and arrangements for contacting the fire brigade.

But these are countries with well developed fire and emergency response structures and systems. In Uganda, while there is a police department to cater for such emergencies, there are a number of challenges that hinder efficient response mechanisms. There are only eight towns in the country outside the capital city that have fire stations; these are Arua, Gulu, Mbale, Tororo, Jinja, Masaka, Fort Portal and Hoima. To fill the gap, there are a number of companies that sell and service equipment like fire extinguishers, fire alarms and smoke detectors. But this capacity is inadequate in face of the frequency of fire outbreaks.

One of the measures that the police have initiated is to set up a sensitisation team to educate people about protection against fires. But as Engwedu acknowledges that there are bottlenecks with such an approach. It centres on the attitude and mindset. “But people have not taken safety seriously”, he said.

Considering that 50 per cent of people who die in home fires were trying to escape when they died and that a fire can engulf a house with a few minutes from the time it started, it is only prudent that a home owner in Uganda should craft a fire drill for his or her home in case of such an emergency.

Here are general pointers on how one can do this. These cover pre-planning, an initial inspection of the home, developing a checklist, formulating a drill and the factors unique to the home that should be taken into account.

In the pre-planning stage, one should think about how the escape will be made from every room in the house, starting with the bedrooms. It is advised that the two escape routes, the second may be through a window. A decision should be made on where to assemble everyone outside once the escape has been made. In addition, define everyone’s role and allocate responsibility.

A checklist includes questions which can be developed after the home owner has performed an inspection all over the house. Though not set in stone, some questions are on safety, obstacles and potential triggers of fires: “Does a grown-up always stay in the kitchen when food is cooking on the stove?” “Are pot handles turned inward so they cannot be bumped?” “Are extension cords used safely?” “Are electrical cords in good condition, without cracks or frayed areas?” “Is there clutter in corridors and other access points?”

The first step in formulating a fire drill is a meeting with members of the household. “Hold a family meeting and discuss various ways on how you can evacuate your home safely and promptly in the event of a fire,” advises in its seven steps on to conduct a home fire drill.
Factors are particular to your home are vital to consider in the drill. For example, are there young children, people with disabilities or frequent visitors, times when it is a full house or is the home mostly empty?

How regularly to carry out the drill is dependent on the nature of the home but as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW), US, points out in its general guidelines and policy: “Proper drills ensure orderly exit under control and prevent the panic that has been responsible for much of the loss of life in the major fire disasters of history.”

In the same vein, there should a record of all drills conducted as well as a critique. In the case of the fire drill that I was part of, I hope it was noted that there was reluctance in the participation. This is a potential pitfall that a home owner should take note of. In the UW guidelines, this is also noted: “If a fire exit drill is considered merely as a routine exercise....there is a grave danger that in an actual fire, the drill will fail in its intended purpose.” Worth noting is that drills should be pre-planned and pre-announced so as not to breed apprehension and cause passivity to future alarms.

A review of the exercise conducted at home with all participants is vital. It helps the persons responsible to take note of the loop holes, pitfalls and areas for improvement. In this regard, it would be only prudent that any home owner who develops a fire drill on his or her initiative to make use of the technical personnel and resources. In Uganda, the police and private service providers would be helpful.

We should be mindful of the fact that whether it is a mansion in suburbs of Kampala, a three-bedroomed house in Kasese or a manyatta in Nakapiririt, there are always resources available in the vicinity that can be used to warn of a fire or put out one. These can be a smoke detector, a whistle or a horn, a fire extinguisher, water or sand.

Published in Daily Monitor (, Wednesday 4 April 2012 in Homes and Design section

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Out of Mali, back in Kenya: From one incident to another

It is probably a question of whether being away from home is a more comfortable option that being back home for Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Moses Wetangula. After being stuck for days of uncertainty in Mali, where he had gone to attend an African Union meeting, following a military coup, he arrived back in Kenya on Sunday night.

Even before he has had time to take a breather, the parliament has requested an explanation from him on a report purportedly bearing a logo of UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office which seemed to suggest that an arrest warrant should be issued for President Mwai Kibaki for 2007-2008 post-election violence. MPs then had urged him to initiate severing relations with UK over its perceived interference in Kenya’s politics.

In response, Wetangula said, “I have absolutely no difficulty discussing the issue if a substantive Motion in accordance with the rules of the House is brought to this floor.” If he thought they had forgotten about this while he was away, he better find an answer a.s.a.p. Even the darkest night breaks into dawn, with the recent cabinet reshuffle, he does not have to go through that anymore.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Going green: What that means for Ugandan homes

With climate change becoming more of a reality each passing day than the abstract idea of yesteryear and the push to be environmentally conscious coming to fore in the way we live, the idea of going green will increasingly be reflected in the way we design our homes.

What is now known as green housing or green architecture or green construction started as a niche field in architectural designing but has steadily become mainstream as more elements of it were integrated in the buildings to make them environmentally friendly and efficient.

As the interior design and architecture website, observes, “All around us is talk of going green, reducing carbon footprint and stopping pollution.

Human activities in the name of technological progress over the centuries have had the effect of damaging the ozone layer to such an irreparable extent, we simply have to sit up and take notice. Green building is now the new watchword for construction around the world.”

Generally, there is a wide variety to what would comprise this term, as such definition takes into account the several common aspects. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, “A Green Building can thus be defined as a high-performance building designed, built, operated and disposed of in a resource-efficient manner with the aim to minimise the overall (negative) impact on the built environment, human health and the natural environment.

Some examples of green building features are choice of site and orientation, efficient use of materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation.”

Though it has caught on in the US, Latin America, Europe, Australia and some parts of Asia like fast-developing China, in other parts of the world such as developing countries, it may seem a fairly long way off.

In fact in some American and European cities, there are rules and regulations as well as guidelines on how to build green and the features to take consideration.

In places like Uganda, the thinking may be that the fuss of reducing carbon footprints and adapting an eco-friendly lifestyle is one of those lofty Western ideals. But there are certain aspects of building and use that will most likely make both designers and home owners in Uganda seek to incorporate some elements of green housing.

As was noted in a 2010 special report on green technology in Time magazine: “Much of green architecture comes from design—making use of natural light and other features to cut down on energy waste; but smarter building materials can make a difference as well.”

One of the biggest concerns of any Ugandan home owner, especially in the capital city, municipalities and towns, would be the cost and use of energy. Since it is mostly in the urban areas where the energy sources is predominantly hydro-electric power, ways of reducing the cost and dependence on it as well as getting alternatives will be sought.

Energy efficiency
Green housing emphasises the conservation of energy and promotes energy efficiency. With the rates of electricity on the rise and the supply increasingly erratic, it is only prudent that the alternatives to fill the gap or ways to curb costs are considered.

A unit of electricity for domestic users is charged at almost Shs500 from Shs426 previously, the rationing of power supply varies anywhere from three hours to 12 hours, and petrol or diesel generators, apart from being noisy, have their own shortcomings; this will nudge people to contemplate eco-friendly forms of energy for their homes.

Already, the popularity of energy-saver bulbs for lighting is a useful pointer. It is also worth noting that a Ministry of Energy-World Bank initiative, a few years ago, helped deepen this when about 300,00/500,000 such bulbs are distributed house to house to replace the energy-consuming 80- and 100-watt bulbs that were being used.

Alternative power
Solar energy for lighting and for running certain home appliances is already being utilised in a number of homes. The prospect of wind energy is also equally attractive as an option to consider while modelling homes to make them more green.

While appearing on KFM’s Hard Talk, a radio talk show, a few months ago, the Minister of State for Energy, Simon D’Ujanga, revealed that there were government-commissioned studies that would be carried on the viability of wind energy.

In addition, there is ongoing research at the Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC), based at Makerere University, on bio-energy that is more appropriate to our situation and would be of interest in applying it in homes, other kinds of buiding and industries, both small-scale and large-scale.

Water use
Besides conservation of energy, another aspect of green housing that would lead to its adoption in Uganda is the efficient water use. “The goal of creating a well-built green home is to end with a structurally sound, energy efficient, best air quality, more sustainable, water wise, inhabitant-healthy and practical home,” writes Steve Feller, an expert in green building, on Factoidz website.

With estimates showing that a water carrier (WC) toilet system alone can account for up to 30 per cent of the water used in home, any way of minimising these bills would be a welcome idea. It is common to find a pit latrine within the premises in many Uganda homes, and this in some way cuts down the use of water in the WC toilet, though the reason for this may be as a Plan B for those when there is no running water coming into the house.

Another area of a house that uses a lot of water is the kitchen. This is where techniques of rainwater harvesting, either via the roof or other means, and reuse of waste water from homes would make green housing catch on.

Appropriate technology and use of locally available materials to construct, if backed by some kind of institutionalised support, would take a sizeable chunk out of the cost of building homes in developing countries like Uganda. This will most likely encourage people to take advantage of green housing.

In a keynote address to a meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, Dr Joan Clos, UN-Habitat Executive Director, said “Together, UN-Habitat and UNEP are engaged in promoting low-carbon practices in the housing sector by means of capacity building and technical assistance to governments and housing institutions.”

With lesser upfront costs of construction and minimised running costs, green building definitely provides worthwhile benefits to home owner, and it is a matter of when not if green building will be the norm in Uganda.

Published in the Daily Monitor newspaper

Friday, 17 February 2012

Let's Us Save This "Something for Nothing" Generation

I picked this from a post from a Facebook post, original author was not named...but the issues he or she addresses are pertinent and I totally agree with what he or she puts forward.

Friends, let me add the benefit of my time as a student and then resident in the UK-and I live in Kampala now.

The first thing that I discovered about UK-born,white, English undergraduates was that all of them did holiday or weekend job to support themselves-including the children of millionaires amongst them.

It is the norm over there- regardless how wealthy their parents are. And I soon discovered that virtually all other foreign students did the same-the exception being those of us status-conscious Ugandans.

I also watched Richard Branson (owner of Virgin Airline) speaking on the Biography Channel and, to my amazement, he said that his young children travel in the economy class-even when the parents (he and his wife) are in upper class. Richard Branson is a billionaire in Pound Sterling. A quick survey would show you that only children from Uganda fly business or upper class to commence their studies in the UK. No other foreign students do this. There is no aircraft attached to the office of the prime minister in the UK-he travels on BA. And the same goes for the Royals. The Queen does not have an aircraft for her exclusive use.

These practices simply become the culture which the next generation carries forward. But there's one core difference them and us (generally speaking). They (even the billionaires among them) work for their money, we steal ours!

If we want our children to bring about the desired change we have been praying for on behalf of our dear country, then please, please let's begin now and teach them to work hard so they can stand alone and most importantly be content, and not having to "steal", which seem to be the norm these days.

"30 is the new 18", which seem to be the new age for testing out the world in Uganda now. That seems to be an unspoken but widely accepted mind set among the last 2 generations of parents in Uganda.

At age 18 years, a typical young adult in the UK leaves the clutches of his/her parents for the University, chances are, that's the last time those parents will ever play "landlord" to their son or daughter except of course the occasional home visits during the academic year.

At 21 years and above or below, the now fully grown and independent minded adult graduates from University, searches for employment, gets a job and shares a flat with other young people on a journey into becoming fully fledged adults.

I can hear the echo of parents saying, well, that is because the UK economy is thriving, safe, well structured and jobs are everywhere? I beg to differ and I ask that you kindly hear me out. I am a UK trained Recruitment Consultant and I have been practicing for the past 10 years in Uganda. I have a broad range of experience from recruiting graduates to executive director level of large corporations. In addition, I talk from the point of view of someone with relatively privileged upbringing.

Driven to school every day, had my clothes washed for me, was barred from taking any part-time job during my A-levels so that I could concentrate on studying for my exams?! BUT, I got the opportunity to live apart from my parents from age 18 and the only time I came back home to stay was for 3 months before I got married!

Am I saying that every parent should wash their hands off their children at age 18?
No, not at all, of course, I enjoyed the savings that I made from living on and off at my parent's house in London - indeed that is the primary reason for my being able to buy myself a 3 bedroom flat in London at age 25 with absolutely no direct financial help from my parents!

For me, pocket money stopped at age 22, not that it was ever enough for my lifestyle to compete with Paris Hilton 's or Victoria Beckham 's. Meanwhile today, we have Ugandan children who have never worked for 5 minutes in their lives insisting on flying "only" first or business class, carrying the latest Louis Vuitton ensemble, Victoria 's Secret underwear and wearing Jimmy Choo's, fully paid for by their "loving" parents.

I often get calls from anxious parents, my son graduated 2 years ago and is still looking for a job, can you please assist! Oh really! So where exactly is this "child" is my usual question. Why are you the one making this call dad/mum?

I am yet to get a satisfactory answer, but between you and me, chances are that big boy is cruising around Kampala with a babe dressed to the nines, in his dad's spanking new SUV with enough "pocket money" to put your salary to shame. It is not at all strange to have a 28 year old who has NEVER worked for a day in his or her life in Uganda but "earns" a six figure "salary" from parents for doing absolutely nothing.

I see them in my office once in a while, 26 years old with absolutely no skills to sell, apart from a shiny CV, written by his dad's secretary in the office. Of course, he has a driver at his beck and call and he is driven to the job interview.

We have a fairly decent conversation and we get to the inevitable question-so, what salary are you looking to earn? Answer comes straight out- UGX 2,000,000.
I ask if that is per month or per annum.

Of course it is per month. Oh, why do you think you should be earning that much on your first job?

Well, because my current pocket money is UGX 1,000,000 and I feel that an employer should be able to pay me more than my parents.

I try very hard to compose myself, over parenting is in my opinion the greatest evil handicapping the Ugandan youth. It is at the root of our national malaise.

We have a youth population of tens of millions of who are being "breastfed and diapered" well into their 30s. Wake up mum! Wake up dad! You are practically loving your children to death! No wonder corruption continues to thrive. We have a society of young people who have been brought up to expect something for nothing, as if it were a birth right.

I want to encourage you to send your young men and women (anyone over 20 can hardly be called a child!) out into the world, maybe even consider reducing or stopping the pocket money to encourage them to think, explore and strive.
Let them know that it is possible for them to succeed without your "help".

Take a moment to think back to your own time as a young man/woman, what if someone had kept spoon feeding you, would you be where you are today?.
No tree grows well under another tree, children that are not exposed to challenges, don't cook well.

That is why you see adults complaining, “my parents didn't buy clothes for me this Christmas", ask him/her how old they are-30+.
Because of the challenges we faced in our youth, we are where and what we are today, this syndrome-my children will not suffer what I suffered is destroying our tomorrow.

Deliberately reduce their allowance or mum-don't cook on Saturday till late afternoon or evening, do as occasion deserve.

Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young,- ( Henry Ford).
Hard work does not kill, everything in Uganda is going down, including family settings. It is time to rebrand our children, preparing them for tomorrow. We are approaching the season in Uganda where only the RUGGED, will survive. How will your ward fare?

If the present generation of Ugandan pilots retire, will you fly a plane flown by a young Ugandan pilot, If trained in Uganda? People now fly first class, who cannot spell GRADUATE or read an article without bomb blast! Which Way Uganda!, Which Way Ugandans!!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Is Obama eating MLK fruit?

Martin Luther King And The Case For Enlightened Cowardice; Obama Is Eating The Fruit

by Charles Onyango Obbo

[Every Tuesday] the US, nay, the world remembers Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the inspirational African-American civil rights lead that was assassinated in April 1968. He would have turned 83 this year if he hadn’t been finished off.

I think it was in 2001. The Americans had just moved in their new embassy fortress in the outskirts of the Uganda capital, Kampala. I was invited together with one of the most sharp-tongued-and-penned female journalists in Uganda, the deceptively petit Lilliane Barenzi. Our task was to mark Martin Luther King essays, and pronounce the winner of the competition.

The question was whether by advocating for non-violent resistance to racial segregation and injustice, Martin Luther had done the right thing or not. Read more here

Friday, 6 January 2012

Freedom from Fear

Speech by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, 1990

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

Public dissatisfaction with economic hardships has been seen as the chief cause of the movement for democracy in Burma, sparked off by the student demonstrations 1988. It is true that years of incoherent policies, inept official measures, burgeoning inflation and falling real income had turned the country into an economic shambles. But it was more than the difficulties of eking out a barely acceptable standard of living that had eroded the patience of a traditionally good-natured, quiescent people - it was also the humiliation of a way of life disfigured by corruption and fear.

The students were protesting not just against the death of their comrades but against the denial of their right to life by a totalitarian regime which deprived the present of meaningfulness and held out no hope for the future. And because the students' protests articulated the frustrations of the people at large, the demonstrations quickly grew into a nationwide movement. Some of its keenest supporters were businessmen who had developed the skills and the contacts necessary not only to survive but to prosper within the system. But their affluence offered them no genuine sense of security or fulfilment, and they could not but see that if they and their fellow citizens, regardless of economic status, were to achieve a worthwhile existence, an accountable administration was at least a necessary if not a sufficient condition. The people of Burma had wearied of a precarious state of passive apprehension where they were 'as water in the cupped hands' of the powers that be.

Emerald cool we may be_As water in cupped hands_But oh that we might be_As splinters of glass_In cupped hands.
Glass splinters, the smallest with its sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush, could be seen as a vivid symbol of the spark of courage that is an essential attribute of those who would free themselves from the grip of oppression. Bogyoke Aung San regarded himself as a revolutionary and searched tirelessly for answers to the problems that beset Burma during her times of trial. He exhorted the people to develop courage: 'Don't just depend on the courage and intrepidity of others. Each and every one of you must make sacrifices to become a hero possessed of courage and intrepidity. Then only shall we all be able to enjoy true freedom.'

The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule of law. Just laws do not merely prevent corruption by meting out impartial punishment to offenders. They also help to create a society in which people can fulfil the basic requirements necessary for the preservation of human dignity without recourse to corrupt practices. Where there are no such laws, the burden of upholding the principles of justice and common decency falls on the ordinary people. It is the cumulative effect on their sustained effort and steady endurance which will change a nation where reason and conscience are warped by fear into one where legal rules exist to promote man's desire for harmony and justice while restraining the less desirable destructive traits in his nature.

In an age when immense technological advances have created lethal weapons which could be, and are, used by the powefful and the unprincipled to dominate the weak and the helpless, there is a compelling need for a closer relationship between politics and ethics at both the national and international levels. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations proclaims that 'every individual and every organ of society' should strive to promote the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings regardless of race, nationality or religion are entitled. But as long as there are governments whose authority is founded on coercion rather than on the mandate of the people, and interest groups which place short-term profits above long-term peace and prosperity, concerted international action to protect and promote human rights will remain at best a partially realized struggle. There willcontinue to be arenas of struggle where victims of oppression have to draw on their own inner resources to defend their inalienable rights as members of the human family.

The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation's development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences ofdesire, ill will, ignorance and fear.

Saints, it has been said, are the sinners who go on trying. So free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society. Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end. A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.

Always one to practise what he preached, Aung San himself constantly demonstrated courage - not just the physical sort but the kind that enabled him to speak the truth, to stand by his word, to accept criticism, to admit his faults, to correct his mistakes, to respect the opposition, to parley with the enemy and to let people be the judge of his worthiness as a leader. It is for such moral courage that he will always be loved and respected in Burma - not merely as a warrior hero but as the inspiration and conscience of the nation. The words used by Jawaharlal Nehru to describe Mahatma Gandhi could well be applied to Aung San:
'The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view.'
Gandhi, that great apostle of non-violence, and Aung San, the founder of a national army, were very different personalities, but as there is an inevitable sameness about the challenges ofauthoritarian rule anywhere at any time, so there is a similarity in the intrinsic qualities of those who rise up to meet the challenge. Nehru, who considered the instillation of courage in the people of India one of Gandhi's greatest achievements, was a political modernist, but as he assessed the needs for a twentieth-century movement for independence, he found himself looking back to the philosophy of ancient India: 'The greatest gift for an individual or a nation . .. was abhaya, fearlessness, not merely bodily courage but absence of fear from the mind.'

Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear ofdeath, fear oflosing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.

The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement. It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute. At the root of human responsibility is the concept of peffection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man's vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year: Reflections on Life

There is time for new beginnings, resolving unresolved issues, kicking harmful habits, getting rid of "toxic" people in our lives. The start of a new year is opportune to do so but that does not mean we cannot do it at any time, day, minute, second of the year. Happy New Year to all my blog readers

Below are some “moments of clarity” that I felt I should share with you. During the last week of 2011, these formed the basis of my thoughts and reflections on life.

God blesses the child who can hold his/her own. I have learnt many lessons that have enriched my life, sometimes I have got burnt...but still got the courage to keep going on. I appreciate people more in all their diversity, I have been made to understand why we are so different. I now discern things for not what they seem but what they mean. Often confused, but the answers are never far away. #2011 Moments of Clarity

Heart of the matter: In life, most of the things that we fuss over, fret about and are afraid of are at the periphery. It is only if we cut through the maze and tangle, that we get to the heart of the matter. Then, it is not hard to make decisions or choices after all. #2011 Moments of Clarity

Lies and fears. It is hardly surprising that lies are such a big part of living that it is safe for us to believe the lie than know the truth. From the time we are born, we are lied to (and in turn, learn to lie) and until the day we die. Then there is the evil twin: fear, that rules our lives. While we may never get rid of lies, we can overcome fear. #2011 Moments of Clarity

Though there are universally believed lies (e.g. Jesus was born on 25 Dec, 8 glasses of water a day are good for your health, sex is best in marriage), the biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves. If one is able to debunk these lies, he/she truly opens his/her mind #2011 Moments of Clarity

No fear. Our lives are ruled by fear, we are afraid of the unknown, afraid of what could go wrong, we are afraid of what society has made us afraid of. But perhaps the greatest fear is being afraid of death. Since it comes to all, the one who conquers that fear, truly lives a full life. #2011 Moments of Clarity