Chiang Mai, THAILAND
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
In the wells of silence.
from “Sounds of Silence,” by Simon & Garfunkel
The attempts by oppressive governments to silence opposition have carried well into the modern day, without signs of letting up. Despite international pressures and multilateral condemnations, regimes such as Burma, China, and Iran, still employ disproportionate force, unlawful detention, and an array of human rights abuses, in their effort to repress dissident voices. The US is not innocent of these charges (Guantanamo Bay is a sad blot on our ironic boasts of freedom from fear and the right to due process of law). Sadly, these repressive measures are often most effective when the regime calling the shots is able to impose radio silence, block internet access, and bar outside media.
In what is now called the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the world learned of the Burmese military crackdown on unarmed monks and civilians, marching across the country in peaceful protest. We watched in horror as Burmese army troops indiscriminately gunned down people in the street, loading prisoners into trucks, and beating and arresting anyone caught with a camera, even shooting dead the Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai. The only video reports to leave the country were contributed by countless citizen journalists, mostly filming with cell phones at great personal risk. After the violent subjugation of its own people, Burma has mostly reverted to silence, while its opposition has been splintered and debilitated by the junta. And yet, organizers continue to work in secret. Elliott Prasse-Freeman warns of the effects of silence,
When people are significantly dominated politically – and when almost any act can always be interpreted as a political one – silence comes to deafen much of the population (punctuated by moments of collective eruptions at the indignity and oppression of it all – 1988, 1996, 2007 – before silence descends again).¹
In the words of Simon & Garfunkel, “And no one dared disturb the sound of silence…silence like a cancer grows.” This culture of fear is self-replicating. Fear breeds distrust, and distrust instills widespread avoidance of sensitive topics like politics. Again, Prasse-Freeman: “In this regard the state gets something for nothing.”
In March 2008, Chinese security forces responded with force to a peaceful protest by Tibetan monks in and around the old capital, Lhasa. In response, large-scale riots broke out across the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Human Rights Watch explains,
In order to avoid external or independent scrutiny of the security operations, the Chinese authorities effectively locked down the entire Tibetan plateau and dispatched massive numbers of troops across all Tibetan-inhabited areas. It expelled journalists and foreign observers, restricted travel to and within the region, cut or monitored telecommunications and internet, and arrested anyone suspected of reporting on the crackdown.²
The area remains under heavy military occupation. Hao Peng, Vice Chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, claims “the heavy security in Lhasa was only necessary because forces outside Tibet, led by the Dalai Lama, were trying to stir up trouble.”³ This rhetorical “stability” is the reason for massive clampdowns on civic freedoms from Burma to Tibet.
In Iran’s 2009 election protests, some held hope of regime change. Around the protests, which came to be known as the Green Revolution (the color of the opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s campaign), the regime tried to ban internet use and all media access in an attempt to close the events unfolding Iran to the eyes of the outside world. The citizens’ extensive tweets and cell phone videos brought the world’s attention to one now famous death: that of Neda Agha-Soltan. She bled to death on video, and she became a hero for reform at the crest of the wave of opposition in Tehran.
Burma, China, and Iran are no longer able to keep their brutal suppression of citizen action a secret. But the people of these countries still live in fear and lack the freedom and the collective means to express their political opinions. Yet hope remains to some: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still an emblem of democracy for Burmese people living in the country, as well as exiles, refugees, and ex-political prisoners. Tibetans still worship the Dalai Lama in secret, though the act remains illegal. There are those who still cherish hope, a vision for revolutionary change. To revert to song once more, “a vision softly creeping | Left its seeds while I was sleeping, | And the vision that was planted in my brain | Still remains | Within the sound of silence.”
¹ Prasse-Freeman, Elliott, “Retaking Power in Burma (Pt. 1),” in Democratic Voice of Burma, July 26, 2010. See <http://www.dvb.no/analysis/retaking-power-in-burma-pt-i/10923>.
² Human Rights Watch, “China: Witnessses Lift Veil on Abuses by Security Forces in Tibet,” July 21, 2010.
³ Grammaticas, Damian, “No Room to Talk in ‘Stable’ Tibet,” in BBC News, July 15, 2010.