Thursday, 14 October 2010

Miners, prizes and elections

Few failed to be moved by images of the Chilean miners emerging to meet their families yesterday, in one of the most successful rescue attempts ever. Well ahead of schedule (initial reports had suggested they would be trapped until Christmas) heroic rescuers winched the thirty-three men to the surface after sixty-nine days trapped underground. TV pictures beamed around the world showing crowds of relatives and supporters celebrating with champagne and confetti. Apart from some non-critical infections and lung problems all the miners are healthy and in what could be a positive long-term legacy of what originally began as a tragedy, President Sebastian Pinera announced an official review of mine safety.

It could be the feel-good story of the decade. But it wasn’t the only immensely positive news of the last fortnight; two other pieces have particularly stuck out for me as cause for celebration.

The first – sending cheers throughout human rights movements worldwide – was Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo wining the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Xiaobo, a key player in the Tiananmen Square protests, was recently handed a lengthy jail sentence for drafting Charter 08 – a document signed by numerous senior societal figures in China, that called for democratic reforms and respect for human rights. Despite China’s bullying of the Nobel Committee in the run-up to the announcement (CCP officials brazenly waded in with threats of damage to Norwegian-Chinese relations and bizarre allegations of Western imperialism) the judges stood firm.

Fortunately the converted prize hadn’t been devalued by the frankly ridiculous selection of Barak Obama as last year’s winner (despite having been in office for less than 12 months and having achieved- or sacrificed -very little) and prompted calls for Mr. Xiaobo’s release from around the world including Germany, France, the US and the UK (Japan said it would be "desirable" but shied away from any actual demand). Such prominent recognition for a Chinese human rights defender is a major success story and crucially the publicity generated will make it difficult for David Cameron to avoid discussing human rights issues when he lands in Beijing for talks with the CCP next month.

The second great piece of news came from Central Asia – regarding the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections. After a turbulent coup deposed the authoritarian government earlier this year, horrendous ethnic violence broke out in the South of the country, leaving Kyrgyzstan’s stability hanging in the balance. Yet the elections promised by the transitional government have taken place; more importantly still, they passed of peacefully and -according to independent observers- were both free and fair. This is a first for Central Asia and raises high hopes in a region so blighted by brutal dictators and Islamist extremists that any tangible form of democracy seemed a distant dream.

Of course Kyrgyzstan is not out the woods – not by a long way. “Human error” has led to a recount which, though agreed upon by all parties, leaves huge uncertainties. And the party currently out in front -Ata Zhurt – professes a Kyrgyz nationalist ideology which could potentially destabilize or ignite the fragile ethnic tensions.

Similarly things aren’t all rosy for Liu Xiaobo. Nobel Laureate he may be –but he remains imprisoned and- as the Burmese regime has so callously shown by keeping democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in detention- a Nobel Peace Prize is no guarantee of freedom.

Yet there is now hope where previously it was hard to find any. And it’s now at least conceivable that just as the Chilean miners emotionally returned to their families, so too could Liu Xiaobo soon return to his; and just as the people of Chile have taken to the streets to celebrate the rescue, one day soon the people of Kyrgyzstan may do the same to celebrate their freedom.

It’s been a fortnight for good news.

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