The Lady and the Tweet

Can there be an Aung San Suu Kyi in the Twitter era?

This week, Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi will visit the United States for the first time in decades. Newly free after more than 20 years of near-constant detention, she is now an elected parliamentarian. Her visit is, above all, a chance to honor her long struggle for democracy. But it also highlights the vital role individual prisoners of conscience can play in personalizing the abstract rhetoric of human rights -- cutting through the wrenching ambiguities that attend the pursuit of basic universal values in a globalized world. After a week of worldwide protests that could make a moral compass spin, Suu Kyi's visit is a welcome ballast. She is a reminder that even though few human rights struggles end in happily ever after, progress is possible and that while no person or cause is perfect, there are human rights heroes who can inspire. The stories of Suu Kyi and a new wave of celebrated dissidents offer one way to motivate new activists to press for human rights change amid the complexities and tradeoffs of a global politics in which no governments are blame-free. These individuals are inspiring a rising generation to use the tools and devices they know best to mobilize a powerful human rights constituency for the 21st century.

When the international human rights movement began 50 years ago, it centered on campaigns to free "forgotten prisoners," people deprived of their rights to freedom of expression and belief who languished in prisons. As it grew, the movement came known for efforts on behalf of courageous figures challenging totalitarian regimes. Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and later, Suu Kyi herself -- "prisoners of conscience," as Amnesty International designated some -- captured the imagination of activists worldwide, making faraway human rights struggles seem real and immediate. Millions participated in letter-writing campaigns, vigils, and protests, fueling media coverage and pressure for their release -- and, sometimes, powering their political rise. Behind each marquee name were hundreds or thousands of lesser known prisoners whose cases may not have become a cause célèbre, but whose voices were taken up by innovative and tireless grassroots activists around the world. This movement, and the people behind it, made "human rights" a household word and invented what became a new, proven, and powerful way to bring about broad global change.

Building on this success, the human rights movement broadened its work to tackle systemic problems: investigation and documentation of human rights abuses; high-level advocacy; and campaigns for new global treaties and institutions, from weapons bans to the International Criminal Court. In a matter of decades, the movement made important strides in South and Central America, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and -- one hopes -- the Middle East.

The maturing movement faces clear challenges. In a more interdependent and less neatly polarized world, it grows more apparent by the day that Western governments have diminishing political and economic leverage to press for human rights change elsewhere in the world. When leaders don't stress human rights within their foreign policies, the media doesn't focus on it either. The West has also ceded some of what moral credibility it had to champion human rights abroad after the abuses of the U.S. "war on terror" and the mistreatment of migrants in Europe. (China now counters the State Department's annual human rights country reports with reports of U.S. failings, from police brutality to gun violence.) And amid a fragmented 24/7 news cycle, household names like Suu Kyi and Mandela are few and far between. While grassroots human rights work goes on, citizens worldwide don't have a name or face that they associate with the struggles for human rights and freedom in Bahrain, Bosnia, Kosovo, and South Sudan.

The Arab Spring and the unfolding violence over the last week have raised new and deeper questions. The attack on U.S. diplomatic installations leaves it uncertain at best what role the United States and other Western countries can play in promoting human rights, democracy and peace in the Arab world. Since the uprisings began 18 months ago, critics have called out the hypocrisy of the United States in backing protestors in Egypt and Libya while defending the regime in Bahrain.

Watching all this, citizens eager to do something in response to shocking images of people beaten and shot in distant, rubble-filled streets may be confused over who or what to support -- and how. These ambiguities can be a recipe for apathy, as would-be activists conclude that human rights are too fraught and turn to other causes.

Yet in recent months we've been reminded that an individual's plight can stir public passion like nothing else, offering a path for dynamic grassroots activism. By joining in solidarity with citizens worldwide, grassroots activists can find the comfort of being part of a broad movement that stands only for human rights. Whereas the icons of the 1960s and 1970s captured the hearts of activists faraway through their political philosophies and writings, today's prisoners of conscience are connecting to a digital generation through the mediums it loves best: mobile, music, and video. Last spring, on the eve of a U.S-China summit slated to virtually ignore human rights, a blind lawyer stole headlines with his Houdini-like escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Twitter accounts went into overdrive as Chen Guangcheng's personal drama rewrote the summit script, forcing the United States to take a stand for political freedoms through compassion rather than righteous lecturing. His dark sunglasses and ubiquitous cellphone inspired legions of tweets, texts, and emails, upending a carefully choreographed diplomatic encounter and prodding the two sides to hash out a deal for his release.

The worldwide uproar over Chen's fate, rendering his face among the world's most recognizable in a matter of days, would not have ricocheted nearly as far or fast without the mass Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. The scale of the outrage and media frenzy forced China to release Chen, but also to recognize that even the tightest media controls and censors can no longer keep Chinese abuses out of the spotlight. Social media outlets have also forced Beijing to acknowledge what it would rather deny and ignore in its own media channels: Chen's strong popular support among ordinary Chinese.

Then, this summer, the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot put a new face on the image of the prisoner of conscience: a vibrant montage of young women in balaclavas belting out provocative lyrics in the name of democracy and personal freedoms. For years, the Russian government has been ratcheting up repression on internal dissent from both the public and the media, but it has largely deflected criticism from the West. The April 2012 arrest of three Pussy Riot members for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral provoked global condemnation, making Russian repression a front-page story. After the women were convicted on August 17, the Russian government was inundated with tweets, emails, and letters in support of the band, and Green Day, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other artists demanded their release. Across U.S. campuses, students are ordering Technicolor balaclavas and organizing punk concerts in support of the group, and its struggle has drawn throngs on Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr.

The Kremlin is not impervious to the furor: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday, Sept. 13, that Pussy Riot should be freed, arguing that the spectacle created by the group's imprisonment was causing more damage to Russia than good. A level of pressure that in the past might have taken years to mount has built up in warp speed, due in no small part to the role of instant communications in tracking Pussy Riot's case and helping its supporters mobilize.

Some critics deride these efforts as "clicktivism" or "slacktivism" -- advocacy that requires no more than the lifting of a finger to hit a button on a keyboard. But when it goes viral on YouTube, these campaigns link activists across borders and over oceans, or flood authorities and even armed groups with demands for justice. This kind of online activism motivated by individual cases can mobilize energy to free dissidents and, perhaps, change societies. Only days ago, for example, in response to a global Twitter campaign by Amnesty International, Israeli officials released a Palestinian prisoner who had been detained for years without charge. Just as important, online campaigns offer an entry point for new activists to be drawn in and introduced to human rights work, building a foundation that can inspire them to organize, recruit others, and take on wider issues. This is essential to ensure that the greatest generation of grassroots advocates worldwide -- those whose creativity and staying power helped finally liberate Aung San Suu Kyi after 23 years as a prisoner of conscience -- feeds a rising wave of activists ready to power the work well into the 21st century.

That said, no teenager will remember the moment they hit "send" on an online petition for Sudan the way their parents remember shivering in a campus shanty to protest apartheid. Online action offers a vital entry point, but is just the start of the journey for those aiming to bring lasting change. Nor is the human rights movement's original mainstay -- letter writing -- obsolete. Upon relocating to New York, Chen Guangcheng made a point in his early weeks of reaching out to meet with Amnesty International. He talked not about the tweets or petitions, but about receiving just a fraction of the letters he knew had been sent to him from activists all over the globe to raise his spirits, and recounted how he read and re-read every single one. Digital human rights work may never offer such a tangible and lasting human touch.

During Suu Kyi's visit to Washington she will headline a digital town hall to encourage youth in the United States to work for prisoners of conscience, just as grassroots activists fought for her for nearly a quarter century. She knows from personal experience that human beings instinctively respond to individual stories more than to facts and figures; they invest not just intellectually, but emotionally -- and this passion can help sustain the energy for what can be long and difficult struggles for change.

Even as we celebrate Suu Kyi today, the release of a single heroic prisoner of conscience when others still languish in jail is at best a partial victory. Passionate advocacy on behalf of individual cases cannot substitute for wider efforts to mount pressure for systemic change, accountability and policy reforms. Nor does it necessarily help answer who can effectively and ethically mount such pressure. But helping secure the freedom of an Aung San Suu Kyi, Chen Guangcheng, or Pussy Riot can enable individuals -- some barely in their teens -- see the potential and rewards of human rights work, and find their footing to broach wider human rights challenges.

When she was finally free to travel to Oslo to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in June 2012, some 21 years after it was originally awarded, Suu Kyi implored the audience "please remember the often repeated truth that one prisoner of conscience is one too many. " As her appeal makes clear, one measure of progress in human rights is the fate of each individual. In fighting for their causes one by one, we can give new hope to dissidents around the globe -- and a renewed purpose and energy to those who seek to free them.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


In Sickness and in Health

Why leaders keep their illnesses secret.

No one likes to go to the doctor. But for a political leader, even the news of such a trip can sound the death knell for his political career. It is small wonder therefore that a leader's health is the most important state secret in many countries and why.

Examples of this type of secrecy abound. In recent weeks, the world media was riveted by the mystery of the whereabouts of Xi Jinping, presumed to be next in line for the Chinese presidency. Xi disappeared from public view for weeks while undergoing treatment for a condition that may have been either back pain or heart troubles, depending on which reports you believe. In Venezuela, voters will head to the polls Oct. 7 to vote on whether to reelect President Hugo Chávez, who has been less than forthcoming about his cancer diagnosis, claiming a number of dubious miraculous recoveries while periodically jetting off to Cuba for treatment. Rumors of 88-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's death turned out to be false in April, but citizens were likely not reassured by the government's ham-handed efforts at message control.

This year has also seen the deaths in office of four African leaders -- in Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, and Malawi -- all of whom had sought treatment abroad and kept the state of their health a carefully guarded state secret before their deaths. Although the recently deceased leaders varied in age from a quite young 57 to a moderately elderly 78, careful studies show that leaders, especially in undemocratic countries, outlive their countries' life expectancies by a significant margin. Those very national life expectancies, however, are already short because of the miserable way those leaders rule. Presumably, all leaders could have access to the best medical care, but getting that care can be a kiss of political death.

For heads of state, there's also an inherent tension between maintaining good health and revealing to cronies or the public that all is not well. The difficulty, especially in autocratic systems, is that medical care can only be sought at the risk to one's hold on power -- a risk worth taking only in extremis. After all, "loyal" backers -- even family members -- remain loyal only as long as their leader can be expected to continue to deliver power and money to them. Once the grim facts come to light, the inner circle begins to shop around, looking to curry favor with a likely successor. No wonder that when medical care is needed, country leaders like Mugabe or the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia tend to seek it in a foreign hospital, usually in a country with strict respect for patient-client privilege. Doctors at home are too risky -- they might talk to their buddies and spread the word that their leader is gravely ill, thereby hastening the incumbent's political, if not physical, demise. Any leader worth his salt must keep terminal illnesses hidden from public view as best as possible. Terminal illness or even extreme old age, which is after all, the most terminal of illnesses, are excellent indicators that the beloved leader won't be reliable for long. Then the view is: Out with the old, in with the new.

Politics, especially autocratic politics, requires symbiosis between leader and supporters. In return for power, perks, benefits, and privileges, a leader's backers support him over rivals and, when necessary, suppress the people, bash in the heads of opponents real and imagined, and make life miserable for all but the elect (but not elected) few. These tasks can be unpleasant, which is why a successful leader rewards his supporters well and why corruption and graft are so prevalent in autocracies.

This symbiosis fails once either side of the relationship can no longer sustain the other. If the leader fails to take care of his loyalists, then he can expect they will plot a coup to overthrow him. If backers won't suppress the people on behalf of the leader, then protest and revolution threaten the entire regime. Supporters know that their leader, no matter how generous and beloved, simply cannot deliver from beyond the grave. Once their privileges and perks are in jeopardy, the inner circle looks for its next meal ticket. When the essential symbiosis fails, especially due to the discovery that the incumbent is gravely ill, upheaval is likely and, under the right circumstances, can even have a plus side for society. After all, even many normally nasty elites may be reluctant to turn their guns on the people when the new revolutionary leadership may be drawn from those very people.

It can therefore be wise to hedge one's bets, just as the military did in Egypt during last year's uprising. Seeing that President Hosni Mubarak was very old, rumored to be seriously ill, and coming up short on his command over the amount of continued U.S. foreign aid, the Egyptian Army chose to shop around to see who among likely successors it could control. If one judges from recent events, it's far from clear whether this strategy will work out for Egypt's generals in the end, but regardless it is pretty clear that they have made a concerted effort to shop, hedge, and come out on top rather than continue their decades-long policy of backing Mubarak.

Contrary to popular opinion, revolutions are more about elite choices than they are about the people. In autocratic societies, the people's lot is usually miserable, so the desire for revolutionary change is always there. It is an opportunity to overwhelm the state that is generally lacking. As long as the leader's coalition of critical support from the military, senior civil service, and security forces remains cohesive, dissent is met with violence, and only the courageous or foolish few protest. Revolution is about opportunity, and opportunity is most keenly seen when the people see that the incumbent is knocking on death's door and believe that those who keep the boss in office see this too and so may hedge their own bets.

People protest and revolutions succeed when those who can stop such popular uprisings choose not to do so. The shortened time horizon induced by a leader's ill health increases the chance that regime supporters will remain passive in the face of protest. And the heightened chance of success is just what the people need to make the risk of taking to the streets worthwhile. Leaders try to keep their health because they recognize the opportunity it creates for revolution or coup d'état. Surely, because they have so much at stake, the people inclined toward rebellion watch closely to see signs of declining health among their leaders, realizing, just as we can reason they do, that even loyal backers will waver in their support for a dying leader unless they think they can have no future after him.

The Arab Spring is a case in point, and not just the rickety, 84-year-old Mubarak. Although Mohamed Bouazizi's death from self-immolation on Jan. 4, 2011, served as a focal point for the disaffected people of Tunisia, in retrospect it is unlikely that revolution would have been postponed much longer. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was already rumored to be gravely ill (and, according to some reports, went into a coma after suffering a stroke in Saudi Arabia several weeks after stepping down). The Tunisian economy was in bad shape, increasing his vulnerability. The combination of poor health and unhappy people is a dangerous mix for any autocratic incumbent. Taking to the streets is inviting under just such circumstances. Elsewhere in the Arab world, the wounding of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by anti-government rebels in June 2011 and his medical evacuation to Saudi Arabia were a critical turning point in his fall from office. Generally, healthy leaders sustain loyal followers who, in turn, sustain them; sick leaders don't.

An exception appears to be Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. There are no indications that Qaddafi was ill, and many of his (extremely well paid) supporters in fact remained loyal to the very end. His fall is the exception that proves the rule. Because so many of Qaddafi's loyalists stuck by him, NATO airstrikes were necessary to prevent them from crushing the rebellion.

The importance of a leader's health to the success of revolution is nothing new. In 1997, Laurent Kabila's rebel forces swept across Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when it became evident that Mobutu Sese Seko was gravely ill. Mobutu had made the mistake of openly seeking treatment in Europe and rallying the people to celebrate his return from treatment -- medical care was not quite up to snuff in Zaire! Ferdinand Marcos faced a similar fate in the Philippines. As his lupus progressed, his regime loyalists began to desert him, and he fell from power in 1986, dying in exile in Hawaii three years later. This too was the story of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. As the New York Times reported on May 17, 1981, well after his fall, "There is, for instance, a hint from his cancer specialist at New York Hospital that if the Shah had been treated like an ordinary patient with the same set of physicians from the onset of his illness, he might be alive today."

But that's not, of course, what the shah did. His problem, like that of so many autocrats who must keep their loyalists content, was simple and deadly: If the extent of his cancer were known, then his supporters would almost certainly have deserted him, and his overseas support could have dried up -- a death sentence. Yet, without proper treatment his illness would -- and eventually did -- kill him. His is a sad story of a desperately sick man smuggling French doctors into Iran and sneaking into clinics under false names. But, as eventually happened, knowledge of his impending demise unraveled his rule. The Iranian people took to the streets, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, long in exile, returned home to lead an uprising and install an Islamic regime in 1979. Much, perhaps most, of the shah's previously loyal army stood aside, putting up little resistance as it calculated that a leadership transition was inevitable.

Leaders need to appear virile and strong. Even in a democracy this is true. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's inner circle kept the gravity of his serious respiratory problems secret during World War I; Franklin D. Roosevelt hid his paralysis; John F. Kennedy hid his dependence on corticosteroids, and the list goes on. In less democratic settings, the urgency of appearing robustly healthy is even more vital.

Anyone of a certain age, reflecting on Xi's recent disappearance and return to public view, cannot help but remember the long period of uncertainty in China in the 1990s over whether Deng Xiaoping was alive or dead or, for that matter, in earlier years whether Mao Zedong had already expired or still clung to life. Party and succession stability in China, as in so many autocracies, requires at least a modicum of confidence that the king is not yet dead before the new king is designated as the heir apparent.

For less democratic leaders, who seek to retain power for much longer periods, the appearance of good health can be even more important. Thus, in addition to a massive dose of machismo, there is political logic to Russian President Vladimir Putin's antics. He is frequently seen bare-chested, hunting in forests, flying ultralight planes over the Arctic, or undertaking other physically strenuous acts. Such displays of virility are also a potent symbol of national strength for voters who recall the succession of elderly premiers who died in office during the waning years of the Soviet Union or the times of economic distress during the 1990s when the overweight, alcoholic Boris Yeltsin was in charge.

Leaders, keenly aware of the immediate risks they face when rumored to be ill, handle health crises in different ways. Theoretically, they could use the opportunity of their impending passing to improve their society and leave democratization as their legacy, but unfortunately we are at a loss to identify a single example. They can, as noted, simply engage in secrecy. And when that fails, denial is a common response. However, the combination of the Internet, mobile technologies, and advances in remote medical-diagnosis technology make it increasingly difficult for leaders to hide their health conditions. There is, for instance, an entire blog dedicated to tracking Chávez's cancer, where alongside his dubious claims to have beaten the disease -- "I thank God for allowing me to overcome difficulties, especially health, giving me life and health to be with you in this whole campaign" -- are detailed discussions of every statement, treatment option, comings and goings of his doctors, change in schedule, and photograph from the campaign trail. These might appear like minutiae, but given the state of electoral politics in Venezuela, hints about the president's prognosis are politically far more important than his policy statements.

When secrecy and denial are no longer options, dynastic succession offers leaders a means to retain political loyalty. Settling the succession question ahead of time ensures continuity in the symbiosis between leaders and those who keep them in power. Backers are more vested in keeping a decrepit incumbent when they know their wealth and privileges are likely to continue even after the leader's death. The Kim family in North Korea, Hafez al-Assad in Syria, and Fidel Castro in Cuba all used this tactic to successfully mitigate the political risks induced by declining health.

In the end, good health is a hugely valuable asset for leaders, more so the less democratic they are. Visits by distinguished foreign doctors, leaders' travel overseas to hospitals for allegedly minor health problems (such as Saudi King Abdullah's ongoing treatment for "back problems"), changes in physical appearance -- weight gain that could be related to steroid use for example -- and long absences from public view are valuable early-warning indicators of political instability. Very old age and being very new in office are likewise forewarnings of potential trouble. The new don't yet know where the money is, so are no more reliable that the old and sick.

That is almost certainly why today we see the growing emergence of dynastic dictatorship. The Kim Jong Ils of the world knew where the money was and probably were happy to tell their trusted children. In this era of medical miracles, it is remarkable to think that political dynasties are making a comeback -- but it's surely no coincidence.