The 17th annual Forum 2000 Conference was remarkable in many ways, with so many public figures – thinkers, activists, diplomats, politicians and dissidents – participating. It was only fitting that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a great friend of the late Václav Havel, whose legacy was the inspiration for this year’s “Societies in Transition” theme, initiated the dialogues.
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader asked reporters at an informal press conference today to push for transparency and accountability in government, so as to get the truth out to the people. In a democracy, he said, “the people are the real rulers of the country, and not just a particular person or a few parties.”
In total, the Conference has hosted 56 panels in Prague, with another 4 discussions to be held on Wednesday in the cities of Plzeň and Ostrava, Bratislava, and Krakow. In total, more than 4,000 people attended panels to hear some of the 140 distinguished speakers, who provided who insights on the most pressing topics of today.
Among them was Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. For years, an empty chair was symbolically left at the Conference for her the while she was under house arrest by the military junta. Havel himself had invited her to many times — and Ms. Suu Kyi revealed on Sunday he had refused to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, nominating her in his place.
Ms. Suu Kyi, although free, stresses that Burma is still far from a democracy. She said Tuesday that the greatest leaders are those who can let go of power and the worst those who hold on to it at all costs. Like the Dalai Lama, she also puts her faith in the power of ordinary people to bring about a transition. “Good governance is like a ship – the direction of the vessel, in the end, is not given just by the steersman but also by the crew who is sailing it,” she said Tuesday.
Transition from authoritarian or repressive regimes to open societies has been an overarching theme of the Conference. On a panel discussing democracy in Latin America, Cuban blogger and activist Yoani Sánchez described her country’s Communist politicians collectively as an unelected and rather hereditary dynasty. Still, she sees hope for Cuba, “Civil society is finding its space and people are losing their fear; just the fact that we can all be here [in Prague] is already a victory,” Ms. Sánchez said.
Another major topic was the The Arab Spring, the broad and diverse outcry for greater freedoms and democracy. Opening a working breakfast exploring the role of Unemployment and Inequality played in sparking The Arab Spring, Norman L. Eisen, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, said special attention must be paid to social aspect of these movements. “Nothing is more dangerous for the government than to ignore the wellbeing of their citizens,” he said. Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a former head of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, noted the bravery of the protesters taking to the streets, saying, “To demonstrate against a king is to demonstrate against a prophet.”
On the topic of Education and Democracy, Igor Blaževič, Head Teacher, Burma Educational Initiatives, said on Tuesday that societies under authoritarian rule could use education as a tool to prepare for democracy. “We need to become a liberal Taliban” in the fight for freedom of thought and information, he said.
The Role of Religion in Transitional Processes was also explored: Four panelists of different faiths (U.S. theologian and political scientist Michael Novak; Indian historian, journalist and professor Rudrangsu Mukherjee, Czech Christian Academy President Tomáš Halík; and Bishop Anba Damian of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Germany). Opposing the others belief that religion plays a positive role in transition, Rudrangsu Mukherjee said populism and religious-political agendas had hindered democracy in India; he called religion a “political aphrodisiac.”
Speaking elsewhere on the role of businesses in the transforming countries, former Greenpeace director Jonathan Wootliff said it was crucial that companies form links with civil society and work with the to address environmental and social issues. On another panel, Martin Palouš, President of Václav Havel Library Foundation argued that “civil society is not only an accelerator, but also a brake” that can prevent undemocratic developments. “Without civil society… there is no democracy,” said Danuta Glondys, Director of Villa Decius Association.