I had the good fortune during my undergraduate studies to have been witness to a lecture by one of the most famous names in the struggle against totalitarianism. In many parts of Europe and the world, the name Lech Walesa still commands a cache of admiration and respect. As part of the welcoming committee at the time, I was afforded the even better fortune of meeting him at a reception in his honour.

By this point the famous black moustache had given way to a more grey and white item and perhaps he spoke with a bit less energy and power but if anything he commanded even more respect. Standing right before us was the man that inspired and mobilised hundreds of thousands against one of the worst regimes of the Eastern bloc. Here was a man who had faced arrest after arrest, persecution, threats to his family and all the other joys of mounting a campaign against the slavery of the mind as well as of the soul. While age may have diminished the fiery orator to a more pensive and quiet statesman, the fire behind his eyes still suggested the spirit of revolution lay beneath. So in the audience of this Cold War behemoth, your humble servant was afforded one quick question. To make the most of my brief flirtation with greatness, I asked a rather silly schoolboy query for which I still regret to this day.

“What was the hardest part about the Cold War?”

Of course Mr Walesa of Solidarnosc didn’t treat my question with the contempt that I now regard it. In fact he took the question quite seriously, with the same sincerity and patience that many great leaders of men exhibit, and answered with a response that I still reflect on to this day. He replied that the most difficult part of living with totalitarianism was having to deal with all the state sponsored lies, of never quite knowing what is true and what is untrue or when one is being monitored and spied upon and consequently when the police might show up at one’s doorstep for thought crime.

The Polish government of the time certainly lived up to such criticism. History books in the country still taught that the Katyn Massacre was a Nazi crime and opponents of the states were prone to be slandered in the state run media and then imprisoned. Even private police reports and state memos would contain lies in an attempt to discredit and proliferate gossip. History, it seemed, could be rewritten however and whenever the state pleased.[1]

But this hallmark of totalitarian thought was hardly the sole possession of the communists of Poland, regimes the world over have used selective interpretations of history (excuse the euphemism, a better term would be ‘lies’) to solidify their grip on the state. For those of us who live in many parts of Asia, this sounds eerily and hauntingly familiar. If there could be any definition for the terror then perhaps this is it. Perhaps terror can be defined as not being given access to the past and consequently being manipulated to accept the present. Whether this present is the call to arms of Wahhabism or the pre-ordained hatred of South Koreans and Americans doesn’t really matter. What matters is that these regimes and ideologies view human life as the subject of their dominion, ready to be expended at their instruction. Adam Michnik, one of the greatest intellectuals to emerge from Solidarnosc, once told the late Christopher Hitchens that, “The real struggle for us is for the citizen to cease to be a property of the state.”

The problem with many countries in Asia is that politicians and unelected leaders view their populace as subjects rather than as individuals whose rights are worth preserving. One only has to look at the history books to see this line of thought in action. Even, perhaps especially, in Thailand this occurrence is the norm rather than the exception. From the days of absolute monarchy when people were literally subjects and commodities to be traded to the modern day when lives are callously thrown away to achieve the ends that are dictated by their leaders. The time has come when people must realize that civil society does not mean a society where the many bow down to the wishes of the few.

Perhaps that is my problem with the UDD or to refer to them by their true moniker the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. While the fascistic tendencies of groups like the ironically titled PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) and other right wing groups are known and rightly criticized, the UDD have the same tendency as the right to treat their followers as a commodity to be used to achieve their ends.

Where the PAD don’t hide their fascist rhetoric, with many in the group clamouring for an unelected and an appointed government outright, the UDD continues to hide behind the guise of ‘democracy’ and ‘civil liberties.’ Yet the UDD, their proxy Pheu Thai, and their deposed leader couldn’t care less about such high flung concepts, only so far as to help them achieve their goals. Upon assuming the chair of the government the PT party have done little to address sections 112, the computer crimes act, the libel laws and so many other grievances that drew the Thai Middle class to its cause. Many languishing in prison who had thrown their support under the PT banner would not be chastised for feeling betrayed by the whole mess somehow.

If the struggles Adam Michnik and Lech Walesa show anything, it is that even under the most oppressive regimes there will be those who join in the struggle. Instead of wasting time on proxies of agents who would only further their own causes, the people should realize there are already heroes within our midst. The ones who deserve attention are those who continue the fight without want or need from the populace, where the only sacrifice demanded is their own. The lawyers of the Nitiraj group, Somyot, the volunteer teachers in the deep south, these are all heroes deserving of our appreciation. If one wants to go back into our recent past then one can do a lot worse than the writings of Chit Bhumisak.

Historians will tell you that theirs is a discipline that is constantly changing, that new sources and perspectives refresh narratives. Historians will also tell you that history is doomed to repeat itself unless the lessons of the past are heeded. Will Durant once wrote that “History has no sense, that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale.” The years 1973, 1976, 1991, 1992 and 2010 in our country will certainly attest to this. If the struggles men like Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik and our own heroes go unheeded then this might very well be true.

[1] As an aside it should be noted that this recent stance regarding homosexuality and same sex marriage is regrettable. It just goes to show that perhaps you cannot have everything.