He first contacted me to ask about the Rohingya, specifically what had been done so far in regards to multinational corporations. It was one twitter DM, that I could easily have missed or overlooked, I do get quite a lot, but I took the time to reply, as best I could, without checking who it was that was talking to me.
I told him that there had been an action to lobby shareholders of Chevron, and found him the link, but that was all. I agreed that more need to be done in that area, really much more. That I had briefly started work on a Boycott Burma campaign back in back in 2012/13, but I had got cold feet on that and backed down. But if we were to start lobbying companies it needed more people to help. I was working flat out just trying to log data of the atrocities taking place, and although lots of people do offer help, few really manage to put in the hours it requires. He might be able to help, he told me, over the next month he had some flexible time. And then I don’t know what he said next, but whilst discussing the concept of the power of corporations, after just a few sentences, it was like a lightbulb had suddenly been turned on.
Anyone who has been working on the Rohingya issue over years will tell you just how incredibly frustrating it is to try and get any results at all. Aung San Suu Kyi has no power, we are told, she is controlled by the military. The military don’t care what the UN says, the UN does nothing. Our politicians visit and whisper gentle words of concern, but they are constrained by business interests. Really Myanmar for the international community is mostly just one huge business opportunity. The Rohingya are an unfortunate happening, but business opportunities must take centre place for the good of every country’s own self-interest.
It doesn’t matter how much you shout, how much evidence you provide, nothing stops the military from eventually going about its plans. We may at times halt some massacres, we may at times stop the burning of some homes, but slowly and surely this genocide unfolds, and nothing it seems is going to stop it. Because the military hold the power, and the military own the business investments, and new developments are all that really matter.
So if it is only business that the military cares about, why are we not going straight to the businesses themselves to call on them to act? They have far greater leverage than any politicians do. They are the ones negotiating terms and conditions for developments. It makes perfect sense to call on them to use their powers for good.
This writing is not about the Rohingya campaign, it is not about lobbying multinational corporations, it is about Shahid Bolsen, and I am explaining here something of the insight he passed on to me, in literally less than one minute. I got it. And I knew instantly this would change everything.
I actually sat at my desk stunned. “Wow!” was going through my head, “Just wow!”. I tried to tell Shahid that he didn’t need to explain any more, really, I totally got it. In today’s world, we spend our times lobbying governments, when increasingly it is not our governments who hold power, it is corporations: so why not lobby them instead?
Ok, so if I’m going to work with this guy, I better check out who he is, I said to myself. So I’m asking him via Twitter, “Can you tell me a bit about your background?” as I’m Googling it anyway. And that was when the next “wow” hit me, and it wasn’t in a good sense. “I served 7 years in prison in the UAE for manslaughter” he said… “Ok” I said, trying hard to keep an open mind as I started reading report after report of all the terrible things he had apparently done … “Yeh, I’m just googling you now,” I told him, but I knew he knew I already was.
What I read actually made me feel almost sick, mostly with fear. In fact, my instinct told me to run a mile: to stop talking to the man, to delete him from my conversations, even to remove him from the history on my browser, and that is exactly what I was doing even whilst talking to him. And yet, there was something that compelled me not to run but to listen.
He tried to explain that a lot of what has been written about him isn’t actually correct, which I imagine he has had to try and explain over and over again to different people. He told me about his following on Facebook, his ideas that became of interest to young people especially in Egypt, and the subsequent slurs on his character he received in the media, who tried to link him to acts of violence. Well ok I thought, I can believe that, I’ve seen it so many times; when a person is being effective in activism, powers will often launch vicious media attacks to destroy a person’s character, so this wasn’t of huge concern to me. But if you do know want to know more about that then I recommend you read what Shahid had to say about that himself, rather than pay attention to the fear mongering media.
But on a personal level, the issue of his past crime was troubling me, and then he explained how he was sentenced to death, and had no legal help, so had to defend himself, and somehow managed to save himself the punishment of execution. He had been through a lot, that was for sure. Guilty or not, he had paid a heavy price for whatever it was that he was involved in.
Over the next few days I resisted the urge to flee and continued the discussion with Shahid as I debated in my mind if I could work with him or not.
Now the matter of the death penalty has always been of concern to me, ever since I saw a documentary as a young teenager, regarding a man that was sentenced to death. The lawyer in the documentary was Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, who massively impressed on me his commitment to humanity. Here’s one of my favourite clips of Clive talking, you might take a minute to listen:
His message is, “anyone is worth more than the worst 15 seconds of their life”. I’d previously listened to this video over and over again. Something about it really touched my heart, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. It was during this time of internal conflict, regarding what to do about Shahid, that this video came back to my mind. And I realised then, if I couldn’t live by the standards of my name (Hanan = compassion), then I was just another hypocrite, no different from all those that I criticise. Whatever had happened in Shahid’s life in his past, he had paid a heavy price for that, and it was between him and God, and who was I to judge? (even more so that I had so few facts – and for certain had also read a pack of lies).
I put it behind me. What was done or was not done was decided by a court of law and he served his sentence; finished. All that actually mattered to me now was the person he is now. And what I had come to understand through our conversations was that he is a man of exceptional insight, as well as someone that was happy to be debated with, and someone of incredible honesty.
I came to learn that he had been advised to change his name when leaving prison so that he could build a new life, but he refused. He told me that what happened was a really, really horrible event. It happened, and he can’t change that, and he can’t change who he is, and he prefers people know who he is and he will face the consequences of that, instead of him pretending to be someone else that he is not. I respect him for this.
It’s not all I respect him for. Really I could write pages on how inspirational he is, from our time working together on the campaign, and the little stories he shared regarding his time in prison, but already I have written too much. Shahid is someone that provides not only exceptional insight and guidance on strategy, but understanding, wisdom, patience, perseverance, and great humour. He commands respect from people who have known and worked with him for years. He is genuinely loved by a lot of people.
He proof reads all our media releases and communications for the Rohingya campaign, advising on how to not sound aggressive. His biggest fear he says is that someone might try to hijack the movement to use it to provoke violence – of this he is extremely cautious and takes every opportunity to ensure we do all we can to avoid such a thing. It really is absurd that the media tries to associate him with inciting violence, when everything he has been saying over the years (should you take the time to properly listen and not latch on to short phrases taken out of context) is to encourage people to try other more peaceful means of protest as an alternative to violence. Perhaps it is having seen what happened in Egypt, and the manipulation that took place, he has become all the more wise to ensure the Rohingya campaign is protected from any such interference. Our objective is to keep this a positive campaign: one of reaching out to organisations to encourage them to do right, rather than anything aggressive, and we would much rather avoid boycotts even, if they can be avoided.
What is it that energises the people who work with Shahid? I believe it is something to do with his clarity of thought, his vision for a solution to the problems in this world, and his commitment to justice. It is rare I meet somebody who wakes up in the morning for the struggle against injustice, as do I, and works through the day to achieve something towards that better world for which we strive, and then can’t sleep at night for thinking things through on how we can and must do better. I can honestly say it has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with Shahid on the Rohingya campaign and his impression on my own work in a short space of time will stay with me for a lifetime.
And I know I am not the only person who feels like this. Recently I have been able to connect and work alongside some of his inspirational friends, one being his colleague Radha Stirling who is extremely well respected in the UK (and beyond) for her excellent work as CEO of Detained in Dubai, for whom Shahid has been working the past two years.
When I go back now and read again some of the reports written about him, knowing much more about him than I did then, I see what a grave injustice the media has done to him. Once they trash someone's name, for whatever reason, the damage that can do to a person and also their family is immense and can last a lifetime, as Google now makes it near impossible for people to rebuild a life and move on from one's past. The 'right to be forgotten' I believe is an important one that I have come to learn has now been granted to people in the EU, and here's a handy tool that can help people with that: https://forget.me/ but outside the EU there is currently no such right to move on in your life.