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THE NATION: Editorial/Sorry seems

Editorial & Opinion 

      Editorial/Sorry seems to be the
      hardest word

      The momentum to force global leaders to apologise for
      past misdeeds appears to be picking up pace. When
      Tony Blair became British prime minister, he apologised
      for his predecessors' failure to help Irish victims of a
      devastating famine some 150 years ago. And during his
      visit to Africa early this year, President Bill Clinton
      apologised for his country's enslavement of Africans. 

      This week, a million Australians apologise to Aborigines
      for the tens of thousands of children who were torn from
      their parents, ostensibly to ''Christianise'' them. This
      national remorse, however, did not include the Australian
      leader. Prime Minister John Howard had steadfastly
      refused to utter the word ''sorry'' to the ''stolen generation''
      who to this day still bear the scars of physical, sexual and
      psychological abuse which they had suffered in white
      institutions and foster homes. Australia, it appears, still
      has a long way to go in achieving national reconciliation. 

      Halfway across the world, former World War II prisoners of
      war clamoured for an apology from Japan's Emperor
      Akihito as he began a four-day visit of Britain. On Monday,
      when Akihito and Queen Elizabeth were on their way to
      Buckingham Palace, they were confronted by the
      spectacle of hundreds of British PoWs who turned their
      backs and whistled the Colonel Bogey march, the theme
      song made famous in the movie ''Bridge on the River

      Queen Elizabeth could empathise with Akihito's
      predicament. After all, she was the target of an apology
      demanded by the Indians when she visited the
      sub-continent recently. The Indians were especially
      rankled by the refusal from the British to atone in particular
      for the massacre of 400 men, women and children in
      Amritsar in 1919. The man who ordered the shootings, an
      unrepentant General Dyer who said the firing would
      continue if he had more ammunition, was welcomed as a
      hero on his return to Britain and presented with a jewelled
      sword inscribed ''Saviour of the Punjab''. 

      Seen in this light, the demand for apology from Japan by
      the British PoWs is accompanied with a heavy tinge of
      irony. After all, Britain and Japan went to war for the spoils
      in Asia. Not surprisingly, right-wing groups in Japan have
      often propagate the grand illusion that their country fought
      to liberate Asia from Western colonialism with some even
      claim that it was Japan's fate ''to stand up to the white man
      and save Asia''. 

      True, while the Pacific War was the result of a
      confrontation between imperialist-wannabe Japan against
      the old Asian order controlled by Britain and the United
      States, that in no way absolved Japan's aggression
      against the Asian people. Nor should it give Japan the
      right to whitewash history. Just last week, a movie called
      ''Pride'' opened in Tokyo which portrayed condemned war
      criminal Hideki Tojo as a sensitive and misunderstood
      grandfather. This is clearly not an act in keeping with the
      claim that Japan has changed. 

      At the same time, however, the British and other
      imperialist powers should not forget the injustices they had
      perpetrated in Asia, or elsewhere. The millions of Asians
      who had suffered not only Japanese war-time barbarity but
      also centuries of Western subjugation have not quite
      forgotten and there have been demands for apology. But
      their demands are not taken seriously, and often snubbed,
      simply because they do not have economic and political

      Indeed, the world knows well from the ''Bridge on the River
      Kwai'' that 16,000 PoWs died building the Death Railway
      in Kanchanaburi. But how many are aware that in addition
      to these PoWs, some 100,000 civilians from Thailand,
      Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia also perished? These
      slave labourers have no movies to etch their pains in living
      colour, no theme songs to lionise their suffering, and no
      monuments to cast their memories in stone. Surely it is not
      only the rich and the powerful who have the right to

      And while the victims have the right to forgive, the
      perpetrators do not have the right to forget. Yes, it is time
      that we should look to the future. But for those who had
      suffered, and continue to suffer, ''sorry'' will go some way
      in healing the wounds. Indeed, apologies for past
      injustices are long overdue, and it is those who refuse to
      forget who will ensure that the world learns from its dark