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Aung San Suu Kyi, Václav Havel, and the Art of Dissent

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At Prague's Forum 2000 there are often surprises and touching gestures. What else would you expect from a conference started by a man who rode a scooter down the hallways of Prague castle when he became President and drew a heart as part of his signature?

Last year at the opening ceremony, the lights came on and suddenly, unannounced, there was Václav Havel's friend, Joan Baez. The legendary folk singer serenaded conference delegates. It was the first Forum 2000 since Baez's friend, the playwright turned dissident turned politician, had passed away in December 2011.

At this year's Forum 2000 Aung San Suu Kyi opened the proceedings. The Nobel Laureate thanked organisers for keeping a chair open and a name badge ready for her through the years. It was her first time in Prague, conflict with the military junta in Burma -- including 15 years under house arrest -- having kept her away. Suu Kyi recounted for an audience of several hundred diplomats, policy makers and NGO leaders how Havel had kept her hope alive in dark times. She also revealed that Mr. Havel had refused the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize nomination, proposing her in his place.

Forum 2000 is a conference marinated in the ideas of solidarity and dissent. Cuban blogger and activist Yoani Sanchez and Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng attended this year.

Being a dissident -- one who opposes an unjust order imposed by autocratic rule -- takes bravery and sacrifice. Havel himself was jailed 5 years by Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia. But I think great dissidents have another quality. They have vision, and the ability to see alternative futures. This certainly applies to the Dalai Lama, another Havel friend who attended this year's conference. I wouldn't bet that Tibet will be free of Beijing's domination anytime soon, but it's the Dalai Lama's imagination and far-sightedness (and quiet determination) that keeps Tibetans inspired, and Chinese authorities cowering in fear.

"Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions," said Albert Einstein.

I've just finished reading Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps's new book "Mass Flourishing." Why in the world, one might ask, would an economist include a chapter on art, literature and music? For one thing, it's because Phelps's book (subtitled "How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change") is about the ideas and values that fuel dynamism. It's also about Phelps's belief that vibrancy, creativity and innovation in one part of society often mirror and kindle the passion and curiosity to explore, discover, and improve things in another. Phelps thinks that "imaginativeness" is absolutely essential to successful change of any kind.

Speaking of which I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Forum 2000 was well populated by journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Thanks to Vaclav Havel the former Cold War-era institution moved from Munich to Prague after Communism's demise and retooled itself -- there's video, television, web and social media now. But its mission has remained fundamentally the same. RFE/RL serves people in countries where the free flow of information and ideas is either not fully possible (in war-torn Afghanistan, for example) or permitted (in central Asia or Iran, for instance).

RFE/RL is also in the imaginativeness business (disclosure: I had the pleasure and honour of serving as President there from 2007-2011). You won't find idle dreamers at RFE/RL. But you will encounter individuals rooted in realism whose craft is journalism, but whose most important currency is hope -- and the ability to imagine a freer, more prosperous future for their parts of the world.

They are Havel's kind of people. They trade in his kind of dissent.