IN the last few years, the world has been captivated by the courage of people who take great personal risks - from workers in Poland to students in China - to change the repressive societies they live in. Now such a story is being written in an unlikely place - the southern African nation of Malawi. A dramatic and unprecedented human rights struggle has taken the surprising form of a confrontation between the nation's seven Roman Catholic bishops and the autocratic regime of lifetime President Kamuzu Ban da, who has ruled the country since its independence from Britain in 1964.
These events are astounding and disturbing. Astounding because of the extraordinary courage shown by the bishops in releasing a pastoral letter last month that was sharply critical of economic inequality, governmental controls on freedom of expression and association, and unfairness in the criminal justice system. And disturbing because Malawian authorities have had a brutal response - declaring possession of the bishops' letter to be a criminal offense, and threatening its authors and sending them into hiding. The government recently claimed the bishops had recanted their criticisms, but they deny the report as "disinformation."
The bishops' initiative emboldened others - with similar results. While attending meetings in Zambia and Namibia, trade union leader Chakufwa Chilhana called for political reforms back home. He was arrested upon his return to Malawi April 6.
Malawi is one of the most closed societies in the world. As the bishops wrote, the country is gripped by a "climate of mistrust and fear," producing "a society in which the talents of the many lie unused and in which there is little room for incentive." Since 1983 when an Amnesty International observer was turned away from a political trial, the government has not let human rights groups in unless they identify their sources, an unacceptable condition. What is known about Malawi has been gathered from th e many exiles produced by the government's systematic repression of all civil institutions.
Their reports have been grim. A 1990 Africa Watch report on Malawi said "political life is nonexistent outside the omnipotent ruling party," and asserted that the nation's apparent "stability has been bought at a terrible cost of human lives snuffed out or forced to endure years of detention without trial." The country's leading poet, Jack Mapanje, was imprisoned for nearly four years this way. A top journalist, Mkwapatira Mhango, was assassinated in exile following relentless attacks in the press. There
is good reason to fear for the bishops' lives since the official Malawi News, in an editorial entitled "No Mercy," denounced them as "mafia-style crooks." On April 18 the government deported Monsignor John Roche, one of the signers of the bishops' letter.
The United States conference of Catholic bishops has condemned the attacks on their Malawian colleagues as an "abominable act," but there has been only tepid support from the White House for their initiative. This is especially shameful, given the US leverage with Malawi as a trading partner and foreign aid donor.
Whatever the geopolitical importance of their country, the courage of the Malawian bishops - in the tradition of workers in Poland, lawyers in Kenya, and students in China - deserves international recognition and support. In the short term, it is essential to protect them from detention and physical harm. In the longer term, such recognition poses the best hope for widening the small crack that Malawi's bishops have made in the nation's solid wall of repression.