Prague - Hello, goodbye. Almost before one could notice it had begun, the annual gathering of the world's leading intellectuals in the Czech capital is drawing to a close today.
Forum 2000 is eleven years old now. This brainchild of the former Czech president Václav Havel had splendid childhood indeed, calling Prague Castle its home until dad's last term in office expired.
Not that it matters so much. Žofín Palace is not a bad place for a conference either and it saves one from having to climb the endless staircase to the castle.
Besides, the line-up of the guests continues to shine. This year's Forum 2000 saw comeback of Prague's beloved daughter and President Havel's good friend, former US State Secretary Madeleine Albright, for example.
Shirin Ebadi: Democracy for the price of war? No way
Never failing to attract Nobel Peace Prize laureates, this year's conference is also graced by the presence of the first Muslim woman ever to receive the prize, Iranian lawyer and human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi.
In an interview she gave to Aktuálně.cz on the eve of the conference she countered some of the claims made recently by the Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad in New York where he extolled the virtues of his country as the true paradise for women on Earth.
"The situation for women is very bad, they are absolutely not equal to men," she said and went on to criticize lack of democracy, lack of respect for human rights and lack of freedom of expression in Iran.
"Iran is a rich country, but people are getting poorer and poorer every day as the prices are going up all the time (But) Ahmadinejad's popularity is now decreasing because of his broken pre-election promises," she added.
The fact that people in Iran are increasingly critical of their own government does not mean that they would welcome a foreign intervention just to see the regime change, she warned.
"It is not for the American soldiers to solve these problems for the Iranians. People in Iran do not wish to see America use force against Iran. We do not want our country to become another Iraq," she said.
"The idea that you can drop democracy and freedom on people's heads the way you drop bombs is absurd," she said, commenting on the foreign policy of the current American administration under the President George W. Bush.
Solidarity with the people of Burma
Thanks to the importance it gives to the interfaith dialogue (and, admittedly, especially thanks to the world-wide reputation of Mr. Havel) Forum 2000 had been attended in the past and not just once - by His Holiness Dalai Lama.
But it is only this year that the conference delegates and visitors started wearing badges with the Buddhist religious flag en masse.
There is a good, however sad, reason for this. After the recent violent suppression of peaceful pro-democracy protests headed by the brave Buddhist monks in Burma, Václav Havel (like many other people attending Forum 2000) once again expressed his concern for the fate of those who continue to fight for the end of the military junta's rule in that country.
In fact, he has been consistently doing it ever since he himself turned from dissident to president almost overnight nearly 18 years ago. After all, it was on his suggestion that the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, an icon of pro-democracy struggle in Burma
And if it wasn't for the Burmese junta which has kept her under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years, she would no doubt be in Prague today
For the time being, all that can be done towards that goal, is signing a declaration in support of the people in Burma which is making rounds at Žofín.
It condemns the extreme use of violence against the unarmed monks and civilians and calls for the immediate release of The Lady, as Ms. Suu Kyi is affectionately called throughout Burma, along with countless other political prisoners.
Alyaksandar Milinkevich: We shall overcome
Another dissident from a less-than-free country, Belarussian opposition leader Alyaksandar Milinkevich, who last year challenged "Europe's last dictator" Alexander Lukashenko for the presidency, sticks to the same principle.
The change has to come from within, he says. And he was unabashedly optimistic, talking to the young crowd at Prague's Goethe Institute just across the street from Žofín Palace on Monday afternoon, assessing the chances Belarus had of ridding itself of the autocratic rule.
"I am absolutely sure that we will be part of the European Union one day, although I do realize it will be a difficult journey," he said, noting that the key was for the masses to see beyond the immediate fear of the unknown, which the regime has been so good at exploiting for its own sake.
Not afraid of the brain drain as more and more young Belarussians leave the country to study at universities abroad, Mr. Milinkevich believes the opposition movement can only gain from the temporary exodus: "These young people are the real future of Belarus."
And what does the future hold for the current president of Belarus? His namesake and rival believes that all those who are responsible for making Belarus a dictatorship it is today should face justice eventually. But he knows it doesn't always end up like that.
"People like him usually jump in a plane and fly off to seek refuge in another country run by one of their friends-fellow dictators," he said, half-jokingly, before delivering the final punch:
"And it just so happens that he recently bought a new private plane, and we all know that he is a good friend of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Time will tell."