John Keane | Feeling Faint in Burma
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Feeling Faint in Burma

  |   Democracy Field Notes, Democracy in the 21st Century   |   No comment

“I’m feeling a little delicate”, said Aung San Suu Kyi politely to the mainly foreign press pack, gathered like beginner pupils at her feet. She added, with a gentle smile, that “any tough questions and I shall faint straightaway”. The journalists chuckled.

Charmed by her impeccable Oxford English, they were understandably thrilled to be in the presence of a truly brave woman leader, flowers in her hair, history seemingly on her side. It was one of those moments in global media politics that American journalists crudely but accurately call a clusterf**k. Fly in from another time zone. Make contact with old mates. Get up to speed, fast. Grab the spiciest local material. Concentrate on the keyboard. File. Relax, do some shopping, perhaps enjoy a few drinks. Then move on, like digital nomads, to the next global happening.

Under such conditions, we shouldn’t be surprised – but we really should – that the world’s headlines during the past week have been salted and peppered with talk of “democracy”. The word has mirror effects. It confirms that “we” in the established world of “democracy” have new neighbours. The word reaffirms who “we” are. A CBS News correspondent reported that “Burma may finally be on the road to democracy”. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung celebrated Burma’s “almost insatiable hunger for democracy and prosperity”. London’s The Independent noted, a bit more soberly, the country’s “stumbling journey towards democracy”. Even the New York Times repeated the formulation that Burma was now “a halfway house between authoritarianism and democracy”.

It’s actually nothing of the sort. It’s been an astonishing few months and an extraordinary week in Burma, to be sure. The first chinks of sunlight passing through the cracks of a dark and brutal dictatorship have had warming effects. A Mikhail Gorbachev- or F.W. de Klerk-like politician of retreat has appeared, as if from nowhere.

Thein Sein is the man: a former general who’s convinced the status quo is unsustainable, that more openness will win support at home and abroad, a figure who thinks that talk of “stakeholders” and “democracy” will function as a social peace formula, in the process saving the skins of the old ruling junta. His conviction has helped Suu Kyi to tap local resentments, sketch alternatives and to raise hopes. Fogs of fear are lifting. Faced with a free choice in polling stations for the first time in their lives, small shop keepers, Buddhist monks, school teachers and bamboo and betel nut farmers feel sleepless joy. The ground shakes under their feet. And something distinctive that augurs well for the future is happening: large numbers of children have been drawn into the euphoria.

All this has been well-reported in recent days. Yet the first moments of democracy are highly risky adventures. Suu Kyi feels faint for understandable reasons that run beyond physical exhaustion. What is now happening in Burma re-confirms the old rule that journeys toward democracy never come with maps and compasses. They’re experiments in handling unleashed uncertainties. They involve complex dynamics and they’re long-term affairs. Tight linear causations don’t apply. Relations of power, who gets what, when and how, are up for grabs. Luck, surprise and unintended outcomes are often the most important players. And there is never an end point. No democracy is ever “consolidated”. Democracies are always in transition – towards new ways of handling power that are better, or worse, than what came before.

Something else of vital importance was overlooked in this week’s flood of reports from Yangon. With few exceptions, foreign correspondents indulged the suspect habit of applying their own Western yardsticks to measure the significance of the events. They paid little or no attention to the wider Asia and Pacific region, which meant they ignored the way the region is powerfully making its mark and taking its revenge on old European democratic ideals and practices. It’s not just that the Westminster model of “liberal” parliamentary democracy has largely failed to take root in the region. The Asia and Pacific region is defying the textbooks. It’s a laboratory of democracy, the main testing ground of its new 21st-century forms.

Mainstream scholars say that democracy requires a ‘sovereign’ territorial state that guarantees the physical security of its citizens. It needs widespread agreement that democracy is essentially competition among political parties, periodic elections and parliamentary government. For good measure, these scholars add that democracy requires a homogeneous “national identity” and a functioning market economy that’s capable of generating wealth that lifts citizens out of poverty and guarantees them a basic standard of living sufficient to encourage them to take an interest in public affairs.

This way of thinking about democracy’s preconditions is utterly inapplicable in most parts of the region. The cases of India, Taiwan, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, the Tibetan Government in Exile and the various island democracies of the Pacific Ocean are just some of the anomalous cases that throw the thinking into disarray.

Burma is yet another anomaly.

Comprising borderlands wedged between Indian democracy and Chinese authoritarianism, it is hardly a country, as the Burmese scholar Thant Myint-U has noted. Territorial, ethnic and linguistic tensions are rife. All government institutions have been corrupted by military-backed patrimony. Independent power-monitoring institutions are weak. There is no functioning market economy. Joblessness is chronic; most people are dirt poor.

So can millions of citizens lift themselves towards equality and dignity under these conditions? Can they and their new leaders do things the Asian and Pacific way? Is a Buddhist democracy possible? We’re going to see.



-> Originally published in The Conversation, April, 4 2012