Thursday, March 31, 2005

Democracy and the Need for Self-Education (of the Burmese)

Democracy and the Need for Self-Education (of the Burmese)


Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

No Burmese in his or her right mind would oppose 'democracy' because it is something necessary and desirable if our country's deep-rooted problems are to be addressed contsructively.

Even the SPDC generals are talking the talk, if not walking the walk (of democracy). They are never tired of telling the Asian 'friends',if not the more openly skeptical Europeans and Americans, that their march toward 'discipline flourishing democracy' is on schedule,in spiteof the evidence to the contrary and the pause caused by 'the bad weather.'

Southeast Asia is in a way a microcosym of the world at large. It has gardenvariety political regimes - from semi-democracies, a sultanate (actual word?),quasi-democracy, post-totalitarian socialist regimes, and an openlyauthoritarian regime. However long it is taking and whatever carnage and'collateral damage' it is leaving along its march, the process ofdemocratization, that is, the dynamic process between the pressure and push from below and the resistance at the top of power and wealth pyramid, is going to go on.

This process marches on not because the 'waves or tides of democracy' areinevitable as some romantically put it - as a way of spoon-feeding lazyjournalists in search of sexy spins and soundbites. Nor is it because democracy is the goal post at which history of human race is predestined to arrive. But, rather the fight for and resistance against popular participation in politics, economy and culture is something that cannot be stopped.

Leaders come and go; (state) power changes hands; revolutionary spirit risesand fades. But the central force that seems to be driving the engine ofhistory - human conflict - is permanently fixed in human collective psyche.

Therefore, there is no maxim that exhorts the masses and leaders alike to'prepare for peace' - but only to 'prepare for war.' No nation has a serious peace fund or peace budget. And no international organization is adequately endowed with the political will, power or resources to make sure peace prevails. The images of leveled Iraq and Afghanistan serve a painful reminder.

Be that as it may, the Burmese who long to see their birthplace inch closertoward democracy's ideals must prepare not simply for more wars, more conflicts among themselves, in-group and out-group fights, we/they must also prepare, equally important, for democratic reconstruction.
For democracy is a system that does not allow, both in theory and practice,individual citizens to abrogate their intellectual responsibility and politicalobligation to subject everything, every policy, behavior, pronouncement, program, ideology and relations (of power, wealth, culture, geo-politics), to intelligent scrutiny.

Conversely, it is also a system that has no room for any single leader toarrogate himself or herself the responsibility of delivering 'common good' -be it freedom or democracy or economic prosperity.

In an ideal democracy, even God would not escape the vigilant process ofcitizens' scrutinty.
It is the only political system which entrusts the people - the electorate -with the highest secular notion of sovereignty, that is, popular sovereignty.

A genuinely democratic ethos requires that its adherents develop the habit ofarriving at informed criticisms and making informed decisions. Of all the skills and mental and intellectual habits Burma will need, this should rank No. 1 lest the noble business of democratization degenerates into merely a mob rule with its twin pillars of group-feel and -'think.' For a democratic culture and habit to develop, a healthy opposition is a prerequisite. Judging from the 17 years experiene of our still yet-to-succeed revolution or from the post-independence experiment with 'parliamentary democracy', we have not made headways in terms of getting our (democratic) act together.

The popular, but misleading Burmese saying "'disagreement and differences (of opinion) are sufficient ground to accord the label 'permanent enemy'" still holds sway among our pro-democracy crowd. It is little wonder that the generals may be trigger-happy when someone or some group disagree with their world views.

Finger-pointing is an art most human beings were born with, so to speak, anddecisions are habitually made, as it were. But the crucial question that arises is are these criticisms and decisions informed?

Being predominantly Buddhists, the inhabitants of Burma/Myanmar are, philosophically speaking, capable of making critical judgments about everything - from our micro-conducts and thought processes on a day-to-day basis to delving into greater questions of crucial import. For Buddhism requires all practitioners not to submit to any divine or outsideauthorities but to simply be ACTIVELY MINDFUL. (I am sure our co-religionistswould not surrender to their Faiths their reasoning power to participate in and fight for democratic process in Burma.)

The act of mindfulness within the Buddhist framework of 'the right thinking and living' may suffice if our goal is simply to accumulate good karma as we presumably go through the cycle of life; however, this cultivated habit of mindfulness, to be driven by loving kindness or compassion is grossly inadequate for us as a national community to deal with the practical issues of the day, be they local, national or international, that have been thrust upon us.

As Burmese, we need to remain informed about what goes on not simply 'backhome' but also around us.

Our mission abroad compels us to go beyond being 'information conveyers', that is, relay what others say about our country, our struggle, ourpeople's plight, and so on to our people through the radio programs and on the Internet listservs, on one hand, and share what we know about our country with others, on the other hand.

We need to educate ourselves - not simply in the conventional sense ofgetting ourselves credentialled and our skills certified - but in the sense that we become better at arriving both principled and informed decisions about Burma and the world.

We are more than expatriates and exiles from Burma. We are also citizens of the deeply troubled world, members of this rather savaged planet, and a part of the 21st century human race. We may attach the freedom of our people paramount importance.

But that doesn't mean we should chose to look the other way when bad things are done to other societies, countries and peoples.

And the Internet offers more than the space where we post statements, news, andarticles - or where we engage in the self-destructive business of cursing,trashing and conspiring against each other. It is aso more than a virtual space where we pat our back in self-congratulatory manner.
It serves, at the very least, as the space for helping one another better informed about things and politics around us. Our country will not likely to benefit from democratization or change if it simply means one tunnelled visioned and myopic camp got ousted by another, albeit in civilian attire.

A genuine education for genuine democrats entail both intellectual and psychological conversion. Most of us have deep authoritarian roots and habits, having grown up in the most intellectually suffocating environment since 1962.

If the benefits of being in exile or abroad include only 24/7 access to the Internet and reading Burma news, then we have yet wasted another decade or more of being in "the free world."
A few important facts may drive home the need to educate ourselves about our friends, allies and opponents.

The United States is the most vocal supporter of the NLD-led democracy efforts.But at the same time, it is 'the sole hyperpower',in the words of the noted student of social movements and a friend of 'a democratic Burma', namely Timothy Garton Ash. It is the elephant. When it moves, the earth squeaks. What goes on in the United States' body politics matters to the world. Whatmatters to the world, it should matter to the Burmese, shouldn't it?

Out of desperation for help against the fight for indepenence,our forefathers allowed themselved to be lured by General Togyo's NavalIntelligence into entering into a symbiosis or an act or process of mutual back-scratching.

Togyo's policies turned his militarized fascist nation into asheswhiling having transformed our country into a devastated WWII theatre. Moreimportant, this cozying up to a great, if imperial, Asian power,left us with anarmy that is deeply politicized and steeped in militarism.
History seems to be repeating before our eyes.

The men on horse back in Yangon are playing the great power game (of China andIndia) for their survival and power re-consolidation.

On our part, we cozy up to Washington and try to grow under its patronage. And forget ASEAN; it is simply impotent and largely irrelevant to what the gentlemen in Yangon decide to do. How can a club of autocrats,pseudo-democrats, (half-baked communists) most of whom are, above all, ideological god-sons of Mahathir, Suharto, and Lee Kwun Yew shout and yell 'democracy' at the Burmese generals and be taken seriously????? They have their own piles of skeletons in their closets. SPDC has just shown, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it could not care less about whether it chairs the ASEAN Summit in 2006. The sudden adjournment of the National Convention is Rangoon's symbolic finger to anyone whom the generals think are fussing about. It is likely that the SPDC is closing 'democracy shop.'

The late God Father - General Ne Win - had to fight Beijing-backed Communists, militarily viable Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Union, and the Shan State Army, and a myriad of freedom-fighting ethnic groups. He was firing scores of his deputies left and right, chronically. India was no friend of the general who caused the exodus of Indian talents and people from Burma following nationalization of businesses in the 1960s. He shut the country off the world - for the next 26 years. Surely his regime officially collapsed and justice was served as he died under house arrest leaving his beloved grand children behind bars and favorite daughter under house arrest. But that's no good news for us - because our goal was to reclaim our country for reconstruction and reconciliation.

Following the only example of crisis management inheritted from the late General Ne Win, the current crop of rulers could conceivably shut the country off, once again. To be sure, the times are different now. But even if ASEAN ties may eventually be servered. Rangoon now has both giant neighbors - China and India - which are former hostile powers, as strategic partners. We know from first hand-experience what happened to a nation when it is isolated, whether self-imposed or externally induced.

I am reminded of a line from the animated Hollywood film Anastasia uttered by a pet bat to Rasputin, "Be careful Master, oh... this can only end in tears."