Saturday, June 11, 2005

Sampling "Democratic Intolerance": A Sordid Tale for Burma/Myanmar

Compiler's Remark:

I don't mean to sound as if all Burmese exiles who genuinely push for democratic reforms in my country are vicious and mindless or viciously mindless when I write Burmese 'democrats' can't deal with differences, without getting vicious and nasty to one another.

But the system they say they are fighting for is to be based on a foundation of differences and a process of sorting those differences out in a civic and constructive manner, both in theory and practice. We have a saying "because of a few rotten fishes on the boat, the whole boat stinks and is disgusting."

I would prefer to think that our Burmese saying will turn out to be true.
For the opposite would be a devastating blow to any Burmese who wishes genuinely to see democracy built in Burma.

You can't build a democratic system with a few good fishes if the whole pile of fish were dead in spirit and mind. Poverty of intellect can be remedied. But there is no panecea for poverty of heart and viciousness of spirit.

Enjoy the following cluster of samples - a deformed version of democracy at work, on-line and in reality - among the exiles, including the leading figures of the group that calls itself "the government in exile."

From: On Behalf Of
Sent: 10 June 2005 16:49
Subject: [NLDmembrsnSupportersofCRPPnNLDnDASSK] Prime Minister Sein Win and Zarni in the UK parliment

A Melodrama of Verbal Confrontation between Dr. Zarni (FBC) and Dr. Sein Win, the Prime Minister of the National Coalition of Union of Burma (NCGUB)
"Dr Sein Win (Compiler's note - It was really Dr. Sein Win's deputy Dr. Thaung Tun, not Dr. Sein Win) explained to the audience that Dr Zarni must be missing the country by living in exile and frustrated for not being able to returned to Burma. ... It was a strange reality to witness a 'pseudo military junta's' representation by Zarni and Dr Sein Win elected by the people of Burma having a verbal exchange in the very mother of Parliament where tradition of British democracy is rooted."
"Ko Sa La" Sat, 11 Jun 2005 14:19:13 +0100 Subject: Re: [NLDmembrsnSupportersofCRPPnNLDnDASSK] Prime Minister Sein Win and Zarni in the UK parliment

Ko Maung Daung
Many thanks for an interesting article. It's shame that I came to know about the event quiet late and hence I was unable to be there at the Partliament witnessing Zarni's Maniac Melodrama.

From: "pow_volume"
Date: Fri, 10 Jun 2005 19:14:46 -0000
Subject: [Women-Group-Burma] Re: Savvy Salt of the Earth, not Cowed

P.H.D. (called Pizza Hut Delivery in some countries).

On behalf of the one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, Dr Zarni has blasted the NCGUB........ The spokesman's hint cannot be regarded the approved decision, etc. A hint is clearly a hint.CONTROL YOURSELF WHEN YOU HEAR OF VICTORIES OF DEMOCRACY. P.O.W.

From: "tayza thuria"
Date: Fri, 10 Jun 2005 20:29:29 +0100 (BST)
Subject: Re: [Women-Group-Burma] Re: Savvy Salt of the Earth, not Cowed

Hi everybody

That person called Dr. Zarni, used Daw Suu's Nobel Prize money to finish his furhterr studies abroad and now he is shamelessly attacking Daw Suu & NLD. NLD should sue him to get all those money back from him. Tayza
To All Burmese "Democrats" Who Can't Tolerate Differences

Despite whatever pro-democracy words that come out of your mouth, you clearly don't understand that democracy requires that we respect and appreciate - not attempt to suppress, silence, or otherwise intimidate - those who hold views that are different from yours.

You cite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as your leader. And yet you do NOT practice whatshe preaches. This movement is not simply about political change in Burma. It is also about changing our spirit and behavior that are typically authoritarian, anti-democratic and, worse still, vicious. Didn't she write or say somethingto the effect that this whole movement is to bring about "the revolution of thespirit"?

I respect her immensely and, for 10 years, I supported her policies, her leadership, and her party when I believed they would be able to lead and deliver our country from 4-decades of our people's misery.

Leaders and governments come and go. Parties come and go.

My loyalty is to the country I love and the ordinary people in whose name I joined this fight.

I have no party, organizational or personal loyalty to any leader,organization, or party.

If that makes me an enemy of you all and if that will make me burn in Hell for the next 1,000 years, I am more than happy to burn in hell than to beassociated with those who claim to fight for freedom, but whose minds are poisoned, whose words slanderous, and whose spirit mean, and whose intellect wanting.

We have all been looking for ways to push for change in our country.
No social change has ever come about as a result of a leader or a party. It's always a result of many different factors, external or internal, leaders or followers, organizations or individuals.

We all continue to share the NLD'smission of pushing for change in Burma. But we may no longer agree with NLD'spolicies or strategies. That doesn't make us SPDC apologists.

The world is more complicated than the simple 'bad-guys-and-good-guys' slogan or view. There are more than two categories of individuals - good and bad, selfish and altruistic, opportunists and genuine revolutionaries and so on. There is more than one way to look at a problem and thus there is more than one solution.

You argue or advocate what you believe, without being nasty and personal.
If I were Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I would be so embarrassed, beyond words, that you call her your leader. And yet you don't even understand what she has been pushing the Burmese - to revolutionize the way they behave or think. She wants you to think democratically.

And thinking democratically demands that you don't behave like those in power - intimidate, slander, suppress, and otherwise attempt to silence those who are critical of their views.
If you can't be democratic, at least think!

In the most unlikely event men (and women) like you come to power, God helps Burma and the Burmese people.

You are no different from the guys in power who would beat up or lock up those simply because they disagree with the government's views or generals' views.


Friday, June 10, 2005

Savvy Salt of the Earth, not Cowed

Quotations of the Day:

"In the eyes of the West, the politics in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) have become an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. "

- From - Savvy salt of the earth, not cowed, The Times Higher Education Supplement, June 10, 2005, p. 29

"Unlike Burma's urban-based opposition, the politics for the farmers are immediate and local, material and concrete. As long as they feel they could resort to various strategies involving local and central authorities, at times playing one off against the other to maximise their local, immediate interests and minimise the state's extractive and authoritarian practices, open confrontation with the state or the Government is not on the farmers' minds."

- From - Savvy salt of the earth, not cowed, The Times Higher Education Supplement, p.29, June 10, 2005

Savvy salt of the earth, not cowed

Published: 10 June 2005, The Times Higher Education Supplement, p.29

Title: Behind the Teak CurtainAuthor: Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung
Reviewer: Zarni
Publisher: Kegan PaulISBN: 0 7103 0941 4
Pages: 263
Price: £85.00
Title: Karaoke FascismAuthor: Monique Skidmore
Reviewer: Zarni
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
ISBN: 0 8122 3811 7 and 1883 3
Pages: 248
Price: £39.00 and £15.00

In the eyes of the West, the politics in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) have become an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

Since the spontaneous popular uprisings swept across the country's urban centres in 1988, the successive "illegitimate" military governments have been at loggerheads with the election-winning National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the Nobel prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi, for political power and the right to represent the majority of the people.

The elected governments in the West - from the White House to Whitehall - have opted to support the NLD by slapping sanctions and other symbolically punitive measures on the authoritarian regime and exceptionalising it as an international pariah struggling to shake off its legacy of the self-imposed isolationism of 26 years. But every Asian government - most significantly Burma's giant neighbours, China and India, - has refused to join the sanctions regime, quietly writing it off as yet another example of Western hypocrisy cloaked in the language of democracy, freedom and human rights.

Meanwhile, cultural conservatives, trade reformers and human rights liberals in the West have become strange bedfellows, adopting the charismatic Oxford-educated NLD leader as their idol and giving her the status of self-made, accomplished politician-revolutionaries such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Martin Luther King. From the perspective of the Burmese generals and their supporters, the West's "adoption" of Suu Kyi has only reinforced the common suspicion that she is a stooge of neocolonialists in big Western nations, hellbent on imposing their will and promoting their interests, ideological or otherwise, in Myanmar.

Needless to say, this has led to the regime's determined attempt to further render her domestically irrelevant through prolonged incarcerations. For better or worse, in my view for worse, the template of the Burma tale has been set in stone. And no protagonists may be expected to shift their views or switch their roles any time soon.

It is this backdrop of Burma's epic struggle, perceived or real, that serves as the context for two field-based studies: Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear and Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma/Myanmar, written respectively by Monique Skidmore, a researcher at the Australian National University, and Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, a Burmese political scientist at the University of Massachusetts.

While Karaoke Fascism is a narrative and "intuited" account of everyday life around Mandalay and Rangoon as experienced by the urban displaced and disadvantaged, including young prostitutes and recovering drug addicts, Behind the Teak Curtain examines the least studied, yet numerically and economically significant segment of Burmese society - farmers - and how they view, experience and deal with the authoritarian state.

Skidmore's book accepts a priori the lack of legitimacy and presence of popular hatred towards the ruling military junta, which she treats as a monolithic entity bent on building a modern "fascist utopia" and supported by the state apparatus of repression and surveillance. In contrast, Thawnghmung's book rejects this conventional, normative view, which the pro-democracy Burmese opposition promotes abroad. Instead, she advances a more historically informed and empirically grounded analysis of the multilayered process of the self-legitimising state and its relations with the most important societal group, its farmers.

Thawnghmung writes that "the same autocratic and repressive military leaders who are perceived by a particular sector of population as 'illegitimate' may at the same time be favourably seen by another segment of the citizens". Her penetrating analysis cuts through the ideological fog of the Orwellian notion of "two legs bad and four legs good". As the farmers in her study informed her, in a historically situated local Burmese context, the authoritarian state is neither wholly bad nor entirely positive. Nor is the Burmese state a singular, monolithic entity that leaves no social or institutional space for any type of economic and political actions for citizens' material betterment, individually or communally.
Because Skidmore views the state in Burma as in essence totalitarian, she is forced to see only sinister motives behind its every move, thus assigning the ruling clique too much power and reading too much into the state's actions and policies. She therefore ends up painting the public as more or less powerless "automata", individuals who "under the weight of fear, anxiety of constant vulnerability and the numbing demands of the state" deliberately present only their "lifeless hollow bodies for the state's use, while their minds reach out into the cosmos to an array of alternate realities".

In much of the post-independence period, both the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma and their nationalist brethren, who led the armed forces, competed fiercely for the support of rural communities, through both coercion and promises of local progress. For it is farmers who are the backbone of Burma's civil society and serve as one of the largest national economic building blocks.

According to Thawnghmung, the provision of agricultural loans and credits, favourable land reform measures, the building of irrigation systems, provision of fertilisers, imported technologies and seeds, as well as various national agricultural policies, have all been part of the state's strategies to boost agricultural production and to keep this vital rural population politically quiescent. Unlike the urbanites, who periodically challenge the authoritarian state, rural resisters are almost unheard of in postcolonial Burma.

Thanks to television and radio, made affordable through various agricultural policies, paddy farmers have also been able to keep themselves informed about domestic and world events. This stands in sharp contrast to the widespread, urban-centred view that farmers are an ignorant lot who need to be lectured on their democratic rights by the Western-educated elite with no roots in or genuine concerns for rural welfare. An average farmer has his or her own view as to what is good for the country, which does not necessarily conform to the abstract political visions prevalent in the pro-democracy opposition of the urban-based Western-educated counter-elites. A Karen farmer in Rangoon Division typifies farmers' views and sums up their locally rooted definition of a desirable polity: "I will still have to farm if there is a democratic government, or a military government, or a communist government... I don't really care what type of government we have, as long as the country remains peaceful and consumer prices are low and stable."

Unlike Burma's urban-based opposition, the politics for the farmers are immediate and local, material and concrete. As long as they feel they could resort to various strategies involving local and central authorities, at times playing one off against the other to maximise their local, immediate interests and minimise the state's extractive and authoritarian practices, open confrontation with the state or the Government is not on the farmers' minds.

A general fear of repression no doubt serves as a major deterrent for any peasant revolt against the country's authoritarian state. But fear alone does not tell the whole story. Since the 1990 elections in Burma, the country's urban opposition led by the Western-educated elite, most notably Suu Kyi, has been arguing its case internationally. It presents itself as the legitimate voice of the people, while its nemesis, the authoritarian regime, contests that claim, citing and mobilising pockets of popular support from other social classes as evidence of its institutional legitimacy.

Meanwhile, although vaguely sympathetic to their urban-educated brethren fighting against "the authoritarian state", the farmers are, nonetheless, sticking with the socioculturally familiar state, the state that in their eyes is functionally and historically legitimate.


Zarni is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, and founder of the Free Burma Coalition. He was born in Mandalay.