Monday, June 26, 2017

Burma: What Democracy Can't Do

Depressing news from Burma, where democracy has only made the country's ethnic conflicts worse. We all cheered when pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and led her party to a landslide victory over parties backing the half-mad generals of the military junta.

But as soon as democracy seemed on the rise, the non-Burmese peoples of the country's mountainous north began to agitate for independence. The people of the north (Karen, Kachin, Mon, San and others) were never really ruled by the Burmese until the British conquered them and attached them to their colony of Burma. When Burma was granted independence, British officials who knew the north warned that the hill peoples would not accept Burmese domination, and they have not. Burma's early post-colonial leaders promised seven ethnic minorities an eventual referendum on independence, but that never happened. The ongoing conflict has been one of the main reasons, or at least pretexts, for the military's big role in Burmese politics, and the military has for decades been strongly against independence or autonomy for minority groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi, to her credit, has tried to organize talks with no preconditions, but the military has balked, and so have many members of the pro-democracy movement. So she has moved very cautiously. Peace talks have also been opposed by some of the ethnic rebel groups, some of which have been accused by Human Rights Watch of being little more than drug-smuggling gangs. While the government dithers and the generals work to prevent any real dialogue, the conflict worsens. And that's without even getting into the problem of the Rohingya, Muslims who look more like Bangladeshis than other Burmese and who are considered by most Burmese to be recent interlopers not deserving of even the restrained oppression meted out to long-resident minorities.

One thing democracy cannot do, it seems, is to resolve conflicts among groups of people who are not sure they want to be in a country together at all.

4 comments:

G. Verloren said...

I wouldn't describe Burma as being a democracy yet. The military junta still controls the majority of the power in the country, and there's not much stopping them from taking back the rest forcibly.

I'm actually highly suspicious that they're trying to discredit her by letting her "have a chance" at running the country, but quietly obstructing her and purposefully setting things up to fail. Then they can turn around and say, "See? See how useless democracy is? This is why we need the unquestioned authority of the military!"

They've done everything they can to foil Aung San in the past, why wouldn't they keep doing so now? Do we honestly think they've had a change of heart? Heck no. They've just realized that public sentiment was turning against them, so they had to come up with a way to turn it back. And what better way than to give the appearance of conceding, then sabotaging your opposition rival's efforts and destroying the faith of their supporters, then come back in as the "sensible alternative", the tried and true method that they know works, rather than this new and scary one that seems to be failing.

David said...

Knowing little about Burma, it certainly seems plausible to me that both G. and John are right, and intractable ethnic conflicts, the machinations of the generals, and probably several other things are creating a perfect storm of failure for Burmese democracy.

John said...

I don't doubt that the military is mucking things up, as they have been since independence. But as I said, many of the democratic government's supporters opposed the plan for talks with no preconditions; a government that offered independence or autonomy to the ethnic minorities might lose the support of many Burmese. I think this would be a very hard problem regardless of military perfidy.

David said...

According to Wikipedia, the dominant ethnic group in the country is the Bamar. So, presumably it is Bamar who don't want to give independence to Shan, Kachin, and others. I wonder why not. Is there an ideal of non-ethnic nationhood? Is there an idea that the Bamar are awesome and shouldn't give an inch (because their ancestors wouldn't, etc.)? Do the Kachin, say, live in the sacred original Bamar homeland (a la Kosovo)? Or perhaps Bamar nationalists say once everyone who lived in the country was more or less Bamar, and then the British either let these foreigners in, or else heightened differences that before weren't important, etc., etc.

Why not let them go? Then all the Bamar could be Bamar together. But no. I wonder what that's about.