FRENCH philosopher-writer Bernard-Henri Levy wrote recently of Myanmar’s Rohingya community: “They are simultaneously rootless (officially unrecognised in a country so obsessed with race that it counts 135 other ‘national ethnicities’, making them literally one race too many) and root-bound (legally barred from moving, working or marrying outside their village of origin, and subject to restrictions on family size).”
Such systematic cruelty is once again laid bare with reports of militarily-sanctioned ethnic cleansing either through brutal massacres or mass expulsions. And, in a country the Western world, till only recently, had hailed for its democracy and its even more celebrated national icon and current de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Does Myanmar’s current humanitarian crisis highlight a case of the country badly going off-script or one of a bad script to start with?
The best distinguishing hallmarks of any democracy worth its name surely are majority rule (coupled with respect for minority rights) and the rule of law. Myanmar certainly cannot be expected to become a fully functional democracy overnight, but its cheerleaders in Asean and the wider world certainly did not expect it to flout such key tenets of the democratic rule book so egregiously. All this, of course, assumes the country has gone badly off-script almost no sooner than democracy was introduced.
But, could it be that almost everyone — the people of Myanmar most especially and much of the international community — was sold unquestioningly on a very bad script, that of democracy itself?
Defenders of Myanmar today (and they are mostly from within the country) turn the very precepts of democracy on their head when they argue that its new and democratically-elected leaders are simply reflecting popular opinion against a visible minority group in their midst.
Opinion so strongly held that it precludes Suu Kyi going against the grain by expressing even mild moral indignation at the atrocities perpetrated on the Rohingya by the Myanmar military, let alone do anything to stop it or at least alleviate the great human suffering resulting from the murderous orgy.
It cannot be that the vast majority of people in Myanmar hate the Rohingya as a group (an unfortunate tiny number of whose members being extremists excepted) more than their hatred for military misconduct that till recently was aimed at the general population instead.
Democratic Myanmar was supposed to be the very antithesis of the supposedly more common strain of “illiberal” democracy prevalent in much of the developing world. Myanmar, the exception, and in particular under the leadership of Suu Kyi, would instead adhere to the “true” democratic script.
Under such a script presumably, Myanmar’s myriad “nationalities” will subsume all their differences and historical animosities as they channel their collective energies towards the real task before them: putting the economic sinews in place towards building a modern nation governed by rules and not men.
Except that little in the record of modern nation-building anywhere really fits even remotely into such an idealised narrative. Advanced modern democracies in the West arrived on the back of either colonial exploitation (in Europe’s case) or exploitation of lands belonging to natives (in the cases of America and Australasia). Unspeakable horrors were visited by oppressive regimes against fellow humans. Democracy as we know it today followed much later and was not the necessary pre-condition for the advancement of these countries.
Was Myanmar then set up — if not deliberately, then at least subconsciously — to fail by Western liberals? The laments of the likes of Levy (for previously endorsing Suu Kyi unreservedly) cannot be so much naive as callous. They simply cannot all be so clueless that it will all end so fast (for them) and so spectacularly in tears (for Myanmar and in particular the hapless Rohingya).
The Myanmar military — so maligned today as it was earlier — must at least be credited for calling this well-constructed bluff. The country’s former military leaders may have returned to the barracks, but Naypyidaw, the new Myanmar capital, is to be guided by democrats of the familiar “illiberal” sort, after all. That should hopefully be all to the good. Suu Kyi, the leader the West once put on a pedestal, tellingly opted for China as her first official overseas stop.
China, not the West, will likely remain Myanmar’s economic saviour. A solution to the Rohingya crisis may also eventually be supplied by China, not the West. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.