A Messy Democracy: Burma’s challenges

The unraveling of ethnic strife in neighbouring Myuanmar or Burma as some of us would prefer to call it but especially the sharp escalation of anti-Muslim violence, first, against the Rohingyas or Muslims of the Arakan and then against Muslims elsewhere in the country, represents one of the key challenges that face its rulers and especially the leadership of its principal opposition figure, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Democracy is a messy business as we all know.  The early, easy promises of change, based on the military junta’s surprisingly sudden decision to disempower itself and recognize the key role of Aung Sang Suu Kyi as well as the democratic opposition may not have quite faded.  But with the army being called out to crackdown on rioters who burned Muslim neighbourhoods and homes while the police allegedly stood by and watched (a familiar scenario in parts of this country) or worse were partial to the rioters, Burma faces a series of tests which call for not just a high degree of statesmanship from its former military rulers turned democrats and the toast of the western world – not to speak of other parts of the world —  but also from figures such as Suu Kyi.
These are not easy challenges. For on their handling will depend much of the future of Burma and its ethnic minorities, the most extensive, powerful and diverse in the world, but also the relationship between Buddhists and Muslims there and the road map to a secular nation. This has been among the most crucial issues facing both new and older nations, fledging democracies and established ones: the question of inclusion of minority groups, whether ethnic or religious or any other, and the need to affirm the equality of all communities.
In many cases in India, we have been found wanting and have repeatedly failed the test.  Whether the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi, Kanpur and elsewhere, the communal riots in Gujerat or Bhiwandi and Bhagalpur, of last year in Assam and the ethnic eruptions of this year in this state, if we are to look at the record of the last 20-30 years, it’s a sorry spectacle of a majority or a powerful minority, protected or assured of protection by local power syndicates and systems, literally running riot, gunning for the “other”.
In all this, there has been some solace: there have been commissions of inquiry, public debates, investigations by media and independent groups, long and at times depressing but often inspiring legal and activist driven campaigns seeking justice and ensuring that it is meted out. The strength of the latter has been far more lacking than the activism of the former. But although one could write a tome on the capacity of the State and its many minions through a multitude of processes of delaying and stalling justice (the Sikh victims of the 1984 riots are one such case), what is amazing is that in case after case especially in recent years, those who have suffered have not given up: the may feel that the State has failed them but not the system of law, however delayed or convoluted it may appear to an outside observer.
Returning to Burma, this is precisely the problem: the institutions of fair governance, equal play, justice and democractization such as the panchayats in this country (let’s not deride them beyond a point, many councils function even though, like their mentors in state and national politics, members may be corrupt and disinterested in anything outside of personal gain) but above all of free expression and media are what are lacking in our neighouring land. The NGO movement in this country is so vibrant, noisy and at times irksome, especially to governments and stakeholders.
But think for a moment of its major figures such as Aruna Roy, Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, Ravi Chopra of the Peoples Science Institute of Dehra Dun, our own Gogoi not to speak of Anna Hazare and others who are a major force in India.  Indeed, without personalities like the Chipko father figure of Chandrika Prasad Bhat, SR Hiremath of Karnataka, Prof. Mishra of Benares, who passed away recently but as scientist and activist, made unrelenting efforts to save his city and the Ganges from human pollution, of Rajendra Singh, the water man of Rajasthan, of Anil Aggarwal, perhaps the first green campaigner for rights in India based on equity and science and founder of the Centre for Science and Environment, and his worthy successor Sunita Narain.  Without them, could we even visualize a nation where the rights of people for safe water, air, food and a democratic and equal space are protected?  The State and the corporate sector, domestic and international, private and public, would have wiped out resources and destroyed  the environment, livelihoods and incomes without compunction. What we have saved is due to these selfless warriors.
 They made the noise, presented the facts, mobilized the people, the media and organized the campaigns that enabled concerns to be protected and even drafted into law. Where are Burma’s eco warriors? Its battlers against corporate might and the force of the State, both of which often combine?  We do not hear enough and often of them.  What about those who battled the junta so long and so hard? There are worrying reports that some of them are now part of the system and do not wish to raise their voices. The one name that emerges at every turn of Burma’s road is Suu Kyi.  Where are the others?
There have been challenges to the Kalodyne multi-nodal river project that seeks to benefit India by transporting goods (when it is finally ready and no one is quite sure when that will be) from Sittwe port in the Arakan up the Kalodyne to Mizoram and then by road to other parts of the NER.  Can one think of a more tortuous way to do business: there are neither godowns nor landing sites where ships are to unload onto trucks.  I have spoken of this in earlier columns. The Chin community through whose lands the project and river flow says it has not been consulted, that livelihoods have been affected and the environment damaged without compensation. I have been told by senior officials in the Indian Government that things have been ‘sorted out’.
Also, it is not surprising that despite the mayhem that appears to be taking place within parts of Burma, that the large international corporations, whether American, Russian or Chinese (not to leave aside smaller western powers) continue to beat a path to Neipidaw and Yangon, political and economic capital of Burma. There’s business and money to be made in good times and bad.
In all this turmoil, the stand of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party is crucial.  To me, at least, her position has been puzzling, and even of concern.  In different parts of the world, when she went on her first international trip last year to be feted and give addresses and accept awards, she hesitated to take a position on the Rohingya question. At that time, one believed that that was a sensitive view which took a long-term approach as she did not want to exacerbate the ongoing confrontation.  But when she came to India and met some of us at a dialogue hosted by Salman Khurshid, the External Affairs Minister, she indicated what was really on her mind: that the Rohingya issue was complicated by corrupt immigration officials who allowed many illegal migrants to come across the border and settle in the Arakan. To me, this appeared to be either a naive interpretation of facts on the ground — for the Muslims of the Arakan, have settled there over generations and are a mix of many communities, including Arab, Bangla and others – or a ‘mainland’ or Burman construction of conditions.
With elections just two years away in Burma, how does one view also the fact that she took a place of honour along with the generals she so long opposed on a recent national day to watch the Army march past?  Of course, her father was the founder of the modern Burmese army.  So in a way, this too can be explained.
But what cannot be explained adequately is the reluctance to take a position that would pit her against the right wing in her party and in the Burman community, the largest and most powerful of all ethnic groups in her country.  Is she reluctant to possible alienable the influential and populous vote bank which would decide her future as the first democratically elected leader of Burma in decades?  Can the latter be taken for granted. given the rifts which have surfaced in her own party? But far more important, will The Lady take a far more inclusive approach than she has done so far because as she herself as indicated, that is the key to a stable and hopefully democratic future in Burma.  Being an Icon is not enough. Her friends, well wishers and neighbours are watching.
Sanjoy Hazarika/By the Brahmaputra

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