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Lessons from Myanmar for Human Rights and Democracy

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Note to readers: This essay originated as a guest lecture for the Foreign Policy Association Great Decisions series sponsored by the Virginia Tech Life-Long Learning Institute and Montgomery County Chapter of the League of Women Voters. I have edited it lightly for Soundings. I thank the Institute’s organizers for their invitation.

Introduction

        Thank you for this special opportunity to discuss the challenges now confronting Myanmarand ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and what they might portend more broadly for our understanding of human rights and democratic possibility. I want first to comment briefly on ASEAN and the current United States stance toward Myanmar and then spend most of my time on a discussion of what this nation’s situation may tell us about the perils and prospects for democracy more broadly in our current geopolitical and economic context. I have been struck that Myanmar generally and its famed and now once more incarcerated leader, Aung San Suu Kyi more particularly, serve as metaphors for larger and deeper issues concerning the creation and preservation of democratic regimes and cultures. I hope to explore those briefly with you today.

ASEAN and U.S. Policy toward Myanmar

        I found the analysis of ASEAN and Myanmar offered in your video and chapter compelling.Myanmar is not vital to U.S., European Union, Japanese, United Kingdom or Australian economic interests, but all those governments care to some degree about what is occurring in that nation due to their concerns about the authoritarian turn of the regime (and in the region, more broadly) and the growing reach of a totalitarian China. For its part, the United States under President Joseph Biden has signaled its interest with targeted sanctions and economic and humanitarian aid and key symbolic support in the aftermath of the military’s February 2021 coup and the de facto civil war in Myanmar that has followed it.  In addition, President Biden chose to attend the ASEAN Summit in 2021 that his predecessor had skipped in 2017 and to have Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual ASEAN organization meeting to address concerns violence, detainments and killings since the coup. The Alliance has, as your video noted, taken largely symbolic steps in its efforts to deal with the violence of the Burmese Army and the growing and continuing political and civil unrest in the country. To date, and not unexpectedly, the ASEAN’s efforts have been halting and ineffectual. It seems likely this is so in good part because several of its member regimes are themselves authoritarian and pressing too hard for change in Myanmar could raise uncomfortable questions for each. The military in Burma has not only ruled for all but 14 years of the nation’s post-colonial history since 1948, even maintaining an outsized and controlling role when it shared some measure of power for a decade from 2011-2021, it also launched a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya (a Muslim ethnic/religious minority that has lived in Myanmar for centuries) in 2017 following some violence against a police station in Rakhine state in that year. That bloody rampage killed at least 24,000, caused a mass migration and saw the military attacking unarmed civilians and ravaging and burning Rohingya villages with genocidal abandon.Today, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports,

there are 980,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from Myanmar in neighboring countries. Nearly 890,000 Rohingya refugees are living at the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region—which have grown to become the largest and most densely populated camps in the world. 
Approximately 75 percent of those living in the Cox’s Bazar region arrived in September 2017. They joined more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar in previous years. More than half of those who have arrived are women and children. [Moreover,] Approximately 370,000 people were internally displaced (IDP) inside Myanmar at the end of 2020, with an additional 189,000 newly displaced people inside Myanmar since February 2021.4
        Given the constellation of conditions in the country, including its poverty and economic stagnation, the relative power of its neighbor Vietnam and especially China in the region and limited U.S. interests as well as reticence to engage directly following our own humbling experience in Vietnam, it is noteworthy that our country has taken so salient a stand as it has under President Biden. That is, the United States stance is a bit surprising according to your study materials because Australia and India, the largest regional powers behind China, have not done so and because what is occurring in Burma is at the level of tertiary politics; according to the taxonomy offered in your text, it raises democratic and human rights concerns, but does not otherwise affect our nation’s vital interests. This raises the interesting and long-lived question: if human rights and democracy are not critical, how are we to regard them? I say a bit more about this below. Clearly, the Biden administration is seeking to highlight Myanmar as an example of the erosion of democracy and the dangers of authoritarianism, especially in its region, even as the U.S. possesses few tools to change fundamentally the present destabilizing autocracy and conflict-filled dynamics at play in the nation.

Key Questions about Human Rights, Democracy and Human Dignity

        What I find most fascinating about the Myanmar scenario is what it tells us about the relative fragility of human rights and democracy, their necessary antecedents, and fundaments, and why and how it is that even so admired a figure as Suu Kyi could and did ignore their claims once she wielded some measure of power. Despite her defense of the junta’s genocide at the International Court of Justice in 2019, Suu Kyi is once again under house arrest by those rulers and facing an array of trumped-up charges. When all is said and done, she may never again emerge from prison, given her age—she is presently 76. One must ask how this shameful episode could have happened. How, first, could Suu Kyi, a revered symbol of democracy kept under house arrest for some 15 years and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, come publicly to defend documented genocide and thereby de facto openly repudiate all for which she had come to stand?Second, what does the continuing widespread ethnic unrest in Myanmar say about the conditions necessary to sustain self-rule?

        The first of these questions reminds me of a narrative from India that I think is illuminating by analogy. It was recounted in Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Boo’s 2012 National Book Award volume, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.The book powerfully described life in Annawadi, a Mumbai informal community near that city’s international airport. Many of those living in the area’s shacks were trash pickers. And children, including those of the Muslim family Boo chronicles, literally risked their lives daily in their efforts to find and sell trash to recycle to sustain their families. One woman living in the community was Fatima. Importantly, she was a Hindu and disfigured, at least as she and many of her neighbors saw matters, by the loss of one of her legs. Indeed, she was called “one leg” by Annawadi’s residents. In her rage against the world following the failure of her family’s own garbage-picking business and anger concerning her condition, she was personally persistently cruel, even violently so. In fact, she murdered a child of her own she did not want, while seeking to make it appear the infant died of an accident. In any case, Fatima earned such money as she could as a prostitute and became especially and vengefully enraged and jealous when the Muslim family living in the shack next door appeared to be getting ahead of her economically. Indeed, she came to loathe and envy their tiny modicum of economic success.

        Please understand that these people lived in a former marsh bordering a sewage lagoon and in consequently unhealthy and filthy conditions, and that most gathered trash for their living alongside a dangerous highway on which several had been killed with no one paying that fact much mind. So it was in this context that Fatima plotted to keep her, in her view anyway, “lowly unworthy neighbors” in their place. She finally sought to do so by setting herself afire and blaming the 13-year-old boy of her nemesis family. But matters soon exceeded her control and she died of her self-inflicted burns. The boy, Abdul, the chief breadwinner of Fatima’s hated neighboring family, was duly arrested for the purported assault by the corrupt local police. I urge you to read the book for the details of this true account. For my purposes here, two things are important about Fatima’s story. First, she displayed a very human disposition to “other” and revile her neighbors out of jealousy and anxiety that they were succeeding and attaining a social status she felt she deserved when she was not moving ahead. She detested this state-of-affairs of a Muslim family doing better than she, a Hindu.  That fact, coupled with her belief that such was somehow unnatural, and her accompanying anger and envy led her to her an obviously crazed, and ultimately, deadly, action. This was a clear case of identity, rather than of positional, politics. Fatima could not countenance a hated other of a different identity appearing to succeed when she was not. She simply had to be the superior in the relationship if her imagined understanding of her proper place in the world was to be preserved. Any other situation was unnatural and deeply anxiety producing to her.

        I was led to think of this story by two comments in Hunter Marston’s Foreign Policy Association Great Decisions series chapter that you read for today. Here is the first, from page 54:

To stay in power, the military has practiced divide and rule tactics by occasionally signing ceasefires with certain armed groups while appealing to a potent form of Buddhist nationalism to sustain limited support from the country’s powerful religious community.7
        I want to suggest that it is not so much nationalism as identity to which the military has been appealing and that those acting on such calls have, like Fatima, accepted a story of who they are comprised both of their faith tradition (Buddhist in this case) and of their sense of its innate rightness and superiority. Others, whether of alternate religions, ethnicities, tribal affiliations, races or whatever, need to be kept in their social place. Notably, the alternate side of such assumed certainty can be tyranny, and Fatima evidenced her own version of that harsh reality in Annawadi. By analogy, the vast majority of Myanmar’s citizens have long accepted and practiced a Fatima-like stance vis-a-vis the Rohingya, whose very existence they are prepared, and publicly willing, to deny.           
Marston also offered this important observation in his essay:    
Upon winning the election in 2015, the NLD appointed chief ministers for each ethnic minority state from its own party even in those states where it had not won a majority of the vote. Rather than build trust with ethnic political parties that could have been useful in forming a stronger coalition to cement democratic precedent against the Tatmadaw’s incursions into civilian affairs, the NLD thus isolated itself and therefore had few supporters from ethic minority states.8

        This is to say that the NLD, Myanmar’s supposed democratic party, led by that nation’s most famous proponent of freedom, Suu Kyi, was prepared to behave undemocratically toward Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, even as it nominally professed democratic principles. The irony of that stance is bitter, blind and cruel.

        These examples, coupled with Suu Kyi’s blank obtuseness at The Hague in 2019 suggest that she and her party alike extended democratic principles only to their fellow Buddhists, and not to minorities. This constitutes a blind spot of a peculiar sort, one rooted in epistemic assumptions concerning the assumed existential superiority of one group over others and a narrative that justifies that claim. In this respect, it is important to recall that Suu Kyi remains very popular among a large portion of Burma’s majority (88 percent of the nation’s population) Buddhists. The story, when one reflects on her status as a one-time iconic symbol of democracy for decades, is simple enough: for the NLD party leader, human and civil rights extend to Buddhists and rightly, but not to other ethnic groups or religious minorities and certainly not to the always oppressed Rohingya against whom even genocide apparently may be justified.

        Again, this narrative or story is rooted first and foremost in identity claims and then realized in social terms. It has and can be fulfilled by systematic subjugation of the undeserving “other” who are assigned characteristics that work to legitimate that assumption. In the case of the Rohingya, it is not only their religious beliefs, which are perceived as unnatural by the majority, but also their imagined interloper status that give them the standing of “other” in their own country. Never mind that history shows no such thing and that they have resided in the country for hundreds of years. The shared story dominates belief and beliefs, especially assumed unexamined beliefs, and perceptions among the country’s dominant Buddhist group, as Suu Kyi’s actions harshly demonstrated, are what rule social action.

        Myanmar provides an example of a too healthy phenomenon globally that we might label, “structured alterity.” Buddhists in Myanmar are acculturated to condescend to those who are different and to imagine those individuals are less than they are. Myanmar’s Buddhists appear to do so out of a mixture of religious chauvinism, a sort of baked-in human intolerance of difference and a practiced derision and hatred. The last has always attached to the supposed non-status of the Rohingya particularly, and the narrative that claims it is appropriate to treat them as so much detritus in their own land. Please note that in such characterizations, the characteristics are ascribed a priori, they are always attributed in-principle, and they are accorded to a group in general, that is, in the abstract. We have seen just such representations of immigrants in our public dialogue in this country in recent years as well as of Black and minority and Jewish citizens. Very similar tropes have been employed in the last several years by the Narendra Modi government in India against Muslims, by the Polish government against immigrants and most shamefully, Jews, and by Hungary’s regime against immigrants, and so on.

        The pattern involved in these attacks on human rights and therefore on democratic self-governance is ever similar. I here highlight three salient characteristics:

        First, attribute social, economic or other anxieties to a specific group and suggest why they are “other” in the abstract and why it is that one or more of their characteristics make them less than a nominally “superior” group. This can be accomplished via systematic propaganda or via acculturation or both. Note, however, that as with Fatima, it is rooted in an assumption, an idea or belief held to be fundamental, that the other is less than, as a member of a group, based on an ascribed characteristic.

        Second, scapegoat and blame those groups for supposed social and personal ills (again, think of Fatima) and demand that those allegedly perpetrating those evils be punished in some way for them. If they appear to demand too much in ways that seem to suggest they are stepping outside of their accepted status, violence can legitimately be employed to keep them in their rightful place in the supposed epistemic order. Think of the brutality witnessed during the March for civil rights to Selma in 1965 in our own country and the wanton and unprovoked slaughter of unarmed Rohingya by the Burmese Army in Myanmar in 2017.

        Third, the implicit social hierarchy need not be explicitly articulated to exist. Former President Donald Trump referred to Haitians and those from many other nations with disproportionate citizens of color as denizens of “S-Hole countries” in a bid to appeal to those who believed that anyone of color was less than they were and implicitly too, to suggest that retaining such groups in their rightful relegated status would assuage any anxieties those targeted were otherwise undergoing.9 In so doing, and as is ever the case in such descriptions, those demonized are described in the abstract and dehumanized to varying degrees in that process, leading to a greater willingness among those accepting and acting on such assertions that those named are not deserving of standing (read human dignity), let alone equal standing. In this way, human and civil rights can be corroded, and history teaches that this can occur in remarkably bestial ways, whether in Myanmar and Bosnia in recent memory, under the Third Reich in World War II, in Cambodia’s Killing Fields or in Rwanda to offer only a few of history’s long list of possible horrific examples.

        In short, the unfolding violence in Myanmar is testimony to the fact that human rights and its corollary democratic self-rule, are ever subject to the very human problem of difference or alterity. Autocrats across time have ‘othered” to curry or obtain or maintain power and social and political position. They have scapegoated and blamecast to play on human social anxieties concerning difference and status. Another way to say this is to say that democracy will always be subject to the challenge of pluralism. If all are the same, it is more difficult to other.

        Notice, I did not say impossible. Even in such cases, humans demonstrate a fine-grained propensity to find ways to establish hierarchies even when basically similar, to gain power or status or standing. As you ponder this point, it is well to recall that the Rohingya have resided in Myanmar for centuries. When differences are obvious, nations and peoples must accord high standing to principles of essential human dignity or equality or risk losing them to those proselytizing for persecution based on hate or anxieties of various stripes. In this regard, I hope you noticed that Marston’s article as well as your video presentation for this series accorded human rights principles and democratic claims tertiary status in diplomacy. That these central premises rarely receive pride of place in foreign policy and diplomatic circles is considered sophisticated because to act otherwise is supposed to be both potentially conflict-fraught and naïve.

        While there are armed factions with considerable organization and strength in Myanmar now challenging the regime, none now appear capable of overcoming the Burmese army and no outside nations are seeking actively to support efforts to secure that result in any case. In this situation, we may expect the ruling junta to continue to work to find ways both to forestall fully democratic elections and dialogue and to use Buddhism as a central social cudgel by way of suggesting the threat that alternate groups pose as proponents of different beliefs. That social chauvinism, predicated as it is on an anxiety of position and place, has proven potent in Myanmar, with no evidence more powerful than a once universally revered leader ignominiously defending genocide in its name on the world stage. Quite apart from force postures on the ground, we may expect little change in the prospects for democracy in Myanmar until a broad scale social movement arises in that nation that claims human dignity as its banner—one arguably now, although unevenly, exists— and persuades a majority that only such moral conviction and courage broadly shared can ensure genuine political, social and economic opportunity.  Social imaginaries are epistemic in character and those aiming to change them-—in this case toward freedom— must successfully find ways to bring those harboring anti-democratic beliefs and anxieties to change those. Doing so nearly always yields conflict, but it is conflict in the name of principle, and not power, and of dignity, not degradation.                   

Notes

1 I use the terms Myanmar and Burma interchangeably to describe the nation, as both are in wide use in publications concerning the country. The United States, however, has never formally accepted the ruling junta’s decision to rename the country Myanmar in 1989. BBC News, “Who, What, Why: Should it be Burma or Myanmar?,” December 2, 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16000467,  Accessed March 12, 2022.

2 The Foreign Policy Association (FPA), based in New York City for more than 100 years, produces excellent 30-minute videos on each of the topics in its Great Decisions series each year as well as a book with chapters by subject matter experts addressing each selected subject. The materials for 2022, 2022 Great Decisions Briefing Book, may be accessed here: https://www.fpa.org/great_decisions/?act=gd_materials Information concerning the FPA may be found here: https://www.fpa.org/about/

3 BBC News, “Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis,” January 23, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561, Accessed March 3, 2022. 

4 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Rohingya Refugee Crisis Explained,” August 25, 2021, https://www.unrefugees.org/news/rohingya-refugee-crisis-explained/, Accessed March 3, 2021.

5 Simons, Marlise and Hannah Beech, “Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Rohingya Genocide Accusations,” The New York Times, December 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/world/asia/aung-san-suu-kyi-rohingya-myanmar-genocide-hague.html, Accessed March 5, 2022. 

Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, New York: Random House, Inc., 2012.

7 Marston, Hunter. “Myanmar’s Neverending Crisis,” in Foreign Policy Association, 2022 Great Decisions Briefing Book, New York: Foreign Policy Association, 2022, p. 54.

8 Marston, in 2022 Great Decisions Briefing Book, p.57.

9 Dawsey, Josh, “Trump Derides Protections for Immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries,” The Washington Post, January 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/bfc0725c-f711-11e7-91af-31ac729add94_story.html, Accessed March 4, 2022. 

Publication Date

March 14, 2022

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