Burma's age of cynicism

One thing apparent about the Egyptian protests and Burma’s 2007 uprising is that the men and women on the streets were not too dissimilar; it was instead the brutality of the Burmese state apparatus, the rapid appearance of guns, and the ghastly consequences therein that became the key difference. And so as Burma’s rulers sit in a comical mock-up of a parliament that is clearly not designed for adversarial discussion, what does this permit or do to the psyche of a people so hungry for reform?

Renowned thinker and enemy of historicism, Karl Popper, believed that the notion of ultimate destiny – the communist or fascist assertion that a people could have a path that could be understood from looking at history – was wrong; essentially, he said, we are too complex, our psychologies too different and unpredictable.

And he may have had a lot to say to the Burmese generals regarding their vision of the country’s destination. It is their ultimate mission to recreate a glorious domineering nation based on autocratic forefathers like King Anawratha, who acquired and spread Therevada Buddhism by the sword and eventually formed the first Burmese kingdom.

Popper had postulated that “Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realised”.

And so it will be interesting to note, as Burmese economist U Myint does, that in 1986 the Burmese household spent roughly 1.3 percent of its budget on what is termed ‘Charity & Ceremonials’ – essentially, alms to monks or charity, done as a means to make merit. This made it the tenth largest non-food household expenditure. But in 2001, the last year that records are available, it had almost doubled, now eating up 3.29 percent of the household budget. More extraordinarily, it is now the third largest non-food household expenditure.

The only non-food items that the Burmese household spends more on are travel and fuel and light. This means that whilst the government spends around a dollar per person each year on health, the Burmese family is still prepared to spend more on trying to engender merit for the next life than on their own health. This is reflected in the probability of Burmese making it past their fifth birthday, for more than one in 10 fail to do so, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

And from behind the figures, U Myint ventures: “It could be that the family is performing more meritorious deeds because its members have become more interested in the next life than in the present one.”

If there is one thing more haunting than an economic report inducing emotion, it has to be the compulsion to give up on life, as this figure indicates.

It is true that Burma’s social services are bankrupt. Consequently, a lot of the slack is picked up by the monastic orders whose numbers are no doubt swelled by the poverty of families up and down the land, visible in the difference to neighbouring nations which share the same faith. Like the alternate stages of Buddha’s life, in Burma the throngs of monks and nuns are young, thin and desperate; in Thailand they look healthy and every bit the metaphor of a more laughing Buddha.

In any case, what does this do to the politics of a people? This cynicism is in evidence in the political discourse of ordinary Burmese who commonly reflect a deep despair in politics.

Let’s consider then the recent protests in Egypt and a perceptive comment from journalist Robert Fisk, who said that the job of the tyrant is to infantilise a population. In Egypt’s case, however, the ‘infants’ have just realised that the tyrants themselves are even more childish.

In Burma it could be said that rather than infantilising the population, the military has “geriatricised” a people, grinding down tens of millions of Burmese through repeated and brutal suppression of popular expression. This occurred most famously in 2007, but on an everyday basis it happens through a complete lack of accountability and transparency.

And of course it occurred again through last year’s elections that were based on a document, the 2008 constitution, described by constitutional expert Yash Ghai as “deeply cynical”. Turnout for the vote appeared low, with booths empty most of the day (but then there is no way of verifying this, given that the limited scope of one journalist’s stroll around Rangoon is probably as reliable as government statistics, which anyway indicated that the people voted overwhelmingly for a hated institution: the military). And then when people cheer a step in the “right” direction, as many did following the polls, one cannot blame a populous for both failing to agree that steps have been taken in the right direction, and moreover, for putting their faith in the teachings of a 2,500-year-old ascetic, especially those of nihilism and reincarnation.

For indeed the received wisdom from permitted civil society and some foreign journalists and diplomats (allegedly those from Germany, for example) is that the military should be seen as “partners”, and that charades undertaken to appease tyrants are “pragmatic”. Perhaps they are not exposed to the travails of those who try and challenge reality either, even if in a small way. This was the fate of blogger Nat Soe, who recently had a decade added onto his two-year prison sentence by the technophobic autocrats looking to silence those who are capable of communicating in ways the autocrats do not understand.

But indeed the same foreign interest groups are also inducted into the cynicism of the Burmese psyche by accepting a charade of elections that they know was a joke. The pernicious fact is, however, that they are not liable to the system’s torment; their “pragmatism” can be numbed by the so-called “objectivity” inherent in a foreign passport and another assignment, instead of another life.

And so it is that, as in Egypt, it is not just rights or justice that are at stake; it is the question of dignity that appeared frequently in Tahrir square. This is something that is continually neglected by Western planners, who stick pragmatically by “their” dictators who maintain stability, and in doing so their allies like Israel, and its ‘place in the sun’.

In Burma, however, the acceptance of a compromise from foreign powers like Germany or India is, in effect, tacit permission of the perpetuation of a charade democracy. In this we see “our” pragmatism translating into the death of hope for the real stakeholders, the people.

This is not an end in itself; it is moreover life with a reason: hope.

“We do not choose political freedom because it promises us this or that,” said Popper. “We choose it because it makes possible the only dignified form of human coexistence, the only form in which we can be fully responsible for ourselves. Whether we realize its possibilities depends on all kinds of things — and above all on ourselves.”

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