I spent my childhood in Burma, and indeed it is difficult for me to talk about Burma without a deep sense of nostalgia. My earliest memories are all of Burma, where I grew up between the ages of three and six, where the world presented itself to me, as I started sensing that there existed an external world beyond me.
My father was a visiting professor at the Agricultural College in Mandalay, on leave from Dhaka University. My first memory of striking natural beauty is that of sunrise over the hills, seen from our wooden house on the eastern edge of Mandalay. It was a thrilling sight, even for a young boy. My first recollection of warm human relations, stretching beyond my own family, are also of kindly Burmese society. Mandalay was a lively city in the 1930s, and Burma an immaculately beautiful country. The richness of the land and the enormous capacity of the Burmese people to be happy and friendly shone brightly through the restraining lid of British colonialism. After a short period of independence from British rule and a brief experience of democracy, Burma has been in the grip of a supremely despotic military rule for almost half a century now. There initially were some ups and downs, but over the last couple of decades there has been nothing but downs and downs.
The country has steadily fallen in the economic ranking of poor countries in the world and is now one of the absolutely poorest on the globe. Its educational and health services are in tatters; medicine is difficult to get and educational institutions can hardly function. There is viciously strict censorship, combined with heavy punishment for rebellious voices. The minority communities – Shan, Karens, Chins, Rohingyas and others – get particularly cruel and oppressive treatment. The shocking litany of different cases of arbitrary imprisonment, terrifying torture, state-directed displacement of people and organized rapes and killings. When the population faces a catastrophe like Hurricane Nargis in May 2008, the government not only does not want to help at all, its first inclination is to ban others in the world from helping the distressed and destitute people in the country.
The military rulers have renamed Burma as Myanmar and the renaming seems perhaps understandable. For the country is no longer the Burma that magnificently flourished over the centuries. New Myanmar is in fact the hell-hole version of old Burma. What is striking is that tyranny has grown steadily in Burma precisely over the decades in which democracy have made major progress across the globe. When the great late leader Aung San, who led Burma to independence, was gunned down on the 19 July 1947, there was no democratic country in Asia or Africa. India became independent next month, and established a flourishing, multi-party democracy soon thereafter. And one by one a great many countries moved from authoritarian rule to democratic forms of government.
China, even though it does not have a multi-party democracy, gives plentiful evidence of being deeply concerned, in the systematic and dedicated way, with the wellbeing of its population, in terms of removing poverty, advancing education and health care, and promoting exceptional material and intellectual progress. I know that there are limits to that and issues of human rights come up in that context, as they recently did in the context of the Nobel Peace Prize award. But, it would be a great mistake not to see the commitment of the government to what it sees as the well-being of the people, in terms of their own perspective. And that is where the contrast is.
Burma, on the other hand, has moved exactly in the opposite direction. Ne Win, the military leader, began with the caretaker government in 1958 and then seized power in 1962; Burma has had a continuous sequence of military rule since then, with the grip of uncaring oppression, steadily growing in its reach of enforcement, with total indifference to the well being of the people. One of the foundational questions to be addressed at a meeting like this one, is how has the long process of Burmese descent into hell been possible in a world that has been moving exactly, steadily, and firmly in the opposite direction? What does it tell us about global relations and what can we do about it?
I shall take up these difficult issues to date presently. But before that, I ask a basic question: individuals and groups act on the basis of reasoning in undertaking actions. The reasoning can be primitive or sophisticated, and the wisdom of actions and the resulting consequences cannot but depend on the quality and reach of such reasonings. These reasonings often go by the name of incentives, to which reflective agents tend to respond. When we are concerned with changing behaviours and policies, as we have to be in this case, we have to examine carefully what incentives do different agents involved – the Burmese government, the citizens, and neighbouring countries and the world at large – have in contributing to changing things in Burma.
An incentive may not be based only on crude self interest, for human beings are capable of understanding other kinds of reasons that can also move and inspire us. Indeed, we will never be able to understand why functioning democracies prevent famines from occurring if we believe that everyone only acts according to their narrowly defined self interests. A famine never threatens more than a small proportion of the population, usually no more than five or 10 percent. I have certainly in my two decades of study never encountered a famine affecting more than 10 percent of the population, a small minority which couldn’t sway the election. And it is through the ability of people in general to understand each other’s predicament, through exposure to news and public reasoning, that makes a minority cause a commitment for the majority of people. Self-interest and prudence, important as they are, are embedded within a larger totality of action-related reasoning. The question that does arise is: how should we think of the Burmese hell hole with this broad understanding of incentives and human reasoning at the national, regional and global levels today?
First, the Burmese government: if one thing is clear from the experiences of the past, it is that the military rulers in Burma see the division between “we rulers” and “they the people” to be an unbridgeable gap, unless the maltreatment of the people can somehow rebound against the interests of the rulers themselves. The control of news and censorship make open and public discussion impossible. If democracy is governed by discussion, as John Stuart-Mill made us understand, there is an uncrossable barrier there, as things stand in Burma. Do the Burmese government have any reason to remove or relax this barrier now? It is hard to think that there is any indigenous force in that direction. What about exogenous influence?
The pressure for this is likely to come from Burma’s powerful neighbours, China in particular, but also India and Thailand. More of that presently, because that is not an immutable situation. But with the fears and anxieties that the Burmese government often display, the global community can do something here if they include the subject of censorship and news control among the conditions to be negotiated between the Burmese government, and say, the United Nations. It is not enough when the weak voice of the UN emissaries assure that the Burmese government has promised to lift the harshness of the regime. And it is not adequate for the Asian leaders to announce cheerfully that they gave the Burmese leaders an “earful”. The military butchers are happy to have their earful so long that they hands remain free.
There is a real need for insisting that concrete steps be taken by the government right now. With effective arrangement for verification and assessment. There is much of it that the Burmese military rulers are concerned about – world opinion – with the impression of being almost paranoid about it. And it is easy as to why they see this as an important requirement of their long run viability. Because that is indeed the case.
This article is adapted from a speech given on 20 September for Human Rights Watch by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and titled ‘A Return to Civilian Rule?’