I am as vain and immoral as any human: A confession of an honest scholar

I am as vain and immoral as any human. - ZARNI 

​Dear Friends,

​This is a confessional reflection: I am as vain -and even immoral - as anyone. Don't treat me like I am something special, super-human. 

Get this. ​

Back in the days, I remember feeling overcome with rage inside me as world leaders attempted to outdo one another in heaping praise on the 'extraordinary democratic transition' that the generals and ex-generals were undertaking. The American politicians led the choir of World Class Delusions. 

Obama famously urged Dear Leader in N. Korea and Ayatollahs in Iran to behave like Myanmar's old-time crooks and thugs in generals' uniform. 

Ex-General Thein Sein was nominated - and even short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize. ICG in fact picked him to be their man of the hour for the world peace, alongside Brazil's Lulu. Ah, the "pursuit of peace". (For the record, Thein Sein's final legislative act was the Nuremberg-style 4 "National Race and Faith Protection Laws", in the months running up to the 2015 Re-Elections.)

The Burmese nationalists, whether raised in New York City's diaspora or in the heart of the Dry Zone of Burma were completely wild-eyed. Virtually all analysts and scholars, and Burma watchers threw their caution into the wind, and chimed in the political chorus of the day. 

Yangon was Democracy's Saudi Arabia, and Suu Kyi's residence at 54 University Avenue turned from a Must-Drive-By spot in the old colonial city in the Lonely Planet's Myanmar Guide to Mecca for the Rich, the Glamorous, the Powerful and the Ignoble. Hilary and Bill Clinton, Norwegian royals (who were not allowed to see poverty on the bank of the famed Irrawaddy River in my fabled town Mandalay), David Cameron, Angelina Jollie, Kevin Rudd, the widower​-President ​of Benazir Bhutto​, ​the Chinese-Malaysian Bond-woman Datuk Michelle Yeo, Tony Blair and the lesser mortals, all descended on the Lady's residence. 

A kind of a Burmese Robin Island ​pilgrimage. Reserved Royals globally soaked up on the Asian Mandela's halo with as much glee on their faces as the dodgy politicians and empty Hollywood-types did. 

Nations' highest awards were hand-delivered in boutique little ceremonies at 54 University Avenue, when Suu Kyi was too busy to travel receive them. 

Meanwhile, Telenor and other investors wasted no time to move in and striked up multi-billion $ deals with the ex-Generals.

World class journalists didn't get enough interview times with the reformist-duo - the bespectabled ex-General Thein Sein with the barely existent command of English and the Nobel Lady-cum-the-mix of King-Gandhi-and-Mandela. The fawning diplomats did their bed to show their reverence and get a selfie with the Lady. ( I confess. I do have one with her, except that I put it right above our toilet at home - where it belongs - as every guest who has ever been to our house). 

The victory laps! Private jets from the Hollywood-types to Singaporean Prime Minister, occasionally escorted by the likes of Bono. 

This was Burma's - nay, Myanmar's Moment - with the capital M - to shine. Myanmar Spring! 

The country widely, and wildly, considered to be one of two post-WWII countries with the greatest development potentials - the other was the Philippines - after Japan, was now resuming its rightful place: to become the "next Asian tiger". 

The phraseology coming from ​the likes of ​my old - or former - friend Thant Myint-U was ​the transition was "not perfect" because of the 2008 Constitution that placed the military above any democratic process - right, it wasn't "perfect"! - but still incomparably better than what it had been: a text book example of a military dictatorship.

There were a few of us - maybe just me - who were stupid enough to call out on what we knew to be a complete farce, obviously a World Class Farce, worthy of an entry into the Guinness Book of Records - insofar as the pervasive and popular Fairy Tale of the hitherto Dodgy Generals leading these "top down reforms", switching from the "baby steps" to steady strides. 

It was the experience of swimming against the tide, trying to pierce through the thick fog of extraordinary delusions, on the streets, in the chattering classes of New York Times, the Guardian, TIME, BBC, CNN, and all the lesser known media entities, and in the World of Money and Power. 

I have never seen or read anything like what transpired in those 5-long years - from 2010-2015: the various strands of delusions based on shallow or ill-informed descriptions of what my country was, what it was going through, and what the elites and the leaders were doing to lift all boats and to democratize, all jelling into ONE BIG SEA OF MADNESS. 

​As the Burmese saying goes, when every other person around has lost his or her mind it was an utterly stupid act to sound the horn of reason and analysis. 

Alas, a mad man on the margins of power, influence or relevance. A spoiler. A negativist.

Not a Saint myself, I must confess my own pathos, a disease, inside which triggers a cool sense of vindication. Alas, the cliche of "I told you so". 

Sad and pathetic as it is, I do feel a deep sense of satisfaction that I have been right about my own country's worst inhuman tendencies, the utter stupidity of the elites, now civilian and military, that have chronically self-destroy​ed throughout the recorded history of Burma, pre- and post-colonial. 

But in the context where silver-linings are hard to find I pause to pat my own back, now that the democratic transition has gone south completely. And ir-reversibly, certainly not in Suu Kyi's lifetime, considering that she has herself participated in the murder of Buddha in the land where his teachings have been replaced with racism of the most genocidal kind. 

My own indulgence in the vanity as an analyst and scholar may be short-lived - but to deny that there is a part of me that is rotten would be utterly dishonest: I do enjoy being proven right. 

Alas, we are all too humans. I don't put myself above the rest.

I am not afraid to stare into the mirror. 

Now back to my morning cup of coffee! Enjoy your day!



Myanmar, Once a Hope for Democracy, Is Now a Study in How It Fails

By Max Fisher
October 19, 2017

Supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Oct. 10 in Yangon, Myanmar, at what was billed as an Interreligious Gathering of Prayers for Peace. ADAM DEAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

YANGON, Myanmar — Nearly a decade into Myanmar’s transition out of military rule, the country’s once-celebrated transition toward democracy is hardening into something very different from what activists and world leaders had hoped for.

Citizens select their leaders, but without the robust institutions or norms like pluralism, universal rights or tolerance necessary for democracy to function.

They express, in surveys and social media, desire for a strongman-style leader and raw majority rule. Democracy, many say, should be guided by religious strictures and nationalism.

The military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, is popular, as are social controls against journalists and minorities.

The civilian state, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is rapidly centralizing power as checks and balances erode. It is growing oppressive in some areas and weak in others, ceding public space to extremists. Meanwhile, the military still controls important government functions and a perpetual quota of Parliament seats.

The country appears to be converging on a democratic-authoritarian hybrid, formally known as illiberal democracy, which often resembles mob rule. It is a version of majority rule that excludes minorities, curtails freedoms and governs arbitrarily.

“Myanmar’s biggest threat is not the return of dictatorship but an illiberal democracy,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and former United Nations official.

The country, only a few years into its democracy, is at the outset of a second transition that could be just as consequential.

Risk Factors

Myanmar appears to follow a pattern that Jack Snyder, a Columbia University political scientist, first articulated in the 1990s to explain why a rash of new democracies had collapsed into war or dictatorships.

Conventional wisdom dismissed those societies as unready for democracy. But Mr. Snyder found a more complex explanation.

Rapid shifting to democracy can scramble the relationships that bond citizens and leaders. A successful transition will create new relationships that include everyone. But certain risk factors seem especially likely to derail the process.

When institutions are weak and leaders see the old elite as a threat, those leaders often hollow out their own governments for fear of a coup, setting the state up to implode.

When rapid social change and deep ethnic divisions coincide, society and politics can fracture, setting ethnic groups on a battle for control, as happened in Rwanda and Bosnia.

And when public demands rise but governance is weak, both citizens and leaders can adopt views that are authoritarian in all but name, as they did in 1990s Russia.

Virtually all those warning signs are present in Myanmar. The canaries in the coal mine of democracy — minorities, journalists, activists — are already falling.

A Hollow Democracy

Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a Japanese-educated lawyer and former lawmaker, was once a poster child for Myanmar’s new democracy.

Brash and technocratic, she cultivated grass-roots support, whereas the party handed most lawmakers their positions. When she joined the National League for Democracy, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, it looked like democracy taking root.

But shortly before Myanmar’s first fully democratic elections, in 2015, the party dropped her from the ticket. Running independently, she lost.

It was a microcosm of politics under Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has steamrollered those with independent support or reputations for speaking out.

“The previous government cared about people like me — student leaders, opposition leaders, politicians — because it needed them,” Ms. Nyo Nyo Thin said. “But this government, they don’t care.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has doled out jobs to loyalists, though many lack qualifications or training. She has consolidated power so tightly that analysts say the government effectively shuts down when she travels.

She appears driven by a combination of expediency — her popularity has seemingly allowed her to skip democratic niceties like coalition-building — and fear.

“They believe they will face a military coup if they face too much criticism,” Ms. Nyo Nyo Thin said of party leaders. “Any critics, any opposing views, should be silent.”

Democratization often starts with a pact between the old and new leaders. In South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president, and his successor, Nelson Mandela, cooperated to hold society and institutions together.

“There was no de Klerk-Mandela partnership here,” said Aaron Connelly, an analyst with the Lowy Institute, based in Sydney, Australia. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi largely spurned the reformist general who led before her.

Instead, he said, “she has an almost Trump-like characteristic” of distrusting institutions she suspects of loyalty to the previous leader.

She removed many officials from the Myanmar Peace Center, for instance, which leads negotiations with the country’s ethnic insurgencies. Soon after, truces collapsed and fighting resurged.

A small circle of insiders effectively runs the country, sidestepping formal institutions. The party and the government it runs have been hollowed out.

Nationalists Fill the Vacuum

One day this summer, students at an Islamic school compound in Yangon heard shouting from outside the gates. A few dozen Buddhist nationalists were threatening to storm the buildings.

They had arrived the day before to demand that local officials close the schools, which were rumored to operate secretly as mosques. If officials did not comply, they said, they would destroy the buildings.

Now gathered outside, their threat seemed imminent. The police arrived but refused to intervene, witnesses said, and the students evacuated the building

Rather than attacking, the mob barred and locked the front gate. The schools have remained closed since, with Muslim families afraid that returning would lead to violence.

U Wai Phyo Aung, the local lawmaker, said that the authorities feared that intervention could turn deadly, as religious tensions in his district had risen to dangerous levels.

It was a tacit admission of a nationwide phenomenon: Buddhist extremists hold growing sway over society, at times bending even the state to their will.

Buddhists’ influence has grown since 2012, when speech and media restrictions fell away, opening a vacuum that extremists have helped fill. Their message of nationalism and traditionalism has resonated in a society disoriented by rapid changes.

U Soe Myint Aung, a political scientist, said officials “knew that it would be too costly for them to stop this Buddhist nationalism.”

The state has long derived its authority from Buddhism. So while it can restrict fringe groups, it cannot take on the clergy more broadly. Instead, it has pursued what Mr. Soe Myint Aung called “an experiment in negative control,” tolerating nationalists as long as they target minorities and activists rather than the state.

“If the government is facing a crisis, they use this religion issue,” said U Zaw Win Latt, a senior officer of the Myanmar Islamic Council. “We are a scapegoat.”

The extremists operate with growing impunity, often targeting Muslims and their businesses.

“The state cannot protect its citizens,” Mr. Zaw Win Latt said.

Authoritarian Values

In 2015, the Asian Barometer Survey of 13 Asian countries yielded two striking findings from Myanmar.

Its citizens expressed some of Asia’s highest support for democracy but among the lowest support for “the liberal political values that undergird democratic processes,” the political scientists Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang and Yun-han Chu wrote.

Over 80 percent said that religious authorities should have a say in lawmaking and that citizenship should be tied to religion. Nearly two-thirds opposed checks on the executive branch. Social controls were seen as necessary and pluralism as dangerous. Nearly all expressed distrust of fellow citizens. “Democracies plagued by low social trust are prone to conflict,” the scholars wrote, and are “vulnerable to fragmentation.”

“Myanmar was never a liberal society,” said Mr. Thant Myint-U, the historian. Decades of army rule, civil war and isolation, he added, “have only deepened illiberal sentiments.”

Seven in 10 of those surveyed said students should not question teachers, considered an important metric of authoritarian values.

“People think Aung San Suu Kyi is a god, she can do anything she wants,” said Ms. Nyo Nyo Thin, the former lawmaker. “This is our education, that we should follow the leader.”

Polarization has even bolstered the once-despised generals. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military chief, runs a Facebook page filled with adoring messages from among his 1.3 million listed followers.

Oppression Returns

It looked like a last gasp of the old system when, in 2013, the transitional authorities passed a rule allowing fines or prison terms for journalists who criticize the government. The rule, known as 66(d), was invoked seven times under that government. Five led to charges.

Rights groups, though alarmed, believed full democracy would end this. Instead, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has invoked the rule 89 times, according to the Myanmar Journalism Institute. Thirteen journalists have faced punishment and 20 others await charges. Ten are accused of defaming Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We are on the way to be like Cambodia” — which has closed media outlets and regressed into authoritarianism — “or even worse,” said U Sein Win, who teaches journalism at the institute.

The greatest threat, he said, is not prosecution but self-censorship. “They are like bamboo, bending with the wind,” he said of reporters.

Several, he said, told him they had played down atrocities against the Rohingya and played up reports of Rohingya militancy, believing it was in the nation’s best interests.

Other oppressive laws remain in use, like Section 505(b), which criminalizes speech or assembly deemed a threat to “public tranquillity.” It has been used to arrest activists and student leaders.
Democracy ‘From the Sky’

U Thet Swe Win, an idealistic and bohemian 31-year-old activist, was once the sort of person thought to define the new Myanmar.

Now, he worries that his fellow citizens pose an even greater threat than the state.

“We thought democracy would fall from the sky, that it would just come,” he said. “We didn’t know that this is a process that all people have to be involved in.”

He leads the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, one of the few remaining groups promoting religious tolerance.

Buddhist groups have stormed his office, accusing him of backing the Rohingya. Rumors spread that the spa he runs with his wife was secretly operated by Muslims, and business dried up. He received threatening phone calls and, for a time, hired guards for his family when he traveled.

“I don’t want my kids to live in a society that is divided and hateful,” he said. But he sees little hope. “We are moving two, three steps back already,” he said.

The Interpreter is a column by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub exploring the ideas and context behind major world events. Follow them on Twitter @Max_Fisher and @amandataub.

Wai Moe contributed reporting.


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