A Failure of Democracy

October 3, 2007 at 5:00 am (Uncategorized)

Llew and I kept up to date with the unfolding Burma/Myanmar crisis whilst we were in Auckland. This was made easier by having cable TV in our hotel room, something we don’t have at home. No wonder we don’t have a whisper of jetlag even though we came back in time (such a mind-bending concept) – we were up until 2 or 3 am every night we were there. So we watched the recorded footage of the Japanese photojournalist being shot dead point blank, and we watched monks and thousands of other Burmese taking to the streets, and we watched the peace talks delegation arrive.

As the news reports started to ebb both in frequency and content, I thought to myself ‘Oh dear, here we go again.’ As Llew said repeatedly “It’s like the world only cares when there’s bloodshed.” Because let’s face it, this situation has been locked in stalemate for years.

Myanmar has had a democratically elected leader, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, since 1990. Unfortunately, she’s been under house arrest (with a couple of significant reprieves) since 1989. Since her National League for Democracy (NLD) party was denied its landmark 1990 victory by the junta, it has continued to campaign via non-violent means, such as the current protest marches, in order to apply pressure to Burma/Myanmar’s military regime and to further establish meaningful international support.

Let’s look at that latter challenge for a second. Here we have a population that has freely elected to become a democracy. They want it. They’ve been wanting it for 15 years. The military regime isn’t showing any sign of standing aside; it never has. The NLD is pro-peaceful resolution, so they have not resorted to violent uprising in order to make their point. And perhaps because of this intrinsically democratic approach, the NLD finds that the democratic West is slow to act. Several reporters and politicians in Australia have compared the Burmese situation to the debacle in Iraq; I think this is mischievous, because clearly very little of genuine significance is happening in the West to help the Burmese claim their democracy without violence. And yet in Iraq and Afghanistan, where other military regimes held power, and where the people did not have a democratically-elected leader of the calibre of Suu Kyi waiting in the wings, it was all systems go in a very Lord of the Flies -style intervention (“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”). Not terribly sophisticated, but boy, what a page turner!

So I guess one of the questions Llew and I struggled with over dinner on Saturday night is why is the democratic West so reluctant to assist in the NLD’s (crucially) peaceful attempts to claim the rightful place of democracy in its country? Is this a flaw in democracy itself? Are we saying that under a democratic model, the transition from a resistant, tight-fisted regime to an elected democracy must be violent? Because it seems to me that the Burmese were languishing in obscurity until this latest protest, at least in terms of the world’s interest in their plight. Then things got ugly, so our interest was piqued. “A spot of bother in Burma,” we said, “or is it Myanmar? Gosh, who can keep up? Monks, anyway. They’re quite the political activists, aren’t they? Just look at those Tibetans.”

It seems that as far as our loyalty to the democratic cause goes, there’s nothing quite like a bit of blood in the streets to let you know they really do – they really, really do – want it enough, this ‘peace and prosperity for all’ promise we established Western democracies are so very quick to claim.

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