Friday, October 22, 2010

Amartya Sen speaks to complexities of change in Burma

Friday, 22 October 2010 13:27 Joseph Ball

(Mizzima) – In a quip-laden keynote address, Indian award-winning economist Amartya Sen recently put forth his analysis of the present state of Burmese society and the means by which change can come to the blighted Southeast Asian country.

The Harvard Professor of Indian origin who spent the early years of his childhood in Burma was speaking on Wednesday in Washington D.C. at a conference entitled, “A Return to Civilian Rule? The Prospects for Democracy and Rights in Burma After the Election.”

With Sen’s prominent use of verbiage such as “the new Myanmar is actually the hell-hole version of the old Burma” and “Over the last couple of decades [in Burma] there has been nothing other than downs and downs,” it would be easy to conclude that the address was little more than a colourful regurgitation of the associated evils of the existing government.

However, while clearly a call for the realization of a more democratic system of governance in Burma, the speech also offered a challenging insight into the complexities facing current strategies aimed at facilitating meaningful change.

One area, though, from which the Nobel laureate clearly does not anticipate any change to emerge is in the convening of elections. Of the November polls, Sen remarked, “Expectations that things will change after the election are completely contrary to reasoned analysis.”

The elections, according to Sen, are purely to entertain the global community, as the regime has never shown any inclination toward prioritizing the interests of its own citizens and faces no serious threat from those inside Burma.

Yet, he also cautions, “It would be a great mistake not to see from the perspective of the [Burmese] government what it sees as the well-being of the people from its own perspective…they [Burma’s junta] are not unreasoned thinkers.”

As such, there appears to be a gap in understanding on the part of the global community in appreciating the mentality of Burma’s rulers, who are said to offer a countervailing assessment regarding the needs of the Burmese populace.

For this reason, it is interesting that Sen laments the lack of willingness on the part of India to take a vocal position on the moral imperatives of change in Burma, as morality seldom offers ground for compromise or varying interpretations. Of even greater interest, however, is attention paid to the fact that India did speak of political morality when it lacked power, while it fails to do so now that it has achieved a modicum of international influence.

Yet, governments such as the United States and United Kingdom are seldom at a loss to take up the moral dais when confronting Burma, though embodying far greater international clout than that of India. What this seems to indicate is that morality is a poor substitute for a policy of national interest. The question, as Sen seems to indicate, thus becomes one of marrying the moral discourse to that of more tangible national interest.

New Delhi’s present policy vis-à-vis Burma “breaks my heart”, in the words of the Sen, who sees in the calculations of Indian policymakers an absence of a need to respond to critical domestic voices, instead opting to “partially reinvent [India] in imitation of China.”

Nonetheless, while critical of Chinese policy regarding Burma, in addition to the policies of India and other regional states, Sen singles out China for Beijing’s dedicated concern in uplifting the welfare and livelihood of the Chinese citizenry. The conclusion is eerily reminiscent of former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew’s assessment that the Burmese generals are basically incompetent for running such a resource-rich country into the ground. However, the message is also clear that electoral politics is but one component in governance and legitimization.

Much of the Nobel laureate’s speech was devoted to an assessment of international strategy toward fomenting change in Burma. To this end, Sen offered little optimism in the issuance of public statements denigrating conditions inside Burma or offering muted hopes of naturally occurring post-election change, instead postulating that Burma’s “military rulers are happy to have their ears full, as long as their hands are free.”

What is needed, challenges Sen, is the creation of an integrated movement and increased awareness across the international theatre, affecting the actions of all agents.

Sanctions targeting arms, financial resources and travel bans were singled out as weapons at the disposal of the international community. Though the conclusion is arguably consistent with the creation of an integrated global movement, at the very best this appears a partially tested (and failed?) strategy whose fruition can only be realized in a greatly altered global environment.

However, the assessment does challenge ingrained opposition positions, for if a truly integrated global policy is to be created, the demonization of China, to take one example, would surely have to be replaced with enhanced engagement and empathy.

A far more readily implementable suggestion prospered during the address seeks the advent of substantive debate regarding post-authoritarian Burma, inclusive of the fate of those presently at the helm of the country’s political machinations.

Sen’s diagnosis of the disease gripping Burmese society may well be more or less accurate and his prescription for the global community a viable means of curing the Burmese state. But, it is without question an assessment begging a long-term lens through which to analyze the illness and upon which to graft a successful course of rehabilitation.

This, however, is not to be confused as a victory for those who today proactively abet the regime or are complicit by virtue of their inaction. To these governments and personalities Sen foretells, “The ghost of today will haunt the present day collaborators of military butchers tomorrow.”

Amartya Sen is an unquestioned friend and ally of those who oppose authoritarian rule in Burma. But, it would be a mistake to take his overture this week as merely an opportunity for the political opposition and its international supporters to revel in the righteousness of their position.

While Sen minces no words in imploring the opposition to rid itself of defeatist language and incorporate the language of victory into its rhetoric, this, it is argued, needs to happen simultaneous with a critical examination of the present situation and a realistic assessment of what needs to and can be done to realize and embrace a changed Burma.

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