Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Platonic generals and Burma’s democratic odyssey

Wednesday, 06 July 2011 19:02 Joseph Ball

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Aung San Suu Kyi’s cautious initial foray beyond the limits of greater Rangoon into the maze of temples located around the central Burma region of Bagan is but the latest twist in the troubled country’s embattled political culture. But what is Burma’s political culture, and where can it realistically be expected to lead?

The foundations of Burma’s democratic odyssey are not unique. Where the country separates itself is in the magnitude of its measures of governance with respect to the country’s history and culture.

The generals of Burma's military regime on Armed Forces Day, 27th March 2007. Photo: Nic Dunlop

As outgoing U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower knew very well, World War II proved a watershed in the mold of democracy and governance. On the eve of Eisenhower’s departure from the epicenter of American politics in January 1961, he cautioned that the balance between the people and the triumvirate of high political office, corporate business and military was inclining precariously and heavily in favor of the latter.

Before the dust had even settled on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, Professor Edward Corwin recognized an inherent and potentially fatal blow to the notion of popular democracy. In Total War and the Constitution (1946), Corwin elaborates on the looming streamlining system of governance, a structure in which individual components, instead of speaking to the assumed flowering of democratic opinion, subsume themselves in the perpetuation of elitist power. Social, scientific, commercial, economic, literary, psychological and even moral concerns are merged into a single static voice.

Writing in 2008 Professor Emeritus Sheldon Wolin defined the pervading trends originally identified by Corwin in American society as “managed democracy.” Indonesia’s Sukarno preferred the term “guided democracy.” And, of course, Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt opted for literary panache in 2003 with the announced concept of “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

The U.S., Indonesian and Burmese examples each contain distinct variations and are by no means interchangeable. But, they do share at least one significant commonality––an elitist imposition of a singularly acceptable direction for the state.

It is even, arguably, a mentality harking back to the origin of Western educational institutions. The cave parable in Plato’s Republic paints a picture of a divided society between those few knowledgeable beings and the masses. Plato even goes far as to determine that rulers “will have to give subjects a considerable dose of imposition and deception for their good.”

There can be little debate that Burma’s governing elite have taken well to Plato’s inevitability of the “noble lie.” The concept further meshes well with the extreme control the Burmese state seeks to exert over various facets of Burmese life––including social, commercial, economic, literary, psychological and moral.

The situation in Burma is in turn exacerbated by the near immediate appreciation upon the independence of the modern state of a national security emergency of uncertain duration. Such an environment has continually nurtured all-encompassing doctrines of the state, from the military doctrine of “total war” to the socio-political tract The System of Correlation between Man and His Environment to the myriad of tightly controlled economic deals made since the early 1990s.

So what kind of democratic transformation can be expected? Will it be midigative or paradigmatic in execution? Popular or elitist in orientation?

Wolin defines paradigmatic changes as encapsulating the overhaul of government and its corresponding functionality. On the other hand, midigative changes are defined as those that restore past rights and structures to policy making.

Yet, here lies the unfortunate balance of paradigmatic and midigative options at present available for the Burmese state. A country such as the United States could at least in theory realize a paradigmatic shift in policy owing to resources and infrastructure at is disposal. Burma today does not have as readily available recourse to this benefit. Moreover, there is strikingly little in the country’s political history to merit a midigative return to past due processes. The fact that the Panglong Agreement (1947), signed prior to the birth of the modern state and never put into effect, is continually held up as a reference point speaks volumes toward this unfortunate fact.

The identified weaknesses respective of both paradigmatic and midigative initiatives, in conjunction with a disjointed population suffering from a lack of reliable infrastructure, insinuates a greater role for individual actors in stamping a common vision upon the country.

On July 22, Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow NLD leaders are scheduled to again break free of Rangoon. However, this time it is to be very much a political act, whether outwardly defined as such or not. It is without question a calculated step along the long and turbulent road of fomenting the revival (arrival?) of popular democracy, at the direct expense of the prevailing elitist structure.

Though the exact route of Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade later this month remains speculative, one destination likely not to be included on the itinerary is Naypyitaw. However, it is when her entourage rolls into the administrative capital and she takes her place among the country’s pantheon of policy elites, that substantive change in the Burmese socio-political landscape is likely to first become a realizable goal. And with the advance of time, development and competent leadership, the country may yet have an opportunity and reason to experience popular democracy more emblematic of a paradigmatic shift.

The trick in the relatively short-term, of course, is how to successfully translate the potential benefits of popular democracy today into a responsible programme of elitist decision-making, finally righting the Burmese political ship and setting a common course.

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