Making a Mockery of Democracy

By Bertil Lintner 2 September 2014

When the generals who previously ruled Myanmar first said in 2003 that they wanted to introduce a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” it was far from clear what they meant. Presumably, it would be different from so-called “Western-style democracy,” but beyond that, it was anybody’s guess what they had in mind.

At the time, more cynical observers suggested that the term was nothing more than a euphemism for military rule behind a democratic façade. Most likely, they said, the new, post-junta dispensation would have a constitution and an elected parliament made up of civilians, or generals and colonels who had become civilians, but the military would retain effective veto power over any attempts to change that constitution.

All of this turned out to be true. Under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, controls 25 percent of seats in both houses of the national legislature, and amendments require the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. Other provisions also empower the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief to assume direct and absolute control in the event of a national “emergency”—which could mean a popular uprising or any other threat to the military’s de facto supremacy.

Now, four years after a deeply flawed election that was boycotted by the National League for Democracy, it is more obvious than ever that the cynics were right.

It is undeniable that progress has been made. Political parties can now operate openly, and although the government has become less tolerant of the media during the past year, there is nevertheless more press freedom and freedom of expression than at any time since the military seized power in 1962.

But, as U Aung Tun, a Myanmar journalist living in the United States, pointed out in an opinion piece for Asia Times Online last year, Myanmar’s “discipline-flourishing democracy” is a “near equivalent to the term ‘illiberal democracy’ coined by US journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria.”

The whole idea of a “discipline-flourishing democracy” is based on the notion that there could be different kinds of democracy, one suitable for the West and another for countries outside Europe and North America. This is very similar to the idea of “Asian values” that was touted in the 1990s by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and Singapore’s senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew. They argued that Asian people would have to forego personal freedoms for the sake of political stability and economic progress—and that this political model was somehow rooted in Asian cultures.

Their claim that “Western-style” democracy doesn’t suit Asian nations has since been echoed by China, which has been promoting its own philosophy of “harmony.” A commentary in the online edition of the state-run People’s Daily published in March 2005 explained what the word means in a Chinese context: “Harmony is both an ancient social ideal as well as our actual choice. Harmony will open up a broader world for future humankind and provide humanity with inexhaustible driving force for its development.”

Again, a different set of values for Asian and non-Asian cultures.

Critics would of course argue that “discipline-flourishing democracy,” “Asian values,” and China’s state philosophy of “harmony” are all merely excuses for maintaining authoritarianism. And the proponents of these concepts have conveniently forgotten that the first time Asian—and at that time also African—nations declared their set of values was at a conference that was held in the Indonesian city of Bandung in April 1955.

That event brought together 25 Asian and African nations, among them Myanmar and other countries that had just managed to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Indonesia’s President Sukarno played host to “Third World” leaders such as India’s dignified statesman Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt’s firebrand leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sir John Kotelawala of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Myanmar’s U Nu and the mercurial Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. The Bandung conference led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

Although democracy as such was not on the agenda in Bandung, the participants were clearly opposed to the idea of one set of values for the West—which at that time meant the colonial powers—and another for the then mostly newly independent nations of Asia and Africa.

At that time, it was the Western powers that advocated the idea that there could be two sets of values, one for themselves and another for the peoples of the Third World.

Rights for All

A. Appadorai, general secretary of the Indian Council of World Affairs, wrote in a booklet published half a year after the Bandung conference that “when European people think of peace, they think of it only in the terms of Europe. In the imagination of European thinkers the world seems to be confined to areas inhabited by European races. The vast continent of Asia … containing as it does some of the most ancient civilizations, and holding the vast majority of the world’s population, does not come into the picture at all.”

The participants at the Bandung conference made it clear that human rights should be the same for “all peoples everywhere.” They referred to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that there should be no double standards.

Several decades later, however, some authoritarian leaders in Asia began to argue the opposite under the guise of “Asian values” and similar concepts. But there can be no nation, no culture in the world that does not have freedom, including personal freedom, as a fundamental value.

Ordinary Decent Values

In practice, that means that people want to be able to speak their minds without fear of arrest, and to decide for themselves who should hold power in their own country. In no culture anywhere would a parent want to see their sons and daughters dragged away in the middle of the night to a prison or torture center simply for expressing a political preference. Abhorrence of such abuses of power is universal, and any attempt to justify them in the name of “Asian values,” “harmony” or “discipline-flourishing democracy” is an insult to the values of decent people everywhere.

I have sometimes heard the bizarre argument that democracy is an alien concept in Myanmar because “dimokresi” is a loanword from the English language. This is utter nonsense. Even setting aside the fact that other countries equally remote from the West have their own words for democracy—Thais, for example, use “prachatipatai,” a word derived from Pali and Sanskrit that is similar to the terms for democracy used in Laos and Cambodia—the English language clearly has no special claim to the concept either. After all, “democracy” is borrowed from the Greek words “demos” and “kratos,” meaning “common people” and “strength” or “rule,” respectively. So according to the argument of those who don’t think Myanmar could or should be a democracy, only Greece and perhaps some parts of India would have the right to be democratic.

It is high time to remind everyone of what was discussed and said in Bandung in 1955. There cannot be two different sets of values, one for the West and another for Asia and, presumably, the rest of the world. We are all human beings, and as such have the same need to protect ourselves from tyranny and repression, wherever it may occur or whatever shape it may take.

And it is worth remembering the words of Myanmar’s foremost advocate of democracy, the late journalist and writer U Win Tin: “What we have to do these days is make way for a new politics that can break down the mechanism of the military dictatorship, rather than being corralled into a political arena made by the government.”

The first step would be to accept the fact that cultures may be different, but certain values are undeniably universal.

This article first appeared in the September 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.