Why is it that when we think of Burma, we rarely think of its people? Images of Burma tend to capture street portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, men in large hats and uniforms and for the cognoscenti, a kaleidoscope of Golden Stupas, old World War II movies and George Orwell dressed as a highly unconvincing Burmese policeman.
For those of Indian origin like myself, Rangoon became immortalized not because of its religious artifacts or even by the fact that it was part of the same British India which included Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma. Rangoon entered deep into the soul of every Indian due to the famous Ghazal, the poetry of emperor Bahadur Shah, following the end of the Indian Rebellion in 1857. Zafar’s lament was more about himself than about Rangoon or about the people of Burma. But its melody and haunting words stayed in North India.
More than 60 years after independence and several attempts at democracy, militaristic socialism and autarky, or self-sufficiency, Burma remains a country often in the news but in which there is little news of its people. Burma remains in the news not because of its ancient history, the pageantry of its religious festivals or even because of its economic achievements. It remains in the news due to the soap-opera like episodes surrounding the imprisonments and sudden releases of its pro-democracy leaders and the lingering fascination by the West with regime change as a means to economic progress.
Despite Suu Kyi’s arrests and releases, despite the past failures of Burma’s economy, despite the entrenched hatred of warring political camps — especially between the so-called democracy camp and supporters of military government — the time has come to reassess external perceptions of Burma.
First, both the analytical foundations and real-world relevance of the textbook models of liberal democracy and free-market economics is under serious debate and re-evaluation. The idealism of political scientist Francis Fukuyama that the fall of the Berlin Wall trumpeted the end of history — in the sense that there would be no other modes of production after modern-day capitalism — has long vanished. The effectiveness of democracy and pluralism as a guarantee of rights and freedoms without a bill of rights and judicial safeguards, especially among poor and uneducated voters, has been examined by writers like Fareed Zakaria.
Democracy, while a commendable long-term goal for its own sake, is now increasingly questioned as an effective instrument of nation-building and economic prosperity. This is especially the case when democracy in poor countries seems to result in flawed elections or produces no clear winner, as in the case of Thailand.
The autocratic consequences of flawed elections and polarized ideologies come at high human cost, from the parliamentary Weimar Republic in Germany and European Fascism. Nearer home, the disputed elections and the perceived dominance of money politics in Pakistan and Bangladesh has led to a series of military interventions which has left these countries bleeding and damaged for generations to come.
Everywhere, the democratic model and its variants are being reassessed and redesigned. There is no single political truth to which all countries in all circumstances can be held accountable.
This does not mean that one should not strive for universal rights, values and truths. It does mean that we are not there yet and that what seemed so certain yesterday does not seem so today.
The philosophical debates of recent years have also been accompanied by a growing realization that in international politics as much as within national borders, consistency and transparency are important virtues in policymaking.
Believers in universal truths need to apply them universally. Torture in Guantanamo Bay, detention without trial, dawn attacks in breach of national sovereignty, support for military dictatorships in some countries and sanctions on others elsewhere, the promotion of human rights in one part of the world while abusing it in another is the language of Machiavelli and not of a Tom Paine or a Thomas Locke.
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot declare equal rights of all human beings and belief in a charter of civic rights and knowingly back the denial of it when it suits your national interest. Democracy and rights imply humanist values. You stand or fall by them. You cannot pick at bits of it like a curate’s egg.
The recent Arab Spring shows the range of liberal thinking and political action. Despite the differences in Yemen, Libya, Egypt or Algeria, one thing is clear: They do not subscribe to one model of liberal democracy and free-market economics. Regime change may happen, but the whether this will result in some uniform model of electoral democracy and constitutional rights is still to be seen. In such uncertain days, a doctrinaire position on Burma seems to be both bad philosophy and bad politics.
The second reason for rethinking Western positions on Burma is economic. There has been much reassessment in this area as well. The 2008 Growth Commission Report argued that there was no single economic prescription for all economies, that one instead had to identify the most critical bottlenecks on economic growth and try to remove the most important ones first.
The implication is hardly minor. It spans across the entire spectrum of economic policy from the role of the state, the failure of the market in important areas of economic activity, from social insurance to finance and the conditions under which free trade is preferable to protection of national enterprise.
Of course, it is not only orthodox theory that is under attack. In such a climate of conceptual and practical uncertainty, the people of Burma need to be given a chance. They may even need to be given an understanding hand.
Burma is not a small country. Its population at 60 million is close to that of the United Kingdom. It has historically been the largest global exporter of rice, a feature of immense importance, given the pressure on global food stocks and prices. Its abundance of natural gas and other resources has generated intense competition among its giant neighbors, India and China.
It is increasingly being drawn into shifting patterns of trade within Asean especially through sharp expansion of trade and investment from Thailand. Despite its shifting politics and economic U-turns, it has managed to post growth rates of over 5 percent per year.
Burma might be many things to many people, but it is definitely not a basket case in developing Asia.
Only the politically shortsighted believe that economic development does not have notable political consequences. The implosion of Suharto’s Indonesia is just one example of the way in which growth can generate new political classes and institutions.
Such changes are taking places all over Asia, from Philippines to Vietnam, from Indian rural towns to Chinese cities. It is important to read the sign of the times in Asia. Emulating the proverbial ostrich and sticking one’s head in the ground is definitely not a good idea.
Satish Mishra is managing director at Strategic Asia Indonesia, a Jakarta-based consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian nations.