The word "democracy" is used everywhere now but what does it mean?

In this new series we are challenging people whoa re doing research on Myanmar (or relevant issues) to make their work as accessible as possible. As this Forum is getting other people to put themselves on the line, I thought I should volunteer to go first. So here goes...

1. DEMOCRACY is a word now used everywhere in Myanmar, but we shouldn’t be fooled that it means the same thing to everyone. If we talk to people who live in different parts of the country, from different ethnic groups or religious backgrounds, or different levels of wealth or poverty, we would likely find very different sets of ideas. My study over the last few years looked specifically at the Myanmar democracy movement (activist networks, political party leaders, advocacy NGOs) and Western aid agencies who are seeking to support democracy.

2. Importantly, visions of democracy are not abstract, but are often formed in REACTION to specific perceived problems or grievances. Democracy is often defined as much by what it is not, as by what it is. When exploring what meaning people give to the word ‘democracy’ we need to be careful to trace out what problem they think democracy is supposed to solve, otherwise we might fail to understand the real goals.

3. If we trace out these deeper descriptions of what democracy means, it reveals important CONTRASTS between common ideas within Western aid agencies and those often used by activists and opposition political leaders. For example, ‘personalised politics’ is commonly seen as a problem for Western aid workers, as democracy is seen to be mainly reliant on the formal realm of institutions. In contrast, amongst activists and opposition leaders democracy is often discussed in very personal terms, emphasising personal values such as sedana (benevolence), unity and sacrifice.

But there are also important contests within the movement over the meaning of democracy. For example, while sedana, unity and sacrifice appeal to some, others see these values as supporting an authoritarian Burmese culture – leading to hierarchies not only in national level politics but also in organisations and even in the family. For them, it is not until culture changes, that real democratization can happen.

4. Using the word ‘democracy’ is always a POLITICAL act. The way people give meaning to the word ‘democracy’ always forwards the interests of some people and marginalises others. For example if democratization is mostly about building capacity for liberal democratic procedures and ‘good governance’, then that necessarily puts the perceived ‘experts’ in that process (eg donors, Western agencies) at the centre of the story. Alternatively, if democratization is more about sacrifice and benevolence, then it can put a different set of people (eg certain activists and political party leaders) at the centre. When the story of democratization is told, who is at the centre of the story?

5. All of this matters for how democracy is PROMOTED. Everyone agrees that context sensitivity is important for democracy promotion. But context awareness for international aid workers or advisers is most often seen as awareness of something ‘out there’ – Myanmar’s culture and history and politics. But if we see using the word ‘democracy’ as a political act, then that means that context sensitivity is also about self-reflection. Aid agencies too are part of that political context, pushing forward certain meanings of democracy, and pushing others aside. Whenever we use the word ‘democracy’, or hear someone else use it, we need to think about what the interests are behind it. What agendas are being forwarded by that particular meaning of ‘democracy’?

pheeewwww...there we go, five lessons in under 500 words...I don't have this stuff published but have a few articles here if you want to read some more.

Stay tuned for the next FIVE lessons from my thesis....