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The argument over the ‘source’ of democracy in Myanmar

Next week is the international Myanmar/Burma Studies Conference in the U.S. and I have a nerve wracking few minutes to present my ideas to an intimidating panel of experts on Myanmar. So I thought maybe I could get some feedback here first. What could go wrong on the Internet, right?

My starting point is that like people travel, ideas also travel. There is no absolutely taken-for-granted meaning of concepts like ‘human rights’ or ‘democracy’, they are invested with different meanings in different places. So how do we understand this process?

One way of thinking about it is through the analogy of language.

The way Burmese language is spoken in Mandalay is different from Yangon. There are many common features but also some contrasts, like putting ‘doun’ at the end of questions. Different again would be to compare Burmese (as it is spoken in Yangon) and Dawei language – there are some similarities but there are plenty more differences. As languages cross into different geographic areas or cultures, they change.

The same could be said for ideas like democracy. Rather than assuming it always means the same thing, we could think of it like languages and the differences between a common language (a lingua franca) and a vernacular (or localised) version. As a concept moves from its global source to the local level, it inevitably changes.

But one problem with this is that it doesn’t factor in the degree to which the ‘source’ of ideas is disputed.

For example, in international aid agencies there is a pervasive underlying assumption that the origin of democracy is from the ‘West’. Aid agencies sponsor exposure trips for Myanmar MPs or activist leaders to go England or Germany and learn about democracy.

Foreign experts in constitutional law or democratic governance are brought in to advise the Myanmar government or civil society groups about reforms.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with these activities but the underlying assumption of most democracy promotion work is that the ‘source’ of democracy is from Western countries. Moving forward will require Myanmar to increase its connection to that ‘source’.

The differs sharply, in my experience, from the view of many Myanmar NGO leaders, MPs or activists. An alternate view is that Burmese culture has always been inherently democratic. People like to highlight that there was never the rigid feudal system of Europe or the caste system of India. In contrast, Burmese people enjoyed a form of equality. While through recent centuries there may not have been full democracy, as one NLD member told me, it was ‘close’.

So in contrast to the assumptions of many Western agencies, there is a common idea that Burmese culture, along with Buddhist teaching, is actually the ‘source’ of democracy in Myanmar.

Of course this is not the only view in Myanmar on the ‘source’ of democracy. When I have talked to other networks of activists there is often a far more critical view of Burmese culture. Some people say that this idea of an inherent Burmese culture is actually deeply damaging – and it smooths over major problems of inequality in the country, whether ethnic, gender or other inequalities.

These activists contrasted ‘true’ Buddhist teaching with the more traditional teaching which highlighted an inherent democracy. They didn’t jettison the idea of Buddhism as being a source of democratic thought, but rather rejected what they saw as the dominant way Buddhism was being used (or abused) by the country’s leaders.

‘True’ teaching emphasised a real equality in relationships between older and younger people, men and women, and parents and children. Not like the hierarchies of the past. So in this sense, Buddhist thought was still held up as a source, but in a very different kind of way.There are obviously loads of other ways that people might think about the ‘source’ of democracy. But what does all of this mean?

Well to think of democracy or human rights as travelling and adapting, like languages, is at one level very helpful. It helps us to move past the idea that there is a single notion of ‘human rights’ or ‘democracy’ that everyone understands. But at the same time it doesn’t factor in the degree to which there is debate about what the true source of democracy is.

How then might aid agencies begin to adapt their approaches? Their assumption of the Western source of democratic ideas is the backbone of many of their activities. Is there another way to think about fostering democracy in Myanmar? Could international agencies make a more concerted effort to understand the Myanmar origins of democracy?

This doesn’t mean that they need to throw away liberal ideals of rights and pluralism, but it might mean that they need to think harder than putting a bunch of Myanmar people on a plane to Brussels.The meaning of democracy in Myanmar is being constantly reshaped.

For international agencies to be part of this conversation they will need to engage more deeply in the debates over the ‘source’ of democracy.

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