Burma’s long road to democracy

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By Sumit Ganguly

"Rapid democratisation in plural societies from years of colonial rule may provide opportunities for unscrupulous ethnic entrepreneurs to stoke crude nationalist sentiments"

Early this month the International Crisis Group (ICG), a highly respected Brussels-based non-governmental organisation, issued a report on the growth of anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiment in Burma. Much of the violence, ironically, stems from Buddhist monks who are scapegoating hapless minorities. The report, intriguingly enough, blamed the bigotry and violence on the years of “frustration and anger built up under years of authoritarianism…”
This explanation, though seemingly attractive and plausible, is a bit too facile. Do we really know that this form of bigotry had been festering all along and the fitful steps toward a more democratic order has suddenly unleashed these lurking passions and deep-seated hatreds? Similar arguments were also made in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the unleashing of ethnic hatred and fury in the Balkans.
There is little question that the Buddhist monks — who have been implicated in the violence that consumed over a thousand lives in Rakhine state — are engaged in a form of ethnic scapegoating of the Muslim minorities. They have also managed to wrap themselves in the mantle of religious legitimacy and Burmese nationalism. However, there is insufficient evidence that this form of ethnic discord and violence is the result of long pent-up anger and frustration, which is now bursting forth.
Instead, as two American political scientists, Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield, had argued some years ago that rapid democratisation in plural societies from years of colonial rule may well provide opportunities for unscrupulous ethnic entrepreneurs to stoke crude nationalist sentiments, promote ethnic discord and provoke violence. They can usually get away with these forms of execrable behaviour because of what Mr Snyder and Mr Mansfield referred to as incomplete democratisation.
This concept requires some explication. Simply stated it means that while the repressive institutions of authoritarian rule may have weakened, they have not been replaced with others that provide a framework for the operations of a working democracy. Accordingly, while press freedoms may emerge, the media may not have become imbued with the norms of fair reporting and avoidance of rank sensationalism. It may have few internal restraints on the use of inflammatory language when dealing with and reporting on potentially fraught subjects.
In the absence of robust norms that guide and undergird a free press, politicians seeking to deflect attention from crucial questions of public policy (as well as policy failures) may well exploit the new openness to castigate, denigrate or otherwise malign political opponents. They may also seek to exploit existing ethnic cleavages thereby creating conducive conditions for spawning political violence.
Of course, the newly enfranchised press may lack suitable norms of neutrality in reportage. However, more dangerously, critical organs of the state, especially its coercive apparatus may also come under the sway of ethnic activists. Here the ICG report has indeed highlighted the fact the much of the police, in various parts of the country, have proven to be quite partisan when faced with anti-minority violence. They have shown a marked disinclination to restrain the Buddhist monks and have not displayed much concern about attacks on minority populations. In a functioning democracy, with well-established norms of police neutrality, they would have been expected to stand as a force that would, at a bare minimum, seek to provide some protection to ill-fated minority groups from the depredations of religious zealots. Sadly, they have failed to do so on more than one occasion despite President Thein Sien’s professed commitment to a policy of “zero tolerance” of attacks on minorities.
Burma’s limited transition to democracy must be lauded. Obviously, it would be callous to suggest that a return to authoritarianism is in order to ensure that ethnic discord and violence does not wrack Burma. However, the evidence that Mr Snyder and Mr Mansfield have gathered on the basis of their theoretical argument as well as large-scale analysis underscores the vital importance of building and nurturing certain key institutions that can help avoid some of the potential pitfalls on the pathway toward the creation of a viable democratic state.
As the Burmese seek to shake off the long and squalid legacy of authoritarian rule, a neighbouring state, India, which has ample experience in dealing with ethnic disharmony and enjoys, in considerable measure, the benefits of a responsible and free press, can and should play an exemplary role in Burma. Beyond simply highlighting its own successes in containing, though hardly eliminating, ethnic tensions and violence it can also quietly advise the present Burmese leadership of the grave dangers of granting leeway to ethnic entrepreneurs to foment violence. Simultaneously, private press organisations in India can play a vital role in helping train, educate and socialise their Burmese counterparts in the critical role that a free but normatively bounded press can play in a democratic society. Advice and support of this order could be of inestimable value to Burma as it makes a rocky and fraught move toward a more democratic, egalitarian and just political order.

The writer is the director of the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington

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