Beacon, Beacon: Who’s Got the Beacon?

A few days ago, Nicholas Farrelly of New Mandala published a piece in Myanmar Times that is essentially an extended riff on the “beacon of democracy” lament that I blogged about here.

The usual application of this journalistic trope is to suggest that in the years before the 2006 coup, Thailand was a “model democracy” for Southeast Asia. Carefully elided or simply omitted due to ignorance are the actually existing and highly inconvenient facts concerning the nature of that democracy.

I mean, what, after all, do a few thousand extrajudicial executions and dozens of journalists removed from their jobs for criticizing an elected government have to do with democracy?

But Farrelly has been a little more clever than those who assumed (correctly for the most part) that no one would care about the long-past democratic deficits of the Thai Rak Thai administrations. He has pushed the Golden Age of Thailand as Democratic Beacon of the Region back to the mid-nineties and managed to get the ever-popular People’s Constitution in there.

That was the constitution that eliminated 90% of the Thai electorate from eligibility to run for parliament and enjoined the state to be responsible for educating “the people” in the ways and meanings of properly understood democracy.

The intention of the drafters of the 97 Constitution, much like the intentions of the folks who’ve produced the most recent soon-to-be-disposable version, was to ensure that the people would not have so much effective input into the choice of their rulers that those rulers might end up being drawn from the vast pool of “not-good people”.

Like the PDRC and the NCPO, the PAD and the deliberately mistranslated CNR, the ostensibly liberal drafters of the People’s Constitution wanted to limit democracy as much as possible while ensuring the kind of good governance that could only result from severe limits on the powers of the electorate.

There are many problems with labeling the Thai governments of the nineties ‘democratic’ (unless of course we are conflating “elected” with “democratic” and leaving it at that). As is usually the case in Thai governance, there was little to no effective parliamentary opposition in those good old days. That job was usually, and admirably, taken up by Thailand’s remarkably free press.

Not, mind you, the broadcast media with which most people spent most of their leisure time and from which the masses drew their view of the world around them. That was owned by either the military or the state and so tended not to disrupt anyone’s sense of the ultimate goodness of the good people running the country. (During the TRT “golden age of democracy” the one independent TV station was bought by the PM himself and any inconvenient news programs were removed from the air.)

But in the lead up to the promulgation of the 97 Constitution and earlier, when the democratically-elected Prime Minister was none other than former coup-leader Suchinda, it was the print media that played the role of effective and occasionally “vitriolic” opposition, moreso than the parliamentary opposition itself.

And while it is important to acknowledge the role played by Thai newspapers in those increasingly hopeful days, no one elected the owners of those papers to be the opposition to the elected government, any more than the ugly biased “reportage” that smoothed the way for Thailand’s most recent coup was done at the behest of the sovereign people of Thailand. Critical commentary from journalists is a necessary component of a democratic society but it is absolutely not democracy itself that is functioning when the press takes over the role of the opposition.

It needs to be recognized that while it may be true that people in journalism and in academia were excited about the democratic thrust of Thai development back in the day we can see clearly now that it really wasn’t all that much of a muchness where democracy is concerned. It was, as is so often the case in the media weltanschauung, the illusion of democracy and not the thing itself.

Otherwise it is difficult to understand what people mean when they talk about the Thai Redshirts and the ta sawang or Awakening. If Thailand before Thaksin was such a “model democracy” what could there possibly have been to learn from the electoral success and fulfilled platform promises of TRT?

All Thailand and the Thai people have ever had of democracy in any meaningful sense is its possibility, increased or decreased by one condition or another. And that is very far from being a democracy, or a beacon or model thereof. If anything, it has been a simulacrum.

And so we come to Myanmar, with its constitutionally-ordained 25% military presence in parliament and military control of three of the most powerful ministries in the government. As has been pointed out, the election of Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be the result of a cult of personality and a pseudo-religious faith rather than a response to programs offered in a platform. There is still nothing more than the possibility of democracy in Myanmar and even less of one than exists in poor dictatorship-ridden Thailand.

No doubt Myanmar offers the exciting prospect of massive development and capital infusion that neoliberals everywhere slaver for. It seems rather disingenuous though to refer to this situation by ending an article with “[r]ight now, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s best democratic bet”, as Farrelly does. It’s almost as if Indonesia and Joko Widodo weren’t the beacon of Southeast Asian democracy just a mere few years ago.

But that is apparently what is behind much of the journalistic boosterism that Farrelly’s article is such a perfect example of. Myanmar is a land rich in natural resources and just chockablock with poor people whose wages in factories and services will reliably remain lower than those in Thailand for a long time to come.

As a matter of fact, one of Southeast Asia’s best-known human rights activists, Andy Hall, is pushing to have working conditions for Myanmar’s migrant labor improved. In Thailand. Not, as would be less welcome to neoliberal capital, in Myanmar.

If the generals and the plutocrats of Myanmar manage to remain hidden behind a journalistically-hung curtain of democratic simulation as effectively as have their counterparts in the more sophisticated version that has effectively kept democracy at bay in Thailand for the past 84 years, it will be with the assistance of well-meaning folks in media and academe and the ubiquitous civil society denizens who practically worship Suu Kyi.

But it won’t be democracy. And it won’t help the people of Myanmar to insist on the pretense that it is.

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Beacon, Beacon: Who’s Got the Beacon?”

    1. Thanks MYTHAI.

      And while I certainly know what you mean by “negative”, I can’t help but think that repeatedly celebrating the various shades of illusory pseudo-democracy that keep getting the “Beacon of Democracy” prize is far more negative and cynical than calling a spade a shovel.

  1. This reminds me of demands in Sri Lanka in the 60: Democracy allegedly was not suitable for the country because the uneducated and primitive people voted only for populists and scoundrels (!). It would be best to hand over government to a group of educated, well-read, wise men(!) who would run the country well. No prizes for guessing who this group of wise men would be: the authors and their friends. In any case, they were right in that one-man-one-vote does not always produce the best results (look no further than Germany at the moment for proof). But that is less due to the stupidity of the electorate but more to the densitiy and wilful obtuseness of the ruling class who do not bother to make their ideas and intentions clear with proper arguments (if they have such, which I sometimes doubt). Another case of blaming the victim! And in Myanmar we have to wait and see what form of democracy, if at all, will develop. Do not expect it to be a clone of what we know in Europe!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s