The Lonely Planet Guide to Democratic Retreat: Parts One & Two

I

These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.

But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.

And they say we live in a post-colonial world!

Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say what that might be. And while they tend not to like populists, even when elected with significant majorities, and even when they remain popular with majorities of their electorates, military juntas are really really really bad.

The paragons of liberal evangelizing do, however, always seem to avoid discussion of Egypt when going on and on about the evils of military governments, perhaps because the Obama State Department was loath to label the coup there as a coup (because Muslims?) and because the EU has mysteriously maintained and supplemented its trade relations with Egypt, at the very same time as it has put all discussion of free trade with Thailand on hold until such time as what passes for democracy in Thailand has been restored.

It may be because the Thai junta has curtailed freedom of speech and expression and jailed some 100 people for violations of Lese Majeste and other laws limiting speech while the Sisi junta has only murdered some 800 protesters and jailed and tortured thousands.

Or could it just be that since al-Sisi has been elected with a landslide 97% of votes in a recent election, the Classics Illustrated definition of democracy has been adhered to and there is no need to wonder about what would otherwise be a glaring discrepancy? Inquiring minds want to know.

We all need a sense of proportion I suppose.

Perhaps “‘Tis a muddle, and that’s aw” as Stephen Blackpool in Dickens’ Hard Times might have said of this odd discrepancy, and it’s best to leave it at that. As anyone who has ever tried knows, asking difficult questions of liberals is often the quickest and easiest way to find yourself  accused of racism and/or being a cast member of “Literally Hitler”, since not holding the approved opinions is obviously an indication of holding the evil ones.

And Myanmar, which just a couple of years ago was the journalist’s and NGO’s emerging “beacon of democracy” for the region, is mired in tragedy with 700 thousand Rohingya having been forcibly relocated to Bangladesh and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having had her portrait removed from the foyer of some building in some college in the UK. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of those things strikes western people as more ‘significant’, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

The British colonization of Burma rarely if ever comes up in journalistic accounts of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar, regardless of the fact that it’s plainly a case of the British colonial policy of ethnic mixing for the purpose of creating division and weakness having foisted on the Burmese an intractable problem that most of these journalists and all of the NGO folks probably believe GOOGLE could solve with a Diversity Memo, as long as people like James Damore are kept out of the loop. Why won’t these “Burman supremacists” just recognize that diversity is strength and that decade after decade of endless inter-ethnic war is not evidence to the contrary?

We are not, after all, dealing with intellectuals when we talk about journalists and NGO people. They are more like a species of the (usually) male backpackers who, having read and reread their Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, sit in cafes and guesthouse restaurants throughout the region holding forth to the less literate members of the fraternity on the exotic wonders of the cultures of SE Asia. Given half a chance, these westsplainers will even launch into lecturing the locals on what their cultures are really all about. At that point, said backpacker is half way to a career in NGO finger-wagging or journalism.

 

And this is how the rest of the world comes to understand SE Asia.

II

As horrible as the situation of the Rohingya unquestionably is, the people of Myanmar stand solidly behind both Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, an organization many of them most definitely did not like or trust until just recently. The democratic legitimacy of the present hybrid administration in Naypyidaw is not really in doubt, except of course to those whose preference for liberalism over democracy leads them to the conclusion that Burmese Buddhists are just another “basket of deplorables” in need of correction by the UN, if not even more forceful foreign “democratic” compulsion.

Perhaps Hillary could convince her friends in Saudi Arabia to contribute to the process of enlightening the benighted Burmese in much the same fashion as they are doing in Yemen. Perhaps liberals in the media and NGOverse could offer explanations as to why the Rohingya “issue” has received so much coverage and the tragedies unfolding in Yemen and South Sudan so little by comparison. But then again, Ken “Interventions ‘R’ Us” Roth of Human Rights Watch is hardly a voice to be trusted in relation to actual human lives as opposed to human rights.

But Thailand and Burma have been superseded as exemplars of “Democratic Retreat” in SE Asia, as the international news cycle churns, and audiences become immune to yet another heartbreaking photo of doe-eyed Rohingya children and one more chilling portrait of a clown-faced Thai general making cracks about women who wear bikinis asking for rape.

The “beacons” of populism and authoritarianism most in the spotlight these days are Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines and Somdech Hun Sen of Cambodia, a pair of worthy contestants in the media competition to crown the Most Evil Destroyer of Democracy in SE Asia.

Duterte seems a likely champion: he has overseen and joked about and justified the extrajudicial execution of some 8000 mainly very poor people in his war on drugs. He makes Thaksin, the on-again off-again hero of democracy in Thailand, look like a real piker for only having killed between 1300 and 2700 in a similar deployment of police-based death squads.

Duterte, like Prayuth in Thailand, makes rape jokes that send the outrage monitors spiraling out of control around those parts of the globe that go in for that sort of thing, but Duterte seems to have ingested a witches brew of curdled testosterone and methamphetamines before he does his repulsive performances of toxic masculinity. He goes so far as to claim to have killed personally in his quest for justice and suggests that gang rape would be OK if only he gets to go first. Trump is an amateur at provoking PC outrage in comparison to Duterte.

But consistent with the liberal horrorshow vs democratic success pattern I am outlining here, as of January this year Duterte had the highest approval ratings, including a measure of “trust”, of any Philippine president since the 80s and the People Power Revolution. As was the case with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, who won a historic second term in a landslide after years of consistent criticism for human rights abuses (including the extrajudicial executions in his drug war and repeated flagrant attempts to intimidate and silence media voices), Duterte maintains his democratic legitimacy and the support of his electorate.

But here, of course is where the liberal media and the liberal NGOs and the liberal academics beg to differ. Having the support of an electorate is not a sufficient condition for claiming democratic legitimacy. especially when that electorate is made up of poorly educated ‘peasants’ or desperately poor people who are angry at the people who occupy the liberal, predominantly white, empyrean, where all justice is just and all jokes have been cleared by the PC censors before any politician dares utter them.

For this unseemly constellation of personalities and mass emotion we have the handy term ‘populism’, which is used to refer to “Rule by the Basket of Deplorables” by people who would rather not be frank about the class and race hierarchies they cling to even as they deny them utterly. You might say of people like Duterte that while “they may be sonsofbitches, they are most definitely their sonsofbitches”, and so need to be excoriated and deposed if at all possible.

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Bouquets and Brickbats for the Blessed

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State in Myanmar is a still-unfolding horror for the victims of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine militias who have deliberately, and with wide-ranging support from almost all sectors of Myanmar society, driven more than 600,000 stateless people into squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The effects of this latest round of forced displacement have rippled out beyond the sufferings of the Rohingya people to include the destruction of Aung Suu Kyi’s carefully cultivated image as an icon of human rights advocacy. Her brazen denials that anything untoward has taken place, even going so far as to offer praise for the military’s success at maintaining “stability” in difficult circumstances, almost deserve some sort of reward for obstinacy in the face of massive international disapproval.

In reality she has been stripped of a few meaningless awards from virtue-signalling institutions like St. Hugh’s college (who have gone so far as to remove her portrait from the main entrance)  and the City of Oxford. Her honorary membership in a UK trade union will also be suspended.

One might be tempted to wonder how Unison feels about her Ministry of Labour offering a $3.50/day minimum wage law in the face of Myanmar union insistence that even $5.00/day is barely enough to cover daily expenses for most workers. But what has that to do with union membership, really?

Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Also caught in the harsh light that such brutality brings to bear on the difference between media imagery and real-world behaviour is Pope Francis, whose moral cowardice in refusing to utter the word Rohingya while calling for “peace” with all the grace and aplomb of a Miss World contestant deserves far more scorn than media outlets are apparently willing to express.

Rather than castigating him for what is by any measure a failure of moral responsibility, media outlets have been almost unanimous in excusing his silence as “tactical” and subsequently praising him for finally uttering the taboo-in-Burma term on his last day in Bangladesh. Emotionally charged photographs of a Rohingya man shedding tears of joy over Francis’ concession to decency accompanied the articles praising Francis for what is in reality nothing at all.

Such “icons” of humanistic values are thin on the ground these days and wise editors don’t want to toss yet another hot clickbait item into the dustbin of history.

Suu Kyi in Rakhine: A Job Well Done

It has been 6 weeks since State Councillor Aun Suu Kyi gave her stellar performance of Myanmar’s defiance of the international community regarding the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State.

In that time, the media complex that frames and colors and highlights “news” emerging from SE Asia has shifted from a tendency to blame Suu Kyi for not speaking out and attempting to stop the unfolding tragedy to focus instead almost exclusively on the perpetrators, the conveniently named Tatmadaw.

Precisely how these ethical calculations are undertaken isn’t clear, but the difficulty of rebranding Suu Kyi from “democracy and human rights icon” to “Hitler-clone monster” after the fashion of Sadam or Gaddafi or Kim is obviously a major consideration, even if it is an “unconscious” one.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi visited the afflicted area of Rakhine for the the first time ever. She made stops in Rakhine during her election campaign but not in the north where the ethnic cleansing has been undertaken.

While there, aside from posing for photos, State Councillor Suu Kyi met with a group of Muslim religious leaders and told them three things: “they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other”, as reported by one of the religious leaders who attended the meeting.

And with yet another defiantly flung finger in the face of the UN and all the various human rights organizations currently vilifying the Tatmadaw and other security forces in the region, she congratulated the police and soldiers for a job well done under difficult circumstances.

suu kyi in rakhine

As I said in an earlier post, breathtaking.

 

Suu Kyi of Burma: Khaleesi Gives Them All The Finger

Suu Kyi’s performance yesterday in her first address to the international community in the wake of her government’s recent ethnic cleansing in Rakhine was nothing less than breathtaking.

A more dignified “fuck you” has likely never been delivered to so many by someone so small.

Not only did she not admit to any sin of omission on her part for not speaking out against the flagrant human rights abuses being committed by soldiers and local people (very likely as she spoke), but neither did she offer any criticism of any aspect of the way the military has conducted itself.

On the contrary, she had nothing but praise for the way her government has improved things in Myanmar.

She managed to find a way to use a 50% decrease in AIDS deaths (a figure reported last year related to the period 2010-2016 and therefore having nothing to do with her administration) as a metaphorical illustration of how ignoring specific problems– like hundreds of thousands of her people fleeing rape, arson and murder– while attending to general improvements in social programs like health care and education is a more efficient and rational approach to such problems as ethnic cleansing.

Like I said, breathtaking.

She doubled down on every bit of political doublespeak she has resorted to since crowning herself Khaleesi to avoid saying directly that she either supports the ethnic cleansing of “Muslims residing in Rakhine” or is utterly indifferent to the suffering being visited daily on hundreds of thousands of Rohingya:

  1. Rakhine Muslims are not the only ethnic minority in the state whose needs the government must attend to.
  2. Terrorism must be dealt with.
  3. Everyone has problems. Everybody hurts. We should all care about the pain and suffering of all, not just those “Muslims residing in Rakhine”.
  4. There is false news out there and we need evidence. Foreign journalists must be wary of spreading misinformation.

And on and on. The bottom line: “I have heard your criticisms and I reject them.”

In a number of instances, Suu Kyi simply lied.

She claimed there had been no clearances or fighting since September 5th. Journalists taken on a tour of the area after that date reported fresh fires and the sounds of guns near to where they were.

She claimed that all ethnicities had equal access to health care and education in Rakhine. The Rohingya are denied not only access to health care and education but many are living in what some have described as concentration camps, and have limited travel rights even when living “off the reservation”.

Somewhere in that grand flatfooted rhetorical gesture that she performed in front of a global audience yesterday, she made a claim about rule of law and equality before the law that would have been hilarious if it weren’t for the mountain of corpses and charred remains of villages smoldering in the wake of soldiers and citizens whose impunity has been established and reiterated many times over the past 5 years and which is essentially an element of Myanmar culture at this point.

It will be interesting to see how this firmly delivered “giving of the finger” to the media and the NGOs that created “The Lady” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “Democracy Icon” is spun by her international enablers, given the audacity of her performance.

Repressive laws that discourage free speech in Myanmar plus a tendency on the part of journalists in SE Asia to temper their own speech in order to retain access and keep their jobs may have the predictable effect of softening Suu Kyi’s blunt rejection of liberal internationalism in the eyes of the international audience. We will have to see.

One problem, of course, is that as long as a country like Thailand continues to present an easy target like a “Junta” for SE Asia pundits to take aim at, it won’t matter how many Rohingya die or how many lives are devastated, the simple fact of Myanmar having held an election to put Khaleesi on her throne will be used as a handy screen for all the investment pouring into what has been called Asia’s “last frontier”.

“Democracy”, as Suu Kyi and the generals well know, works as well as Dragons when it comes to legitimizing and sanitizing all sorts of things that liberals might otherwise find beyond the pale.

ASSK

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.