Reading and viewing Western print and satellite TV and their Southeast counterparts recently, it’s hard to believe that there is deep understanding about the historical, cultural and economic context of what these media call present day Myanmar and Pakistan.
The staple line of argument among liberal media circles in the West is that the “military junta” or “military regime” in Myanmar and Pakistan need to be changed into liberal democracies along the lines of what politicians, legislators and media pundits in America and Britain seemed to be obsessed with. The illusion that Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto and/or Nawaz Sharif and their coterie of politicos/lawyers are able to devise a alternative, competent and unifying “democratic”political system remains a strong and, at the same time, naive and dangerous one.
Some 8 years ago, at the residence of the British ambassador in Jakarta, I was invited to meet for tea with Michael Aris, husband of Aung San Suu Kyi. I asked him pointedly whether the National League for Democracy which his wife headed was really a viable political organization that could galvanise a sense of national purpose among Myanmar’s civic society, particularly among Shans, Karens, Kachens and other minorities. His answer was so carefully guarded that I did not press the point. I had earlier remarked to him that (then) Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri was still grappling with forging unity within her PDIP party. In other words, for the NLD and PDIP there were limits to riding on the on the charisma of Aung San and Soekarno, to which both Syuu Kyi’s and Megawat relied upon for their influence and legitimacy.
Aris and I both agreed that presenting a viable political alternative to the military would have to be one of the priorities of all Aung San Suu Kyi’s followers within Myanmar as well as self exciled Myanmarese residing in Thailand, Western Europe and North America. However powerful the military in its power grip , social and economic changes were taking place within the country which required adjustment on the part of the military. Deep down, Myanmar was undergoing vast economic and political changes similar to what took place during the final 10 years of President Soehartos’s rule in Indonesia. The key issue was defining the scope and pace of change engaging with the military.
In Indonesia, the political structure of the ruling Golkar, the military and the bureaucracy established in the 1970s and mid 1980s had served its purpose of providing stability but since the 1990s had felt the need to gradually adjust and adapt. As with Indonesia in the 1990s, Myanmar post 2000 was changing fast, and the Myanmar military leadership felt it had to adjust to the realities of Myanmar’s growing political and economic interaction with the outside world, not just with its ASEAN co-member states. In fact, a hybrid political transitional arrangement was in the cards since late mid 1990s, recognising the need on both sides to define how much change and how much continuity would be mutually agreeable and realistically feasible. The unsaid transition period would be “a generation”, which means at least 15-20 years.
Similarly with Pakistan. General Musharraf may have outlived his legitimacy and political hold as leader of a “front-line state” in the West’s war against terrorism. But it is important to recall that when he came to power in October 1999, the Pakistani political public had been fed up with the constant gibbering, grab and greed politics of the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif governments of the previous eight years. Not to speak of the associated role of “the infamous 22 families” which for long controlled the levers of political and economic power since Pakistan’s independence. Just as in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, contending ruling civil and military elites have always been beholden to the 3 C’s (Chinese Crony Conglomerates) dispensing business and monetary favours in return for political recognition and protection.
The real issue, then, is: do the civilian leaders and their fast-talking lawyers, NGO types and politicians in Myanmar and Pakistan have a credible and presentable alternative to military dominance? Have they also realised that a hybrid “military-civilian transitional system” is the true and only viable one, until the much vaunted “institution building”__political, economic, social__ underpins a truly functioning and sustainable democracy based on a committed civilian based middle class?
BBC World TV is airing a series on “Why Democracy?” based on a survey in several countries across the world it conducted last August. I suspect that it will contain the underlying taxonomy of what the often insufferably condescending British like to claim as Anglo Saxon superiority as pioneers of modern political and parliamentary democracy. It will make little note of the historical, cultural and economic backdrop of how democracies are defined, applied and reinterpreted in terms of each country’s historical cultural and economic context. But then the BBC, The British Council and the English language itself, is the last best hope of what Churchill called the need to capture “the empires of the mind” in the wake of Britain’s imperial decline.
More sanity is called for about the future prospects of graduated political and economic democracy in Mmyanmar and Pakistan. Instant democracy___openness, free press, rule of law, transparency and other accountability features____are fine for those who can afford it. But for those who still live in despair and desperation, it would be naïve and dangerous to think that feisting Western style democracy would bring about instant solutions on the ground. Witness the current state of the “democracy project” in Iraq and Afganistan.