Burma's wicked apologists

Having traveled through countries suffering under harsh authoritarian regimes, I wasn't surprised by much on my first trip to Burma, roughly ten years ago. There were the requisite thuggish military men in reflective shades patrolling the airports, the giant signs warning people to crush all internal and external destructive elements. But the booksellers of Rangoon took me aback. The main roads of Burma's largest city are lined with bookstalls hawking tattered versions of British novels, ancient copies of National Geographic, and dog-eared reprints of political philosophy texts. Over many subsequent visits to Burma, I began to see the booksellers as emblematic of a deep-seated national hunger for education and dialogue, for contact with the outside world, and for a voice in the debate about the country's future.

There are those who would have you believe that this hunger is unimportant, or that it doesn't exist. Even after the recent protests in Burma--including one where thousands of monks chanted "Democracy! Democracy!"--a group of influential Burma experts maintain the idea, dating back to the last major Burmese uprising (brutally crushed in 1988), that the country simply doesn't contain the ingredients for a functional democracy and won't for years to come.

This argument is nefarious. It justifies the junta's policies, it forestalls democracy, and it encourages Burma's neighbors to ignore the Burmese reformers. It is also wrong.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, as poor countries from Malawi to Indonesia embraced democracy, Burma began increasingly to look like an outlier, and Burma watchers developed an argument to explain why. The argument goes like this: First, Burma is too ethnically splintered to come together effectively as a democratic nation. Burma is home to some 130 ethnicities, a diversity that the British colonial government used to its advantage, playing different groups off one another to weaken the country's resistance. Some of these groups have been at war with the central government since the end of colonial rule. As Burmese historian and former U.N. official Thant Myint-U, a leading exponent of the Burma exception argument, wrote earlier this year in the London Review of Books, "We tend to see Burma as a Velvet Revolution gone wrong, when in fact it is an impoverished war-torn society … with armed forces of more than 400,000 men (and over a dozen insurgent armies) who know only the language of warfare." If you accept that Burma is unmendably torn, then you can argue that a strongman government is needed to hold the mess together. This line of reasoning is adopted not only by the junta, unsurprisingly, but also by Burma scholars like Michael Aung-Thwin, who suggest that average Burmese are simply more comfortable with a paternalistic ruler. "In Burma, they are far more afraid of anarchy than they are of tyranny," Aung-Thwin told Voice of America shortly after a brutal attack on Burmese opposition supporters in 2003.

The other, related leg for the Burma exception argument is that Burma lacks a structure for public debate. In a 2001 book, Burma: Political Economy Under Military Rule, historian Robert H. Taylor claimed that, unlike in the Philippines, for example, Burmese religious groups and media were not well-organized enough to guide protest or political opposition. "As an organization the monkhood is a much less tightly hierarchical and institutionally regulated body than is the Catholic Church," Taylor argued. This "makes a nationally coordinated movement much more difficult."

Again, this argument provides a rationale for supporting the junta. If you don't believe that reform can come from outside the junta, the logical place to look is, of course, inside. In a 2004 policy paper, Taylor claimed the military contains "reformers who understand the necessity of power-sharing and democratization." According to Taylor (who, perhaps not coincidentally, once served as a consultant to a British oil company that invested in Burma), the West should engage more fully with the junta, backing off from sanctions, to encourage these leaders to come to the fore. Until the recent protests, both the European Union and the British government were considering acting on this advice.

They would be wise not to, however, since the Burma exception argument falls apart on examination. The idea that Burma's ethnic divisions would preclude democracy is only convincing if you ignore the history of its giant neighbor, India. The ethnic violence in postcolonial India was worse than that in Burma, yet the country has held together to build a powerful democracy. Similarly, Indonesia, a vast archipelago of ethnic groups, has managed to form the most vibrant democracy in the region by embracing federalism. Even Cambodia, another diverse society plagued by civil war, now has a stable, if flawed, democracy in place. True, Burma suffered under the British, but it was not a "peculiarly debilitating colonial legacy," as Thant Myint-U claims. India, Malaysia, Kenya, and other colonies suffered without losing all prospects for democratization.

The second point in the Burma exception argument--that no opposition network exists--dissolves after a glimpse at Burmese history, not to mention the last few weeks. During the 1988 protests, the country witnessed a vast flowering of unions, print publications, and other organizations. Even during the bleakest times, Burmese continued debating the nation's fate, though more quietly: Several years ago, I sat in the corner of a noodle shop in Rangoon and listened to a local publisher and his friends hash out politics. And, just this week, numerous Burmese found creative ways to get photos and stories about the crackdown to news outlets around the world. As for religious groups, the power and organization of the Buddhist monks was on full display during last month's marches. In fact, unlike many other authoritarian states, Burma has a recent history of democratic rule, memories of which would aid a transition back to democracy. Between independence in 1948 and the military coup in 1962, Burma enjoyed a democratic government and a period of strong economic growth. Even more recently, in 1990, the Burmese people participated in a real election, in which the junta's proxy party was defeated by the opposition National League for Democracy. (The junta simply refused to turn over power.)

As these examples suggest, the central problem with the Burma exception argument is that it lays the blame for Burma's problems squarely with the people, when, in fact, the problem is the junta. Contrary to Thant Myint-U's argument that the junta is less repressive than former nearby dictatorships, it is far more brutal. In Thailand, for example, after a crackdown on demonstrators in 1992 in Bangkok, the military heads willingly sat down with the protest leaders at an audience in front of the king and then gave way to civilian rule. The Indonesian dictator Suharto paved the way for democracy by stepping down after massive civilian protests in 1998. In Burma, the junta has created a situation in which brutality is more likely by isolating soldiers from civilians in a separate, military-only education system and by moving the capital to the middle of the jungle. You are a lot more likely to shoot at people you've never had any contact with.

Another factor that the Burma exception argument doesn't consider is the halfhearted and frequently craven policies of the international community. For decades since the 1962 coup, democratic nations could not decide whether to isolate or embrace the Burmese military. The United States and Great Britain courted the generals until the late '80s--Queen Elizabeth served tea to crazed former junta chief Ne Win--and then sanctioned them in the '90s. Burma's closest neighbors, dependent on the country's oil, timber, and gas, recently have been unwavering in their support; India, seeking to counterbalance China's power in the area, has reached out to the generals, selling them arms. And China is the regime's major aid provider and has blocked tougher U.N. actions on Burma. The unwillingness of these nations to stand up to the junta has demoralized Burma's reformers.

Whether those pro-democracy activists will succeed is a matter of huge importance, not only to the 55 million Burmese but also to the untold millions worldwide in similar circumstances. The Burma exception argument, now, is no exception: The same argument is being used to bolster oppressive regimes elsewhere, too. In Hong Kong, for instance, local leaders opposed to reform warn that democracy will cause chaos. "Eventually, we'll fight for democracy," said one spokesperson for an anti-democratic party. "But, before that, we need a more mature voting group." These ideas are mistaken and cruel. And if there's any country that can prove them to be so, it's Burma.

By Joshua Kurlantzick