To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Culture Matters---And Explains Aung San Suu Kyi's 'Buddhism Problem' Too

Last month, the eyes of global media were trained on the International Criminal Court in the Hague where Myanmar (formerly Burma) was in the docket for mass human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims. Over the last few years three-quarters of a million Rohingyas have fled Burma or been pushed across its border into Bangladesh, as festering anti Muslim sentiment among the Buddhist majority exploded into genocidal violence. And these refugees were the lucky ones: Many Rohingya died after being attacked by soldiers and Burmese paramilitary home guards, hacked by machetes in their fields or raped in their huts before torches immolated whole villages. 
Center stage at the defense table was human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi. She was an unlikely, even a preposterous figure. During the country’s long struggle for democracy, Burma’s military had imprisoned her for lengthy stretches. Now, as Burma’s de facto head of state, Suu Kyi was the one holding a brief on the generals’ behalf. Calling the case “incomplete and incorrect,” she minimized the scale of the violence. Although sheconceded that some in the armed forces of the military had responded with disproportionate force, she assured the court that what happened did not rise to the level of war crimes or genocide and that the guilty ones would be prosecuted--- in Myanmar.
According to the BBC’s Nick Beake, “The spectacle of Aung San Suu Kyi, a once-persecuted Nobel peace laureate now defending her country against allegations of genocide over its treatment of the Rohingya minority has been one of bewildering irony.” It was something that she - and the rest of the world “surely never imagined would happen.” As Beake explains: 
In the years after she was released from house arrest in 2010, princes, presidents and prime ministers welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi with open arms into their own opulent homes. 
The feel-good factor of rubbing shoulders with someone who had dedicated much of her adult life to the pursuit of democracy was irresistible. 
Then, the grandeur of the Peace Palace in The Hague - a marble-floored monument to global harmony - would have been comfortable surroundings for Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize winner. A native habitat, even. 
But not now. There was no red carpet, welcoming committee or brass band. 
Instead the light pouring through the stained glass of the Great Hall of Justice illuminated an often haunted-looking figure who had chosen to come and listen to descriptions of some of the most unimaginably gruesome acts. Acts said to have been committed in her country. On her watch.

There’s a great book of literary nonfiction to be written identifying just what forces have been involved in Suu Kyi’s tragic fall from grace. It would have to be a multi-disciplinary effort that fuses politics, culture, religion and an appreciation for magical thinking---a book that encompasses Burma’s fraught history, toxic demography, chauvinistic brand of Buddhism and supernatural folk culture. 

I imagine something along the lines of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor, a work of transporting “lyrical journalism” which described the fall of Halie Selassie, the Ethiopian god king who was removed from the throne in 1973 in the wake of Ethiopia’s epic famine then strangled to death after a coup d’etat two years later. The book is a study of Selassie’s rather colorful royal court, relying on accounts from official advisors who survived the coup as well as trusted servants whose devotion to Selassie was practically mystical. 

Like The Emperor, a book on Suu Kyi’s falling star would be a meditation on the universal nature of political power---how it is attained, how it is abused and how it is is lost. But also an exploration of the way power plays out in the specific context of Burma, which is one of the most opaque and idiosyncratic in the modern world. Burma has only relatively recently emerged from its long period of xenophobic isolation, which was only surpassed in intensity and duration by North Korea. 

The arc of Suu Kyi’s fortune---and then her misfortune---would start in 1988, when she returned to Burma to nurse her ailing mother and then stayed on to nurture the nascent pro democracy movement. 

During this time the Burmese military put Suu Kyi in prison and under house arrest for nearly 15 years as protesting Burmese student and Buddhist monks were slain in the streets and the international community turned her into a revered political icon. It  bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize on her in 1991 and cheered the publication of her book, Freedom From Fear, which glowed with Gandhian determination and commitment to nonviolence. 

The arc would peak in the years 2010-2015, when she was released from detention, was finally allowed to give her Nobel Prize acceptance speech and her party, the National League of Democracy won the country’s first open and free national elections in 2015. 

The arc would flatten in these same years, however, then begin to descend, rapidly, when it became clear that the elections were a sham and promises that the Burmese military had made to share power and engage in political reform were hollow in the face of the de facto veto Burma’s constitution gave the military on almost everything. This was also when communal tensions with Rohingya Muslims, which have been episodic in Burmese history, resumed, culminating, in mass persecution and the expulsion of nearly three-quarters of a million by current count. 

The timeline puts us to today: with Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds the title of Foreign Minister and State Counselor, having set a record for having been given more prestigious human rights awards than any other international figure in modern history---and then being stripped of them, with the exception of her Nobel Peace Prize which many of her detractors are now saying should be rescinded. 

Did her fall stem from events outside of her control or from miscalculations that took her from behind? Or was it something inherent in her fate, something in her character or in her stars or that of her nation? Knowledgeable sources say that as the daughter of Aung San, regarded as the father of modern Burma, she tends to see her own political destiny as being fused with that of her nation, with her being exceptionally keen on being seen as  “Aung San’s daughter?” How did that affect her decision-making and her response to events as they unfolded in real time in a society, if it could be called that, that was only entering into the most rudimentary phase of democratic development? 

Burma’s Buddhist culture is saturated with magical thinking, with myth and folk belief functioning as a background screen to interpret the ins and outs of daily events and the ups and downs of politics and political actors. History has not been kind; the cultural psyche is a wounded one, as VS Naipaul said of Indira Gandhi’s India---bruised as much by the experience of British colonialism as by the toxic nationalism that this colonial experience still fuels.   

The idea that Buddhism might have a nationalistic, even a militant face seems oxymoronic, especially to westerners smitten with Buddhism’s universalistic veneer and it’s doctrines of nonattachment, acceptance and quietude. But Buddhist nationalism is the moon that controls all tides in Burma. It’s the gravitational force that explains Aung San Suu Kyi’s triumph against the military and her popularity with the Buddhist sangha during the much admired “Saffron Revolution.” 

At the same time it also explains how the military has been able to play the populist card against her, and why leading figures in the Buddhist clergy took up the sword---figurately and literally---against Burma’s Muslims, coming down especially harshly against the historically marginalized Rohingyas in the western Burmese state of Arakan.

Buddhist nationalism in the Theravada school that prevails in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, among others in southeast Asia, defines national identity is starkly ethnocentric terms and defines notions of contemporary political legitimacy and obligation in ways that that mirror what they were in classical times. In classical Buddhist political cosmology, non-Buddhists and non-Burmans simply did not have a place. Notions of legitimacy were focused on the obligations that the ruler ---i.e. the Buddhist King---had to Burman subjects, to the Buddhist clergy known as the sangha and to the protection of what is known as the Buddha sasana. This was a concept somewhat akin to the Chinese “Mandate of Heaven” in which the spiritual welfare of the nation and its material well-being were intertwined. Sasana placed heavy emphasis on maintaining security and sovereignty against the depredations of outside aggressors and encouraging harmony between the clergy and the king, as well as the clergy and ordinary Buddhist believers. It was a utopian worldview, more honored in the break than actual practice but still exercises a powerful hold, on the Buddhist moral and political imagination.  

The Burman-Buddhist worldview also hold a deep suspicion of Muslims, dating from centuries before when Islam swept across southeast Asia on the way to dominance in Malaysia and Indonesia. And it frames its colonial experience as one of cultural debasement and economic exploitation. Although most Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, they are inaccurately though successfully depicted as unwanted demographic spawn left behind by the British after they opened up the border between Burma and Bengal in pursuit of cheap coolie labor and clerks to administer the colonial bureaucracy and infrastructure.

The Burmese military and the clergy, both of whom style themselves as guardians of the national flame, have found it easy to manipulate this historical resentment. As Walter Russel Mead wrote a few years ago in a New York Times Op-Ed:

You don’t have to be a Burma expert to appreciate the critical roles that ethnic nationalism and Buddhist identity politics play in Burmese life, or to understand how those forces shape options available to political activists. 

Burmese nationalists remember when the British, having conquered Burma by force, allowed mass immigration by non-Burmese, mostly from British India. Resentment against this tide, which led, for example, to Burmese natives becoming a poor minority in their own capita was and remains one of the chief unifying elements in Burmese nationalism. 

Mead maintains that the problem with western human rights community is that it failed to see Burma in its own cultural light, engaging in projection to turn the Burmese struggle for democracy into “a human rights fairy tale.”  

Aung San Suu Kyi was the beautiful princess guarded by the evil dragon of a military junta; the Western human rights community was the golden hero who freed the princess so that Burma could live happily ever after, with Rohingyas and Buddhist monks reconciling under the spell of Western liberal ideology. 

Hoping that Aung San Suu Kyi could rule Burma as a kind of proxy for Western human rights groups was “a lunatic idea,” Mead declares. “No political leader in a democratic Burma could afford to fight both the Burmese nationalist tradition and the Buddhist clergy.”


I learned most of what I  know about Buddhism, Buddhist nationalism and Theravada Buddhist political culture as a journalist and scholar in Sri Lanka where I worked as a reporter for the BBC and for Newsweek while researching a book on Sri Lanka long and bloody ethnic conflict. (Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka, FSG 1992)  I’d also spent significant time moving through Burma and its borderlands on a magazine assignment during the last Rohingya crisis in 1992 when 300,000 were forced to flee and had been left to languish in Bangladesh’s fetid refugee camps that had been established near the seaside town of Cox’s Bazaar. 
So when anti Rohingya violence first flashed again in 2012, which has led to the near total ejection of all the country’s Rohingya Muslims today, I had the sense that Suu Kyi was definitely going to be walking a tightrope in order for her to maintain political viability and political legitimacy and the good favor of international allies. She seemed to be biting her tongue, refusing to speak out against the violence then—which was at a serious but not nearly genocidal level compared to now. And this reticence would have consequences---very bloody ones.
“Why isn't Burma's democracy icon speaking up for minorities -- and against her country's nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, and occasionally violent Buddhist majority?” 
This was the rhetorical question I posed in a Foreign Policy piece that ran under the headline “Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhism Problem.” Democratic progress in Burma will, of course, be a matter of politics, I concluded. “But in Burma’s complicated political calculus, culture matters.” 
In trying to forge an inclusive sense of national identity in a country that has never known one, the politics of Buddhist nationalism will restrict Suu Kyi’s political options as she pursues political reform. And she herself may suspect that the obduracy of the country’s Buddhist culture is not something that encourages democracy or tolerance. For the Burmese "racial psyche," she wrote in a 1985 academic monograph, Buddhism "represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there [is] no need to either to develop it further or to consider other philosophies." 
I felt a bit Cassandra-like at the time pursuing this line of inquiry, almost embarrassed to be so cynical about a world-historical feminist icon who had successfully and bravely faced down Burma’s abhorrent military tyrants. And the “culture matters” school of thought was then and still is rather unpopular, in academia and in journalism. Progressive-minded intellectuals who flex power in these precincts demonize the “culture matters” school as an avatar of neocolonialist thinking that privileges western culture over the cultures of societies and peoples that western imperialists have wrecked. They say it represents a kind of “blame the victim” thinking that has undesirable domestic echoes in our arguments over multiculturalism, diversity, social justice and racism. 
But journalism at its best is practiced with an awareness that contemporary news events are really reflections of historical processes that are decades, even centuries in the making. And that “culture matters”--- meaning that any nation’s or any political leader’s “struggle for democracy” has to be seen through the lens of its unique cultural realities, values and traditions. While these things might take on a western veneer, as Suu Kyi’s did for so long, they are often not at all western; in fact they are very often scored in an entirely different cultural key. 

Appreciating this might not have made Suu Kyi’s appearance before the ICC any less tragic. But it might have lessened the sense of cognitive dissonance among the disillusioned who were there watching that rather unexpected, though not at all inexplicable scene. 

Here is the Foreign Policy piece.     

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