Suu Kyi’s chal­lenge is to share, not wield, power

The Myanmar Times - - News - PANKAJ MISHRA news­room@mm­times.com

YANGON is sud­denly a city of ph­ablets. Nowhere in Asia, let alone Europe, have I seen so many su­per­sized smart­phones in pub­lic spa­ces, and with such egal­i­tar­ian ap­peal: Pave­ment ven­dors sell­ing early 20th-cen­tury Bri­tish guides to English gram­mar seem as trans­fixed by them as Yangon’s smart set play­ing Poke­mon Go.

For many in an iso­lated coun­try, a 4G smart­phone is their first taste of mod­ern con­sumer lux­ury. Its pro­lif­er­a­tion, in a coun­try where a SIM card once cost more than US$2000, seems an ex­am­ple of “leapfrog de­vel­op­ment”, in which eco­nom­i­cally back­ward coun­tries take quick short­cuts to mod­erni­sa­tion and ur­ban­i­sa­tion.

Of course, in Myan­mar as else­where, in­ex­pen­sive Chi­nese brands such as Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo make it eas­ier to pro­ject an ap­pear­ance of af­flu­ence and en­tre­pre­neur­ial dy­namism. A poster ad­ver­tis­ing “Rolex – Open­ing Soon” at a con­struc­tion site in Yangon’s crum­bling down­town is a good re­minder of the lim­i­ta­tions of a con­sumer rev­o­lu­tion in an over­whelm­ingly poor coun­try.

Myan­mar’s GDP may be grow­ing at more than 8 per­cent. But the eco­nomic chal­lenges in this coun­try, where 70pc of the pop­u­la­tion is em­ployed in low-yield agri­cul­ture, are ren­dered for­mi­da­ble by crum­bling and non-ex­is­tent in­fra­struc­ture, ar­chaic laws, un­skilled work­ers, low tax rev­enues, bud­get deficits and high in­fla­tion. Power cuts, hous­ing short­ages and grid­lock traf­fic still de­fine ev­ery­day life for city-dwellers. Debt crushes many in the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion.

Far from leapfrog­ging, Myan­mar, re­cently lib­er­ated, and only par­tially, from mil­i­tary rule, is inch­ing up a steep learn­ing curve un­der its first elected civil­ian gov­ern­ment in more than 50 years. Its first ex­per­i­ment in self-rule ended, like that of many multi-eth­nic and poorly imag­ined na­tion-states in Asia and Africa, in civil war, the em­pow­er­ment of the mil­i­tary and even­tu­ally a coup in 1962. The out­come of its sec­ond ex­per­i­ment still de­pends a great deal on how Myan­mar’s lead­ers deal with the coun­try’s restive mi­nori­ties.

Cer­tainly, their agenda is full. Last week the head­line in one of Myan­mar’s English dailies read “FM crams for China visit”. It re­ferred to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds the of­fice of state coun­sel­lor and for­eign min­is­ter – and sev­eral other port­fo­lios in an at­tempt to cir­cum­vent the con­sti­tu­tional bar on her be­com­ing pres­i­dent. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was visit­ing China in her first ma­jor foray out­side South­east Asia af­ter her party, the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD), was elected to power four months ago. Her big­gest chal­lenges, how­ever, are at home.

Of Myan­mar’s nu­mer­ous sec­tar­ian con­flicts, none has chal­lenged her moral au­thor­ity as much as ris­ing anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ments have. In 1982, Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary rulers stripped the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion in the western state of Rakhine of cit­i­zen­ship, de­spite their cen­turies-long pres­ence in the re­gion. More re­cently, while tran­si­tion­ing from mil­i­tary to civil­ian rule, Myan­mar has wit­nessed an ex­plo­sion of ha­tred, not only in Rakhine, where in 2012 mobs killed scores of Ro­hingya Mus­lims and drove more than 100,000 from their homes, but also in other parts of the coun­try.

The ad­vent of elec­toral democ­racy this year and the em­pow­er­ment of an in­ter­na­tional icon like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi don’t nec­es­sar­ily presage a change in the cir­cum­stances of be­sieged mi­nori­ties. Even the Dalai Lama has ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s less-than-Bud­dhist si­lence over the plight of Ro­hingya Mus­lims.

Spo­radic mob vi­o­lence has driven Mus­lims into refugee camps, or onto rick­ety boats sail­ing for Malaysia, Thai­land and In­done­sia – per­ilous jour­neys with ex­tor­tion­ate hu­mantraf­fick­ers that rarely end well. I met the daugh­ter of a for­mer leg­is­la­tor in Rakhine who now lan­guishes in a refugee camp near his old house in Sit­twe. She had her­self es­caped Rakhine af­ter brib­ing an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer. Like many others, she was in­creas­ingly pes­simistic about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ca­pac­ity or will­ing­ness to re­solve the is­sue.

Cer­tainly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, though widely pop­u­lar in Myan­mar, must move cau­tiously through a thicket of ag­gres­sive claims and counter-claims. Democrati­sa­tion is far from a be­nign process, as Iraq, Egypt and Turkey have most re­cently shown; the mer­est sem­blance of po­lit­i­cal free­dom re­leases many toxic fan­tasies forged in the fur­nace of despo­tism.

In Myan­mar, too, un­leashed pas­sions have been ex­ac­er­bated by global eco­nomic and cul­tural forces. Re­align­ing po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­ties, they’ve en­cour­aged such patent in­con­gruities as “mil­i­tant” Bud­dhism, which thrives on wide­spread anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment.

The flu­id­ity of the coun­try’s sit­u­a­tion con­tains both prom­ise and dan­ger; it calls for both moral lead­er­ship and po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism. While a re­turn to mil­i­tary rule might seem in­con­ceiv­able at this point, ex­ces­sive cen­tral­i­sa­tion by heavy-handed civil­ian lead­ers can also breed sec­tar­ian pas­sions in a multi-eth­nic coun­try like Myan­mar. The best way to fore­stall them would be to ac­com­mo­date, as In­done­sia did, the coun­try’s many sub-na­tion­alisms through greater au­ton­omy and fed­er­al­ism.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was an ex­em­plary po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, brave and prin­ci­pled. She now has to set a very dif­fer­ent ex­am­ple for her fledg­ling democ­racy by us­ing power wisely – or, in other words, shar­ing it broadly.

– Bloomberg Pankaj Mishra is the au­thor of

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