The Burmese Mess Demonstrates the Incoherence of America's Crusades for Democracy
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An underlying theme throughout elite circles in government, media, and culture during the previous four years of the Trump administration was the overwhelming sense that the entire experience was some kind of unholy aberration. Somehow this buffoonish ogre had come to dwell in the great and holy temple of Democracy and had defiled it with his incessant tweeting and failure to play by the traditional rules of DC. However, at long last, the ogre and his demonic regressive hordes have been ejected from the temple, and their foul stench can be cleansed from the holy places (though this crowd still openly fantasizes about bringing such heretics before Rwanda-style “truth and reconciliation commissions”).
According to many of these elite members of the Church of Democracy (CoD), one of the gravest sins of the great ogre was his failure to maintain “US leadership” around the globe. One of the immutable tenets of the dogma of the CoD is that the entire world is on the verge of collapsing into utter chaos and mass slaughter unless the US government and its various nongovernmental organization proxies involve themselves in every minor detail of life in even the most obscure and distant parts of the earth. However, not to fear, with Biden’s ascension to the high priesthood, the “correct people” will be in charge again and can quickly start to get the world back together after four years of supposed neglect.
While it is clear that this leadership class has no doubt of their own infallibility, the recent coup in Burma, and this class’s predictable reactions to it, serves to demonstrate their intellectual bankruptcy and ineptitude.
Burma is a rather obscure country that has little bearing on the lives of most Americans, so some background context for the situation is warranted. Burma is a country in Southeast Asia located between northeastern India and Bangladesh to the west and China, Laos, and Thailand to the east. It became a British colony in the late nineteenth century and an independent state in 1948. However, the country is stuffed full of ethnic and religious minorities, and when there was talk of decentralization, the military took over the country in 1962 and has more or less ruled it since then. Ethnic minorities have battled the military government for decades, and the country has been wracked by armed conflicts of varying degrees of intensity over the years. In the 1990 elections, a “prodemocracy” party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the “father of the nation” won in a landslide, but the military overturned the results and Suu Kyi spent most of the next two decades under house arrest.
It is important to note that around the same time, the ruling junta decided that Burma was no longer Burma and decided to rename the country Myanmar. Both terms have come to be highly politicized, with international opponents of the regime continuing to refer to the country as Burma. However, without advocating for regime change, one may also refer to the country as Burma out of simple opposition to governments attempting to uproot history with ideologically motivated name changes (think of the similar instances in the USSR where cities were renamed, such as St. Petersburg to Leningrad and Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad and then the current Volgograd during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization in the 1960s).
Burma has long been a cause célèbre among the faith militant of the CoD and the country has faced US sanctions in various forms going back to 1961. Suu Kyi has especially been a noted icon of veneration, having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008. After her release from house arrest in 2010, she resumed her political activity and in 2016 she assumed the newly created post of state counselor (similar to a prime minister).
Whereas the Catholic Church has the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which is responsible for canonizing saints through a long process that includes investigation of miracles, the CoD is much less rigorous in its canonization process (the highest form of which is the Nobel Peace Prize), and this has resulted in some rather farcical situations. One could look to Alexander Solzhenitsyn (awarded 1970), who is on the record numerous times opposing contemporary forms of Western democracy. Or to Yasser Arafat (corecipient in 1994) who later went on to order the Second Intifada that killed thousands. Or even more recently to Barack Obama (awarded 2009), who went on to personally oversee a targeted killings program that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
After being released from house arrest, Suu Kyi became one such “problematic figure.” After becoming state counselor, Suu Kyi came under intense criticism and scrutiny for her failure to do anything about the repression and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma that has been oppressed for decades. Not only has she been criticized for failing to stop the violence, or even condemn it, but she actually defended the Burmese government and the military before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. When pressed on the issue all the way back in 2013 by BBC reporter Mishal Husain, who is Muslim, Suu Kyi was overheard complaining to her staff that "[n]o one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim."
Suu Kyi’s hostility toward the Rohingya is not exactly surprising, as a very large number of Burmese, including Western-educated human rights activists, consider them to be “untrustworthy foreigners who had to be controlled or expelled for the good of the nation.” No one knows for sure whether her actions stem from deeply felt personal animosity or are merely the result of her practicing realpolitik due to the political realities of Burma, but the fact that members of the CoD are so shocked that one of their heroes has acted in the way that she has betrays their flawed understanding of the rest of the world.
At the heart of the American branch of the CoD is the idea that the majority of people in every country have a strong and innate desire to live like Americans. The CoD considers itself a universal religion that is applicable to all places and people around the globe and therefore assumes that if given the choice everyone will live “like us.” Yet experience has shown time and time again that this is not the case. One merely needs to look at how “democracy building” (the CoD’s term for missionary work, sometimes facilitated at gunpoint) has worked in places such as Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. The CoD saw Suu Kyi and assumed that because she shared some of their goals and principles she must be waiting to turn Burma into a mini-America. Yet they are clearly wrong, just as they have been on numerous other occasions.
Suu Kyi is back under arrest now, after the Burmese military launched a coup on February 1 and locked up the democratically elected government (in a sign that the military is getting lazy, she was charged with owning foreign-made walkie-talkies). This of course has been met with howls of international protest and stern warnings from the Biden administration that it will “defend democracy around the world,” whatever that means.
Americans may wonder why the US should dedicate time and resources to a country they have never heard of to keep in power a woman who has continued to defend the popularly supported program of ethnic cleansing of an unpopular minority. The simple answer is that for the CoD the matter is one of religious conviction, and previous failures have never stopped religious fundamentalists in the past. The rest of us can only be thankful that the damage from their incoherent zealotry isn’t likely to approach the scale of previous crusades for democracy that we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.