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  • In Quest of Democracy
  • Aung San Suu Kyi (bio)

Opponents of the movement for democracy in Burma have sought to undermine it by on the one hand casting aspersions on the competence of the people to judge what was best for the nation, and on the other condemning the basic tenets of democracy as un-Burmese. There is nothing new in Third World governments seeking to justify and perpetuate authoritarian rule by denouncing liberal democratic principles as alien. By implication they claim for themselves the official and sole right to decide what does or does not conform to indigenous cultural norms. Such conventional propaganda aimed at consolidating the powers of the establishment has been studied, analyzed, and disproved by political scientists, jurists, and sociologists. But in Burma, distanced by several decades of isolationism from political and intellectual developments in the outside world, the people have had to draw on their own resources to explode the twin myths of their unfitness for political responsibility and the unsuitability of democracy for their society.

As soon as the movement for democracy spread out across Burma there was a surge of intense interest in the meaning of the word "democracy," in its history and its practical implications. More than a quarter-century of narrow authoritarianism under which they had been fed a pabulum of shallow, negative dogma had not blunted the perceptiveness or political alertness of the Burmese. On the contrary, perhaps not all that surprisingly, their appetite for discussion and debate, for uncensored information and objective analysis, seemed to have been sharpened. Not only was there an eagerness to study and to absorb standard theories on modern politics and political institutions, there was also widespread and [End Page 5] intelligent speculation on the nature of democracy as a social system of which they had had little experience but which appealed to their common-sense notions of what was due a civilized society. There was a spontaneous interpretative response to such basic ideas as representative government, human rights, and the rule of law. The privileges and freedoms which would be guaranteed by democratic institutions were contemplated with understandable enthusiasm. But the duties of those who would bear responsibility for the maintenance of a stable democracy also provoked much thoughtful consideration. It was natural that a people who have suffered much from the consequences of bad government should be preoccupied with theories of good government.

Members of the Buddhist sangha [monastic community] in their customary role as mentors have led the way in articulating popular expectations by drawing on classical learning to illuminate timeless values. But the conscious effort to make traditional knowledge relevant to contemporary needs was not confined to any particular circle—it went right through Burmese society from urban intellectuals and small shopkeepers to doughty village grandmothers.

Why has Burma, with its abundant natural and human resources, failed to live up to its early promise as one of the most energetic and fastest-developing nations in Southeast Asia? International scholars have provided detailed answers supported by careful analyses of historical, cultural, political, and economic factors. The Burmese people, who have had no access to sophisticated academic material, got to the heart of the matter by turning to the works of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost, omission to repair that which had been damaged, disregard of the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning. Translated into contemporary terms: when democratic rights had been lost to military dictatorship, sufficient efforts had not been made to regain them; moral and political values had been allowed to deteriorate without concerted attempts to save the situation; the economy had been badly managed; and the country had been ruled by men without integrity or wisdom. A thorough study by the cleverest scholar using the best and latest methods could hardly have identified more correctly or succinctly the chief causes of Burma's decline since 1962.

Under totalitarian socialism, official policies with little relevance to actual needs had placed Burma in an economic and administrative limbo where government bribery and evasion of regulations were the indispensable lubricant to...


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pp. 5-14
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