Thursday, June 6, 2024

Lessons from the Burmese dystopia

We receive news every day about Gaza and Ukraine, and there are good reasons to keep our focus on them. But there are other tragedies about which we only hear from time to time that we should pay attention to as well.

Thant Myint-U, a diplomat and grandson of a former secretary general of the UN wrote a few years ago a very interesting book, “The Hidden History of Burma. A Crisis of Race and Capitalism.” The author, born in New York city, knows the country well, and participated in an advisory capacity in the attempts to complete the transition to democracy until a military coup in 2021 stopped the process.

Myanmar (as the country is now officially called) is a country sandwiched between India and China, of incredible ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, for historical and geographic reasons. The book is the chronicle of a failed transition, the history of the years between colonialism and the current civil war. Inter-ethnic violence is an important ingredient of this history, culminating in the tragedy of the wave of the Rohingya refugees as a result of this violence.

The cascading mechanism of ethnic violence is well known, and reached tragic proportions in this case in the second decade of this century, just some years ago. A supposed crime is perpetrated, and someone publicizes that the perpetrators are members of some ethnic, religious or linguistic group. The entire group is blamed for it, which triggers a reaction by the most radical members of the targeted group, and so on and so forth. One has to be careful with the narrative, and that is why it is important that the precise details are delegated to those that know the case very well, as it happens with the autor of this book.

The episodes of ethnic violence took place in the middle of a failed transition to democracy, after years of military rule, first trying to follow a socialist system and later opening up the doors to markets and private interests without much regulation. The case has similarities to dystopian fiction: “In a world with no shortage of mass atrocities, the civil war in Myanmar is perhaps the most inescapably dystopian

The book finishes with the Covid-19 pandemic, just before the military rebellion that put an end to the transition. The current situation is one of civil war, with the army fighting against a coalition of the legitimate government and armed ethnic groups: “The resistance aims to overthrow the Military Junta, establish a genuine federal democracy, and remove the military permanently from the country’s politics."

The book is a warning about what happens to capitalism without a strong state: violence, warlords-business men, and drugs are together in a tragic cocktail. Climate change meanwhile devastates a country that is most vulnerable to it.

The mistake of ethnic federalism results from choosing to deal with fixed ethnic groups (a mistake to which the UN apparently contributed) instead of using a fluid interpretation of ethnicities, emphasizing diversity and a common purpose. Ethno-nationalism and unregulated capitalism feed each other, and Facebook contributes to it, as it did with the Rohingya catastrophe. 

The international celebrity business projects a simplified view of complex countries, and in this case it invested too much hope on a leader (Aung San Suu Kyi) that in the most dramatic moments failed to take a principled view on human rights.

I strongly recommend this book, both if you are interested in this specific case, and more generally if you are interested in the co-evolution of ethno-nationalism, capitalism and democracy.

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