Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cultural Traits are Blocking Progress in Burma

The Irrawaddy

As a journalist, I have travelled widely in Burma. One aspect of Burmese culture never stops to surprise me: the extreme amount of respect the elderly receive. Of course we need to respect our elders. But the Burmese go far beyond what I as a European consider to be normal.

Once when I had dinner at the house of my Burmese friends in Rangoon we were having a serious discussion. When the father of the family—a man over 80 years old who’d just suffered a severe stroke—came downstairs to join us, the discussion changed dramatically. He spoke; my Burmese friends listened. Even though his understanding of the subject was very limited he dominated the conversation. My friends agreed with his every word, out of respect and because they were brought up not to disagree openly with a senior.

I encountered the same phenomenon when I was teaching a Burmese friend how to use the Internet and send e-mails. After that, he referred to me as “his teacher.” He told me that because I was five years older and I had taught him something, he needed to show me a lot of respect. In practice this went quite far. In discussions, he was always bending my way and he acted very subservient. It made me feel quite uncomfortable. In the West we are taught everybody is equal.

In Burmese politics, the emphasis on age is a problem not to be underestimated. Everybody knows that people grow more conservative and often more scared when they age. They are less willing to consider change, and they are less flexible and less dynamic. Nevertheless, in Burma, the military leadership and the executive committees of the main opposition parties are almost completely made up of elderly people, some over 80 years old who would not even consider stepping down to make way for fresh leadership.

In the National League for Democracy this has led to a lot of frustration among younger politicians, who feel the old leaders are not doing enough to force change. There is no denying—age has become a factor slowing down progress and change.

Age is not the only factor, though.

Another typically Burmese problem is the way power is perceived. Burmese traditionally think about power in a highly personalized way. Power is vested in one ruler: he who rules all—be it the kings of the three dynasties, the father of modern Burma, Aung San, dictator Ne Win or Aung San Suu Kyi. Historically, this “Great Leader” is the role model that most Burmese politicians base themselves on.

This becomes a serious problem when another factor comes in to play: Buddhism. The mainstay religion in Burmese culture not only teaches non-violence—a way of life that is of little use when trying to overcome a bunch of generals clinging to their guns—but it also teaches people that this earthly existence is just one of many lives.

The form you reincarnate into depends on the merit you collected during earlier lives. Thinking along these lines, it is easy to believe that rulers, however bad they may be, were awarded their high positions because of their merits in earlier incarnations. A true Buddhist shouldn’t resist. The generals shrewdly take advantage of this misconception by affiliating themselves closely with Buddhism. They build pagodas, offer donations to monks and take part in religious ceremonies.

Of course, cultural factors like these are not the only reasons for the lack of progress in Burma over the past 47 years. The Machiavellian mindset of the generals is another factor, as is the fact that the generals fear what will happen to them if they hand over power. They could end up in jail, or worse.

To me, it is sadly all too clear that the teachings of the Buddha, the tradition of personalized power, and the emphasis on age together make up a tragic cocktail hampering progress in Burma. And with that culture being a slowly evolving phenomenon, there is little we can do about it.

Adam Selene is journalist based in Bangkok

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