Thursday, July 30, 2009

Don’t Point the Finger at Burmese Culture—Point it at Yourself

The Irrawaddy News

I'm surprised, more like appalled, that The Irrawaddy would publish Adam Selene's article, "Cultural Traits are Blocking Progress in Burma" July 29, 2009.

But then I'm equally surprised Mr Selene could visit so much of the country, as he claims, but understand the people so poorly.

He identifies himself as a European and then, fully confident in his European ways and with that good old fashioned colonialist attitude that served its empires so well, proceeds to blame the culture for Burma being under the thumb of a brutal military regime.

I did not get to see as much of Burma as I liked, but I did actually teach journalism in Rangoon for three months in 2005. Yes, my students had suffered an educational system where teachers droned at them and they could not ask questions, but they were immediately ready to embrace a new method of instruction: challenging ideas, debating issues and making up their own minds. Several of them now hold senior editorial positions or study on scholarships abroad, where they have adapted well.

"Everybody knows that people grow more conservative and often more scared when they age," writes Selene. "They are less willing to consider change, and they are less flexible and less dynamic." Everybody? What kind of statement is this, offered without proof? I don't consider myself less dynamic, having passed 40, I've published nine books, had a play professionally produced and have an independent film coming out. My output before this age wasn't half that rate. My views are just as liberal, but now informed by both historical examples I've witnessed and by my life experience.

But back to the Burmese whom he's slandering. He blames Buddhism. I've heard this nonsense before. Oh, the Burmese are so passive, complain Westerners, and as I've written elsewhere, you'd get passive, too, facing a machine gun.

If non-violence is of "so little use," I suggest Adam Selene be the first in the front ranks to lead the armed revolutionary assault. How easy it is to pick on this culture when you have the luxury of your principles without putting your life at risk!

Westerners who interfere politically might get roughed up, might wind up in a cell for a short while; but more often than not get deported. Not so for the Burmese who struggle for democracy—they can get Insein. And by the way, it was those non-violent monks who led the Saffron Revolution in 2007. I suppose Selene also blames non-violent Iranians and Islam in general for the effort to gain more democracy over there?

The Burmese were no less Buddhist when Aung San organized armed resistance against the British imperial forces. Given the sophistication of weapons and intelligence today, revolutions for democracy cannot use people like cannon fodder anymore. So the tactic of non-violence evolved, but it relies on shame. The British felt it when facing Gandhi; Americans felt it when King led his marches. The flaw when it comes to Burma is that the generals feel no shame, and they rely on economic support from China, India and North Korea, who will do business with them, as well as European companies who carry on business as usual through sanction loopholes while Australia talks big in diplomatic circles but also plays along.

It is not the fault of the Burmese that they have employed the one tactic at their disposal when they have few other weapons.

I believe the time has come again when peoples fighting for democracy do not have to apologize for taking by force what has been denied by force—as long as there are leaders with integrity who can quickly step forward after bloodshed and chaos, and as long as revolution does not return us to an age of massacre as we had with Lenin and Robespierre (such good European cultural examples).

I would far prefer non-violent means (wouldn't we all?), but today we are dealing with regimes that survive thanks to international collusion. So again, without apology, we must build intelligence networks of our own to economically and politically undermine those who keep their boots on people's throats, so that a regime topples with fewer human victims crushed under the stones.

Adam Selene blames culture and then shrugs that there's nothing we can do about it. The alternative tactic is to pick up a gun. He stops short of openly advocating it, but implies it nonetheless. You want to pull a modern version of the "White Man Knows Better," please come collect your weapon, Mr Selene. I will join you in the front ranks when you're willing to step up.

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