Darkness at Dawn: Tainting Democracy for Power and Profit

Who would have thought that the brutal Burma junta had not really and truly reformed itself when it made its much-ballyhooed leap forward toward democracy by releasing dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and loosening restrictions on the officially recognised political opposition -- a move that brought the much-sought pat on the head (and easing of sanctions) from the American Imperium, and even a visit from Caesar himself?

Having witnessed this miracle, who would have believed that this same militarist junta -- which has retained all its power and maintained its repressive forces in place -- would now be using Suu Kyi and "democracy" to provide a PR fig leaf for a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing? Yet, strangely enough, that appears to be what is happening. The Burmese regime has overtly and covertly been assisting in the ongoing sectarian strife led by violent fundamentalist Buddhist monks against the small Muslim minority in the country -- particularly the Rohingya and Kaman Muslims, stateless people who have been forced into refugee camps by the junta and subjected to constant attacks by the Buddhist majority in Rakhine state and elsewhere around the country.

The outpouring of violence has shaken the moral authority of Suu Kyi, as she tries to maintain the momentum of democratization through negotiation and cooperation with the power structure. Many have found her statements on the violence to be remarkably muted. This too plays into the hands of the Burmese rulers: they get kudos for freeing dissidents and making gestures toward democracy, while at the same time they weaken the opposition by co-opting it.

(This dynamic might not be totally unfamiliar to observers of American politics, particularly in the relationship between the militarist-corporatist, drone-bombing, extrajudicially-murdering, indefinitely-detaining, force-feeding, whistleblower-quashing Obama administration and what is laughingly known as the 'left.' Although naturally our morally tough and savvy progressive pundits deliver themselves of fierce criticisms of this or that particular policy or political move of the Administration, their opposition is fatally compromised by their need to maintain their own much-sought pats on the head from the Imperium (don't want to be disinvited from the next Oval Office confab with progressive bloggers or -- gasp! -- dropped out of rotation on the Chris Hayes show!) and by their own fervent efforts to keep the militarist-corporatist, drone-bombing, etc. Administration in power last year.)

The Washington Post reports:

A leading international rights group on Monday accused authorities in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks, of fomenting an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority that killed hundreds of people and forced 125,000 from their homes.

Human Rights Watch also described the bloody wave of violence and massacres in western Rakhine state last year as crimes against humanity, and slammed the government of President Thein Sein for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice months after mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes and homemade guns razed thousands of Muslim homes.

While state security forces sometimes intervened to protect fleeing Muslims, more often they fueled the unrest, the rights group said, either by standing by idle or directly participating in atrocities. One soldier reportedly told a Muslim man whose village was ablaze: “The only thing you can do is pray to save your lives.”

The allegations, detailed in a new report by the New York-based rights group, came the same day the European Union lifted all sanctions on Myanmar except an arms embargo to reward the Southeast Asian nation for its progress toward democratic rule.

Burma seems to be playing out a scenario we have seen with grim regularity in the past several years, where the introduction of "democratic reforms" is eventually (or immediately) hijacked either by existing elites or new forces in league with elements of the power structure, or by satraps installed by outside powers via regime change. The new "democratic" governments are either woefully ineffective (e.g. Afghanistan, Egypt) or brutally repressive (Iraq, Libya) or a combination of the two (Russia, Ukraine). But in almost every case, the end result is that "democracy" becomes associated with collapse, corruption, economic ruin, sectarian violence, rampant crime. The very concept becomes tainted for those suffering under "democracy"; in many cases, the word itself becomes an insult, used as a bitter, cynical joke. (I saw this first-hand in Russia during the 1990s.)

People thus subjected to the ravages of "democracy" become much more amenable to authoritarian "solutions" to the problems their "freedom" has caused. This is, of course, because they have neither democracy or freedom but just another set of elites (or the same elites in new drag, like the suddenly "civilian" leaders of the Burmese military junta, or the KGB-connected cronies who have feasted on the Russian carcass for years) ruthlessly exploiting the fears and uncertainties of societies in upheaval.

None of this is likely to stop the accelerating American embrace of Burma's militarist regime. (After all, they're just killing Muslims!) But it is, yet again, a depressing coda to another bright story of a "democratic dawn."

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(This is not the only route to authoritarianism, of course; we're seeing another model at work in the United States even as we speak. But that's another story, although you'll find good stuff on this theme here and here.)