covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, November 22, 2019



By The Irrawaddy AUGUST, 1997 - VOLUME 5 NO.4/5

If Asian values are about encouraging a harmonious relationship between the state and society, then Asean leaders have their work cut out in Burma. Now that Burma is a member of Asean, it would not be illogical to assume that Asean will now take some responsibility for the well-being of that unfortunate country — which is now an economic, political and social "basket case" in the regional forum. It is not presumptuous to presume that Aung San Suu Kyi is, like Lt Gen Khin Nyunt and Slorc generals, now regarded as part of the Asean community. Perhaps, Asean leaders will cease treating her as a political persona non-grata. It is also hoped that Asean leaders, who are presumably sincere about Confucian and "Asian" values, will be true to their convictions and help restore state-society harmony in Burma. A cardinal component of Confucianism is "harmony" — that is, harmony between the head of the family and its members, and by extension, harmony within a state between rulers and the ruled (or state and civil society). Burma is precisely a place where this "harmony" is lacking. Strife between the state and civil society has been the norm since 1962. This stems from those entrusted with the country’s defence betraying that trust. They usurped — in 1962 and in 1988 — by force of arms the power to govern, and have monopolised all forms of power at gunpoint. With their guns, they have "anointed" themselves the guardian-rulers of the country in perpetuity. What the people of Burma want, as articulated by their chosen champion, Suu Kyi, is the restoration of harmony between that part of the population which exercises power and the rest of society, over whom power is exercised. Give and take In Burma, "democracy" is but a metaphor of the desire of the people for the restoration of harmony — a functional relation based on give-and take between those who wield power and those who do not, not only in politics but in every sphere of life. It is not that the people and their champion, Suu Kyi, want to transplant, wholesale, "Western" values into Burma. The message she brings is one that is based on Buddhist compassion, and on harmony between the state and society that results from a compassionate relationship between people in general, and between rulers and the ruled in particular. Is there anything more Asian than this? It is therefore incomprehensible why powerful Asean leaders — who ascribe to things Asian with great pride — are so set against a frail woman who would probably have, under different circumstances, looked upon them as esteemed elder statesmen and mentors. One wonders if male chauvinism is not a factor? These powerful men could have gone down in history as "great Asians". Regretfully, it now appears — because of their indefensible defence of military rule of the most brutal kind — that they will be remembered, perhaps unfairly, as petulant, unreasonable and uncompassionate mini-tyrants. At any rate, there are, at an analytical level, many problems with the assault on democracy (and human rights) on the premise that democracy is "Western". It is certain that good men serving Asean governments, many with doctorates from good universities (incidentally, in the West), also have problems with the ideological formulations of their political "masters" (those who butter their bread). It is pity that Asians who are otherwise enlightened have chosen to, as a Burmese saying goes, "hold water in their mouths". What are the "Western" values, one may ask, that Asean leaders are so staunchly against? In its bare bones, what we call "Western" culture is a culture and a set of values that put man — man as an autonomous, free entity — at the heart of politics and economy. It is a culture based on the questioning of the "givens", that is, given knowledge, wisdom, truths, even faith, and beliefs and notions that are encrusted with mystifications. "Western" culture and values encompass a way of life where the "superior" status of any person — and the wielding of power — is regarded as functional and instrumental, and thus conditional superior status and possession of power are not viewed as mandated by an abstract power that transcends man, such as the "nation", "community", winged inhabitants from up above, and so on. It is from this way of seeing and comprehending power and human relations, that there arose the notion of democratic accountability, human rights, and other liberties. In the above connection, those who are familiar with the "teachings" of the Buddha will find that "Western" culture and values are not all that "Western", after all.

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