Democracy is not a gift - we have to work for it

January 7, 2011
By Ma Hnin Moe
By Ma Hnin Moe

The emotional ups and downs in this remarkable month of November 2010 will never be forgotten. After the election of November 7th, the advocates of participation in the election were not prepared to face deceiving ballot counting, as they took it as a potential chance for parliamentary democracy. They were shocked by the vote rigging, although it is not so surprising. Also the people who casted their vote for democracy with a dim hope of regime change were let down when the result was deliberately planned to favor the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party. Even pro-democracy activists, who have negatively seen the election as a wrong choice, are stunned by the ugly fraud. Silence with big and small sigh is the immediate reaction days after the voting.

This unpleasant feeling was suddenly turned upside down when democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from her last house arrest which lasted for seven and half years. This time, the waiting happy crowd is cautious enough not to underestimate the risk associated with the joyfulness. Many people express their doubt about the motive of the junta behind the release and ask themselves ‘How long will this happiness last?’

While any step taken by the admired lady is watched by the junta, she bravely claims, national reconciliation among all multiethnic stakeholders must be our ultimate aim. However, many analysts already said, what she faces is not an easy task. The 65 years old charming and witty lady started her lecture of politics to the public just one day after her release: “Everything gets involved in politics… Nobody is free from politics... Politics is a skill all must learn.” Realizing the low level of political awareness in her own society, she said something she needed to say.

In our imagination, democracy is something that sounds always sweet. Although the concept itself is so much contested, we love it as much as we love cheese cake. Although our respected democracy icon is saying repeatedly “Your freedom does not necessarily mean freedom from abuse and name calling”, we are never trained to respect rights together with responsibility. Not even a single paragraph about democracy is taught in schools in our education system. Human Rights are just words we became familiar with, once the military government tried to respond to condemnation from the outside world. We repeatedly learn about rights when we read foreign newspapers accusing the junta as the worst violator of human rights. But not a lot of people inside the country do have a chance to learn what it is, while their rights are violated. Civic education for citizens is dismissed for many political reasons for several decades. When we were under colonial rule, knowledge about electoral democracy was only accessible for the top class who represented a few percent of the population, the so called educated class. When we gained independence, the value of democratic practice was swallowed by civil war. Then after an infant democracy had been brutally killed after the coup in 1962, we can only see it in our own imagination. We think it could be as sweet as a cheese cake. But we never learn how to bake it.

In order to prevent the decay of the undemocratic system, successive governments purposefully attempt to blind analytical thinkers. As part of their effort, at Universities subjects as Humanities and Social Science were degraded to subjects for students with the lowest marks. The Social Science Faculty at Yangon University was shut down in 1958. Since then, it never opened again. Subjects enlightening political thoughts such as Political Science and International Relations have been taught within limited intellectual boundaries. Until 2010, there is no Faculty of Political Science at any University in a country with over fifty million people.

Even worse, in our exam oriented education system, we are never trained to get involved in group discussion. Classroom culture is influenced by one way communication from the teacher to the students. Interactive discussion between teachers and students or among students is not a practice we are familiar with. Throughout the student life, personal supremacy is designated to achieve by earning highest mark. While our ultimate aim is to overtake anyone who blocks our own way towards the top grade, we usually forget to find solutions by facilitating the attitude to agree to disagree. Democratic decision making is far from being practiced in our education system. Nevertheless, once we leave the classroom, we find that life is full of disagreement and needs a lot of negotiation. But without adequate skills, we, fellow Burmese have a very thin or zero tolerance towards disagreement. Intolerance towards disagreement very often turns to personal and community conflicts. Zero tolerance towards difference of opinion was clearly visible in the discussion regarding the last election. Since we never find an agreement to choose a national strategy to build democracy, our road to nation building is still far. While the junta seems happy to exploit disunity among political factions, harsh personal attacks and name calling against election contestants are widely spread especially outside of the country on many media platforms. While the government backed USDP is cursed for abuse of power, the political life of candidates of opposition parties is very much prone to negative criticism without constructive engagement from anti-election campaigners.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not at all pleased with this situation and raised the importance of compromise and negotiation in society as soon as she was released. At the last part of her first public speech on 15th November, 2010, she even tried to test the harmony within her followers. She asked the crowd, “I think we Burmese are tolerant of each other. Are we? Can I test how deep it is? The people who have been standing at the very end of the crowd can’t hear me well. My speech is almost over. So, can you people from front roll exchange your spaces with theirs?” The people hailed unanimously “YES” and followed her instruction without waiting even a second.

Aung San Suu Kyi is compared to an angel of peace and democracy. But the question is if she is really strong enough to train everybody in democracy? Without doing proper institutional improvements, change for real democracy is far from being sustained, even if we have a fair election. It does not necessarily mean that Myanmar does not deserve democracy. Many civil society groups working inside the country have been witnessing a series of successes in nurturing democratic practice and respect to human rights in their daily community work. Both, formal and informal institutional changes, will lead to a successful nation building. Whether change is radical or gradual, democracy is not a gift, but something we have to work for.