Scratching Where the Hand Reaches
The Burmese news outlet Irrawaddy has reported on cuts to the Democratic Voice of Burma’s budget, while DVB itself deplores the end of Irrawaddy’s printed magazine. Will the future of Burmese exile media – or, as Mizzima‘s editor in chief Soe Myint prefers to call them, independent media – look like this, bemoaning each other’s deaths? Still before the November 2010 elections, Soe Myint told me that he saw a realistic option to operate soon inside Burma, assuming that the new-old government might decide to admit their most outspoken critics inside the country, still under control but with a certain amount of leeway.
As the Czech journalist Jaromír Marek has reminded us, cases of transformation like that of communist Czechoslovakia into post-communist Czechoslovakia have taught us that former regime mouthpieces have been able to reaffirm their leadership after some necessary rearrangements, rather than renowned exile media managing to return home and conquer a space back in their home country. But who will be the free media until then?
While Asian governments are apparently not getting their hands dirty in support of democracy for Burma, donors and policy makers in Western countries seem to be ‘grateful’ for events like the 2010 elections and the subsequent release of Aung San Suu Kyi to legitimize their move away from support of the exiled democracy movement towards support of activities inside the country. No doubt, supporting activities inside Burma is sexy nowadays. You read about arguments such as opening spaces through new political structures, allegedly failed sanctions, or – admitting the power of ethically complacent corporations – the futility of enforcing sanctions in the first place, or the emergence of a new quality of civil society activities, half tolerated, half underground. Although many of the observations hold a grain of truth and it is indeed difficult to predict further development, I have not yet come across any conclusive argument that manages to explain the step from opportunities identified inside Burma towards the policy of choking off humanitarian and pro-democracy activities abroad.
It is amazing how rapidly public opinion has changed: from the moment when DVB and its heroic undercover reporters were praised for their efforts, in particular after the film “Burma VJ” – a documentary with partly re-enacted scenes – impressively highlighted their tremendous work to now when free media in Burma seems to be considered either entirely irrelevant or the emergence of entirely new free media is spotted on the near horizon.
I suspect that many well-meaning observers have simply become delirious after years of abstinence and depression. After decades of surviving in the desert, every faint mirage resembles an opulent oasis. Right, there is no way of refuting the possibility of better times dawning. But most indicators given as hard proof either are old hats and have failed before, or they are based on motions that are warranted solely by the generals.
But it is not only about Burma’s free media. We also see a decline in support for cross-border activities. Even if we assume that new regional centers of power will emerge in Burma’s political landscape, which are mostly occupied by pro-regime heads, it is not clear to me how this will help for instance IDPs in East Burma, let alone the millions of refugees and migrant workers who have had to leave the country. In a very optimistic scenario where internal disagreements would evolve on a political stage and lead to some kind of intra-regime opposition and a greater inclination to speak up for the people’s benefit, and the army and secret police would for some mysterious reason decide to remain idle this time, there is still no way these new dissidents inside the political establishment would possibly be able to accomplish this mission, despite their goodwill. Democratic and diligent governance relies on skills that will certainly not spontaneously come into existence through a kind of abiogenesis triggered by the magic spark of an election that would hardly be characterized as democratic by even most of its foreign apologists. Calming the armed conflicts in ethnic areas and transforming the Tatmadaw into a pillar of a state that serves its people are quite extraordinary tasks that would require more enlightened politicians than those who have made a career in the USDP as a regime’s bootlickers. Certainly the exception proves the rule and some idealist might have taken the hard way through the politburo while in their hearts they remained untainted idealists. Only time will tell. But still, I maintain, where is the proof that makes so many people flock to the shiny new opportunities that have been opened by the junta?
Hope springs eternal. Donations don’t.
Western democratic societies have encountered a weak point: They cannot cope with situations that do not progress in any way, where your values simply require you to endure. The problems in Burma are like an itchy spot on the back that the hand cannot reach. Lucky that the generals have given us another place to scratch. What a relief!