Narrating Democracy in Myanmar: The Struggle Between Activists, Democratic Leaders and Aid Workers

Donald M. Seekins

During Myanmar’s ‘transition’ to democracy in 2011-21, abruptly cut off by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup d’état of February 2021, many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters in the West were shocked by her departure from what they thought were universal norms of democracy and human rights: most egregiously, by her complicity in state-instigated violence against Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State which led to over 700,000 of them seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh; but also in her support for neo-liberal ‘development’ projects by foreign companies (the Letpadaung copper mine expansion in Sagaing Region, opposed by local residents) and by her top-down management of the National League for Democracy and intolerance of dissenting views inside and outside her party. Among Myanmar people, some seasoned activists became sceptical of her commitment to democracy. According to one: “I was in prison for four years. At first, I thought the leader [Suu Kyi] could make a difference but…. Replacing one person with another can be dangerous. Sometimes, society wants a dictator…. Like in [George Orwell’s] Animal Farm, I want to get rid of the farmer, but I am worried about Napoleon” (p.153).

In his informative book Narrating Democracy in Myanmar, Tamas Wells weaves together interesting and stimulating arguments. He suggests that Suu Kyi’s ‘betrayal’ (my term, not the Wells’s) of democratic ideals after achieving a measure of political power in 2012 was not an example of bad faith or hypocrisy, but reflected conflict between various narratives about ‘democracy’ that exist in Myanmar today. It is a tribute to Wells’s description of Myanmar political values that his book can be reviewed not only from the perspective of Myanmar (Burma) Studies, but also in light of a 21st century global ‘crisis in democracy’ (e.g., Trump in America) and the all-important relationship between languages and politics.


Defining ‘Democracy’

Wells takes a balanced view of how the word ‘democracy’ can be meaningfully defined and used. It is not simply an ‘ideal type’ of popular self-government against which existing political systems should be measured. Nor, can the label of democracy be legitimately attached to any political system which desires to use it, as when the authoritarian Myanmar military talks about ‘disciplined, flourishing democracy.’ Instead, he takes the position of Laurence Whitehead, who “importantly employs the metaphor of meanings of democracy being ‘floating but anchored’ … while there is no taken for granted meaning of democracy, this does not mean that democracy can mean anything at all. There is a stream of discourse about democracy that is mutually intelligible across languages and places, although there is no clear way that this ‘anchor’ can be defined” (p.39). “No clear way that this ‘anchor’ can be defined”? Then how can we talk meaningfully about democracy?

Wells uses the concept of ‘narratives’ to argue that there are three such ‘stories’ about democracy that are widely current in Myanmar: (1) the liberal narrative, promoted by western aid workers, which emphasizes stable procedures and institutions as the key to a democratic political system and views the country’s personality-centred politics as immature; (2) the benevolence narrative, embodied in Suu Kyi’s leadership of the National League for Democracy, which asserts her possession of a strong moral consciousness based on sedana, an originally Buddhist term meaning ‘[good] intention,’ but which Wells translates as ‘benevolence.’ In turn, the benevolent leader insists on her followers being united and disciplined; and (3) an equality narrative, which sees the achievement of a genuine popular government as part of a broader program to reform Myanmar’s hierarchical cultural and social values.

Of the three narratives, the equality narrative is the most interesting because it employs a critical approach to Myanmar society and does not assume that the country’s decades-long political crises can be resolved through a restoration of old, Buddhist-based ideas (the benevolence narrative) or a wholesale implantation of foreign political models (the liberal narrative).

According to this narrative, equality of status is important, not only in political life but in monasteries, schools and at home. Proponents argue that new norms of decision-making and debate are needed, and people with differing views should be respected and listened to, rather than ostracized, as Suu Kyi has done to dissenters inside her party.

Wells argues that democracy is not only diverse in its uses but also inherently a ‘contestable’ idea, one whose meaning is not fixed but is the subject of ‘endless dispute.’ He admits that this contestation is driven in large measure by the need for political actors to acquire power and legitimacy and marginalise their opponents, but hesitates to call this contestation inauthentic. However, I wonder if he is not overly hasty – out of the spirit of cultural sensitivity, perhaps – in skirting around a sceptical view of contestation over what democracy in Myanmar really means – namely, that it is just a useful label in a power game.


Suu Kyi and Sedana (Benevolence)

What, then, are we to make of his choice of the word ‘benevolence’ for the translation of sedana to describe Suu Kyi’s brand of democracy? If anything, her self-distancing from concern about the rights and needs of people outside the Buddhist Bamar mainstream (not only Muslims, but Buddhist and non-Buddhist ethnic minorities) creates, or perpetuates, a politics of insiders and outsiders. This us-versus-them mentality has deep roots in Myanmar history going back at least to the British colonial period, but found its concrete manifestation in the discriminatory Citizenship Law of 1982, enacted under the Ne Win dictatorship, which divided the people of Myanmar into three unequal classes of citizens and kept a fourth category, resident non-citizens (e.g., the Rohingyas), in a state of permanent fear and insecurity. Few Muslims, other non-Buddhists or even Buddhist indigenous ethnic minorities like the Mons or the Shans feel Suu Kyi’s metta (loving kindness, a Buddhist ideal). Ethnic/religious majority Bamars gave her landslide victories in the general elections of May 1990, November 2015, and November 2020 and they are the constituency she serves most faithfully. But in this reviewer’s opinion, the persistence of a politics of insiders and outsiders bodes ill for the future of Myanmar as a viable nation state.

Wells’s approach to the word ‘democracy’ leads us to a vital issue, of special importance to those who study the languages of politics and indeed any citizen who is concerned about what happens on the political stage: at what point, if any, does an oft-used concept like democracy lose its coherence and intelligibility? The original term used by the Greek philosophers (from the Greek: demos (common people) + kratos (rule)) is fairly precise. However, we live in a ‘fallen’ era, in which there is little resistance to the politically-motivated corruption of language, which begins by undermining the clear meaning of words and concepts.

If there is only ambiguity or conceptual looseness in defining words like democracy, peace, justice, etc., we are left with a primarily emotive foundation for political language. Of course, as Wells makes clear, many if not most people use words like democracy, peace or justice emotively to signal whether a person, an institution or a society is good, or, more significantly, good for them.

But Wells is not writing as a political thinker, but as an observer of narratives. His data comes from Bamar Buddhist informants whom he interviewed while working at NGOs inside the country during the transition period (he admits that ethnic minority narratives on democracy are probably quite different). The tendency of people to justify their beliefs and actions through the use of stories is, of course, an important thing to acknowledge. But what is equally important is that these narratives can have toxic consequences: for example, the hate speech about Muslims disseminated on Facebook, which incited violence against the Rohingyas.

However, Narrating Democracy in Myanmar is stimulating even if one disagrees with some of its basic assumptions. It reveals the complexity of conflicts on the ground far more clearly than the old perspective, which described the test of wills between Daw Suu Kyi and the army state as a battle between good and evil. It describes how Theravada Buddhism, an intensely hierarchical religious tradition, remains a serious stumbling block to the achievement of a more democratic political culture (the equality narrative) and also gives a clearly written sketch of the evolution of modern Myanmar’s political thought, including nationalist encounters with political liberalism during the British colonial period.