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Burmese communities have recently paid attention to the media’s widely reported discussion between the nationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu and the National League for Democracy (NLD) co-founder Win Tin. According to video footage reported on DVB on 24 February, Win Tin was discussing his party’s efforts to amend the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, specifically clause Article 59(f) which prohibits his party chairwoman, Aung San Suu Kyi, from competing in the presidential race in next year’s elections.
The controversial monk, who is leading a campaign to pass a law that will put restrictions on interfaith marriage, has recently spoken out about his wish to retain the clause. Wirathu offered this reason to Win Tin: “It [amending the clause] will ultimately allow those who are not ethnic nationalities to exploit the Burmese people who are simple and naïve. Our people are not ready for this kind of deceit — they don’t have high enough intelligence.”
Though this short debate between Wirathu and Win Tin can hardly be representative of the general will of Burmese people, their thoughts revealed during this particular meeting reflect a noticeable perspective of Burmese society’s mental culture in a nation that is currently striving to avert a moral dilemma between its long-term isolation and new freedom during the recent years of democratic reform.
I would like to make some observations upon this mental culture and understand some of its important characteristics, which are deep-seated and also continue to grow vibrantly during the recent years of the nation’s march towards its democratic goals.
My primary concern is to question whether these attitudes are pertinent to the evolving democratic practices or if they become preposterous placements in our much anticipated and long-time awaited open society.
In offering my analysis, I will limit myself to the contents related to the general truths rather than criticizing people based on their particular beliefs. The scenario of the meeting between Wirathu and Win Tin is selected because their thoughts mirror the important perspective of the general mental culture. This deserves our consideration. My purpose is to discuss key problems in the prevailing attitudes in Burma so that people can finally make a rational decision instead of adhering to the perennial beliefs of the past.
As reflected in the DVB article and observed in his interfaith restriction advocacy movements as well, people like Wirathu regard blood and heritage as prime reasons to change Burma’s laws.
The DVB article revealed another important little-known perspective of Wirathu: “Only a few people in Burmese society can philosophize”. It is evident that advocacy movements of Wirathu for interfaith restriction laws and the non-amendment of the Constitution are mainly founded on his two beliefs that in Burmese society: (1) We must make the laws with our blood, or our heritage; and (2) only the “intellectuals” should decide what should be the laws.
Win Tin’s stance is unclear with regard to the first belief but he could have well agreed to his opponent’s second belief that denotes that only the wise should choose what should be law. Win Tin’s agreement with Wirathu’s second belief is not without evidence. In the middle of last year, when Wirathu inaugurated his proposed law to target interfaith marriage, the veteran journalist was one of the very few to speak against it. However, instead of criticizing the discriminatory content of the monk’s proposal, his critique was on the competence of the monk to judge what kind of laws should prevail in Burmese society. His past critique of the monk indicates that Win Tin is also likely to share a similar view of Wirathu to think that only the “competent” should decide the crucial issues of Burmese society.
It is well known to the public that Win Tin and The Lady, Aung San Su Kyi, have different opinions on a number of political issues. The current example is not an exception. If it had been the NLD Chairlady instead of Win Tin at this meeting, she might have retorted differently to the monk’s statement that “Our people don’t have enough intelligence” because it was illustrative of Burmese mental culture that she regards as a long-term humiliation of people’s dignity.
The well-known work, Mental culture in Burmese crisis politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, by Gustaaf Houtman (1999) shares Suu Kyi’s opinion on this subject:
“Hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship, there is no room for hero-worship in a true political struggle made up of human beings grappling with human problems,” she said.
Since the earlier years of her struggle, Suu Kyi has been convinced that a true political struggle is made by the people and not by a small group of sacrosanct heroes. Since this time she has realized that Burmese mental culture is standing in opposition to her conviction.
While Wirathu’s statements are vicarious imaginations of class worship in this static mental culture, holding such intentions in public lawmaking processes will breach the fiduciary duty of respecting egalitarian principles. These intentions will lead to discriminatory lawmaking practices and are counter to the nation’s democratic process.
I will start with the second belief. If we would like to recruit only intelligent people to make laws, we need to ask by what criteria we will choose intelligent people. When we push this question to Win Tin and the NLD, they will probably choose an Oxford degree. To President Thein Sein and his ruling USDP party, they will choose the military. To Wirathu and his Race and Religion Protection Society, they will choose Burmese, Buddhist, or “our national heritage” and “protectors”.
With any of these choices, the discrimination and exclusion of other groups, especially underprivileged groups, are inescapable.
Another important problem in adopting such a belief is that usually it is the authority that decides these criteria the treasure hunt for “wisdom” inevitably ends up in self-authentication of the already privileged classes. It is true that some authorities may probably set up the fairest selection standards.Nevertheless, we can never avoid procedural exclusion and discrimination against others who lose their eligibility outright just by preferable criteria of some decision-making body.
Not only can we not rule out the impartiality of the selection process, but the idea that “only the intelligent people should make the laws” is a self-perpetrating statement. As laws are made for making people equal, then by only allowing the “superior” ones to make the laws, the lawmaking process will never be impartial.
We will turn back to the first belief, which in essence shares the same connotation of partiality. This sounds more like “caste” because it is one’s birth that decides who will make the laws. Such discriminatory intent of proclaiming we must make the laws with “our blood” or “our heritage” directly violates the egalitarian principle of the Rule of Law and is also not acceptable to the public lawmaking process.
Allowing such discriminatory practices in lawmaking will divide the nation into friends and foes – those who are standing close to authority and those who are distant. Ultimately we develop a class system of the noble vthe unworthy.
It has been broadly acknowledged that provision of the Rule of Law is a desperate need on Burma’s path to reform. However, most discussions on this topic are focused on the integrity of the judicial system, checks and balances between the Parliament and the Administration, anti-corruption efforts, and education of the security forces. Too little attention has been paid to the importance of encouraging society’s general mental culture towards impartiality, an attitude that must be widely developed in a democratic nation’s lawmaking practices. As long as discriminatory attitudes in lawmaking practices persist, the country’s human rights situation will be negatively affected.
The United Nations has provided assistance to improve Burma’s human rights situation by recruiting special rapporteurs to the country. Just a few days ago, Tomás Ojea Quintana’s mission to Burma ended. The post-mortem analysis showed that special rapporteurs have their own emphasis on particular issues that fit with their background. For example, Quintana paid more attention to judicial procedures and the release of political prisoners while his predecessor, Pinheiro, focused more on the recruitment of child soldiers.
No significant effort has been observed to openly review the general mental attitudes of lawmakers and duty-holders with regard to their respect for impartiality.
As long as partial attitudes are legitimised and can be validly domineering in society’s general mental culture, procedural reforms will become a mere façade or ultimately become retrogressive.
We have completely lost our way in a daze by forgetting the need to change our mental culture in regard to our respect for the Rule of Law. This forgetfulness is fatal in a sense because it is the founding principle of the Rule of Law. Without addressing this critical issue, the reform efforts will simply become activism or rhetoric rather than bringing real major change to society.
Over and above, a lack of attention and criticism of our partial mental attitudes seriously undermines the nation’s current efforts for the reform processes that are underway. It will allow sentiments to override critical thinking and offer wrong justifications for continuous discriminatory practices.
Widespread acknowledgement of impartiality with respect to the Rule of Law and a new paradigm shift in our mental culture – to respect all other our fellow human beings, even those beyond our national boundaries, as equals – are urgently needed for our nation’s nascent road to democracy.
Dr Nyo Tun has worked as an international consultant for EU, USAID and Gates Foundation-funded study projects which analyse strategies for national and global health issues. Prior to his international consultant work, he led public health initiatives for providing health care to marginalized populations in various regions of Burma.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.