Mon 30 Nov 2009
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Megalomania on the part of the authorities and obsequiousness on the part of the people who serve them are salient features of any authoritarian system, where signs of complete submission and personal loyalty can induce rewards.
In an authoritarian setting, acting “normal” as self-respecting citizens or professionals can land people on the book of enemies. In Burma, the ruling generals have gone grotesquely backward in time with their penchant for expressions of servility by their underlings.
In Burmese Buddhist culture, the act of kowtowing is a sign of garawa, obeisance and humility, to the Buddha and the Sangha (the Order) as well as to teachers and elders. It should be noted that in a sutta, Buddha elucidates that it is not the age but the degree of morality, mindfulness and wisdom that qualifies one as an “elder.” The misunderstanding and malpractice of gawara, rampant in the Burmese society in general and the Burmese military institution in particular, often give way to illusory righteousness and blind obedience.
In parts of pre-colonial Asia, ruled by absolute monarchs or feudal lords, kowtowing was commonplace at all levels of social and political hierarchy. In fact, the protocol of having to kowtow sacrosanct Burmese kings, who aspired to be future Buddhas, or Chinese emperors irked the Western diplomats, soldiers, Christian missionaries and adventurers who had journeyed to the seat of the “oriental” kingdoms.
Historically, the Burmese elite’s outward display of servility in a highly personalized hierarchical system must have infected all other social relations. Eminent Burma scholars, from Dr Maung Maung Gyi to Dr Than Tun, abhorred the fact that the Burmese first person singular is kyundaw or kyunma, meaning “your royal slave!”
From the time of the British conquest of lower Burma in 1824 until the country’s independence in 1948, the local minions who chose to serve the British retained the old habit of kissing up. They addressed the British as thakingyi, or great masters, while continuing to kowtow them. The Japanese who occupied and ruled Burma through a proxy nationalist government during the Second World War demanded “long and deep” formal bows from the locals. Most of the Burmese obliged, calling the new masters simply “masters.”
It is one thing to kowtow Buddha but quite another to have to treat one’s boss as if he were a Buddha. Treating one’s superior like a Buddha, however, may be exactly what is expected of the Burmese public servants and military personnel by their bosses, the generals who misrule Burma today.
For instance, the most striking image among the photos of General Shwe Mann’s tour of North Korea and China in November 2008, is that of the Burmese embassy staff and their family members on all fours in front of the general in a Beijing hotel room. Shwe Mann, a protégé of junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, is considered the third most powerful man in Burma and an heir apparent.
Colonization of Burma thoroughly humiliated the majority Burman (Bama) population as they were forcibly separated from their past. As such, Bama politicians or soldiers are wont to hark back to their pre-colonial roots.
On gaining independence in 1948, the Bama leaders resumed building their unitary state on Bama nationalism. As ethnic and communist insurgencies broke out and civil war ensued within months of independence, it was too late for them to undo feudal cultural traits, develop mutually beneficial ties with ethnic peoples or heal their collective inferiority complex.
Invasions from neighboring China in the 1940s and 1950s added more fuel to Bama jingoism as the country withdrew further away from the international community during the Cold War.
The perceived glory of the past, which is disgraceful to the ethnic groups who suffered at the hands of Bama kings, has been rehabilitated through official and unofficial versions of nationalist historiography. In fact, it has become a staple in the nationalist propaganda.
Present-day Bama military officers have been doused in ultra-nationalist doctrine pretty much the same way that all Bama nationalist leaders of various political hues, be they leftist, rightist or totalitarian, fed on the anti-colonial historical narrative. As a result, in the words of Professor Maung Maung Gyi, ‘‘nationalism chained them to the petty world of native culture. Their attitude was that almost everything Burmese was positively superior to anything Western.’’
U Nu, the prime minister of newly independent Burma, behaved like a benevolent Burmese king, a bodhisattva, while presiding over a parliamentary democracy system that eventually went out of his control. Ne Win, who took over power from Nu and set out to ruin the country under a pseudo-socialist regime from 1962 to 1988, was known for his royal antics.
Nonetheless only under the present military regime, which named its new capital Naypyidaw, meaning the royal city or abode of kings, “min complex,” or royal-mania, has grown out of all proportion.
Burma scholars often speak of the “colonization from within” in the state of Burma. This view is completely justifiable in light of dominant-subordinate colonial relations that can be observed in the Burmese political culture.
Given the royal mania of the Burmese military regime, optimists see the current constitution as Burma’s Magna Carta. In this view, the fact that the constitution was unilaterally drawn up and forcibly approved in a sham referendum in May 2008 is less relevant than its emergence as a document that defines the boundaries of state and local powers.
Even if this “regime accommodationist view” reflects some elements of reality and relevancy, democracy in Burma will remain a very long-term guided process that will take decades, if not centuries, of evolution of democratic institutions.
One thing is for sure—democracy has to wait until the day when the people of Burma no longer take their bosses for Buddha.
Ko Ko Thett is an independent Burma scholar and a student of politics at the University of Helsinki.