Sunday, November 11, 2007

Beware democracy's siren song

Beware democracy's siren song

Christopher Smith
Mizzima News (

November 9, 2007 – Democracy. On the streets of Rangoon, the ideal of democracy lingered on the minds and in the hopes of thousands, perceptively growing as the days of protests reached their climax in late September. Though the tinder for the fire was an economy stretched to its breaking point, in the end it was in the dream of democracy, a democracy to set Burma free, in which so many people took solace.

But democracy is not an answer – it is an ideal, an oft forgotten observation that is now vividly playing itself out on the streets of Tbilisi, the Republic of Georgia's capital and some 3,479 miles distant from Rangoon.

In 2003, around Tbilisi's City Hall, over a hundred thousand people gathered in a mass protest against the purportedly corrupt and illegitimate government headed by former Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnaze. It was a call for "true democracy" and symbolic in reaffirming the young Republic's freedom.

On the waves of such popular support, opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili was swept into office in a landslide electoral victory. A euphoric atmosphere in the nation's capital broadly welcomed in a new era of democracy, the Republic of Georgia had come of age. Western governments and press largely portrayed the event as a victory for both Georgia and democracy.

Today, scenes and images from the streets of Tbilisi are eerily reminiscent of Rangoon a little over a month ago…one capital positing itself as a beacon of democracy while the other languishes under the iron fists of a military regime.

Riot police, better outfitted than their counterparts in Rangoon thanks to a stronger economy and Western ties, charge civilian demonstrators in central Tbilisi. Ironically, the protestors are looking to replace the "true democracy" of 2003 with the "true democracy" of 2007. Meanwhile the United States State Department continues to tell Georgians that "true democracy" exists somewhere down the road.

"Our democracy needs the firm hand of the authorities," Saakashvili told his subjects the other day. Georgian democracy in this sense seems to strongly resemble the junta's repeated insistence on a "guided democracy" for Burma.

Already state media in Georgia reports over 500 civilians have been injured as a result of the government's violent crackdown, while the plug has been pulled on independent media in the country.

President Saakashvili, speaking to the country, responded to the violent crackdown by stating that: "The police acted in a way like the police would have acted in any other democratic state." The adjective democratic in the President's statement could easily have been dropped altogether, as Burmese state media in the days following the violent crackdown in Rangoon liberally posted pictures of riot police putting down protests across the globe, making an analogous argument to that of Saakashvili.

"If we let these forces destabilize Georgia now, we will lose a chance to have a future; we will lose the chance to restore the country's territorial integrity," continued the President, and echoing the Burmese junta's relentless claim that without a strong army at the center, Burma's territorial integrity would be jeopardized.

As in Burma, the Republic of Georgia is home to ethnically delineated regions, regardless of the actual percentage of ethnic populations within each area. Whereas Burma has the likes of a Kachin or Karen state, Georgia is saddled with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Following the protests and crackdown in Burma, the junta blamed international governments and organizations of fuelling the unrest. Likewise, the democratic Georgian government has sought to pin the blame for its current crisis on the backs of subversive Russian agents.

The New Light of Myanmar meticulously reports on the number of visits American diplomats make to opposition offices. Similarly, Georgian state media has come out with photographs of opposition leaders meeting Russian representatives.

Widespread condemnation of the role of China in supporting the Burmese junta and denying the legitimate democratic aspirations of Burmese people is coupled with civilian opposition on the streets of Tbilisi accusing the United States of denying "true democracy" by propping up an illegitimate government.

Why has the Rose Revolution of 2003, heralded as the onset of a bright new democratic future, come to such a state? How can the streets of democracy in Tbilisi come to resemble the streets of authoritarian rule in Rangoon – in their protests, violence and bloodshed?

Simply speaking, the social and economic ills of the country were neglected or are as of yet unsuccessfully settled. It has already been shown that the question of rights and autonomy in ethnic regions of Georgia were inadequately solved with the advent of republican democracy in 2003 . Another example of a social ill which continues to plague the country is a pervasive culture of corruption. Such problems take much more time and effort to solve than a simple alteration in political orientation, however drastic such an alteration is.

Economically, despite an impressive double-digit gain in gross domestic product annually since 2003, the internationally acceptable economic figures are countered domestically with statistics that point to such economic ills as unemployment hovering around fifteen percent.

How many times did democratic voices on the streets of Rangoon rise up in a call for "freedom"? Countless. Yet, the true significance of the moment was left largely unnoticed. In that moment, on streets either drenched with heavy rain or a relentless sun, in their demands for freedom…the people were free.

The rebel, writes Albert Camus, finds freedom in the revolution. But once the revolution is over, even if waged and won in the name of freedom, the freedom experienced is lost. "The rebel affirms the impossibility of total freedom while he claims for himself the relative freedom necessary to recognize this impossibility," reads Camus' work.

There is nothing that can diminish the courage and sincerity of the protestors in their calls for democracy, who for a fleeting moment in time were free. But a democratic election in and of itself is no solution, a fact to which the streets of Tbilisi now attest.

Political change will come to Burma, and it very well may be a democratic swing. However victory will be decided by what is done, in the name of democratic governance or otherwise, to combat and cure the social and economic ills of the country.

Do not fear and steer a course away from the siren song of democracy, but understand the truth in democracy's allure. And while charting a course in the direction of democracy's refuge, confront and address the questions that will ultimately decide if Burma's next democratic experiment is a success or failure. There is much word to be done.

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