09 May 2010

Article: Parochial Universalism, Democracy Jihad and the Orientalist Image of Burma

Michael Aung-Thwin, "Parochial Universalism, Democracy Jihad and the Orientalist Image of Burma: The New Evangelism" ("Pacific Affairs", 74 [4], winter 2001-2002: pp. 483-505):


Excerpts: "Throughout history there have been [...] rationalizations of parochial universalism. [...] And now, we have Pax Americana declaring the ideals of democracy and human rights as universal doctrines. In all these cases, it is the conquerors [...] (or those who were in control) who have argued that their parochial values were universal, while the conquered [...] (or those not in charge) [...] have invoked cultural relativism. Universalizing parochial values is thus not a new or unique American strategy, but an established, predictable rationalization of the strong, the ideology of the superpower to validate its hegemony. And although that rationalization today is secular rather than religious, and the goals are this-world oriented rather than the next, nevertheless, the zeal, the righteousness, the imagery, and the vocabulary with which this universalism is proclaimed are uncannily evocative of earlier religious evangelisms.

"In part, the belief that these parochial values of the superpower are indeed universal is 'confirmed' by the victims [...] when they confess their 'sin' of having once worshiped false gods (like Communism) and, in return, receive absolution (and material aid). [...] Does anyone seriously believe that [the Nobel Peace Prize,] this highest badge of honour awarded in the name of peace by the West – a form of secular canonization if you will – could ever be given to someone who did not advocate democracy or human rights, his or her actual contribution to peace notwithstanding? [...] Indeed, the establishment of democracy has become, virtually, a sine qua non for legitimate government per se. It now resembles a jihad, a holy war, backed by aggressive and confrontational rhetoric as well as economic sanctions or support.

"The most recent example can be found in the declaration of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec, which includes a 'democracy clause.' It stipulates that any country that retreats from democracy will be banished from the Summit meeting process (in the case of Cuba, not invited in the first place); thereby restricting the congregation to a holy brethren of nations who have been 'saved.' And those who 'fall from grace' are forbidden to remain in – or in the case of the 'nonbelievers,' enter at all – the Garden of Eden. Thus, not only does the word democracy today evoke images and employ vocabulary of ideological purity, it has also become a kneejerk, convenient, 'catch-all,' 'cure-all,' 'end-all' term for simple solutions to complex political problems. It marks good from evil, the latter usually reserved for the Islamic Middle East and non-Christian 'undeveloped' Asia, and provides a blanket (at least public) rationale for the West's God-given right to interfere in virtually any situation. It is the 'white man's burden' and 'manifest destiny' all over again. [...]

"In countries such as Burma, even instances of commonplace grousing is interpreted within a democratic versus authoritarian framework of analysis by democracy advocates, so that ordinary complaints by ordinary Burmese citizens (say, of annoying, standard bureaucratic snafus, found anywhere) automatically become anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy statements. All this tends to encourage the western public to accept simplistic paradigms, so that complicated events are viewed as struggles between the forces of good (western-style democracy and the free market) and the forces of evil (Third World-style everything else), in which the Burmese situation is easy to 'locate.' [...] That this is not well understood, especially among many of the same expatriate Burmese advocating democracy in Burma, is obvious. Many are cut from the same cloth and are as authoritarian and intolerant of alternative views as those they are denouncing. [...]

"Still, the obsession with propagating democracy amongst the 'political heathen' continues, reminiscent of the zeal and piousness found in the literature of imperialism. Only now, the latter's 'superior' religious and racial ideology (Christianity and the white man) has been replaced by equally 'superior' secular political and social ideology (democracy and human rights). The message may have changed but not the righteous assumptions held by the messenger; that is, neither his belief in his own cultural-intellectual superiority, nor, therefore, its rationale (the claim to universality) is substantively different. [...] Thus, in much the same way missionaries during the late nineteenth century declared that belief in the one and only true God would bring salvation, today's advocates of democracy [...] – the new evangelists – proclaim their doctrine as the one and only true ideology that will save a society from hell-fire and damnation of a worldly kind. [...]

"[D]emocracy jihad's assumption that the electoral process is the sole criterion for determining legitimate authority everywhere is self-fulfilling and tautological in any case. According to this argument, since elections are considered the only valid procedure for determining legitimate authority, only one kind of government will ever be considered legitimate anywhere in this world – a democracy – thereby excluding a priori all other kinds of political systems, their procedures, and the principles on which they rest. [...] Sukarno's 'guided democracy' and Mao's 'democratic centralism' are [...] lamented by the west as a 'corruption' of 'pure' principles, a reaction not dissimilar to the way the 'localization' of Christianity in Asia and Africa was viewed. [...] Democracy [...] is not even an issue for most of the people of Burma most of the time."

Burmese-born Michael Aung-Thwin, a historian by training, is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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