Saturday, May 17, 2008

Buddhism, democracy and dictators

Are US$500,000 shrines like this one in Nakhonratchasima, Thailand, really Buddhist, or are they religious glitter used by a misled and misleading elite to distract the public from more pressing needs? (Photo/Frank G. Anderson)
Nakhonratchasima, Thailand — Former American civil rights leader Martin Luther King said, “The Negro’s great stumbling block is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Today, in 2008, Southeast Asia is witnessing another paternalistic determination of who gets what kind of freedom in the Burmese constitutional draft referendum, as well as with the accommodating Thai government next door. Thailand clearly wishes to please Burma more than it does to promote real democracy. There are several good reasons for doing so, but none of them is conducive to freedom -- and all that it entails -- in the region.

It seems that both Thailand and Burma are struggling with intense and immense pressures, most of them internally created, but also many from abroad. The latter pressures are generally dismissed by the two as outside interferences, as unwarranted intervention or more plainly as Western imperialism. With the generals of both nations proudly geared up in the latest scrambled-egg-covered uniforms and ruled by an elite that sweeps aside freedom movements as easily as dust under the carpet, the future for the general populace in both countries is bleak at best, at least in the next 20-50 years.

Use of violence or threat of violence by state agencies, their supporters and misled uninformed citizens is one of the first tools used to ensure unity, stop divisiveness and mold public opinion. Up comes the national flag and anthem, parading of military might, denunciation of free-thinkers who really have no personal axe to grind other than wanting to be free. There are also appeals against foreign interference -- “Believe us not them!” -- and the inevitable periodic shakeup of uncontrollable democracy movements that result in democratic leadership being decimated.

There is a lack of transparency and ultimate authority in the region by leadership that is able to constantly reengineer public thinking and redirect angst against not the locals who created it but against legitimate opposition instead -- with foreigners a favorite target.

There is official immunity from being fired or sued, exercised by the friendly moving to inactive posts of those who have fallen into disfavor. Another technique is refusing to provide details about anything whatsoever, a nearly complete but compliant media silence against official wrongdoing out of fear of lack of advertising, closure or imprisonment -- these are just a few of the tools being used today in both Burma and Thailand to silence opposition and to paternalistically set a timetable for a molded freedom that best fits in with the design of those who will never relinquish power voluntarily.

Perhaps a pertinent question to ask is how two widely divergent government systems -- a strong socialist/communist repressive regime in Burma, and a strong unity-driven pseudo-democracy in Thailand -- could have turned out so closely resembling one another, not so much in terms of overall government administration but in social values, especially when viewing their shared Theravada Buddhist underpinnings.

Further, given the similarities and growing alignment between the two neighbors, what’s in store for the people of these staunchly nationalistic yet separate-leaning countries? And what’s in store for countries in Asia and even beyond to the Great Superpower, who trade with Thailand and Burma?

Optimism does not appear to be warranted. The recent tragic cyclone that hit Yangoon -- whose inapt name means “end of strife” -- was handled true-to-form by the regime prohibiting foreigners, especially Westerners, from providing assistance to the stricken and dying.

One would think that a country that identifies itself with Buddhism would have immediately welcomed foreign assistance, but this was not the case. Nationalistic pride, paranoid fears of being invaded, and perhaps the thought that Burma’s total mismanagement of its people and resources would become known to the world, got in the way.

This takes us to a serious and highly negative parallel between Burma and Thailand, with long-term implications, since it affects both countries and their societies, including the ruling elite.

This parallel is the habit of addressing reality with illusory disdain, almost as if reality does not matter. This ethic also resembles Buddhist doctrine -- leaving many scholars scratching their heads -- but it provides a hint into what makes societies in Burma and Thailand click. If reality is not that important, then surely the physical realities of oppression, domination, deprivation, human suffering, even life and death itself are illusory and merely a flow in the continuum of false existence?

Buddha taught a way of life that lies halfway between self-indulgence and self-mortification. In Buddhist teachings, there is also advice against interference in events that are more often referred to as inevitable or the result of fate. Such non-interference leads to less frustration for the individual, but then the question of the permanence of suffering arises.

This is where Western society crosses the void by taking action to end suffering as it is perceived, or by taking action to prevent further suffering. The objectives of the Western ethic and the Theravada Buddhist are the same -- to alleviate suffering. This has been ingrained in Burmese and Thai societies, as well as other Buddhist countries and enclaves in the region. It has taken root and is accepted, to parlance, as The Gospel.

Thus when events occur, such as the Burmese Cyclone Nargis, and there is a great deal of suffering, those ruling the country do not view the suffering in humanitarian terms the way the West does. A similar tale was told during the horrible tsunami that hit the region on Dec. 26, 2004. Despite thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of homeless and hungry, foreign nations were told by Thailand’s government that it did not need their aid or assistance, as “Thailand is not a poor country.”

It boils down, then, to different ways of seeing things. And therein lies the problem that will continue to vex Thailand and Burma, if one views as vexing the needless suffering and death of our fellow human beings. Obviously it is not vexing to national leadership that turns away aid or pillages it with resale in mind or writes over donor names on aid boxes with the names of its own generals who know nothing about how to manage a nation or a people, who fear losing their jobs and giving up power, who literally have the power of life and death over hundreds of thousands, even millions, of their people.

Buddhism’s -- and Thailand’s -- greatest threat is first and foremost human greed, of which there is plenty in Burma and Thailand, as in all other countries around the globe, sadly. It is human greed that will undermine principles of compassion, cooperation, understanding and giving with the twin evil rewards of power and control.

This undermining based on greed is what causes elections, and various representative forms of democracy in Burma and Thailand, to be so questionable and ineffective. There is really no system of checks and balances either within the governments or between the governments and the electorate. Voters do what they are told to do, or paid to do. Government officials, instead of being properly elected and independent of corrupt central authority, instead are created to serve that authority.

Overcoming this harsh reality is possibly an illusion the West is forlornly hoping to accomplish. In the greater scheme of things, in the traditional Buddhist ethic, it all does not matter as everything is an illusion and suffering was preordained because of desire and past acts.

But to the West, to humanitarians in a larger sense, the suffering does matter. It matters because it can be prevented. Part of the prevention process is in fact enshrined in the democratic form of government that empowers not just the greedy but the needy, the poor as well as the rich. How to get autocratic rulers -- especially dictators, including wayward Buddhists -- to comprehend this truth and to let go of the whip, is the historic task at hand.


(Frank G. Anderson is the Thailand representative of American Citizens Abroad. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand from 1965-67, working in community development. A freelance writer and founder of northeast Thailand's first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post -- -- he has spent over eight years in Thailand "embedded" with the local media. He has an MBA in information management and an associate degree in construction technology. ©Copyright Frank G. Anderson.)

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