The people of Myanmar live in a complex society where right and wrong are often impossible to tell apart. We are so accustomed to being lied to that we no longer know what to believe. Perhaps people in other countries also feel this way sometimes; but in Myanmar, there is an almost palpable sense that this is a society mummified by a web of lies.
The truly disturbing part is that sometimes we can’t seem to avoid being complicit in these lies. Whether we consciously accept falsehoods or simply fail to challenge them, we contribute to the way that we encase ourselves and others in dangerous delusions.
A good example of this was when Gen. Ne Win introduced his “Burmese Way to Socialism” after seizing power in 1962. At the time, socialism was a popular ideology in many parts of the world, so he simply adopted it as a way of legitimizing his military dictatorship. Sadly, he fooled even real socialists—or rather, they fooled themselves—into accepting his bizarre brand of misrule as a serious attempt to turn Myanmar into a socialist state.
After Gen. Ne Win was forced to step down in 1988—and a handpicked set of generals quickly stepped in to fill his shoes—the new regime continued to rule through a combination of brute force and brazen mendacity. Army officers who slaughtered civilians were called heroes, and dissidents were labeled terrorists and thrown in prison.
Did anyone really believe this? Probably not. In fact, one of the few good things you can say about the post-1988 regime is that its lies were so blatant that the general public wasn’t even tempted to be persuaded by them. But the generals were so insistent on their version of history and their role as “saviors” of the nation that most people simply held their tongues rather than argue with them and risk imprisonment or worse.
These days, the situation is more complicated. Now everybody professes to want democracy, even the generals who spent half a century crushing it. Late last year, for example, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, was quoted by Radio Free Asia as saying that he wanted “real, disciplined democracy.” But you really have to wonder if the word “democracy” means the same thing to him as it does to all those who have struggled for decades to achieve it, and for the millions in Myanmar who have lived their entire lives deprived of even the most fundamental rights.
We are supposed to believe that Myanmar today is a country reborn, that its rulers have seen the light and are now intent on introducing democratic reforms. But even though there have been undeniable changes since a “civilian” government of ex-generals assumed power in 2011, how can we be sure that those who still have their hands firmly planted on the steering wheel are really taking the country in the right direction?
The truth is that the current “transition” in Myanmar is built upon a foundation of lies—lies that the country’s people were forced to accept as the only way out of a desperate situation.
The first of these lies was perpetrated a week after Myanmar experienced the worst natural disaster in its long history. In a rigged referendum held on May 10, 2008, a nation traumatized by Cyclone Nargis supposedly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a military-drafted constitution that enshrines a leading role for the armed forces in political affairs.
Then, in November 2010, the nation voted again, this time for a new government. Unsurprisingly, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by a landslide.
At that stage, no one had any reason to believe that anything had really changed. But after President U Thein Sein assumed office the following year, he started sending signals, such as releasing political prisoners and relaxing controls over the media, to indicate that he was a new kind of leader, and that the bad old days of arbitrary military were truly over.
Eventually, even Daw Aung san Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy had boycotted the 2010 election, was sufficiently convinced of the president’s sincerity that she decided to contest in by-elections in 2012, even though her party only stood to win a tiny handful of seats in the overwhelmingly USDP- and military-dominated Parliament.
Now, nearly two years later, we find ourselves in the peculiar situation of half-accepting a political system that we know is no more than an extension of the former illegitimate regime. Even journalists who once fought for media freedom are now happy to buy into the Ministry of Information’s efforts to treat the press as a “public service” that needs to be regulated.
On the subject of constitutional change, we no longer dare to question the legitimacy of the 2008 Constitution itself. Instead, we call for amendments to specific clauses, such as the one that makes Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible for the presidency because she has two foreign-born sons.
Some in the government have lent a sympathetic ear to calls for changes to the Constitution, although so far none have been willing to do more than pay lip service to the need for reform. Meanwhile, the USDP has ominously warned that any attempt to tamper with the charter could result in “bad consequences.” We all know what that means: in a worst-case scenario, a return to outright military rule.
Because we dread a reversal of the modest progress of the past few years, we are afraid to boldly speak out for more meaningful changes to the political system. To conceal their own timidity, some intellectuals have even tried to rationalize acceptance of the status quo by arguing that letting the supposed “moderates” among the ex-generals hold on to power indefinitely is the best way to ensure that the country doesn’t fall back into the hands of the hardliners.
It’s difficult to know what to make of such an absurd argument. Perhaps the most generous thing we can say is that it is a product of half a century of military rule, which has left some minds so scarred that they can no longer conceive of a political system that doesn’t have a tyrant at its center.
But the people of Myanmar cannot allow themselves to be influenced by such weak reasoning, which is no more than a cover for cowardice. We all know the fear of speaking our minds in a country where that has long been a crime, but it is past time that we stopped being afraid of the shadows of a regime that now feels a need to hide behind a veil of democratic respectability.
We know what we want: a democratic constitution, free and fair elections, and a government that is truly chosen by the people. What we don’t know is how or whether we can achieve these things. And in our self-doubt, we may be tempted to do what we have always done: accept lies as truth and simply hope that we will one day enjoy the freedoms that other countries take for granted.
If that is the approach we choose to take, then we can always take comfort in one thought: Even if we don’t get the government that we want, we will at least have the government we deserve.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English-language edition of The Irrawaddy. This article first appeared in the March 2014 print issue of magazine.