Martin Luther King (paraphrasing Theodore Parker) said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I have been thinking about this idea since the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This quote is extremely Christian in its outlook, as befitting an idea originated by and recreated by two Protestant ministers. Not being a Christian, and being a cynical pessimist, I think that King and Parker are extremely generous toward the moral universe.
I last heard the quote applied to LGBT rights. The speaker’s intended meaning was that the United States will eventually embrace full LGBT rights despite the many setbacks of the past two years. While I have hope for LGBT rights, it seems more often than not the arc of the moral universe bends toward injustice. I fear that Burma will prove this fatalism correct.
Two days ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her years-long house arrest by the military junta that controls Burma (and renamed the country Myanmar.) This is not the first time she was released. Nor has the junta treated her as brutally as it has treated other political prisoners. This is understandable given that Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and is the focus of international attention and adoration. She is undoubtedly a brave woman and a heroic figure comparable to Mandela. I imagine she sees Mandela and Gandhi as polestars. Gandhi pioneered non-violent resistance and was instrumental in India’s independence from Great Britain. Mandela struggled for a free South Africa, and after becoming President, he healed the racial divide instead of exploiting it. In order to bring democracy to Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi will need to be as great than both of those men and perhaps greater.
Gandhi’s foe was a nation that prided itself on its adherence to the rule of law. Gandhi, a London-trained barrister, spoke that language and to the underlying ideals. Moreover, however domineering an imperialist power Great Britain was, it was also a democracy. The government answered to the people. Gandhi, in addition to being an inspiring figure, was a master of his public image. His persona helped sway the British public, which was tiring of its empire after two destructive world wars.
Mandela’s foe, the apartheid government of South Africa, was brutal and repressive. However, Mandela had the international community on his side. South Africa was not only politically and economically isolated, it was also culturally isolated. South Africa was banned from most international sporting events. South Africa saw (and sees) itself as a Western nation, and ultimately could not resist Western isolation forever.
Aung San Suu Kyi faces equally perilous circumstances but far differently. George Orwell correctly criticized Gandhi for, among other reasons, the inability to understand that non-violence cannot defeat totalitarianism. It is impossible to bring outside attention to your plight (the goal of non-violence) if you disappear in the night and never return. The Russians learned that the hard way, as did the Cambodians and Argentinians to name some examples. Despite her talk of reconciliation and working together, Aung San Suu Kyi is staring down a totalitarian regime. The Burmese junta does not respect law and does not care about its people. Nor does the junta, unlike South Africa, care what the West thinks. Although the economic sanctions from the West may sting, Burma has two very powerful allies who alleviate the pain of sanctions and who will mitigate further international interference. China supports the junta. This is unsurprising given that China backs a number of murderous regimes: North Korea, Sudan, its own. Disappointingly, and ironically, India also supports the junta. The nation founded out of Gandhian non-violence now enables one of the most violent regimes on the planet.
Why do China and India do this? Burma is an exporter of natural gas and precious and semi-precious stones. China and India are in the process of surpassing the Western powers. Therefore China and India will support dictators, tyrants, and juntas to ensure friendly regimes–a tactic they learned from those same Western powers. After all, what do the people of Burma matter (or of Iran, or Sudan, or Chile, or Poland, or Hungary, or Mexico, or the Jews, or the Africans, etc. etc. etc.) to an ascending world power?
This is Aung San Suu Kyi’s dilemma. Even if she succeeds (and at 65, that is far from certain) she will face uncertainties that even Mandela did not. She will have to juggle the interests of the two world powers next door–the two largest populations in the world. Who is to say that India or China will respect her democratic government if she favors the West–or one over the other?
Nevertheless, maintaining a successful government is not Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate problem. That is a challenge I suspect she would welcome. After years of imprisonment, she may not even have enough Burmese support to challenge the junta. The junta let her free not because she was too great a threat to them, but because they no longer see her as such (or so the American news articles say.) Should she become such a threat, the junta has shown it has no objections to simply putting her back under house arrest. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot depend on international support to aid her cause. The corporate media is incapable of focusing on one story, even a story as important as this. A day after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi is already yesterday’s news.
King and Parker would probably say that even if Aung San Suu Kyi does not live to see her dreams come to fruition eventually democracy, or some form of just governance, will come to Burma. However, historical results, to be kind to King and Paker, are mixed. Too often a former colony exchanges its imperial government for a weak democracy that is overthrown by the military that is replaced by a kleptocracy. All the while, the populace suffers. Parts of South America have gotten better, most of Africa is still a disaster. The former Soviet republics have had varying degrees of success, but even for the most successful of these states fear the foreboding shadow of the Kremlin. Beyond the political struggles, climate change will ravage the poor countries while the wealthier ones refuse to take any preventative measures.
The moral universe bends toward justice for those who can afford justice. For smaller, poorer nation like Burma, I suspect that Chinese and Indian money will not be spent on humanity.
Music my computer randomly played while I wrote this post: Dmitri Shostakovich “Prelude and Fugue #6 in B Minor, Op. 87”; Igor Stravinsky “Scenes de Ballet” Variation (Ballerine); Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers “Islands in the Stream”; the Beatles “Wait”; the Beatles “I Me Mine”; Kelis “Milkshake”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903”; Etta James “Misty”; Ludwig van Beethoven “Variations On A Waltz By Diabelli, Op.120” Var. 28; Aaron Copland “Rodeo” Hoe-Down; Gaetano Donizetti “Lucrezia Borgia” Brindisi (It segreto per esser felici) sung by Ernestine Schumann-Heink; George Frederic Handel “Water Music Suite # 2 in D HWV 349″ Menuet 1 & 2”; Achinoam Nini “Nesayon; Robert Johnson “Ramblin’ On My Mind” (Alternate Take); Eric Clapton”Hello Old Friend”; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “Piano Concerto # 27 in B Flat, K 595″ Larghetto” Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto (and Astrud Gilberto) “The Girl From Ipanema”; Charlie Parker and his Orchestra “Star Eyes”; Gyorgi Ligeti “Chamber Concerto” Presto; John Denver “Singing Skies and Dancing Waters”; Ella Fitzgerald “I’m Beginning to See the Light”; Enya “The Longships”; the Beatles “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”; Dmitri Shostakovich “Symphony No. 14, Op. 135” O Del’vig, Del’vig!; Roberta Flack “Tryin’ Times”.