Is Myanmar in 2016 like Spain in 1936?

There are unlikely parallels between Spain in 1936 and Myanmar today, and one is expectation tinged with realism about whether the future will be a better place.


I have been reflecting on two recent commentaries from the online edition of the New York Times, to which I have signed up for the daily op-eds. One was by Republican Senator John McCain, and it was not about the US presidential race. McCain eulogised the American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The last American volunteer, Delmer Berg, who served in the International Brigades, died recently at the age of 100. The other piece is a review of Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild.

The Spanish Civil War was a nasty little war (little only by comparison to the world wars because half a million people died) and was seen as a dress rehearsal for World War II. Atrocities were committed by both sides.

In “Salute to a Communist”, published on March 24, McCain writes:

They fought on the Republican side, in defense of the democratically-elected leftist government of Spain, and against the Nationalists, the military rebels led by Gen. Francisco Franco.

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The Nationalists claimed their cause was anti-Communism and the restoration of the monarchy, and the Republicans professed to fight for the preservation of democracy. Fascists led the former, while Communists, both the cynical and naïve varieties, sought control of the latter. And into the Republican camp came idealistic freedom fighters from abroad.

And he reminds us that:

Spain became the theater where the three most powerful ideologies of the 20th century – Communism, fascism and self-determination – began the war that would continue, in some form or another, for more than half the century until the advocates of liberty, and their champion, the United States, prevailed.

I am particularly indebted to the reviewer of the book for pointing out that the title is from a quote by Albert Camus. “Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts,” he wrote. “It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”

This quote has been with me for a large part of my life. It is slightly disturbing in its realism. But it is not defeatist – it shows the reality of the widespread use of force and poses the tacit question of what we should do next. When the unimaginable horrors of World War II erupted, those volunteers who had fought on the Republican side could well say, “we told you this was coming. That was why we fought and made our sacrifices”.

I had long said to myself that if I had been of age at that time, I would have fought there, too. But what I really want to do now is to draw a parallel with the Spain of that conflict and Myanmar/Burma. The war in Spain lasted three years and the outcome was a clear-cut victory for the Falangist/Nationalists. Myanmar’s civil war has been going on twenty times longer, with no end in sight.

Again, the three powerful ideologies mentioned above prevailed and continue to prevail in Myanmar. Foreign support for one side or the other has also taken place off and on. But unlike Spain, no side in Myanmar has the capability to bring off what can be reasonably defined as a military victory.

 Dwight Garner continues in his review –

It was, though, a strangely literary little war. We remember it today through classic accounts like Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls and Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia.

The war resonates visually as well. Robert Capa’s combat photographs are milestones; Picasso’s “Guernica,” painted after the carpet-bombing of that city, is among the most important artworks of our time.

It’s about the moral appeal of the war, about the anti-Fascist and frequently pro-Communist idealism that made so many volunteers from the United States and other countries flood into Spain.

In Myanmar, the moral revulsion against the brutocracy that had been in place for half a century contributed to the outcome of the elections in November last year. The expectation, tinged with idealism, in Spain of 1936 and Myanmar of 2016, is that a better system can be established. But it will not come about through the agency of populists, charlatans and sleight-of-hand.

For all the setbacks the country has suffered, Myanmar politics has a strong intellectual tradition. Popular support can only go so far and it is not eternal. The war’s longevity alone is sufficient cause for greater depth in present-day politics.

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