Illustration by Jared Downing | Frontier

The trouble with ‘tidy minds’

Despite new democratic freedoms, a tendency towards conformity in Myanmar politics and society is destined to reproduce autocracy.

By DAVID I STEINBERG | FRONTIER

IN 1989, The Economist magazine noted, “Yugoslavia, they say, is the despair of tidy minds.” These “tidy minds” presumably were foreigners who were trying to understand and solve the complex political enigma and violence of Yugoslavia. They were concerned with the ethnic and religious diversity and the resulting strife in that area, which had important geopolitical ramifications.

For the Bamar, the breakup of Yugoslavia was a dystopian model to be avoided. Few foreign “tidy minds” were focused on Burma at the time, as the state had cut itself off from much of the Western world. But some years earlier, many Bamar had been concerned about the future unity and leadership of the country after General Ne Win went to his karmic reward. There was speculation in the Rangoon teashops back then that the government was considering whether to adopt a Yugoslav model: a leadership troika designed to hold the state together. What came to pass, instead, was a failed people’s revolution, continuing ethnic unrest, and two decades of authoritarian military rule.

“Tidy” is a positive concept, one that implies order and harmony. But while internal and external “tidy minds” may try to eliminate cognitive dissonance and conflicting claims to power and authority, more dangerously, tidy minds may also be a euphemism for conformity. A generation ago, when “Asian values” were being debated, led by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew – who The Economist recently called the “great tidier” for his conformist linguistic policies – the charge was that the West was too individualistic and thus selfish, while much of Asia had more communal values, with the implication that some broad conformity was desirable.

Yet the pursuit of conformity often results in autocracy and violence. This seems to be a factor prevalent in the East Asia region. In China, Xi Jinping is clearly discomfited over Uighur and Tibetan lack of conformity to Chinese Han culture, and those who stray from the rigidity of Chinese Communist Party overlordship. Educational institutions are at exceptional risk. India under Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party seems intent on increasing the overwhelming influence of Hinduism in that multicultural society, denying citizenship only to undocumented Muslims. And in Thailand the attempted conformity of the monarchical-military alliance legally stifles almost any criticism of the leadership.

But what of Myanmar? Here the situation is complex and disquieting. In spite of a representative, elected, multi-party legislature, conformity seems on the march. It is threefold: institutional, ethnic and religious. This seems evident in spite of society’s increased ability to voice some alternative views that are not regarded as destructive by the authorities, both military and civilian.

The Tatmadaw, whose leadership is almost exclusively Bamar and Buddhist, was determined to perpetuate its control over important socio-political elements through its 2008 Constitution that it ratified through a clearly manipulated referendum, and has managed to retain that conformity. The National League for Democracy expelled members for having what one might call “impure” policies. Eloquent constitutional provisions call for protection of diverse minority cultures and languages, but these rights are virtually ignored except for ritualised song and dance festivals. Religious orthodoxy is evident in the nearly ubiquitous prejudice against Muslims in society, and more particularly and tragically against the Rohingya, the most deprived people of Asia who have endured both religious and ethnic prejudice.

Despite there being more freedom to disagree, those ideas that strike at the centres of power often result in stringent legal recriminations. Both military and civilian judicial systems are clearly subservient to military or executive orders. The sensitivity of adherence to conformity is evident when the state brings legal charges against those who are deemed to have insulted either military or civilian institutions. This pattern has not diminished over the civilian government. Tidiness is self-imposed and often coercive.

Democratically approved restrictive legislation has been aimed at the Muslim minority population who have been denied access to significant venues of advancement under over a half-century of military-influenced rule. “Glass ceiling” is too modest a term for this denial. This was a retreat from the original Burmese government, which on independence and for a decade or so had Muslim leaders in positions of influence. Ethnic diversity is proclaimed even in the name of the state as a “Union”, but power is clearly in the hands of the two-thirds Bamar Buddhist majority.

The state counsellor’s defence of Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya in The Hague’s International Court of Justice may not have convinced the international community, but it was an example both of an illusion of reality and conformity with Myanmar popular opinion. The NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have quietly reinforced the strong anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya attitudes while at the same time so modestly questioning military aberrations in Rakhine that the civilian-military rift, already large, apparently was not appreciably widened. The defence was clearly designed to have important domestic implications for Aung San Suu Kyi, in light of the 2020 elections.

The extent to which intellectual conformity is a hallmark of Myanmar society is disputed. But there is no indication that conformity will decrease in Myanmar, and the forthcoming elections will likely exacerbate such tendencies as state, political and social forces compound existing rigidity. This is in spite of a younger, better educated and internationally exposed generation who, after years of enforced conformity on political, economic and social issues under military rule, have been educated in “critical thinking” – that is, non-conformist thought. They should be the hope of the state. But the wider societal insistence on tidiness is a tragedy in the making.

By David I Steinberg

By David I Steinberg

David I Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies, emeritus, at Georgetown University in the United States.
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