THE NEW WORLD ORDER IN SOUTHEAST ASIA AND BURMA
By Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe
- A Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, who is writing his
dissertation on military intrusion into politics in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia.
He also teaches in the Political Science Department at Simon Fraser University.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Cory Aquino's earlier
people's power revolution, it indeed seemed that the world, and Southeast
Asia too, would be shaped by economic and political freedom, i.e., by the
free market economy and "middle class" democracy. The 1988 uprising in
Burma which toppled Ne Win's one-man rule seemed part of a global
Quite unexpectedly, however, outside actors -- Singapore, China, and the
Thai military -- stepped in to shore up the new military junta, SLORC (State
Law and Order Restoration Council), which emerged to forestall bloodily the
rollback of authoritarianism. This was followed in 1989 by an equally
bloody Dengist rollback of the democratization aspirations of the Chinese
people. Since then, there has been solidified what could be called a "free
market, authoritarian front" of Chinese and ASEAN leaders and governments.
The line pushed by the powerful front is that economic development must be
(and can be ) achieved without the contamination of such "Western" notions
as human rights and individual freedoms, genuine people's sovereignty,
public constraints of rulers, etc. The clash between capitalist
authoritarianism and capitalist democracy is precisely what Samuel
Huntington's coming "clash of civilizations" scenario is all about.
The point to note is that the clash appears "cultural" only because culture,
instead of the communist threat, is now being used to defend authoritarian
rule. In substance, the Chinese-ASEAN authoritarian development model,
shorn of its cultural icings, can be seen as nothing less than an attempt by
authoritarian leaders to prevent a rollback of authoritarianism -- now
justified on cultural grounds.
The clash between authoritarianism and democracy is made more complex by the
economic success of "Asian" authoritarianism, particularly in China (and by
the "Asian dragons"), and the economic decline of democracies. The
perception of the West's economic decline has in turn unleashed a "cultural
war" especially in the United States, whereby structures of democratic
capitalism have come under increasing attack by conservatives as obstructing
"wealth makers" (and "job-creators") and as the "coddling" of unenterprising
elements, i.e., the poor, the minorities (including immigrants, illegal and
otherwise), welfare recipients, and so on.
From a wider theoretical perspective, it seems that the collapse of
communism has impelled authoritarian regimes to come up with a new paradigm
in defence of authoritarianism. In this connection, there can be discerned
a congruence of interest between national rulers and powerful, extranational
economic actors to contain democracy, perhaps because democracy gives the
powerless the capacity to "obstruct" profit-taking (on a global-regional
scale). A possible outcome of such a congruence of interest could be the
transformation of national governments into "executive committees" (to quote
Marx) of extranational entrepreneurs and investors, not only in the "Third
World" and the former communist bloc, but even in the West as well.
The above trend is a global one, and it is unfortunate that Burma is now an
arena where the opening battle of the global war between efficient
wealth-making (espoused by authoritarian rulers and conservatives) and
democratic capitalism (aspired to by the ruled) is being fought. In Burma,
the battle is an unequal one since external support for democratic
capitalism is, to quote a famous playwright, "all sound and fury, signifying
nothing," whereas support for SLORC has been significant since it has
fulfilled the role expected of national governments of the post-cold war,
new world order: as an executive committee for extranational
wealth-accumulators and profit-takers.
Published in The BurmaNet News Issue # 251, October 15, 1995