Night of the junta

Despite a sham election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s imminent release offers hope to Burma.

The only party displaying posters here - and then only a handful - is the Union Solidarity and Development (USDP), the main proxy of the military junta, and the only party with the resources to campaign all over the country. Its victory is a foregone conclusion and, when it comes, it will be greeted by millions of Bur­mese with a sneer and a shudder.

“I don't like it," said the driver of the taxi I hailed outside the British embassy. "The regime is lying to the people and to all the world. They don't know what democracy is. This election is a lie." The prominence of the USDP throws into strong relief what a weird election this is. Its parent organisation has long been notorious among Burma-watchers for one thing: the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of supporters on 30 May 2003 at Depayin in the north of the country, north-west of Mandalay. Late at night in an isolated area, the opposition leader's car was ambushed by a large crowd of thugs armed with sticks, clubs and knives. More than 50 members and followers of her party were massacred that night and her number two suffered a severe head injury. Aung San Suu Kyi, the back window of her car smashed in, escaped death thanks only to the courage of her driver.

Democracy develops as a way of sublimating warlike instincts into more constructive ends, but it is clear that, for Burma's generals, war
is war, whatever other fancy names people give it. When Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's first leader after independence, stood for election in 1990, it was taken as a declaration of war against the regime: a war that, humiliatingly, her forces won without firing a shot.

Rise without a trace

For the generals, Burma's history over the past 20 years is the story of the military's campaign to reverse that loss - first by putting the opposing army's commander out of action, and then by rewriting the rules to give its profoundly unpopular proxies an advantage. The most cunning and decisive move was to ban from the election political parties with convicts in their membership - thus requiring Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy either to expel its leader or to suffer liquidation. Prompted by her, it chose the latter.

Victory in an election will be the crowning achievement of the Than Shwe years. The short, portly, inarticulate and poorly educated former postal worker who came to power in 1992 is the Zelig of Burma; the man without qualities who climbed to the apex of the military largely because nobody could bring themselves to believe that he posed a threat. Though Than Shwe is an object of ridicule for Burma's democrats, his hagiographer will not find it difficult to construct a heroic narrative from the events of the past 17 years.

Slowly and fitfully, but with clear evidence of a grand design, Than Shwe has buried democracy's hopes of coming to any sort of credible fruition in his country - establishing a National Convention in 1992 to write a new constitution, setting a so-called seven-step road map to democracy 11 years later, fixing a referendum on the new constitution in 2008 (92 per cent purportedly voted "Yes"), and now the keystone: an election that will cement in place the military's right to rule the country (they will hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, occupy the key ministries and retain a veto on legislation) with a window-dressing of what they call "disciplined democracy".

But Than Shwe's most distinctive achievement, one that even his swaggering predecessor Ne Win could not match, has been to build himself a new capital, Naypyidaw, hundreds of kilometres north of Rangoon. The city is adorned with statues of ancient kings, and its name translates as "the royal capital" or "abode of the kings" - a nod to where Than Shwe's megalomanic instincts are tending.

Yet uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The worst problem, as in so many other post-colonial countries, is legitimacy. After centuries of coercive rule, how does a home-grown leader persuade his people that he has the right to demand their obedience? Democracy alone may not be enough; in the admirably democratic years of Prime Minister U Nu, the country was practically torn in pieces by contending insurgencies. Seizing power in a coup in 1962, Ne Win fell back on military might.

The failure of the military's earlier proxy, the National Unity Party, to gain more than ten seats in the election of 1990 exposed the huge gap between the army's claim on power and what the people were disposed to grant it. The army, as that result showed, no more enjoyed the affection of the population than the British before them. And in Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father founded the Burmese army and negotiated independence from the British in 1947, it had found a person with a far more persuasive claim to legitimacy.

Than Shwe has devoted himself to constructing an edifice that would loom over Aung San Suu Kyi, rooting the army's claim to power in the nation's traditional iconography. That this is a hopelessly atavistic endeavour goes without saying. It threatens to leave Burma becalmed in a settlement in which the people's demands for the most miserable basics of life continue to be ignored, and in which border wars drag on.

The only ray of hope is that the end of the reigns of Burmese rulers - Than Shwe is 77 - are always moments of uncertainty; and Aung San Suu Kyi is finally due to be freed on 13 November. The consequences are utterly unpredictable.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided