Burma's Neroes fiddle while the people die

Visiting Research Fellow, Oxford University and Free Burma Coalition Maung Zarni on how, in the wake

You have got to love these guys who run Burma – renamed Myanmar.

Nero must have been one of their main sources of kingly inspirations. The flames of the ancient Rome didn’t bother the fabled Nero who kept on fiddling
his violin.

Get this.

The country is going through the aftermath of the greatest national catastrophe in its living memory – with an estimated 100,000 dead and 1.5 million
shelterless and literally on the verge of famine. Yet the generals’ most immediate concern is to hold the Referendum through which the military rule –
already in its 46th year – is once again to be reconfigured, legalized and legitimated.

As if this pathological reasoning is not twisted enough, they apparently ordered their busiest Embassy abroad in Bangkok to take a 3-day weekend holiday, on the convenient occasion of the Thai’s royal ploughing ceremony.

While the neighboring Thai rulers contribute, as a matter of ritual, to the production of the people’s staple , “Myanmarese” rulers act as if they have
little or no concerns beyond photo ops on the State-run TV, of generals handing out a few hundred meals in Styrofoam packages - about the most elemental
needs of the disaster-stricken people.

Over one million victims who desperately need food and clean water in dire conditions are still waiting desperately for relief efforts. For the generals
are insisting – characteristically – that the international community bring and drop off food, money, relief equipment and medical supplies and then leave, a
condition no aid donor is prepared to accept given the regime’s half-century old record of diverting all revenues and resources at its disposal for consolidating
its stranglehold on the population.

Scores of disaster relief workers from various UN agencies, as well as other international NGOs have no choice but to sit on their visa applications for 4
more days, desperate to get in and help distribute high power biscuits and other survival items. Even if there were enough rice to go around among Burmese
victims and survivors – which is not the case – there is no clean water to cook rice, hence biscuits for the rice-eating Burmese.

Here is a perfect living example of a population that needs “humanitarian intervention” – in whatever form it may take. The unceasing Burmese tales of
unimaginable tragedy and misery at the hands of the latter-day Neroes have moved Dr Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of the Doctors Without Borders and now France’s Foreign Minister, to publicly make the case for invoking ‘Responsibility to Protect or R2P.”

R2P is the new international doctrine introduced at the UN in 2001, which uses as its starting point ‘non-intervention amongst sovereign states’. It does not
require as prerequisite for intervention that a domestic situation threatens stability, peace and order internationally or regionally, nor is it confined to
armed conflicts, genocides and mass murders. (See http://www.iciss.ca/report-en.asp )

When a particular state, or those who have usurped power, as in the case of Burma/Myanmar - fail to demonstrably protect, prevent or otherwise address the
massive sufferings of a large population it becomes incumbent upon other states (and national communities) to impose appropriate humanistic measures, militarily if necessary and as a last resort, on a sovereign country.

Over the past week since the cyclone Nargis ripped up hundreds of communities and destroyed hundreds of thousands of human lives, the unmistakably callousness of the Myanmarese senior leadership is for all to see. Like Emperor Nero of ancient Rome, they have, in effect, chosen to be oblivious to the people in distress and the country in flames. Indeed by all objective criteria, the generals have categorically failed to uphold their obligations to the Burmese
people, as well as their membership responsibility to the United Nations to protect the citizens.

It is one thing that authoritarian regimes the world over typically mow down dissidents and rebels on the streets. But it is altogether a different order
of revulsion that the Myanmarese regime’s failure to put the lives and well-being of 1.5 million shelter-less cyclone victims first - the newly born,
the sick and the elderly - rendering them foodless, waterless and without safety and raising the risk of a major outbreak of disease through willful negligence.

Even the ‘evil’ Russia under Putin has the sensibility to waive visas for the British football fans bound for St Petersburg accepting football tickets in lieu
of visa stamps. Yet all international appeals from both hostile and friendly nations have fallen on the deaf ears of the evil rulers of Burma/Myanmar, who
refuse to honour the aid workers’ UN-issued passports.

Indeed, the “Myanmarese” Neroes are fiddling away their Constitutional tune preparing for Saturday’s Referendum , while the country’s 1.5 million victims
wither away with no drinking water or food aid.

The question before the outside world is:

Will those key players in the international community discharge their “responsibility to react” in the face of such evil?

This February, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband used the occasion of the ‘Aung San Suu Kyi Lecture’ at St Hugh’s College, Oxford to articulate Britain’s
new foreign policy, calling it the ‘Democracy Imperative’. What better opportunity than the unfolding Burmese atrocities for him to put his money where
his mouth is. The “Humanitarian Imperative” based on Responsibility to Protect’ must come first.

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood