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Why Democracy Doesn’t Solve All Problems: Burma Edition

When Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed the head of an investigation into a protest that turned violent at a huge copper mine in northwest Burma, the monks and villagers, many of whom were burned by phosphorous grenades and beaten by police, breathed a sigh of relief. Burma’s most prominent human rights activist would surely take their side. Surely.

But Suu Kyi would disappoint them. Yesterday she announced the findings of the investigation: the police should not be punished, construction on the mine should be allowed to continue, and, even though the mine will destroy rural villages and farmland and won’t create very many jobs for local people, shutting it down would unduly stress Burma’s relationship with China, which owns half the mine. That, Suu Kyi said with regret, can’t be allowed to happen. Today she traveled north to the mine country and told the disappointed villagers to stop protesting. “If we stop this project, it will not benefit local people or the country…. Our country needs a lot of development. If this company has to stop, our people will lose job opportunities.” Their protest, she added, “is in vain.”

Burma, Westerners often forget, is an incredibly mixed-up place, full of tribal, religious, and ethnic conflict. Today, the country is undergoing rapid economic change with a very weak governance system. Factions in the political sphere are being pulled in different directions by foreign governments and corporations with very different interests and often very sophisticated lobbying and political methods. Suu Kyi emphasized the important role China will play in Burma’s future: “The other country might think that our country cannot be trusted on the economy. We have to get along with the neighbouring country whether we like it or not.”

For idealists, “democracy” is often the solution to all of Burma’s problems with ethnic conflict and economic development. This is misguided, the kind of magical elixir that many starry-eyed Americans habitually swill. We are bringing unrealistic expectations to a thoroughly screwed-up situation, and then we express our “disappointment with Suu Kyi”, who is not the magic pony we told ourselves she was going to be.

[Photo credit: Getty Images]

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