Myanmar’s malaise and an Indian emperor’s message

30 April 2015
Myanmar’s malaise and an Indian emperor’s message
Violence erupts in Mandalay. Photo: Mizzima

A Western diplomat said recently that there are two cancers eating away at Myanmar society – one is the ethnic war and the other is religion-based violence. When the disturbances began, I knew it was unconscionable to let it happen, and became part of the not-toolarge number of people addressing it. I have spoken out when others did not because I have long been disturbed by communal violence in Myanmar.
Any writings or comments on this kind of societal malaise are of interest to me. An essay titled “Fascist Assemblages in Cambodia and Myanmar” was posted on the New Mandala website at the Australian National University on March 26. I recommend it. It was written by Tim Frewer, a doctoral candidate at Sydney University. In describing fascism, he draws on the works of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I don’t want to put on airs. After reading this essay I made an effort to look up the two books by Deleuze and Guattari. They were first published in 1972 and 1980, respectively, and are of the French highbrow intellectual tradition.
I am indebted to Frewer for making those writings accessible. He interprets them this way:
… I want to briefly consider this question by looking at fascism as an assemblage of desire, discourse and state power, and argue that there is nothing particularly unique about fascism – but rather that it is a particular configuration of desire and power – or a ‘diagram of power’ that is manifested or actualised according to particular trajectories of nationalism, racism and state interests.
For Deleuze, the most important thing about fascism is that it always takes a molecular or populist form. It is cancerous, in that it replicates and grows beyond what states are able to regulate. It is an investment of desire into nationalist/ ethnic/religious identities that goes well beyond state-led nationalist projects. This is what differentiates fascism from authoritarianism – it is a movement away from orderly, state discipline and passivity, towards a radical, yet reactive nationalism. For Deleuze it is a jumbling of the state coding machines – where individuals become policeman, judge and juror all-in-one.
Frewer refers to the rise of anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia and anti-Muslim feelings in Myanmar and asserts that both are manifestations of fascism. Generations of Myanmar people had been told as part of the official gospel that fascism had come with the nasty Japanese militarists and that impressionable young men such as Aung San and the Thirty Comrades had fallen for it. To a certain extent it did, but this does not account for the fascism latent in Burman society. Frewer and people like me are more concerned with this. At the same time, he says that people he spoke with in Yangon said they saw government policies creating tensions more than any intra-communal issues.
A Nordic Buddhist friend and co-worker has been trying consistently to revive the Rock Edicts of Emperor Asoka, who ruled India’s Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BCE and embraced Buddhism after a battle in which tens of thousands were slaughtered. Especially Edict XII, in which Asoka urged respect for all religions. Wrapped in scepticism and angst, one could ask what real impact did Asoka’s Rock Edicts have, with the Subcontinent still mired in communal hatreds and periodic rampages?
One could do the same with philosopher Deleuze and his writings of the past century and decry what is happening in France and Europe with all that Islamophobia and resurgent right-wing politics. But history and society and life itself cannot be reduced to a project logframe and its linearity. Asoka was a man and a monarch much ahead of his time, and for all times. Deleuze and Michel Foucault, who has praised the former’s writings, still make one’s heart beat faster. A fellow-political prisoner and leftist poet once said to me that “we are in politics because of our heartbeats”. He had an unfortunate life. Not only was he in poor health following interrogation by Military Intelligence (those people had a special regime for the left) but after his early death, his family was ignored by the mainstream opposition.
If you think Asoka and his edicts belong only to archeology, you are wrong. At a recent seminar on what is happening with Buddhism in Myanmar, an elderly monk demanded to know why it was relevant to discuss the Asokan edicts. The answer is plain if he would only think: respect other religions as you would your own. It was valid two millennia ago and it is valid now.
One has to go about creating and strengthening bulwarks against extremism of any kind. Intellectually, Myanmar is at a juncture. The university system is being thoroughly shaken up and can be said to be in a state of catharsis. Perhaps the crackdown that began at Letpadan can be compared to Paris in 1968, but we haven’t come anywhere near the end of the story. (For the moment, one grows to detest the very sight of a grey police uniform).
We hope that universities in Myanmar can became the universities they should be (and have been in the past) and assume a role in the country’s intellectual life that has been neglected for decades.
This Article first appeared in the April 23, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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