The democracy of pants

By Ryhaan Shah

There are many crises around the world demanding our attention, Syria’s and Palestine’s being among the most critical; but one that is as heart-wrenching yet gets less news coverage involves the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Over 700,000 Rohingya – the population of Guyana – crossed into Bangladesh following a violent military crackdown last August. “I am becoming more convinced that the crimes committed between 9th October 2016 and 25th August 2017 bear the hallmarks of genocide, and call in the strongest terms for accountability,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar.
Overseeing the persecution is de jure head of state and Government, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the State Counsellor of Myanmar and leader of the ruling National League for Democracy, and her evasive answers about the persecutions and violence, some committed by Buddhist monks, have been televised worldwide. There have been justifiable calls for her to be stripped of the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded.
For the Rohingya, the taste of freedom and democracy in Bangladesh means that the men can now wear pants. In Myanmar, they were restricted to wearing traditional sarongs. It was an unofficial uniform that identified them as inferior, and Rohingya men in trousers could actually be arrested and fined. Now in refugee camps in Bangladesh, they can wear whatever they want, and pants have become the must-have status symbol and a sign of their new freedom.
The taste of democracy can come from such simple pleasures, but the future of democracy itself is being called into question following the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un. And with the upcoming summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the question being posed is whether dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are becoming the new normal.
The question is critical, given that Trump is behaving more and more like an authoritarian as he launches frontal attacks on the American institutions – the legislative and judicial branches – that uphold the sanctity of the democratic principles that America likes to export to countries like ours. That leadership is in tatters, and the US’ Western allies are having to become less dependent on that traditionally strategic partnership.
While polls show continued Republican support for Trump, one US commentator has suggested that the numbers are relative, since he believes membership and support for the GOP are shrinking. How much Putin had to do with influencing the results of the US 2016 election is a question that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation might answer; but Putin, if he did meddle, as US intelligence agencies report, could not have been more accurate in determining just how deeply racism runs in the heart of America; and hence the attractiveness of Trump as a presidential candidate.
Trump’s America is one of hate and division; one that answers to the slogan: Make America White Again. Some US commentators drew parallels between Nazi detention camps and Trump’s recent crackdown on Central American citizens seeking asylum in the US, which ran to separating babies and children from their mothers and placing them in what looked like internment camps.
If Putin intended to expose the ugly underbelly of the world’s leading democracy, he has succeeded. But, in Guyana, we already know that ugliness first-hand. We also know that dictatorships are no new normal. They have always been a useful convenience to, ironically, safeguard Western freedoms and interests. For near on three decades, Guyana suffered through a PNC dictatorship created and supported by the US Government, which was intended to keep democracy safe for them even as our country was torn apart by terror, murder, and racist violence.
The trouble is that while Americans will have a fair chance to vote Trump out of office – if he is not impeached before 2020 – and America’s democratic institutions will eventually recover from his attacks, Guyana seems earmarked to suffer another round of PNC dictatorial rule in order to serve the energy interests of the West.
The violence faced by the Rohingya is no less racist than Trump’s brand, or that of the PNC against Indian Guyanese in particular. During the PNC’s previous dictatorship, everyone was deprived of the simple pleasure of, among other things, eating bread and roti, as imports — including flour — suffered the consequences of a ruined economy and severely depleted foreign exchange reserves.
Will a reminder of the loss of that simple pleasure work to galvanise the country to action against the imposition of another PNC dictatorship?