Taking democracy for granted
Listening to Bo Bo Oo tell his story, of spending almost half of his life behind bars in Myanmar, 6 of which were in solitary confinement, I asked what kept him going. Why did he not give up on his country?
Dispassionately, in a calm voice and with a smile on his face, he answered: “I always had this belief that one day, democracy will win.” He continued, leaving this piece of advice, “Never give up, never surrender on democracy.”
Bo Bo turned 49 on the day he gave a talk in a dialogue called “Making Democracy Real” at the Asia Plateau in Panchgani, a scenic hill station outside Mumbai, India, his first-ever overseas trip. It was a gathering of about a hundred participants from at least 20 countries, from Sweden to Sri Lanka, America to Australia, organized by the Initiatives of Change, an international movement that has its roots in Europe.
Bo Bo is a former student leader and member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. Today, Myanmar is enjoying freedoms it never had under 40 years of a dictatorship. But it is still in a state of transition to a full-pledged democracy.
Silence in Sri Lanka
In another part of the world, Sagala Ratnayaka, an opposition member of parliament in Sri Lanka, told a story of a failing democracy, of how their president has amassed monopoly on power, even blatantly violating the independence of the judiciary. Because of disagreements, he had the chief justice impeached.
Their media, Sagala said, was “neither free nor independent, bribed with housing loans and computers.” About 150 journalists have been killed, he added.
“People feel that the opposition is doing nothing. We’re not heard because of the clampdown on media,” the mild-mannered Sagala, who used to be a banker, continued. “It’s a lonely battle.”
“Some politicians speak without fear, those without skeletons in their closets,” he said. “By speaking up, half the battle is won. They take basic security precaution. It’s only their life they have to worry about.”
Escape from Tibet
The most heartbreaking story was that of Jayang Doree, a 27-year old Tibetan who left his country when he was 8. He walked for over a month, crossed the Himalayas, to reach India. His mother and younger brother are still in Tibet and he couldn’t talk to them, not even during this age of Skype and mobile phones, because the telephone lines may be tapped. After all, China has an overwhelming presence in Tibet.
Jayang broke into tears as he shared his personal suffering and sadness over the state of affairs in his country: “People are setting themselves on fire there. But does the world care for Tibet?”
He asked this question because, unlike other countries experiencing oppression, he observed that Tibet doesn’t get to be in the news much.
Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Three countries with varying experiences with democracy. Myanmar is on a bumpy road to full democracy; Sri Lanka is on a fast slide to authoritarian rule; and Tibet has lost its battle to be free.
For its part, India, the world’s largest democracy, is a fitting setting for this two-year old dialogue. Civil society is thriving, they are making use of a right-to-information law passed 5 years ago to make their officials accountable, and many use technology to monitor government performance.
What about us?
Here we are, enjoying our freedoms and living in the so-called most robust democracy in Southeast Asia. We are far removed from the horrors of martial rule and can only empathize with those whose democracies are in trouble. As Bo Bo said, “Each country has its own trauma.”
But we should never forget this trauma. In fact, during our upcoming elections, how to make our democracy work for all should be a campaign issue.
Sure, we are not censored nor oppressed, tortured nor sent to jail. But the benefits of our democracy are still limited to the elite.
Take the May elections. Just look at the candidates running for the Senate. Can we truly say that most of them represent the public interest, the larger public good? Many come from families which have been privileged to be in politics because of their wealth. Does anyone come from the ranks of labor?
How to open up political participation to a wider sector of society is a key challenge in our democracy. We’re hearing discussions in Congress on reforming political parties to reduce dependence on patrons, among others. But these bills have remained in the pending list for a long time. - Rappler.com