Foreword: Still no cure for political lunacy

Basil Fernando, Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission & Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong

While scientists and health practitioners have found ways to cure or alleviate many forms of mental illness, when it comes to political lunacy we have made few advances, and least of all in Asia.

As in the case of an otherwise psychologically healthy person who goes through a period of trauma, treatments can be found where a relatively sane political system falls into a temporary crisis. But when a country is burdened with stark raving political lunacy, what sort of remedy is there to be had?

Unfortunately, there are many countries in Asia whose political set ups are suffering from chronic mental disorders that have so far proved beyond the ability of anyone seeking to treat them.

Without the slightest hesitation it can be said that Burma is one such country. This unfortunate fact has been made all the more obvious by the events of this August and September 2007, when a steep hike in the cost of basic fuels precipitated mass protests the likes of which had not been seen for 20 years.

Taken together, the uprising and its aftermath are likely to cause a great deal of confusion among many people who have had the good fortune not to have been born or raised in a country that has succumbed to such political insanity.

Some would expect that such a large-scale event would necessarily produce some kind of change, as it would have had it occurred in their own backyard. Others will wrongly assert that it apparently failed to obtain immediate change for want of adequate support or planning among the people of Burma themselves.

And then there are some who will hunt around for explanations that fit with their prefabricated notions of the world, neocolonialists and everyone else in it. Rather than try to understand the event for what it actually was, they will find it much easier to write the whole thing off as something cooked up by some foreigners with a few million dollars to spend.

Such reactions naturally arise among confused persons trying to demonstrate some sort of knowledge about complicated things that happen contrary to their expectations, in the same way that when people encounter others who may not behave according to their norms they also seek to come up with easy explanations that fit with their personal experiences rather than try to put themselves in the others’ shoes.

However, for those of us who are more interested to really try to understand what has happened in Burma in recent months, it is necessary to tackle political lunacy and its consequences head- on. Over forty years of uncompromising military rule there leaves us no alternative.

Lunacy is, in essence, the absence of rationality. When we talk about the rule of law, human rights norms and other features of modern government, we presume a degree of rational thought and behaviour. Thus, if we are speaking of political lunacy, we are referring to the absence of conditions under which such a government may be established, let alone built up; that is, it is political lunacy in the broadest sense.

How does a political system so completely lose capacity for reason? Naturally, to answer such a question fully is far beyond the scope of this brief foreword, but let’s consider at least one salient factor that may help to explain in part the prevailing lunacy of government in Burma.

A prime cause of lasting political insanity is when a temporary fit of madness completely overwhelms other parts of the system that may at other times have fought back and succeeded in containing the illness.

Among these, when basic values of fairness and justice are lost, and with them the means by which to assess disputes according to rational and objective standards, it becomes very difficult to control crazed government.

This point can be reached very suddenly. Once arrived at, outwardly there may continue to appear to be an organised and reasonably well-behaved society, when in fact it has already been stripped of its defences and capacity to act reasonably. Externally, it may still be a single nation on a map, with a flag and anthem, a ruling group, military and police, schools, hospitals and other features of administration; however, internally it may be in utter turmoil.

In recent years, the Asian Human Rights Commission has meticulously studied, documented and reported on criminal cases in various parts of Burma. The courts as shown through their own documents—let alone the obervations of lawyers, witnesses, defendants and others—are no more places of justice than that presided over by the playing card king and queen of Alice in about the rule of law, human rights norms and other features of modern government, we presume a degree of rational thought and behaviour; if we are speaking of political lunacy, we are referring to the absence of conditions under which such a governmentmay be established Wonderland. While some lawyers and others struggle against incredible odds to maintain a legal tradition, every time they walk into a courtroom they find themselves in a place where the concept of a trial as understood elsewhere doesn’t exist at all. Verdicts are passed and sentences handed down without any regard for law or criminal procedure. If a courtroom and judge from Burma were transplanted into any country with a basically functioning system of justice, the inhabitants of that place would find the proceedings so remarkable as to consider them far beyond a joke.

From studying and documenting these cases over the last few years, we can also conclude that what happened in Burma this September was a daily contest writ large.

Every day, people in Burma encounter things in their normal life that force them into a conflict with one authority or another, with someone connected with an authority or another. It may be anything from a dispute over a plot of land to a public gripe about an empty stomach: anything at all that suggests dissatisfaction implying maladministration. But as these people are forced into conflict, step-by-step they become entangled in the web of irrationality that hangs over every part of public life; what starts as a minor irritation becomes a nightmare.

Naturally, no one accepts such a condition happily. Out of sheer frustration and necessity one or another may be pushed into an act of protest. Discontent may take a larger shape and spill out publicly in the way that it did during recent months, as an expression of immense need—to recover from psychosis and enter into a more organised way of life (not the false appearance of organisation created by the politically insane) where some degree of rationality is possible.

Correct diagnosis is the first requirement for effective intervention. Where political insanity is treated as a mild malaise, a curable condition, not only the sufferer but also the third party is acting irrationally. To begin we must acknowledge what we are dealing with. Acknowledgment of political insanity will at least save us the time and trouble of having to deal with quacks peddling generic remedies for everything from failed elections to aborted uprisings. If we can at least free ourselves from such nonsense we can get down to the serious work. As rational people dealing with the politically insane, this is our foremost obligation.

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