The ambience of Yangon is achingly similar to the Kathmandu of 1990s when hope reigned supreme in the Valley of Gods. After the restoration of multiparty democracy, resolution of economic blockade, and promulgation of what had been touted as one of the best constitutions in the world, it appeared Nepal was finally on the highway of peace and prosperity. Myanmar too appears to be under the impression that the worst is over and the capitalist utopia is waiting to unfold in a country long considered to be the rightwing equivalent of North Korea.
It didn’t take long for Nepal to get caught in a maelstrom of market mayhem, Maoist insurgency, military excesses and anarchic eruptions. The course of Myanmar’s journey remains to be seen. Likeness with the road Nepal had travelled, however, fills the heart with sadness.
At the arrival hall of the Yangon airport, exchange counters of local banks close much before the last flight has arrived. Long used to welcoming only official delegations and adventure tourists, immigration officers in their loose lungies and comfy flip-flops are excited at the influx of informally dressed visitors flaunting their business visas. A Nepali passport holder gets a sardonic comment before being waved in, “Exploring dairy business? Good prospects.” The remark is not as mocking as it feels. In many parts of Myanmar, the surest sign of a Gorkhali living in the neighborhood is the commercial availability of milk and milk products. It is not considered virtuous for Brahmins in Nepal to sell gorus. In Myanmar, as also in much of north-east India, they deal in milk products as a matter of routine. The craftiness involved in stealing milk from calves has given Gorkhalis a formidable reputation.
Breakfast room of a downtown hotel is abuzz with cell phones. Local fixers are busy arranging meetings with appropriate authorities. Whispers are exchanged to impress upon parachutists that ministers do not deserve anything more than courtesy visits. Army brasses continue to take real decisions, which then politicos are required to give legitimacy in proper manner. In any case, apart from controlling the reins of ruling party, the army reserves the right to nominate a chunk of lawmakers to the national assembly.
Like hydropower prospectors that once lined up in the arrival hall of Tribhuvan International Airport in the hope of landing cheap deals, the late evening flight from Bangkok to Yangon is full of engineers from mining companies looking for lucrative petroleum, natural gas, copper and precious stone blocks in different parts of the newly opened country. It is also a growing market where everything from socks to ships can be sold with relative ease. The culture of austerity, made necessary by xenophobic notions of sovereignty, is gone for good. INGO white SUVs vie for road space with olive green Hummers. Yangon now has ATM machines.
There are almost five dozen political parties for nearly 60 million people. It compares well with Nepal of 1990s. However, Myanmar also has to contend with at least half-a-dozen longstanding armed groups that have been waging war since decades for either independence or autonomy. The innocence of the political class in Yangon is heartbreaking: Majority of over 50 political party leaders in a symposium put their faith in the strength of consensus politics.
The Shwedagon Pagoda soars 99 meters above the ground in the middle of Yangon. Residents remember that even when the entire city remained enveloped in darkness in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis devastations, the golden pagoda still glistened under arc lights as if to reassure onlookers that all was well with the world. Foreigners have to fork out five dollars each to walk around the pagoda in moonlit nights. The serenity of the place can make one believe for a while that there is no ground for animosity against each other. The sun, however, rises the next morning, bringing with it greed, envy, strife, enmity, victory or loss and then vengefulness and animal spirit.
Life is full of contestations, competition, conversation, compromise and ultimately cooperation for coexistence. The idea of consensus is based on the assumption that it is possible to shorten the route and lead conflicting parties straight towards blissful coexistence. However, unlike competitive politics conducted according to the rules of the game, the spirit of fair play, and acceptance of people’s verdict in a sporting manner, the process of consensus is ill-defined. Nobody really knows how to arrive at unanimity over issues that are inherently conflict-ridden.
With the exception of national resolve spontaneously formed during catastrophic times such as wars and natural calamities, consensus is usually a veneer given to compromises that are unacceptable to most parties. Since consensus has no place for dissent, it has to be guaranteed with the threat of coercion. In hierarchical societies, traditional harmony becomes the pretext of silencing critics. Egalitarians ensure coexistence through open conversations—multi-party dialogues—and healthy competition. Consensus is pure deceit: It pretends to promote peace without admitting that stifling all opposition is its real intention.
Consensus politics is antithetical to the constitutional order. Mahendra’s Panchayat proclaimed that conflicts of class had been replaced with class-coordination. The trickery strengthened the traditional elite and created a new class of lackeys from among the oppressed masses. Absence of opposition does not mean growth of compassion in the hearts of the powerful. The best that can be hoped for is condescension, which then degenerates into contempt. A healthy way to resolve socio-political conflicts is to put them for constructive contest.
There are mainly five ways of resolving contentious issues. The most preferred method is to hold wide consultations and reach a compromise. In the absence of a generally acceptable deal, putting it to vote is the next best method. The third approach is to get some arbitrators and let them hammer out an agreement. The fourth method is litigation where lawyers are the only winners. The last but the most ineffective way is to let the powerful party dictate terms of consensus and make everyone else accept it. Since consensus helps hide rather than resolve contentious issues, it often unravels at the first sign of crisis. In every country, consensus is usually a coda for the political agenda of the armed forces. Unlike in Nepal, the army brass in Yangon never hid its ambitions of being the guardians of state and society.
Suga in Mahottary district is a long way to travel from Yangon within 24 hours. Fears and hopes of the people, however, are painfully alike. The downtrodden instinctively realize that democracy is their first as well as last hope of having some say in governance. A “Loksewa Pass Prime Minister”—only organic intellectuals can come up with such earthy characterizations—would slowly but surely lead towards a technocratic regime functioning under the shadow of the Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON). Bluest of the blue blood runs in the veins of army chief Gaurav Shamsher. He does not need to be as direct as imprudent generals of Myanmar. Any LPPM, including the Chief Justice, Chief Election Commissioner or even the Chief Secretary as a front person would do very well, thank you.
Political contestations are a little bumpy by definition. The Burma Road towards directed democracy looks alluring in comparison. This is how the political class ultimately ends up losing its relevance: Searching for suicidal consensus to install technocracy.