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Towards necessary exercise in discursive disentanglement?

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(Prof. Sasanka Perera’s recent speech as guest speaker to the National Academy of Sciences)

In present times, there is an intriguing, but at times seemingly dangerous entanglement between science, belief and state policy or government action. This kind of phenomena range from the government’s sudden ban of Glyphosate in 2015; the state sponsorship of a conference on the air power of the mythical king Ravana to the layers of stories surrounding the advent of what is now popularly known as the Dammika Peniya. These are merely three well-known phenomena from a whole series of such phenomena in the country with varying impacts on social life, politics and commerce. As a collective of occurrences with their own structure of associated events, these phenomena have not been reckoned with seriously. We have not carefully reflected upon them and asked ourselves why they are more evident now, and what their broader consequences and reasons for manifestation might be. As a result, we do not have credible sociological explanations for these phenomena that goes beyond popular rhetoric. These phenomena are seemingly dangerous too, because many of them defy what we might think of as commonsense and leads in the direction of collective chaos and counter-productive action on the part of the state. And in this journey, ‘science’ is one of the most obvious casualties.

To me, all this points to a contradictory entanglement involving science, belief, and state policy when ideally such contradictory entanglements should not take place. By ‘science’ I do not merely mean the vast systems of knowledge that originated in the west, which now have global hegemony including in our country. Instead, science is any system of knowledge “concerned with the physical world” and phenomena emanating from this world along with formal “observations and systematic experimentation.”i In other words, a “science involves a pursuit of knowledge” that covers “general truths” as well as “the operations of fundamental laws.”ii In this sense, Ayurveda, Unnani, present day engineering, allopathic medicine or any other system of formal knowledge are mostly matters of science though the bases for their fundamentals would vary considerably from the more dominant post-enlightenment sciences to much older systems of knowledge.

Similarly, by ‘belief’, I mean not only matters of faith rooted in religion and tradition but also contemporary beliefs that are created by the repetitive circulation of ideas across media whether they are based on fact and science or not. Often, these ideas address contemporary issues and politics though they might be camouflaged in a rhetoric of the past, resort to specific conventions, and identity politics. And these associations are quite important today given the propensity for fake news and the enhanced ability of people to accept these ideas easily without being formally countered.

In the same sense, ‘state policy’ and actions linked to such policies are expected to be based on formal legal principles and empirical facts, and ideally should have nothing to do with matters of faith or untested assumptions and should benefit the polity.

Generally, I consider science, belief, and state policy to be independent discourses with their own epistemological routes and purposes though there will be close and necessary interactions among these such as between science and state policy. At other times, as we are seeing now, this association can be between belief and state policy where science might be eclipsed.

My intention today is to simply place in context three recent phenomena of this kind that are structurally very similar but contextually very different, which I think would explain to some extent how this amalgamation of discourses function, and the ways in which their politics manifest. As far as I am concerned, what I have to say today are simply preliminary thoughts about which I would like to think further and theorize.

 

Phenomenon 1: Glyphosate Ban

The use of the weedicide glyphosate was banned by presidential order in 2015. In a paper published in the same year, Jayasumana, Gunatilake and Siribaddana note that people in areas where kidney disease has become endemic have been exposed to multiple heavy metals and glyphosate.iii Their conclusion as far as I could see as a non-expert, was very vague, which amounted to the following observation: “Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit” “multiple heavy metals and glyphosates may play a role in the pathogenesis.”iv This is one of several public articulations related to this matter that has some semblance of what I may call scientific noise, but clearly inconclusive.

The ban was quite sudden and was implemented following on the heels of intense lobbying by Member of Parliament and Presidential Advisor, Reverend Athuraliye Rathana. He argued along with his supporters that this chemical caused chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in the North Central and Uva Provinces. But what is clear is no reliable and specific scientific evidence was offered by him or the President’s Office as the basis for the ban. In this overall process, it does not seem that the Registrar of Pesticides; Fertilizer Secretariat; Medical Research Institute and Tea Research Institute, all of whom could have presented valuable and more formal input into the decision were consulted. It almost seems that the ban found its genesis in the popular belief that chemicals are bad.

The fact that there is considerable prevalence of kidney disease in parts of the country is a fact, which needs to be more rigorously studied to work out its causes. Personally, I am not a supporter of excessive use of chemicals for anything including agriculture, and to the extent possible, I have made changes in my personal lifestyle to address this anxiety. But that kind of personal, emotional or popular anxieties cannot be the foundation for state level decision-making, particularly if the government and the people both subscribe to the idea of commercial agriculture and the eradication of hunger.

The consequences of the ban have been substantial in monetary terms. It caused production costs to increase substantially and the industry, particularly the tea sector, incurred losses up to 10-20 billion rupees annually while the ban lasted. Though the ban was eventually partially lifted, even at that time, no credible and conclusive data supporting the ban existed. So, it appears, that the ban was solely based on a popular and largely correct general belief of the negative impacts of chemicals, tempered by political rhetoric emanating from matters of faith and popular beliefs. I am sure we can all agree, while we can entertain popular beliefs or even conspiracy theories among people, if they are injected into broader politics and formation of state policy, that would have serious consequences as this event has shown. Part of the problem here is not only the undue credence given to freely circulating popular notions without situating them in the context of formal and reliable knowledge, information and science, but the ability of popular political leaders to convert untested ideas into practices of state policy and action without facing consequences.

 

Phenomenon 2: The State’s Embrace of Ravana

People of my generation will know that Ravana and his flying machine were merely elements in an interesting story in our youth while in some parts of the country specific local stories linked to this myth circulated. Unlike India and elsewhere in South Asia and in the east right up to Bali, there is no evidence of Ramayana performances which may have included a dramatization of the Ravana narrative in Sinhala cultural lore. But this situation has dramatically changed in recent times where Ravana’s popularity has rapidly increased among a cross section of the people, while his name and alleged historicity have also been openly embraced by the state.

By 2019, the story of Ravana had been directly appropriated by the Sri Lankan state and engrossed in a highly superficial but allegedly scientific discourse on aviation. In July 2019, Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lankan organized a “conference of civil aviation experts, historians, archaeologists, scientists and geologists” in Katunayake.v The Authority’s Vice Chairman at the time, Shashi Danatunge told Indian media, “King Ravana was a genius. He was the first person to fly. He was an aviator. This is not mythology; it’s a fact. There needs to be a detailed research on this. In the next five years, we will prove this.”vi He further noted, “they had irrefutable facts to prove that Ravana was the pioneer and the first to fly using an aircraft.”vii The conference’s main conclusion was “that Ravana first flew from Sri Lanka to today’s India 5,000 years ago and came back.”viii Many conference participants in their own peculiar wisdom, dismissed the powerful stories narrating Ravana’s kidnapping of Lord Rama’s wife Sita, as a mere “Indian version.”ix For them, this was not possible because Ravana was a noble king.”x

Intriguingly, one part of the myth cluster became a fact while another became fiction based simply on nothing more concrete than emotional and nationalist appeal. The ideas expressed in public on this matter were not private articulations of individuals. Particularly the Vice Chairman of Civil Aviation was speaking as a representative of a state agency. Also, the general conclusions of the conference and the acceptance of the Ravana story as historical fact could simply not be entrained by formal historiography and archaeology.

 

 

By 2020, the same agency took its sense of scientificity of these claims even further by launching a research project looking for evidence of Ravana’s flying and his “aviation routes.”xi The theme of the project was, “King Ravana and the ancient domination of aerial routes now lost.”xii Towards this, the Civil Aviation Authority placed advertisements in national newspapers asking people to send in evidence they may have. The purported scientific objective and the reason for the Civil Aviation Authority’ central involvement in this state-sponsored effort was explained as follows: 1) Because the Civil Aviation Authority was “the main aviation regulatory authority in Sri Lanka,” it was the most logical entity to host such and effort, and 2) Because “there are multiple stories over the years about Ravana flying aircrafts and covering these routes” there was a necessity “to study this matter.”xiii

Though there are seemingly rational and seemingly scientific ‘noises’ in this episode, the entire exercise is enveloped in taking myth as fact, and that too, with the direct participation of the state.

Phenomenon 3: The Advent of the Dammika Peniya

Now we come to the advent of the Dammika Peniya which is formally known as ‘ශ්‍රී වීර භද්‍රධම්ම කොරෝනා නිවාරණ ප්‍රතිශක්ති ජීව පානය’ (Shri Vira Bhdradhamma Corona Nivaranana Prathishakthi Jiva Panaya). According to its inventor, Mr Dammika Bandara, the formula for the syrup was given to him by Goddess Kali in a dream. This is a crucial point in which the genesis of this syrup differs from the more formal discourses of knowledge in Ayurveda and Sinhala medicine, within which this claim is located.

It was a claim protected by rhetoric of local medical superiority, power of ancient knowledge and very loud articulations of cultural and political nationalism. But certain things need to be understood clearly. Even within the structure of faith and belief in Sinhala culture, goddess Kali, the alleged ultimate progenitor of the syrup is not known for healing. She is seen more as a powerful deity but with considerable destructive potential. More typically associated with healing is goddess Pattini. So, the claim seems to be out of place even in the context of conventional Sinhala myth and belief. Second, though Ayurveda and Sinhala medicine have associations with faith and ritual, the bulk of their formal discourses on medicine are based on experimentation, repetitive practice and fine-tuning and formally scripted knowledge or that which is handed over word of mouth across generations. My maternal grandfather wrote two books in the early 1970s after he had retired from his Ayurvedic practice and teaching. The first was called Rasayana saha Vajikarana (රසායන සහ වාජිකරණ) in which he presented a specific body of knowledge already known to his field, but with fine-tuning offered by his own practice and studies. The second, called Avinishchitha Aushada (අවිනිශ්චිත ඖෂධ) was very different. It dealt with a series of plants whose medical utility was unknown or unsure. In it, he dealt with the unknown, based on both generations of institutionalized uncertainty as well as conjecture on his part, but based on his long years of practice and observation. Both these point to the nature of the scientific discourse of contemporary Ayurveda.

Compared to this kind of background, Mr Bandara offers a set of contradictions. He is not a medical practitioner, but a mason by profession who runs a small Kali shrine in his neighborhood. However, his claim over having invented a treatment for Corona received massive publicity via media outlets supportive of the state and unreserved public support from numerous local and national political leaders including the Minister of Health and the Speaker of Parliament all of whom consumed the concoction in public along with some of their colleagues. This does not tantamount to formal state support as in the other two cases. But such open adulation and support by senior members of the government is a public performance of confidence for an untested medication with a dubious claim. These actions played a major role in ensuring large numbers of people flocking to Mr Bandara’s house in Kegalle in search of this ‘miracle’ drug – in the midst of a pandemic. This is not a general condemnation of traditional medicine. In the 1950s, the establishment of the Ayurvedic Research Institute was to offer traditional medicine a sound research and dissemination base and bring it on par with formal understanding of science. But Dammika Peniya has no such provenance; it simply came from a dream according to its inventor himself, and such provenance simply cannot be the basis for its public adulation by political leaders. Most criticisms of the concoction and its provenance were vociferously put down in public as acts of anti-nationalism and lack of respect for traditional culture. A dubious study involving several colleagues of the Wathupitiwala Hospital and a handful of test cases had taken place though it is not clear to me if this exercise even had ethical clearance. A committee consisting of medical professionals has now been appointed to undertake a clinical study of the concoction using acceptable clinical trial criteria and practices. Its results have not yet been published.

What does all this mean?

All these three incidents have several obvious things in common:

the core notions in all stories are based on popular assumptions and untested ideas;

they all have powerful political and state support directly or indirectly;

their main arguments are governed by belief whether tempered by faith or by the mere repetition of mass circulating non-facts; and

in all cases, science in the formal sense – from allopathic medicine, Ayurveda and natural sciences to archaeology and history – have been dispelled even though such input could have more sensibly impacted these discourses if they were formally made available.

Moreover, the public manifestation and power of these discourses became possible due to the very clear inability of the public services directly associated with these contexts to be guided by formally collected data and scientific conclusions and their inability to advise their political Masters, and withstand the pressures of political interference. Such political interference is obviously not based on advice from subject experts or from a clear political vision, but from short-term political agendas for popular mobilization. This main conditionality allowed these unstable claims to become part of national politics and in some cases become policy or in the very least lead to actions sanctioned by the state.

But how does one explain the massive public support especially for the last two incidents. I have noticed for many years that people in our country, and particularly the Sinhalas seem to have a desperate urge to be part of grand historical claims and narratives. But I have not yet been able to gather adequate data or theorize what might be going on. But one can tentatively make some observations. The rediscovery of Ravana and brining him from the pages of myth and epic narrative of the Ramayana to state-sponsored formal discourses of populist and non-empirical historicization, and therefore formal reiteration of myth itself shows the urge to control what might be thought of as a popular and powerful narrative of the past. The way in which Sinhalas have reinvented Ravana over the last decade or so is not only as an aviator, but also as an engineer, medical expert, inventor, scientist and scholar. And this is done within an idiom of nationalist discourse that insists a pre-Vijayan and wholly Sri Lankan civilization once existed in which Ravana is a central attraction. These claims also assert this civilization was somehow superior to the cultural landscape across the ocean in the rest of South Asia. This seems to me to be more like what anthropologists would call millenarian mythmaking where Ravana appears at least in part as a millenarian hero. Generally, millenarian stories, beliefs and heroes have to do with delivering a society from danger, introduction of new ideas and technologies to ensure the safety of a collective, and so on. Such stories generally manifest in times of crisis. In the case of the Ravana story, the preoccupation is to recreate an important place for Lanka in the broader political history of South Asia in the context of a politically unstable present.

Even the story of the Dammika Peniya has some of these millenarian features. After all, it was presented as a very local remedy for COVID 19 based on a lost Sri Lankan body of scientific knowledge delivered directly by a goddess in a dream. And that too at a time when people were desperate to be safe and keen to protect their livelihoods from the vagaries of Corona virus at a time the state’s effort at controlling it appeared to be faltering. The Peniya seemed to be a sign of miraculous deliverance from the island’s past glory emerging in the midst of its chaotic present.

To end this preliminary sketch let me refer to a final comment. It seems to me, these kinds of stories emerge in times of crises – be these emotional, social, or political crises. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, and can also be seen in many other parts of the world in structurally similar circumstances. These stories have their genesis in realms of conjecture. I am not objecting to the deployment of conjecture as such. Most good ideas in all our disciplines would often begin with conjecture. As we know, the philosophy of science has shown us the importance of “assumptions, foundations, methods” and “implications of science.”xiv Reflections in philosophy of science also indicate the efforts to distinguish between what is considered science and what is thought of as non-science.xv It is in the latter domain where untested conjecture would generally be located until they can be given a basis in science or dispelled.

In this general context, it seems to me, these stories allow people to be part of a more powerful and often a winning idea of history and hyper-real present even though that domain of belief might have very little or nothing to do with lived reality as such. Partly, these can also be seen as coping mechanisms in difficult and turbulent times. But these are clearly not remedies for very real socio-political or public health issues that can be utilized brazenly by the state as long as their core ideas remain in domains of belief and conjecture.

The collective failure that typifies our situation is the inability of many people to understand this commonsense and as a result, become dangerously entangled in the internal logic of these stories, which have no external empirical foundations except for the real-life calamities some of them might generate. It is also likely our political leaders consciously and deliberately promote these stories and phenomena to divert people’s attention from evolving crises.

In this situation, I find it unfortunate that Sri Lankan social sciences have not yet spent the time to collect these stories and study them more carefully in their border social and political contexts and offer a more coherent, empirically-based, and nuanced theoretical explanation.

(Sasanka Perera is a trained anthropologist and is a professor at South Asian University in New Delhi. This is the text of a guest lecture delivered at the Induction Ceremony of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka on 22 January 2021)



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UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.

According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.

People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.

We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.

Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.

Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.

The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.

 

The way forward

If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.

 

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?

It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.

Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:

“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”

My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:

“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.

“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.

“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.

The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:

“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”

the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.

Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!

 

 

 

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ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

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The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one. 

By Ian Buruma

One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.

America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’

As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.

Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.

But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.

Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.

Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.

The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).

Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.

Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.

Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.

This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.

 

(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)

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