×

Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.

Emerging Democracies Combat Isolationism, Nationalism, and Identity Issues

Myo Myint Aung, executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Myanmar and a 2017 Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Scholar, discusses the role of national, religious, and cultural identity in a democracy; the threat excessive nationalism poses to democratic stability; and why isolationism, particularly in the United States and Europe, can undermine global relations.

Interview with Myo Myint Aung July 21, 2020 //   14 minute read

Myo Myint Aung, executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Myanmar, is active in growing a democratic society in his home country. The 2017 Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Scholar and medical doctor particularly has been active in improving health care in local communities in Myanmar, which was previously known as Burma.

Speaking with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, Chris Walsh, senior program manager of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, senior editorial advisor at the Bush Institute,he discusses the role of national, religious, and cultural identity in a democracy; the threat excessive nationalism poses to democratic stability; and why isolationism, particularly in the United States and Europe, can undermine global relations. The Fulbright Scholar also contends that the movement of people, goods, and ideas across borders can help countries grow and solve their problems.

The United States has had to deal with race before the country was established, going back to the 1600s. What response, if any, have the demonstrations since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers had in Myanmar? Are people paying attention and do you think it has any effect on how people in Myanmar view questions of democracy?

It does affect the way we view democracy. I see comments on social media about how George Floyd’s death is unacceptable for humanity and the protection of minority rights. There are also some movements within Myanmar like Black Lives Matter that are relevant in a Myanmar context. For example, there is a widespread campaign that we should not be tolerating discrimination based upon the color of one’s skin or ancestry, like if you or your family are from India or China.

The other trend I especially see in this time of COVID-19 is that some see this as an imported disease. There is a distrust within Myanmar particularly towards people coming from China. We may think these diseases are brought by people from China, India, Malaysia, or Korea.

There is a lot of sadness and surprise within our society that the U.S. is facing such tragedy and we are looking at our own discrimination in Myanmar.

You mentioned how people in Myanmar view COVID-19 as an external threat. Have you seen any politicians feed on nationalism by saying this is a disease from China or someplace else?

Not at the national level. Leaders came forward and said this is the time to bring people together and care for each other.

At the same time, there’s been some misinterpretation of rules and regulations at different levels of government. For instance, some people coming back from Yangon to their hometown were unnecessarily put into quarantine. The same with some people coming back from China, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Let’s switch to the topic of religious identity, which has been a major point of division in Myanmar. How can democracies best heal divisions that come out of religious identity or, for that matter, racial or national identity?

When we define democracy, we should be able to stick to what we believe in, whether it's Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity. At the same time, we should be creating a common space for everyone that we fill with democratic principles, such as a respect for individual rights and a rejection of discrimination. Democracy should help connect people.

When we define democracy, we should be able to stick to what we believe in, whether it's Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity. At the same time, we should be creating a common space for everyone that we fill with democratic principles, such as a respect for individual rights and a rejection of discrimination. Democracy should help connect people.

When you spoke a couple of years ago to The Catalyst, you talked about how there's a different perception of democracy in your country among young people. They tend to understand democracy better than older generations. Do you see differences between younger and older people on questions like religious, cultural, and ethnic identity?

There is a different level of understanding about accepting different religions. Older groups tend to believe that we are the country of Buddhists. In Buddhism, we tend to practice compassion and observe basic precepts like not killing other people. But older people feel that religions like Islam and Christianity are more like minority religions.

----dynamic----

During the days of the military dictatorship, any conflict was easily turned into a religious conflict. Older generations were more likely to get more involved in those conflicts.

But now the country has opened up. We have the opportunity to go to the same schools and enjoy social gatherings with people from different groups and different religions. We have more understanding than in the past that we are human beings who want to be free and fulfill our dreams. We are in the same boat trying to bring democracy back to our nation. Among younger generations, we have come closer together.

How do you see people at the community level working to overcome these identity issues? Are there examples that give you hope?

There are good examples. In Rakhine State, a program run by the Center for Social Integrity, which former Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Scholar Aung Kyaw Moe formed to promote diversity, pluralism, and tolerance, brings people together from different ethnicities, tribes, and religions to talk about their government. They set goals for their dreams, talk about conflict, and try to understand what inspires them. Those types of programs are also happening in other parts of the country.

To build democracy in Myanmar, we need to invest in education as a long-term strategy. We need people to think critically and to not take things they see at face value. When we see something on social media, we need to think critically to know what to trust.

To build democracy in Myanmar, we need to invest in education as a long-term strategy. We need people to think critically and to not take things they see at face value. When we see something on social media, we need to think critically to know what to trust.

We also need to give academic freedom to those running universities and prescribing curriculum, so they are not just being taught in one ethnic language. We need best practices. There are good signs of progress in those areas.

Similarly, we have good examples in the area of health care, particularly during this time of COVID-19. People are bringing food and giving donations to others regardless of their religion, race, or ethnic identity. These are the good things that we need to build upon as stories of hope for our democracy.

What do you say to people about the role that nationalism plays in a democracy? Does it help a democracy to grow or does it inhibit democracy's growth? Or is it somewhere in between?

Nationalism is a threat to the values of democracy. I remember learning in my Liberty and Leadership classes about the principles and ingredients of democracy — key ingredients like free markets, respecting and protecting minority rights, accountability, transparency, and checks and balances. Those are all crucial.

Unfortunately, promoting and supporting our own nationality and identity is the reality at the moment, not only in Myanmar but across the region and globe. The sentiment is that we can only take care of our own people during this pandemic. Instead, we need to promote the free flow of ideas and people to talk about critical issues that we need to address as we try to build democracy in Myanmar.

The sentiment is that we can only take care of our own people during this pandemic. Instead, we need to promote the free flow of ideas and people, and to talk about critical issues that we need to address as we try to build democracy in Myanmar.

There is a movement of ultra-nationalists that believe Buddhism is the best religion and that they cannot accept any other ideology or religion. And they want to make sure their political party supports the advancement of Buddhism in our country. This is crazy to me. We cannot use religion as a tool to win the election or to gain power in our country. From my religious teaching when I was young, the essence of Buddhism is that we need to be neutral in the way we perceive, interpret, and do things.

People, ideas, and goods coming in from other countries can be useful in solving a problem. But it is not good for our democracy if we only think a nationalist populist ideology will work for the best interests of our own people.

You brought up the economy. One “ism” you hear a lot about in the United States is protectionism. What impact do trade barriers and certain protections on the economy have on the development of democracies?

I know protectionism won't be good for Myanmar’s democracy. We have been living under a military dictatorship for more than five decades and we are on the verge of being left behind in our aspiration to realize democracy and prosperity. Some in the opposition, which means non-democratic parties, would like to further isolate ourselves and just depend upon our own economy. Let’s not think about international trade. That type of ideology will be a disaster.

I understand that people in the U.S and Western Europe might blame people coming from other countries for the loss of their jobs or the decline in their economies. But in Myanmar, we have a lot of labor. We have a huge population and we need the jobs. But that doesn’t mean we should isolate ourselves and not deal with international communities that could advance our democracy, even during this time of COVID-19.

We should think broadly and strategically about how we can leverage our strategic position in this region, connecting Southeast Asia to China and Southeast Asia to India. How can we use our position to cooperate with neighbors in the region? That could help us realize our dreams of building our democracy and prosperity.

Isolationism is another manifestation of this inward turn that you're seeing within Western democracies, including in the United States. What impact do you think that might have on the cause of democracy around the world?

We are experiencing a lot of impact in Myanmar, as well as among the nations in the region. Particularly in the case of COVID-19, we are yearning for international leadership. We tend to believe that the U.S. should take that leadership role in the international arena, bringing all players together and trying to solve the global crisis. That's how we used to see the U.S. and European countries respond to a global crisis.

But because of the inward-looking isolationism practiced by the U.S. government, we worry that China or any other player not practicing democracy might take the opportunity to expand their influence to countries like us in the region and on the international stage level.

----dynamic----

There is also fear in this country that our people may not be taken good care of during this pandemic if they get stuck in Malaysia, Thailand, India, or China. If other nations are turning inward, why should I care for people from other countries who are stuck in mine? Turning inward doesn’t build trust and confidence.

You have brought up China several times. How do nations who believe in a more democratic capitalism best respond to the authoritarian model of capitalism that China's promoting around the world?

Southeast Asian countries do not have the luxury of choosing their trading partners. We are heavily dependent on China and the West for our economic growth. China will be critical in the global economic revival after the coronavirus.

Our hope is that the U.S. and Europe continue to provide a counter-balance to China’s increasing presence in Asia. Our national governments in the region should do the same, ensuring that we diversify our trade and development partners to ensure a balance of power. We also do not want to find ourselves in the debt trap that other nations who have borrowed heavily as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative have found themselves.

 Southeast Asian countries should work with both China and the U.S., and think strategically and wisely how to make sure the relationship is in the best national interest.