Intellectual Responsibility in Burma
By Saw Kapi and Naw May Oo
Irrawaddy, August 20, 2004 — Because of their critical reasoning skills, intellectuals are obligated to raise questions of social and political importance. Jean Paul Sartre, a well-known intellectual, went as far as charging intellectuals with the responsibility to “denounce injustice wherever it occurs.” Using Sartre as a model of “the critical intellectual,” Douglas Kellner, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles argues, “The domain of the critical intellectual is to write and speak within the public sphere, denouncing oppression and fighting for justice, human rights, and other values.”
Given the cruelly repressive nature of the current Burmese government, academics in Burma understandably find it difficult to fulfill the role of the critical intellectual as described by Sartre and Kellner. However, in a country this oppressed, critical thinking by intellectuals, both inside and outside Burma, is crucial to finding a solution to the nation’s troubles.
In truth, the idea of the critical intellectual is not new to Burmese society. During British colonial rule, Thakin Kodaw Hmaing drew from his understanding of Burmese culture and history to speak out against the colonizing power. He was also very critical of the Burmese society of the time.
Other critics of colonial rule include U May Oung and U Oattama. In addition, a number of early, prominent Karen intellectuals, such as T Thanbyar and San C Po, openly criticized the repression suffered by the Karen people under successive Burmese regimes.
During the time of the Burma Socialist Program Party, well-known writers and journalists such as Dagon Taryar, Daw Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, and Shwe Ou Down were vocal critics of the government and its policies. To some extent, these intellectuals shared a similar ideological position with the government, but this did not prevent them from speaking courageously against injustice and oppression.
The people of Burma face the most severe restrictions on intellectual freedom to date. Many writers, university professors, journalists, and publishers have been arrested and sentenced to long-term imprisonment simply because of their open criticism of the military regime.
For example, U Ohn Kyaing, a former editor of Bohtataung Daily who later became a member of the NLD’s Central Committee and a Member of Parliament for Mandalay South East, was arrested on September 6, 1990. A month later, he was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor because he participated in demonstrations held in Mandalay in August 1990. Aung Khin Sint, a medical doctor who frequently wrote on health issues, was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment on charges of distributing “threatening literature”. The charges stem from letters he allegedly wrote to other members of the NLD that spoke against collaboration with the military government in drafting a new constitution. Other writers and artists such as Nyi Pu Lay and Myo Myint Nyein were given long jail sentences for criticizing the military regime.
Because of the brutal persecution critical intellectuals face in Burma, the responsibility of calling for truth and justice falls on those in the free world, who can intervene in public affairs without danger. That being the case, there is an amazing lack of critical analysis and rigorous scholarly research on Burma, both in the international news and scholarly world. For instance, two startling reports, detailing sexual violence committed against ethnic women by Burmese soldiers in 2002, received scant attention from academia in general, and legal experts in particular.
The almost total lack of critical intellectual voice outside Burma, especially in the neighboring countries, over such atrocious human rights violations is appalling. Already marginalized groups, such as the one million internally displaced persons persecuted and forced to flee their homes by the military regime, are left defenseless. In addition, continued international silence implicitly encourages the perpetrators of the human rights abuses to continue their reprehensible conduct.
This silence on the part of learned individuals is indeed one of the most disgraceful intellectual failures of our times. When those who have the ability as well as the opportunity to speak out against injustice refuse to do so, under the pretext of “being objective and unbiased,” little hope remains for people in Burma to unyoke themselves from one of world’s most notorious dictatorships.
That said, a sound intellectual exercise should not merely end with speaking the truth. It should also provide much needed critical analyses, guided by reason and practicality, to find solutions for the common good of society. Burma’s democratic movement has been lacking such intellectual support.
While Burmese political activists and politicians alike are not afraid to speak out against injustices committed by the regime, there has not been much analytical thought given to the development of a better and viable alternative to the current regime. It is not simply enough for Burmese intellectuals, both inside and abroad, to only criticize what the regime in power does. Intellectuals must look beyond the interests of the two opposing political camps and investigate the realities on the ground.
While institutional loyalty and hero-worshipping undermine the objective, critical nature of intellectualism, they are also detrimental to the common good of society. The proper role of intellectuals in Burma’s struggle for freedom and democracy is to rise above their own institutional interests. They must question not only the conduct of the military regime, but also that of the democracy movement. Beyond that, they must strive for viable and just solutions for the country.
Saw Kapi is a Policy Fellow at the Institute for Education and Development Studies (IEDS) and Naw May Oo is Director of Communications at the Free Burma Coalition (FBC).
May 13, 2005
Intellectual Responsibility in Burma