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It seems I've woken up to find the outside world, of which the Flickr community is an important part, to be rather more aware than me when it comes to some current affairs, the current affair of choice right now being the protests in Burma/Myanmar and the suspected deliberate killing of a Japanese photojournalist. Like most people, I knew the government there was despotic and authoritarian, but possibly like many foreigners currently based in what is still, despite the economic sheen, an equally authoritarian China, I had slipped a little "out of the loop" of late and heard little of the recent protests lead by the monks.

 

I'm not going to suggest that everyone changes their buddy icon to saffron, nor that they fill their front page with red shots, and I'm not going to pretend that I uploaded this very suitable shot of a Chinese girl mending curtains with that purpose in mind. Ultimately too it should be for the Burmese to decide their own future, and with the ongoing fiasco in Iraq we should be cautious imposing a Western belief system on other cultures that may not be fully prepared for it. If there is enough of a groundswell of support among the people, then a revolution will take place, and if not then we should not try to force one, as its legacy will be tarnished, question marks will always hang over its legitimacy and long-term, greater slaughter may be incurred through bloody counter-revolutions than in quashing protests. Nationals-in-exile are always vocal, but how many outsiders really know what the average Burmese inside Burma thinks of the protests. Certainly in China, many people who claim to hate the government seem way too apathetic to ever do anything about it, and often their disapproval is as likely borne out of some sort of self-interest or personal grievance than out of any clash of ideology.

 

Still though, as an open and democratic person myself, I can understand feeling a need to show some sort of solidarity. Flicking through foreign news websites, I see vigils, peace marches and other symbolic gestures to take part in that might allow me to feel part of something, and say "Hey, I was there". But while all this is no doubt useful in raising the profile of the cause and generating column inches, I can't shake off the understanding that they rarely achieve any breakthrough in terms of providing solutions. To do this, we need to get involved in our own democracies, if we live in one, and get informed of those sources who may try to misinform us. If we don't live in one, the best we can do is encourage the promotion of the kind of thought that broadly underpins democracy, for I don't believe democracy is as black and white an issue as those who proclaim "freedom" wish to suggest it is. It is not simply having the ballot box or not having it. I'd say the ballot box is the symbolic culmination of many other inter-related factors that combine to form a democratic society.

 

In that sense, might Bush, Blair and other leaders of the democratic world have done more to dismantle and undermine democracy than many authoritarian leader who preside over regimes that we are supposed to be horrified by ? Perhaps the only difference is that they started dismantling democracy from vastly different starting points. Was Gorbachev, the unelected leader of the Communist USSR more or less democratic than the democratically elected Putin who currently rules Russia ? If the developed world really wants to understand the upcoming developing world, it must move beyond processing cultures via such labels, re-evaluate it's definition of freedom, jolt out of the state of complacency it has slipped into. It's own democracy is far from being the finished package and as long as this remains the case, it will only serve to fuel the cause of anti-democrats in "developing" countries who seek to pour scorn on our hypocracy. So while showing support for fledgling democracy movements in far-off lands might appeal to our hearts, we also need to channel this energy into the world we know too. Start getting informed of what is happening in our own backyards and start asking questions of those who may stand to benefit from this information being obscured.

 

With the Chinese government whose roof I currently choose to live under reportedly in closed door talks with the Burma/Myanmar government as I write this, advising them on how best to proceed, I will be watching the situation closely. In 1988, the last time that protests were seen on such a scale in Burma/Myanmar, they perhaps can be seen as part of a wave of street protests and civilian uprisings that swept through most of the authoritarian parts of Asia. In the case of the two most economically developed of those such regimes, South Korea and Taiwan, the protests were successful, and a stable democratic society has since emerged. In other cases, such as Thailand, democracy is stuttering, still hanging in the balance. Other countries such as Burma and China remain completely in the dark, with protesters still in jail and information heavily censored. If there is more bloodshed in Burma and the Chinese government, their closest ally, condemns the action, cutting aid to the country, how will this be presented in the Chinese media, and how will it be interpreted by a Chinese population yet to witness any outward indication of political reform to match the ongoing economic reform ?

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Taken on September 22, 2007