Sunday, August 20, 2017

Is democracy really lost in translation?

Those seeking to support democratisation in Myanmar’s political transition would do well to remember that political and democratic thinking does not only come from the West. A recent New York Times article by Thomas Fuller lamented the difficulty in translating key political words – like “democracy”, “rule of law” or “institutions” – from English into the Myanmar language.

Historian Thant Myint-U even suggested that this paucity of Myanmar vocabulary was a “liability” for the country.

This sentiment reflects a wider concern among Western donors and aid agencies for capacity-building for “good governance” – and for what is seen as the challenging task of translating modern democratic ideas across the language divide. To this end, a great deal of effort has gone into producing materials that can support the funnelling of ideas from Western democratic thought to Myanmar. For example, International IDEA, a European NGO, recently completed an English-Myanmar Glossary of Democratic Terms for use in their programs.

While there is some merit in this translation work, there is far less attention given to translation in the other direction. What results is a persistent and demeaning narrative that people in Myanmar do not understand a concept like democracy simply because they have no term for it in their language. Not only is this narrative problematic because it implicitly supports the long-standing position of military and political authorities that Myanmar’s people are not “ready” for democracy, but it also ignores creative – and arguably more relevant – traditions of political and democratic thinking in Myanmar.

For example, when talking with activists or NGO leaders in Myanmar, it is common to hear the word sedana linked with democratisation. While most often translated as “benevolence” or “goodwill”, there is no direct way to capture the concept in English. It has connotations – often linked to Buddhist thought – of people being able to put aside their own narrow vested interests for the good of wider society. And the presence of sedana, particularly in leaders, is understandably linked to the success of democratisation, as a powerful critical tool for assessing political leadership and as encouraging selfless, community-building action.

Like sedana, there are many other potent ideas related to democracy in Myanmar that are not easily translatable into English and might not map on to political conditions in Western democracies.

During decades of military rule in which electoral politics was non-existent and public political discourse was stifled, Myanmar people found other ways to engage the realm of the political.One was to do parahita, or social welfare work, specifically as a kind of action that could both have political ramifications and generate individual moral transformation. In a society energised by the new political possibilities of the transition but still somewhat sceptical of party politics and government intervention, parahita work, and the positive mindset that it generates, will likely continue to offer an important alternative path for political engagement and transformation.

It should not be surprising that both of these examples highlight moral aspects of political participation, as this is a consistent and prominent element of Myanmar political discourse. We would argue that this could be an area where Myanmar political thinking might contribute productively to global discourses of democracy, in ways that would go far beyond a dichotomous and facile East-equals-spiritual, West-equals-material association.

Therefore, rather than talking about a paucity of vocabulary, a more constructive approach might be to acknowledge that as different languages and cultures change and interact they develop distinct political concepts. There is a “vernacularisation” of democracy as people engage with Western ideas, to be sure, but they also draw from their own traditions and experiences.

The danger in ignoring these strands of political thinking in Myanmar is that it can reinforce the notion that the answers for the country lie outside of its own traditions and experiences – that real democratic concepts only flow from the West and through the medium of English.

In contrast, if aid agencies, journalists and academics can more fully recognise Myanmar’s own forms of political thinking – and engage more with political discourse in local languages – they might be better placed to help foster democratisation on terms that resonate with the country’s various cultural and religious traditions.

The political realm in Myanmar is not an empty vessel into which new Western democratic terms need to be poured. Rather it has its own rich, evolving and contested traditions of political thought. These should be valued as resources and not ignored simply because they do not exactly reflect the tenets of Western liberal democracy.


Tamas Wells worked for six years in aid agencies in Myanmar and now lectures in development studies at the University of Melbourne. Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi senior research fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.