Democracy Lab

Local Bloodshed, Global Headache

Sectarian conflict in Burma is once again spurring talk of a “global war against Islam.”

Let's face it: Not too many people outside of Southeast Asia have been paying attention to the sectarian conflict in Burma. For much of the world, Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a remote and somewhat mysterious country, and it's been prey to internecine squabbles for about as long as anyone can remember. (As a matter of fact, its people have been at war with themselves for even longer than the Afghans.)

So it's possible to understand, if not to excuse, the world's relative ignorance of the bitter feud in Arakan state, where the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine have been at each other's throats since a Buddhist woman was raped and killed there on May 28. The Rakhine blamed it on the Rohingya, triggering violence that subsequently prompted the government to declare martial law. Dozens of people have been killed, and some 90,000 have been transformed into refugees.

Outsiders didn't prompt this violence by meddling in Burma's internal affairs. As a matter of fact, lately other countries have been rewarding the government there for its efforts to allow a bit more democracy. The United States, for example, recently suspended financial sanctions it imposed on Burma's brutal military dictatorship years ago. By contrast, Western countries have had notably little to say on the bloodshed in Arakan.

They may not be able to afford the luxury of ignorance much longer. That's because the violence in Burma is already showing up on the radar screen of the world's Muslims. Indignant believers from Turkey to Indonesia have been taking to social media to denounce the treatment of the Rohingya. (The Pakistanis have been particularly zealous.) The reactions have ranged from mournful and relatively sober analysis to downright hysteria. (One astute Pakistani journalist, for example, has spotted photos from entirely different parts of the world being passed off as examples of "ethnic cleansing" in Burma.)

There is a big grain of truth to many of these stories, though. The Rohingyas have long suffered from their status as one of the most downtrodden groups in a benighted country. Many Burmese don't even acknowledge them as citizens; even members of the pro-democracy opposition have derided them as illegal immigrants (even though there's evidence that many of them have lived there for generations). In one of the ugliest recent manifestations of ethnic Burman chauvinism, Buddhist monks have called upon the population to shun association with the Rohingya. There have even been reports of monks blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid to Rohingya areas. 

A United Nations report published last December noted that the Burmese authorities have long curtailed Rohingyas' civil rights, up to and including freedom of movement. A few weeks ago, President Thein Sein suggested that the best "solution" to the Rohingya issue would be to deport all 800,000 of them: "We will send them away if any third country would accept them."

Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., says that such talk by members of Burma's government justifies accusations that anti-Rohingya pogroms constitute "slow-motion genocide." Even though the number of Rohingya killed in the latest violence remains relatively small (with the total number of dead estimated at around 80), he cites the original U.N. definition of genocide that encompasses cultural and economic destruction as well as wholesale physical annihilation. A few years ago, a Burmese diplomat in Hong Kong referred to the Rohingya as "uglier than ogres" -- evidence, Ahmed says, of a "classic relationship between a powerful dominant ethnic group and a minority that is the focus of ethnic hatred." 

For many members of the global ummah, this latest story of the persecution of innocent Muslims slots neatly into earlier narratives about victimized Palestinians, Bosnians, Kashmiris, Iraqis, and Afghans. (Never mind, as Ahmed points out, that two of Burma's Muslim neighbors, Bangladesh and Malaysia, have also treated Rohingya boat people fleeing to their shores with casual viciousness.) The British-based Quilliam Foundation, a self-described counter-terrorism think tank, has already warned of the risk that "the Rohingya people and their cause could be exploited by extreme Islamists and nationalists to justify a violent response that would only escalate the crisis." All this, the group notes, is likely to fuel renewed talk of an alleged "global war on Islam."

Such warnings cannot be dismissed out of hand. On July 20, the Afghan Taliban issued a statement on the situation in Burma that began this way: "The Muslims of Burma have been facing such oppression and savagery for the past two months never previously witnessed in the history of mankind." On July 21, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted Western countries for ignoring the plight of the Rohingya: "The obvious manifestation of the false assertions of the West on ethics and human rights is its silence over killing of thousands of people in Myanmar." Hezbollah issued a statement defending the Rohingya two days later. The Tehrik-i-Taliban, one of Pakistan's leading jihadi groups, chimed in soon afterwards.

So far there are no serious indications that the Rohingya are connected with global extremist movements, and I, for one, find it highly unlikely that we can expect to see foreign terrorists flocking to Arakan anytime soon. But it's certainly true that the horrible treatment of this particular minority group gives Islamist radicals a perfect propaganda opportunity that they are already doing their best to exploit.

The countries of the West can hardly be expected to solve the Rohingya crisis from without. But it's time for the Americans, the Europeans, and the Australians to press the Burmese government much harder to behave according to international norms for the treatment of ethnic minorities. That goes for Burma's harsh treatment of other restive groups, such as the Kachin (many of whom are Christians). Yes, this is a human rights issue, not a religious one. And let's keep it that way.


Democracy Lab

The Full Measure of Freedom

Can democracy be benchmarked?

Is the United States becoming less democratic? It depends on how you look at it. For many progressives, modern America is a place where politicians, lobbyists, and big corporations collude to constrain the political participation of ordinary citizens. For conservatives, freedom is eroded by an overweening federal government that intrudes into even the most miniscule details of everyday life.

Both positions seem self-evident to their supporters, and both sides can cite plenty of numbers to bolster their arguments. But what do those numbers ultimately mean? Calculating the share of gross domestic product comprised by federal spending would seem to offer a rock-solid indicator of "big government," for example. Yet does that mean that Somalia, where central government barely exists, is more democratic than the United States? One can offer a similar response to the liberal argument about the corrupt intertwining of private and public interests. There are no lobbyists in North Korea -- yet few would argue that Kim Jong Un's kingdom is a bastion of freedom.

Many people around the world aspire to "democracy." You'd think that such a desirable good would be easy to measure. But it isn't -- precisely because the concept is a notoriously slippery one. A healthy democracy has many potential components. Notions of popular rule differ widely according to country and culture. And even in places with long traditions of democracy, how one defines the term is inextricably bound up with complex value judgments, and the criteria by which those judgments are made change constantly.

But we shouldn't give up too quickly. There are, after all, many facets of politics that we routinely quantify. Opinion polls are a widely accepted feature of electoral life. Finance and demography offer rich data sets with wide political relevance. Campaign strategists mine mountains of data in order to understand voting patterns.

Applying comparable techniques to the measurement of democracy could be enormously useful. Today, democracy promotion is no longer the exclusive preserve of the United States and a handful of other rich countries. The number of democratic societies around the world has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and many of these newcomers are increasingly offering money and know-how to nations aspiring to emerge from dictatorship or dysfunction. But it's hard to understand whether you're having an effect unless you can measure the progress of the societies you're trying to help.

"In macroeconomics, we invest tens of millions of dollars in measurement," says John Gerring, a political science professor at Boston University. "But we have nothing like that in politics" -- and especially when it comes to the international realm. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization all compile reams of statistics on comparative economic indicators. The World Health Organization and other public health organizations track a wide array of data on global health. Scholars of democracy would like to follow suit. But so far, Gerring notes, "we don't have the tools to understand these phenomena in a nuanced way."

In the United States, surveys by Freedom House, a venerable Washington-based non-profit largely funded by the U.S. government, are widely used as a basis for assessing the state of liberal values around the world. A few weeks ago, Freedom House released one of its annual reports, The Worst of the Worst. This particular survey aims to establish scores for the "world's most repressive societies." It should come as no surprise that brutish North Korea -- the gold standard of tyranny -- ends up at the top.

But there are other cases where the rationale seems less obvious. Syria and Saudi Arabia, two countries that have recently unleashed their security forces on protestors, both earn average ratings of seven (based on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free). Yet Bahrain, which is guilty of equally egregious behavior, doesn't even appear in the group of most abhorrent authoritarian states. It's not immediately clear why that should be the case.

In academia, many political scientists rely on another ranking system called Polity IV, which some regard as methodologically more sophisticated than the Freedom House studies. (See also Vanhanen's Index of Democracy, which covers the years 1810 to 2000, the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Democracy Barometer). Each one of these systems comes at the problem from its own distinct perspective. Polity IV, for example, concentrates "only on the institutions of the central government and on political groups acting, or reacting, within the scope of that authority" (excluding separatist groups or rebels, for example), while the EIU Democracy Index tries to capture a broader sweep of criteria that includes not only electoral process and government functioning but also civil liberties, political participation, and political culture.

Some critics nonetheless regard such indices as blunt instruments. One problem, they contend, is the idea that you can reduce the myriad factors that shape democracy to a single "score." (Imagine doctors giving a person a ranking of "overall health" on a scale of 1 to 10. That might give you some idea of the patient's life expectancy, but it won't be very helpful if you're trying to cure a particular disease.)

Experts are now taking up the challenge. Consider the Variety of Democracies Project, whose team includes Gerring. "Democracy is such a complex concept," he says. "There are so many dimensions to it that it's a lot to ask of an index to try to boil everything down to a single score. So our approach is to try to disaggregate that score." His team maps out seven categories of measurement (electoral, liberal, participatory, majoritarian, consensual, deliberative, and egalitarian) and awards scores in each.

Of course, all of these models might find themselves forced to evolve as they confront the advent of "big data," the tsunamis of data now rolling in thanks to modern information technology. Cyber-guru Esther Dyson recently posited the pending arrival of what she calls the "Quantified Community," in which communities constantly measure

the state, health, and activities of their people and institutions, thereby improving them. Just consider: each town has its own schools, libraries, police, roads and bridges, businesses, and, of course, people. All of them potentially generate a lot of data, most of it uncollected and unanalyzed. That is about to change.

I suspect she's right -- and this could soon apply even to relatively undeveloped societies thanks to the ubiquity of Internet-capable mobile phones. Of course, such technologies will increase opportunities for both participation and surveillance as well as for measurement, radically transforming the very stuff of democracy even as they enable us to track its ups and downs. On top of that, we'll also be able to conduct surveys in something close to real time rather than at year-long intervals (as is mostly the case right now). I can't decide whether I'm thrilled or aghast at the prospect; probably a little bit of both. But there's no question that we will learn a lot more about ourselves along the way.

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