Democracy Lab

False Positive

Why Hillary Clinton's greatest foreign policy "success" isn't the win her new book claims.

I've just been reading about the story of Maru Seng, a 45-year-old man who, one day in October of last year, was captured by Myanmar government troops. They accused him of being a rebel. They tied his hands and legs together, then bound his legs to a chair; they left him in that position all through the night without any food, water, or visits to the toilet. The next morning he seized an opportunity to escape -- whereupon one of his guards shot him in the head.

Amazingly, he survived. But when he regained consciousness, his captors continued torturing him. They tied a bamboo stick to his shins, and two soldiers jumped up and down on it. Then they tied him up with a wire and hung him from a beam in the ceiling of the house where he was being held:

They tied my neck, my hands behind back, arms, and feet. It was tighter than before. It hurt so much, it was so tight and it felt like my whole body would explode.

Eventually they let Maru Seng go, warning him not to leave the area. But he fled anyway -- which is why he was ultimately able to tell his story to the members of a human rights group called Fortify Rights, which has just published a detailed report on the abuses committed by Myanmar's armed forces in their three-year war against separatist rebels from the Kachin ethnic group.

You could be forgiven for not knowing about the civil war in Kachin State; after all, it's been taking place in one of the most remote parts of Southeast Asia, a place that few outsiders will ever see. Yet the harrowing account above comes from a country that the Obama administration is touting as the major success of its foreign policy. During his recent speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, President Obama boasted about Washington's "diplomatic initiative" and "American leadership" had contributed to "political reforms" that opened up "a once-closed society." (As if eager to emphasize the magnitude of this success, he cited the population of the country in question: "40 million." Myanmar's population is actually closer to 56 million -- but hey, what's a few million among friends?)

The president isn't the only one crowning himself with Burmese laurels these days. In case you somehow missed it, Hillary Clinton is rolling out a new memoir -- this time covering her term as Obama's secretary of state. This is a big deal, since her book tour is looking a lot like a prelude to her expected presidential campaign. Reporters from the Washington Post, who have already seen the text of her book, tell us that she cites Myanmar's opening as one of her major achievements. We're told that Clinton "played a leading role" in the administration's much-touted reorientation of American foreign policy toward Asia, and that one of her big successes here was in "reestablishing diplomatic ties to the long-isolated country of Burma…." Another Washington Post story claims that Clinton’s "outreach to Burma led to political reforms and helped move one of China’s closest regional allies closer to Washington."

Well, there's certainly no disputing that the two countries have moved closer; the question is whether it’s been worth the price. Then-Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Yangon in December 2011 was supposed to mark a new era of friendship between Burma and the United States -- and it certainly did that. Relations between the two countries have steadily deepened since then, perhaps reflecting their common concern about the rising regional power of China. Over the past three years, the Obama administration has suspended most of the political and economic sanctions that the United States once imposed on the country's harsh military dictatorship, measures that were intended to reward the Myanmar government for its steps to open up the political system. Since he came to power in March 2011, President Thein Sein freed political prisoners, loosened up restrictions on the media, and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy political party, the National League for Democracy, to participate in elections that ultimately gave them a presence in parliament. (The photo shows Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi sitting together at an event in Yangon in November 2012.)

Those were all significant steps. The problem, says Jennifer Quigley, is that the United States and other Western countries hoped to encourage additional steps in the same direction -- but that hasn't happened. Quigley’s organization, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, wanted to see Washington hold back on rewards to the Myanmar government in order to maintain leverage for greater change. "We didn't want to see economic sanctions lifted until we had seen more progress on human rights and ceasefire dialogue for the ethnic minorities," she says. "We've been frustrated that they've given away that leverage of sanctions for too little in return." She praises Obama for his decision to sign an order last month prolonging some remaining sanctions against individual members of the old regime. But it's clear from her tone that she and her colleagues believe that the United States has already given away the goods.

She and other activists have good reason to feel frustrated. After the initial euphoria of Thein Sein's early moves toward change, Myanmar has stagnated. Aung San Suu Kyi and her small group of pro-democracy colleagues sit in parliament, but they have little real power. Aung San Suu Kyi has launched a campaign to amend the current constitution, which was designed by the military to allow for a liberalization of national political life that would nonetheless leave it firmly in charge of the parliament and all the other national institutions that count. But so far the generals show no inclination to budge -- leaving the pro-democratic forces little chance of fielding a viable candidate in next year's presidential election. In a word: The military remains firmly in control. Democracy remains a theory.

Meanwhile, a brutal ethnic conflict between Buddhists (who make up the lion’s share of the country’s faiths) and the country’s 2 million Rohingya Muslims has made a mockery of the much-lauded "opening."

Dozens have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, often under hideous conditions. Radical Burmese nationalists have seized upon widespread hatred of Muslims to launch openly discriminatory bills in parliament, and the military has shown little inclination to block the measures. Some outside experts are warning of the possibility of genocide. Happily, some Burmese activists are finally pushing back against the forces of intolerance. Even so, the picture remains grim.

And then there's that vicious war against the Kachin. Yes, it's true that the government is continuing its roundtable peace talks with representatives of the country's restive ethnic minorities (who, including the Kachin, make up about 40 percent of the population). But there's no hint of the sort of overarching political solution that the minority groups have been aiming for, and which would bring Myanmar the real and substantive peace that has eluded it ever since independence in 1948. It's hard to imagine how Myanmar can ever be considered a real democracy unless it can find a political arrangement -- some form of federalism, presumably -- that really includes all ethnicities. That's why Myanmar's pro-democracy activists have always pushed for reforms that would achieve this. Right now, though, such reforms aren’t anywhere in sight.

It's probably too early to declare Myanmar's opening a failure. Whatever you want to call it, though, it's still a long way from democracy. And it certainly is not an unmitigated success. If this is the biggest achievement Hillary Clinton can claim from her term as secretary as state, it doesn't reflect well on her legacy.

KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Not So Happy In Iran

Iran’s ayatollahs are going nuts over a harmless video. But they’re not the first autocrats to obsess about the impact of popular culture.

The video is infectious. Six twenty-something Iranians dance ecstatically on a rooftop in north Tehran, acting out the lyrics of a song that doesn't pretend to be anything other than a serenade to euphoric silliness. They posted their charmingly low-budget production on YouTube -- just like dozens of other people around the world who've gotten into the act by creating their own visual paeans to Pharrell Williams's international hit "Happy." They weren't exactly conspiratorial about it, either. The original video included detailed credits.

It didn't end well for the video's creators. All six of them were arrested by the Iranian secret police. The authorities paraded them on national TV, scolding the women for their allegedly "immoral" behavior. (Needless to say, none of them is wearing a headscarf in the video, and some of the girls even touch the boys -- albeit in an entirely harmless and playful way.) Five of the cast were released after spending the night in the jail, but the director of the video, Sassan Soleimani, was, apparently, only just released on bail last week. (He'd already been detained once before on similar charges of suspect video-making.)

So why all the fuss? Do the ayatollahs really find the notion of happiness so subversive? Are the ideas of Pharrell Williams really a threat to the Tehran regime? Why should six people end up enduring imprisonment and national humiliation for dancing to the blandest of songs?

Some Western commentators have interpreted the whole affair as renewed evidence (as if any were needed) of the Iranian leadership's intolerance and humorlessness. It's certainly true that the people who run the Islamic Republic like to present themselves, at least publicly, as the scowling defenders of puritan orthodoxy -- no matter how trivial the offense.

In reality, though, there is a bit more to it than that. All the evidence suggests that young Iranians have plenty of access to global popular culture, and they usually manage to evade trouble for indulging. Satellite TV and Internet access offer many paths to forbidden pleasures, and as long as you pursue your enthusiasms behind closed doors, chances are that the morals police won't come after you.

And, in fact, it turns out that the Iranian authorities didn't pay much attention to the "Happy" video from Tehran when it was first posted. The goons swung into action only once Soleimani's work began to build viewership after weeks on YouTube; he and his colleagues were arrested a full month after their video went on the web. This suggests that it wasn't just the giddy, un-Islamic content that riled the powers that be, but the fact that the authors managed to find such a big public audience for their work. In other words, it's not the video -- it's the viral. The creators of the video, which has now been viewed some 2 million times, demonstrated a power to mobilize the masses. And that, presumably, is what the guardians of revolutionary order found most threatening about the whole incident.

Pop culture is a double-edged sword for despotic regimes. Twentieth-century totalitarians realized early on that new technologies like radio and movies offered hitherto unknown opportunities for direct influence over mass audiences. "Of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema," Vladimir Lenin once famously observed. The Nazis made particularly effective use of radio, even decreeing that every home should have its own "people's radio receiver" in order to ensure that the Führer's message was heard loud and clear. The grand drama of Hitler's mass political rallies was designed to work equally well in cinema newsreels as well as radio broadcasts.

Interestingly, though, even in the most repressive states, propaganda sometimes has to take a back seat to entertainment, if only to retain the loyalty of subjects. Nazi leaders saw popular culture as the perfect way to keep the populace happy -- and distracted. The film critic Eric Rentschler calculates that some 86 percent of the films churned out by studios during the Third Reich were "unpolitical." Joseph Goebbels, the failed novelist who became Hitler's devilishly clever propaganda minister, even sneered at priggish "moralists" who wanted to ban movies or songs on grounds of "public decency."

Joseph Stalin had a big weakness for musical comedies, often using his status as the final arbiter of the Soviet film industry to intervene directly in casting and screenplays. Some of the show tunes produced for 1930s films were so good that Russians still hum them today. When the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore was digging through Stalin's personal archive, he found some characteristically banal lyrics from the immensely popular musical Volga Volga that the dictator had taken the time to write down by hand:

A joyful song is easy for the heart/ It does ever bore you/ And all the villages great and small adore that tune/ While the big cities sing the song!

Yet dictators always remain aware that even the most harmless pop culture can have threatening ideological implications. The Nazis didn't like jazz or swing music, which they saw as rooted in "negro music" and tainted by carefree American morality. Though Stalin had a personal weakness for Hollywood directors like John Ford, he wasn't about to let Soviet audiences enjoy the great open spaces of the American Western. According to Montefiore, the Soviet dictator once told Nikita Khrushchev that John Wayne deserved to be shot -- though that presumably had more to do with the actor's public anti-communism than the characters that he played. 

In short, how dictators feel about pop culture depends a great deal on the context: you can never quite predict how a despot's ideology or personal tastes will determine how they react to a particular artist or work. In private, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently has a soft spot for LFMAO and New Order. In public, his tastes run more to the patriotic folk songs that glorify his rule (and which could be heard blasting from loudspeakers on special trucks cruising the streets of Syrian cities in the run-up to this week's presidential elections).

The broader political context may well have something to do with the punishment meted out to the creators of the Iranian "Happy" video, too. Hard-line Islamists are currently engaged in a power struggle with moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who obliquely sided with the "Happy" crew in a tweet. (Soleimani, the director of the video, is said to have done some work for Rouhani's campaign.) The Iranian authorities' sensitivity to viral content has undoubtedly intensified since the Green Revolution, when young Iranians showed that mobile phones and Internet access made organizing illicit demonstrations a lot easier. Given such fraught circumstances, even an apparently apolitical work like "Happy" can start to look like material for real political intrigue. And the powers that be in Tehran can't be thrilled to see that the "Happy" video continues to find myriad sympathizers as well as inventive copycats (like this sly parody that features puppets in place of the original dancers).

Dictators, in short, are more than happy to harness the power of mass entertainment to their own ends. They're always ready to appreciate the virtues of pop culture -- as long as they can control it. The problem for autocrats is that movies, books, and music of any kind have an essential elusiveness, including a highly unpredictable tendency to seek out their own audiences. Culture, even in its popular flavors, has a peculiar power over the human mind that's impossible to contain completely. Perhaps the dictators are right to be paranoid -- even when it's a matter of music videos.

Pooya Jahandar/YouTube