Shooting an elephant in Burma

Shooting an elephant in Burma

Ottawa Citizen, July 2014.

Ottawa Citizen, July 2014.

George Orwell once shot an elephant, an incident he chronicled in the aptly named essay, “Shooting an elephant.” During Orwell’s service as a much-loathed officer in British colonial Burma, the villainous animal ran amok, trampling one person and absconding with the contents of another’s fruit stand.

Orwell didn’t pull the trigger to save lives and property. By the time he reached the animal, it was munching contentedly on chunks of uprooted grass. But vast crowds of expectant locals watched Orwell’s quivering rifle, wondering whether the white man was strong enough to save the day. Even though it was too late in the day for any man to save it, and even though (and perhaps because) Western strength was being stomped out across the colonies, like most of us, the young officer preferred the wrong choice that would make him look powerful to the right choice that would get him laughed at. Orwell pulled the trigger to save his pride.

Burma, of course, has changed a great deal since the day Orwell shot an elephant. No longer a British colony or the ostracized military dictatorship that eventually followed it, if Washington is to be believed, Burma is well on its rocky way towards democracy.

But Washington shouldn’t be believed. When Burma began democratizing in 2011, Washington invested effort — and ego — in the country, lowering sanctions and supporting a transition. All that effort and ego hasn’t prevented Burma from pulverizing its own reforms while trumpeting its progress: Burma’s civilian government, military and mobs are thrashing the press, religious minorities and the opposition.

Just as Burma posed a threat to the British colonial psyche in the last century, it poses one to the United States and allies today. But the Obama administration isn’t saving its pride by shooting an elephant. It’s saving its pride by pretending that, although an elephant may be misbehaving, it isn’t on a deadly rampage at all.

That’s partly because, up until very recently, Burma really has seemed to be lumbering towards democracy. In the last few years, it’s released hundreds of political prisoners. It’s held more fair, though not completely fair, elections. It’s signed ceasefire agreements with many armed groups. Western nations, including Canada and led principally by the United States, tried to make Burma’s success their success, rewarding good behaviour by lifting economic sanctions and even engaging its military.

But the rewards have outpaced the good behaviour. Radical Buddhists have been attacking Muslim minority groups so brutally that the UN has said that the violence “could amount to crimes against humanity.” Aid workers were targeted for giving humanitarian support to Muslims. This month, Mandalay trembled withriots.

Burma’s troubles aren’t limited to religious mobs (which maybe more organizedthan spontaneous, besides). In the last couple of months, the government has drafted a law to regulate religious faith, a fake memo tried to discredit the National League For Democracy opposition party, and 10 journalists were sentenced to five years of hard labour.

Burma is stampeding back in the direction of authoritarianism. For the people of Burma, lives and basic rights are on the line; for the United States, pride.

So as Burma backslides, the U.S. forges ahead with engagement. Obama has kept some sanctions and officials have released a few critical statements, but the administration insists that Burma is a success. That Burma is its own success. Of course it does. To the United States and Western allies, Orwell’s insight about the futility of British imperialism still applies: “my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

The United States — like Britain, like Orwell, like us all — can’t bear being made a fool. That’s why Western states can’t shoot this elephant (and nor should they). But they also shouldn’t pretend that its destruction isn’t as grim as the trampled-upon bodies and crushed liberties would suggest.