After 50 years of isolation Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is finally opening up to the outside world. According to the media the country is now welcoming tourists, foreign investment and development aid. But exactly what does the picture of openness look like in reality?
Photo taken in a small village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: children curious to see what is happening at our meeting inside the monastery.
Having spent a month (restricted time period for tourist visa) collecting empirical data for a master’s thesis in Myanmar, the general picture of ‘openness’ has become more nuanced and complex. The mysterious Myanmar is a country known for a variety of reasons ranging from its beautiful landscapes decorated with golden pagodas, Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes to a repressive military rule followed by fear and poverty. As a master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication I had a desire to explore the country and to study how the development of civil society in Myanmar is influenced by the political changes in the country, and what role development organisations play in this process. This required a field visit to Myanmar.
With the help of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok a collaboration with ActionAid Myanmar was established. ActionAid Myanmar is managing two projects, amongst others, implemented by a consortium of local (and international) NGOs named the Thadar Consortium. The two projects are implemented in the Dry Zone, in the central part of Myanmar, and in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, in the southern part of Myanmar, respectively, and both projects focus on the strengthening of civil society and improvement of livelihood.
The field visit was an eye-opening experience, based on positive as well as negative surprises, and by sharing this experience I am hoping to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to do fieldwork in a country like Myanmar that has just “opened up” to the outside world. What challenges can you expect to meet when working under these circumstances?
Before getting into a detailed description of my fieldwork I consider it necessary to briefly describe the country Myanmar and to highlight the most important historical and political events. In 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win and the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) changed Myanmar from being a wealthy country to a country of repression, isolation and gradually increasing poverty. From 1962 – 2010 the situation in Myanmar was characterized by a number of uprisings against the military regime. One of the most well-known uprisings was in 1988 where large groups of students took to the street and, despite continued military ruling, managed to generate the resignation of the unpopular General Ne Win. However, the uprising was violently suppressed, and a large number of students died.
Seeing her country in that stage of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San (assassinated in 1948), made her entrance into the political arena to fight for a free and democratic Myanmar. She established the political party NLD ‘National League for Democracy’, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. 1989 was also the year when the government decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which caused further anger and frustration. In 1990 an election was held and the NLD won a landslide victory, but unfortunately, the military regime refused to recognize the election results, allowing the regime to stay in power.
The second well-known uprising, named the Saffron Revolution led by monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes, took place in 2007. This event was violently suppressed and the action made the outside world aware of the critical situation in Myanmar.
Another event that attracted the attention of the outside world was when Cyclone Nargis struck and killed around 150.000 people in the southern part of Myanmar in 2008. For months NGOs were denied access to the areas.
From 2010 onwards the country started changing. In fall 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest – by this time she had been in house arrest for 15 years. A week before her release the government held a Parliamentary Election, but the NLD decided to boycott it. In 2011 a new democratic government was officially formed, with the leadership of the pro-democratic president Thein Sein, and this gave birth to a number of democratic reforms. In April 2012 the NLD won a landslide victory in a by-election, which meant that the party was now represented, although with a minority part of Parliament.
Fieldwork in Myanmar
Freedom of speech
Judging by national and international media channels it appeared that Myanmar had actually opened up, allowing tourists, development aid and foreign investment to enter the country. This, however, didn’t necessarily mean that the Burmese people were ready to express their opinions on sensitive issues like politics, the military government, civil society or democracy, topics upon which my master’s thesis is based. In order to adapt to these circumstances the research and interview questions were moderated accordingly.
The streets of Yangon: a young nun talking on her blue smart-phone
On arrival in Yangon, and all during the two weeks spent in Yangon, the picture given by the media appeared to reflect reality. To my surprise the changes in the country were visibly and audibly reflected in the city-life in Yangon. The majority of the taxi-drivers were eagerly explaining, in well spoken English, how the new government is better than the old one, and that they believed this transition would change their lives to the better. Many had a picture of the national hero, Bogyoke Aung San in the car, indicating that they were now free to voice their opinion. Others explained how Aung San Suu Kyi had saved the country. Judging by the Burmese history the people have been suppressed and restricted for the past 50 years, particularly in regards to freedom of speech. In my opinion, this openness characterizing the people of Yangon is an indicator of the changes in the country.
The prospects of the fieldwork now appeared more promising, as open-minded people are easier to interview. Unfortunately, the hope for success faded already after the first meeting with the Thadar Consortium. The Consortium emphasised the need to be extremely cautious with sensitive issues, like the political reforms, when entering the project areas. This obviously came as a surprise to me, as I got the impression from people in Yangon that they were now free to voice their opinion.
Village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta Region
Obtaining permission to enter the project areas turned out to be more challenging than expected. Through correspondences prior to the field visit to Myanmar it was decided that the empirical data should be collected in the Dry Zone project, as this project seemed more relevant for the research. However, after arrival in Yangon, the Thadar Consortium didn’t succeed in obtaining permission to visit this area. In fact, no foreigner apart from project staff had ever been granted permission to enter that area, and even local people have to apply for permission to enter. After this discovery, which also seemed to be a surprise for the Consortium, efforts were made to obtain permission to visit the Delta project. Unfortunately this did not prove successful in the first place, and after a new attempt was made for the Dry Zone (also unsuccessful), a visit to the Delta finally worked out. This process cut a week off the limited time available for fieldwork.
Based on the impression from the media that Myanmar has opened up, it came as a surprise to me, and apparently also to the project staff, that it was this difficult for foreigners to enter certain areas of the country. In fact, before leaving Denmark a Burmese friend of mine, living and working in Denmark, encouraged me to stay a couple of nights in the homes of local people, as this would give me a deeper understanding of the Burmese culture. With this encouragement in mind it was particularly surprising to discover that even local Burmese people need to apply for permission to stay at the house of a friend or relative – and foreigners shouldn’t even bother applying, as they would not get the permission. This is today’s Myanmar.
During the preparatory meetings in Yangon I was briefed by the Consortium on how to present myself and on what to be aware of when operating in the field. First of all, I could not introduce myself as a student doing research in the villages. Apparently, the word ‘research’ is extremely sensitive, as it may raise suspicion among the local authorities of interference in local affairs. Under these circumstances I was given an “undercover” title as employee from the Thadar Consortium, and the purpose of my presence in the local villages was to collect information to write the Thadar Consortium newsletter. On the one hand, this new title made it possible to travel and conduct research in the project area. However, on the other hand, these precautions may have affected the answers given by the interview persons. They considered me as part of the Thadar Consortium, placing them in a position where they did not feel free to express their true opinions, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship to the organisations supporting them. This was of course unfortunate, but without the support of the Thadar Consortium it would not have been possible to enter the villages.
Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: poor family
Furthermore, words like “political reforms” and “democratic reforms” could not be used – not during the interviewing and not even casually. In fact, it was extremely important that the interview questions were not in any way political or critical of the former military regime. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, ActionAid as a non-political organization is emphasizing the importance of not interfering with national or local political affairs. Secondly, the local authorities do not want outsiders spreading political information, possibly for fear of local resistance or unrest. Thirdly, despite the fact that the country has opened up the villagers living in the local communities still may feel insecure when being confronted with political issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to obtain information about the changes in the country, and they therefore may have a lack of knowledge about which rules have been abolished and which still apply. For example, during the fieldwork it turned out that the term ‘civil society’ was banned until after 2008.
These restrictions made it challenging to obtain comprehensive information from the interview persons. As an alternative to the sensitive terms I used the term “change” anticipating (and hoping) it would be understood as “political changes”. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. However, despite the restrictions and different understandings of “change” it was possible, by re-phrasing the questions and thus approaching the central issues in alternative ways, to achieve satisfactory outcomes of the interviews.
Travelling by boat to the villages in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: interpreter and interviewer taking a nap after a long day in the field.
One morning, when travelling by our usual motorised boat to one of the small villages, one of the project officers received a phone call from the police. He explained to me that he functioned as the contact person for the police in the township where we were staying, because they wanted to know our exact whereabouts every day, and they wanted to make sure that we returned from the villages before nightfall. The project officer assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Whatever the reason for their concern, I now decided to save the interviews recorded in the villages on three different digital devises – two of them located on our bodies. If the recordings of the interviews were confiscated by the police it would of course be devastating for my research, but my greatest concern was the safety of the interview persons. Later that night, when returning from having dinner at a small restaurant, our trishaw driver told us that the police were in our hotel. They were concerned because a Californian project officer, the only other foreigner in the township – and entire area, had not returned from the villages. We, on the other hand, didn’t need to worry, because the police knew where we were – having dinner at the small restaurant by the water. This constant surveillance emphasised the necessity in saving the interview recordings in a number of different places. This could have been an over-reaction, but after thus far having encountered numerous surprises in this country I was not going to take any risks.
It appears that the authorities have a need to constantly be in control by knowing the exact whereabouts of foreigners staying within their area of responsibility. Before the country started changing the NGOs, international NGOs in particular, were denied access to the rural areas. Today the situation has changed, but in my opinion it seems that the fear and need of control is still evident in the behaviour of the authorities.
The changes in Myanmar
Without doubt, Myanmar is changing. In cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, the pro-democratic president Thein Sein and his government is working to democratize the country, a political development that was unimaginable a few years ago. However, it appears that these changes are mostly evident on a national level. In the poor villages in the rural areas the changes are still tentative, and as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to get access and to operate in these areas. There is still a long way to go.
Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: grandma smoking a cigar
Master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University
Workplace student at NIAS
Intervention at a conference arranged by South Asia Democratic Forum on the occasion of the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review of ”Pakistan”, Palais des Nations, Geneva, October 30, 2012.
Stig Toft Madsen
Senior Research Fellow
NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
This intervention will cover the period from the return of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 till now. I am speaking as a person who has worked as a sociologist and anthropologist mainly with India, but who has kept an interest in Pakistan as well. For lack of time I have not been able to study the UN reports (e.g. A/HRC/WG.6/14/PAK/1) presented elsewhere today.
Pakistani politics has always had periods of military rule and democratic rule alternating in rather long cycles. Therefore, the return to democracy in 2008 would not necessarily mean the institutionalization of democracy in Pakistan once and for all. But at that time there was a hope that this time around Pakistanis had finally realized the benefits that democracy could bring, that they had learnt to recognize the problems of military rule, that they had become better informed by the electronic media, that they had come to desire the rule of law as, indeed, it appeared at the time from the wide support given to the dismissed Chief Justice Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary and the Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan and, if nothing else, that middle class Pakistanis had amassed sufficient property that they would support democracy to secure political stability.
In fact, the elections held in 2008 were technically fair confirming that the Election Commission is one functioning institution in Pakistan. After the elections, President Musharraf made a rather dignified exit. For a time, the two main political parties stood together in their common opposition to military rule. I remember TV-footage of political leaders joking among themselves and with assembled journalists, and exchanging Urdu couplets in those golden days. But as Shaheryar Azhar reminded his readers, “great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes”.
What does a democratic transition entail? When does a transition get consolidated? When is it completed? According to an article by Schedler
“The consolidation of democracy concludes when democratic actors manage to establish reasonable certainty about the continuity of the new democratic regime.… While the task of transition is to push open the window of uncertainty and create opportunities for democratic change, the challenge of consolidation is to close the window of uncertainty and preclude possibilities of authoritarian regression. Transitions create hopes of democratic change, processes of consolidation confidence into democratic stability” (Schedler 2001).
Transitions, he also argued, may be gradual and even, or they may contain a few defining moments or focal events, or they may be more erratic and fuzzy with many high and lows.
How does Pakistan look in this perspective? Elections put democracy back on the rails in February 2008. That marks a shift, but not a full shift. There was a controlled or guided democracy even under Musharraf with parties and elections, but without the two main civilian leaders in the country, i.e. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. It was the return of these two persons to take part in the elections that marked the beginning of the transition.
The reinstatement of Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary as Chief Justice in March 2009 was a further focal point. Another was the transfer of power from the office of the President to the office of the Prime Minister by the 18th Amendment in 2010. As regards the troubled frontier regions, one may note that for the first time ever political parties have been allowed to operate there. Moreover, one should note that the present regime is now completing its 5-year period in office. That is no mean feat considering that no elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its full term! Do these events add up to a consolidation of democracy in Pakistan? I would say “no”, they do not create full confidence in democratic stability.
Why not? For a start, there has been no systematic reform of the military which would include reducing the economic privileges that officers enjoy, reworking its “doctrines” to further de-escalation rather than escalation in Pakistan’s relation with its neighbours, and breaking the close links with the militant organizations that the military has cultivated.
The attack on Mumbai, it should be remembered, took place not under Musharraf, but in November 2008 after the return of democracy. Investigations have testified to the continued links between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was behind the attack, and the Pakistani military, but the LeT still operates more or less as it has done before.
It is true, on the other hand, that the Pakistani military did stage a major counter-offensive against the Islamic militants in Swat. The operation was relatively successful, but the attack on the pro-schooling activist Malala Yusufzai shows that the same militants are still around. Indeed, militias of various hues have grown stronger in many parts of the country.
The transition, therefore, involves not only the political parties and the military, but also the militants, whose capacity to intimidate and harm, and to set the agenda, and to rule in many areas and across many institutions precludes the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan and even in parts of Afghanistan.
How much of a threat are the Islamic militants? In early 2009, a leading human rights activist, IA Rehman, known for his long work for human right in Pakistan, was willing to give up FATA and PATA (the federally and provincially administered tribal areas), if not the whole of the NWFP. He wrote:
“The sole option will be to buy a truce by separating the Shariah lobby from the terrorists and creating FATA and PATA as a Shariah zone, which may quickly encompass the Frontier province. The question then will be whether Pakistan can contain the pro-Shariah forces within the Frontier region… In such an eventuality, the hardest task for the government will be to protect the Punjab against inroads by militants”. (Rehman 2009).
Pakistan did not break up, but Rehman’s willingness to consider dividing the country stands as a sad testimony to the despair at that time. Remember also that the Government of Pakistan actually did sign an agreement with the militants to turn Swat into a Sharia zone (Shah 2009).
But it was to get worse. The breaking point to me and, I suspect, to many others, was the murder in January 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab. It marked a new low even by Pakistani standards because the murder was done by his own bodyguard, because the other bodyguards did nothing effectively to stop him, because the assassin was affiliated to the ostensibly moderate Barelwi-branch of Islam, because the bodyguard was lionized by members of the legal community otherwise supposed to be a relatively enlightened class, and because many clerics boycotted Taseer’s funeral. The bodyguard killed Taseer because of his support to Asia Noreen Bibi, the poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy about whom we will probably hear more today. This was followed in March by the murder of another Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs. These murders did not occur to further the return of military rule. They occurred for religious reasons. They were the harbingers of a possible transition to theocratic rule which already affects not only Christians: Ahmadiyas, Ismailis, Hindus, Shias, and Barelwis as well as Jews, Americans, Danes and many others, including schoolgirls, are among the legitimate targets.
To deal with this threat to democratic consolidation and to human rights requires an efficient state, and here lies another fault-line. The conflict between the legislative and the judiciary has been carried over from Musharraf’s time, most obviously in the conflict between President Zardari and the Chief Justice who wants to re-open old corruption cases with roots in Switzerland against Zardari. These old cases have been zealously pursued by the judiciary in a manner that has made an ex-member of the Supreme Court of India chastise his Pakistani colleagues for not exercising judiciary restraint (Katju 2012).
In Pakistan itself, the unofficial Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its 2011 report that
“While this expanded role gained the SC immense popularity, it also raised many questions regarding the impact of frequent and extensive invocation of suo motu powers on the courts’ normal work, the difficulties in avoiding the side effects of selective justice, and the consequences of the executive-judiciary or parliament-judiciary confrontation.” (Taqi 2012)
What emerges is the image of a Chief Justice and a Supreme Court overreaching their allotted space within the division of powers, whether for reasons good or bad.
Let me add to this that the fourth pillar of power has also not been as efficient in furthering democratic consolidation as one could hope for. Reasoned political debate is not absent in the Pakistani press. Since I come from Norden, I will take the opportunity to draw your attention to a book written by a Pakistani living in Sweden, i.e. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed about the period around 1947. This book has been meticulously and reasonably debated in both the Pakistani and Indian press. One may also come across provocative and humorous interventions in the Pakistani press, such as Ziauddin Sardar’s little article “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, and the daring satire/desperate sarcasm in the online magazine Viewpoint. However,Pakistani political debate is often an exercise in mud-slinging and venom-spitting which belies any hope that the Pakistani obsession of securing a world without defamation of the Prophet will limit other forms defamation.
Similar unprofessional conduct extends into “the fifth pillar” of the state, i.e. academia, where most recently the journal Nature has written about “predatory journals” where publications-hungry academics pay large sums to be published in sham journals emerging from especially Pakistan, India and Nigeria (Beall 2012). To round off this lament let me mention also the rot in Pakistani sports exemplified by the two Pakistanis who were jailed in the UK and banned from cricket for a period for fixing a cricket match at the Lords in London – only to reappear later as TV commentators in Pakistan (Dawn.com 2012).
I do not think I need to belabour the point any more. What I have been saying is that while a democratic transition from a largely military regime to a largely civilian regime has occurred, there has been little in the way of democratic consolidation. Pervez Musharraf in 2004 said he wanted “enlightened moderation”, but unenlightened extremism is what the Pakistanis still get as the country moves from Crisis to Crisis, in the process earning a bad name for democracy. I have been able to give you only a limited number of examples of this. However, they are no mere incidents. They form a coherent pattern.
(Slightly revised 6 November 2012)
Ahmed, Ishtiaq, 2012, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford University Press.
Azhar, Shaheryar “The Way Forward”, Daily Times, 27 February 2008, www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C02%5C27%5Cstory_27-2-2008_pg3_6
Beall, Jeffrey, “Predatory publishers are corrupting open access” Nature 489: 179, 13 September 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/predatory-publishers-are-corrupting-open-access-1.11385
Dawn.com, “Butt and Amir on TV as pundits during World T20”, 18 September 2012, http://dawn.com/2012/09/18/salman-butt-mohammad-amir-tv-experts/
Feldman, Herbert, 1972, From Crisis to Crisis: Pakistan 1962-1969, London.
Katju, Markandey, “Pakistan’s Supreme Court has gone overboard”, The Hindu, opinion, 21 June 2012, www.thehindu.com/opinion/article3553558.ece?homepage=true
Noorani, AG, “A right to insult”, Frontline, 2 November 2012, pp. 80-86.
Rehman, IA, 2009, “Shariah Zone: One Solution for Pakistan?” Dawn.com, 12 February, http://archives.dawn.com/archives/142170
Schedler, A, “Taking Uncertainty Seriously: The Blurred Boundaries of Democratic Transition and Consolidation”, Democratization, 8:4, 1-22, 2001.
Shah, Waseem Ahmad, 2009, Pak govt signs Malakand sharia deal”, Dawn.com, 16 February, http://archives.dawn.com/archives/124111
Taseer, Shehrbano, “The Girl Who Changed Pakistan”, Newsweek, October 29, 2012, pp. 30-35.
Sardar, Ziauddin, “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, Emel, November-December 2004, www.emel.com/article?id=9&a_id=1830
Sulehria, Farooq, “Pakistan awaiting the clerical tsunami: Pervez Hoodbhoy”. Viewpoint, online issue 125, November 2, 2012, www.viewpointonline.net/pakistan-awaiting-the-clerical-tsunami-pervez-hoodbhoy.html
Taqi, Mohammad, “Judging the Judges”, View from Pakistan”, Outlook India, 19 April 2012, www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?280620
 Shaukat Aziz did complete his 5-years term as Prime Minister under Musharraf.
 On blasphemy, see the article in Newsweek by Shehrbano Taseer, a daughter of Salman Taseer (Taseer 2012), the interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy in Viewpoint on the rising tide of extremism (Sulehria 2012), and AG Noorani in Frontline (2012) for a problematic liberal defense of the Islam that hardly exists, but in whose name others are required to stay silent to avoid holy wrath.
 For those conversant with Urdu, and even for those without such knowledge, watch “MQM & PML-N showing his Ethics & Character (Live on Talk shows)”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?=BKLpZ60u_Bo where two leaders trade insults, and “Malik Riaz Planted Leaked Interview with Mehar bukhari and Mubashir Lukman on dunya tv Part 1”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoNuNPMR5kI where TV anchors at Dunya News engage in a manipulative interview of a businessman who had accused the son of the Chief Justice of corruption.
 From Crisis to Crisis was the title of Feldman’s 1972 book about Pakistan.
Svenska Akademiens beslut att 2012 års Nobelpris i litteratur går till den kinesiske författaren Mo Yan är ett val som får enorm uppmärksamhet i Kina. Det är svårt att överskatta Nobelprisernas betydelse i ett land och en kultur där dessa utmärkelser – i synnerhet de naturvetenskapliga – varit stora nyheter alltsedan reformpolitiken inleddes 1978. I en kultur som kännetecknas av konfuciansk lärdomstradition har mytbildningen runt priserna och ceremonierna i Stockholm och Oslo befunnit sig i ett avlägset stjärnsystem dit man innerligt önskat att en kines någon gång skulle nå.
Denna längtan är starkt förknippad med erkännande och upprättelse. Ända sedan den kommunistiska revolutionen 1949 har generationer kineser genom skolböcker och av statligt kontrollerade nyhetsmedier internaliserat ”de hundra åren av förödmjukelse” som tiden från det första opiumkriget 1842 via kejsardömets fall 1911 till Mao Zedongs bonderevolution har beskrivits.
Kina och den kinesiska kulturen som västerlandet dömde ut som ”Asiens sjuke man” i slutet av 1800-talet hade visserligen rest sig, som Mao yttrade när Folkrepubliken Kina utropades den 1 oktober 1949 på Himmelska fridens port i Peking. Men kineser drömde fortfarande om att komma ikapp väst på alla de sätt om utmärker en moderniserad och avancerad kulturnation, inte minst inom litteraturens domän.
Döm därför om den besvikelse som det officiella Kina och kommunistpartiet kände när Nobelpriset i litteratur år 2000 gavs till den regimkritiske författaren Gao Xingjian, som har franskt, inte kinesiskt, medborgarskap. Det priset har regimen länge tigit som muren om, även om det inom intellektuella kretsar visserligen finns de som uppskattar Gaos författarskap. Tio år senare tillfogade den norska Nobelkommittén enpartistaten en än värre kalldusch, när man beslutade att tilldela Nobels fredspris till regimkritikern och dissidenten Liu Xiaobo.
Sedan 2010 har det verkat som att Kina närmast gett upp hoppet om att få ett ”riktigt” erkännande av kinesisk kultur trots de senaste årens allt starkare ekonomiska och politiska ställning i världen. Bara några dagar innan Svenska Akademiens ständige sekreterare Peter Englund stegade ut inför den samlade världspressen och den kinesiska statstelevisionens kameror, kritiserade kommunistpartiets populistiska flaggskepp Global Times de humanistiska Nobelpriserna, det vill säga fredspriset och litteraturpriset, för att vara bemängda med västerländska värden, per definition endast sken-universalistiska och egentligen diskriminerande av andra världskulturer.
Efter beskedet om att 2012 års litteraturpristagare blir den 57-årige författaren Mo Yan syns den negativa kritiken och dåliga stämningen vara som bortblåst. I kommunistpartiets språkrör Folkets Dagblad, den statliga centraltelevisionen CCTV, temasektioner på kinesiska nyhetsportaler och i deras kommentarsfält kan man bevittna den stolthet och glädje som helt självklart följer på erhållandet av ett så oerhört prestigefyllt pris.
Frågan är om Kinas Nobelkomplex slutligen har övervunnits. I varje fall fylls de traditionella massmedierna och de sociala medierna som till exempel mikrobloggarna med nationalistiskt färgade yttringar i stil med ”Otroligt glädjande, grattis Mo Yan, grattis Kina” och ”För ett gammalt land och en gammal civilisation som Kina är detta stora pris alltför sent kommet. Men trots det – mina varmaste gratulationer till Mäster Mo Yan”.
Hur ska man tolka denna stolta nationalkänsla – som andas ett ”äntligen” och ”till slut” – som är såväl folkligt förankrat som statssanktionerat? Betyder somligas suck av lättnad och glädjen över att icke-västliga värden, den kinesiska ”verkligheten” och kinesiska sanningsanspråk erkänns av en länge ointresserad, okunnigt, och ovänligt sinnad västvärld? Kanske upplever de röster i de officiella medierna som har uttryckt att Kinas ekonomiska och politiska uppstigande medför att utlandet måste intressera sig mer för allt kinesiskt nu viss upprättelse?
Dessa frågor är ytterst angelägna när Kinas inflytande i, men också starka nationalism gentemot, omvärlden ökar. På Kinas största nyhetsportal Sina toppade nyheten om Mo Yans Nobelpris nyhetsagendan den 11 oktober, och som nummer två fanns nyheten att kinesiska utrikesdepartementet hårt kritiserar Japans ”illegala kontroll” över Senkaku-öarna som Kina anser vara en del av Kinas territorium.
Under hösten 2012 har den territoriella konflikten mellan Kinas och Japans regeringar om ögruppen trappats upp, ivrigt påhejad av nationalistiska hetsporrar i både länderna. I kinesiska städer demonstrerade under september tusentals människor som brände japanska bilar och manade till bojkott av örikets varor. På kinesiska internet fällde hundratusentals människor hatfyllda uttalanden mot grannen i öst. Många hävdade att krig med Tokyo inte alls var otänkbart, utan tvärtom nödvändigt och till och med önskvärt.
Denna nationalism har inte uppstått ur tomma intet. Som i många andra kinesiska författares och konstnärers verk finns också hos Mo Yans ”Det röda fältet” realistiska skildringar av den japanska arméns grymma frammarsch över den kinesiska jorden under motståndskriget mot Japan mellan 1937 och 1945. Inom kommunistpartiet gillas kanske inte hur Mo beskriver partiets relativa, och alls inte absoluta, betydelse för de kinesiska styrkornas militära framgångar mot japanerna. Men ändå framstår hans ämne som patriotiskt korrekt, i en tid och samtidskontext när nationalism alltmer blir det kitt som håller samman både kommunistpartiet och det omgivande samhället. Det går därför inte heller att bortse från den nye Nobelpristagarens medlemskap i kommunistpartiet.
Bortsett från hans obestridliga litterära kvaliteter och den kritik mot sociala strukturer, lokalt maktmissbruk och ekonomisk vanskötsel som finns i Mo Yans verk, finns det någon vidare politisk betydelse i författarskapet för Kina i dag? Hur ser han som författare i ett auktoritärt styrt land på brännande frågor om censur och kontroll av massmedier och internet? Finns det alls ett moraliskt ansvar att utkräva eller är det endast en störande fråga som skymmer hans bokproduktion?
Den världsberömde konstnären och ständige nageln i ögat på den kinesiska regimen, Ai Weiwei, uttryckte på sitt Twitterkonto att ”Författare som inte förmår stå upp för sanningen inte kan skiljas från lögnare”. Den kände bloggaren Bei Feng var ursinnig över den kinesiska internetcensur som helt spärrade ut honom ur internetlandskapet efter kritik av Mo Yans Nobelpris: ”Efter en avvikande åsikt på Sina Weibo om att Mo Yan tilldelats priset utraderades mitt konto – medan Mo Yan sade att priset illustrerar en tid då man kan yttra sig fritt. Jag anser de här händelserna bäst illustrerar nivån på den Svenska Akademien”. Troligen kommer åsikterna mellan liberala konstutövare och mer systembevarande nationalistiska intellektuella att brytas hårt under kommande månader – på internet där de i väntan på censurens näve ibland kan mötas i debatt.
Vissa hävdar att man ändå bör vara försiktig med pekpinnar. Och det finns förutsättningar för att kinesisk politik kan förändras också genom reformsinnade krafter som verkar inom kommunistpartiet och genom det som den amerikanske sinologen Timothy Cheek har kallat för ”de etablissemangsintellektuella”. Men om dessa personer utomlands får frågor om arbetsläger, dissidenter och mänskliga rättigheter blir det förstås plågsamt. Att yttra sig kritiskt om tillståndet för mänskliga rättigheter i Kina skulle innebära utraderade möjligheter för dem att verka för det fria ordet inom etablissemangets strukturer.
Detta gäller också för Mo Yan. Ombedd att kommentera statens behandling av Liu Xiaobo, mottagaren fredspriset 2010, blev svaret att han ”visste för lite om det hela”. Vid något anat tillfälle ska han ha uttryckt att ”skrika på gatorna är något för vissa, medan andra försöker förändra genom arbete på kammaren”. Det är en hållning som den berömde kinesiske idéhistorikern Wang Hui i ett samtal med mig anslöt sig till: ”Vad tycker ni i väst att vi borde göra, springa ut på gatorna och demonstrera? Inte säkert det är mödan värt!” Inte bara kan offentliga protester innebära slutet på en yrkeskarriär, menade Wang, det kan också vara mindre effektivt än att gradvis påverka partikulturen inifrån.
Och även om en författare som Mo Yan helst håller sig på armlängds avstånd från dagsaktuell politik och frågor om dissidenter, är han i romaner och noveller starkt kritisk till sociala missförhållanden på landsbygden i Shandongprovinsen. Bitande sarkasm och beskrivningar av lokalt maktmissbruk och översitteri finns också i ”Vitlöksballaderna”. Landsbygdens kvävande patriarkala ordning är något som Mo Yan kritiserar i sina verk, liksom hur ettbarnspolitiken i inlandsprovinserna leder till överskott på pojkar.
Dessa förvisso vassa skildringar av Kinas sociala liv och lokala pampvälden gör honom dock inte till en subversiv samhällsskildrare. Kritik mot samhällsfenomen som korruption, maktmissbruk, miljöförstöring och landkonfiskation är möjlig att framföra i dagens Kina bland fler än författare. Den subversive kritiserar kommunistpartiet som ”samhällets ledande kraft”, organiserar religiösa, politiska eller arbetarintressen i syfte att genomdriva politiska reformer för sin sak. Men kritik mot kommunistpartiets maktutövning på landsbygden är faktiskt relativt vanligt inom statskontrollerade medier och det finns reformsinnade krafter som premiärminister Wen Jiabao till och med i politbyråns ständiga utskott.
Mo Yan får Nobelpriset i litteratur när Kina befinner sig i en brytningstid mellan gammalt och nytt. Kommunistpartiets ömsar ledarskinn i år. Ekonomin är skakig och spänningarna mellan olika grupper och intressen i samhället ökar, inte minst mellan stad och landsbygd. Den nya politbyrå som tar form efter den 18:e partikongressen som inleds den 8 november kommer att regera landet och influera världspolitiken fram till år 2022. Det kommer att bli ansträngande. Under detta decennium ska svåra utmaningar hemmavid och från omvärlden pareras.
Den kanske största och svåraste frågan är hur länge ett alltmer pluralistiskt samhälle och dess intellektuella – konstnärer, författare och forskare – kan begränsas i sitt sanningssökande av den leninistiska enpartistaten. Kommer kraven från ett framväxande civilsamhälle med rötter i både arbetar- bonde-, och medelklass mötas med våldsam repression – eller med ny vilja till kompromisser, dialog och reformer? Kommer förväntningar från utlandet på ett ansvarstagande och än öppnare Kina mötas av lyhördhet, eller mer av det nationalistiska trummande som ljudit under den senaste tiden?
En stor berättare och skildrare av den kinesiska samtiden som Mo Yan skulle ha mycket intressant att säga om dessa viktiga frågor. Men troligen tiger han hellre, som när han tillfrågades om författarkollegan och numera Nobelpriskollegan Liu Xiaobos belägenhet i fängelse. I så fall ger det eftertryck åt pseudonymen som mannen som föddes som Guan Moye 1955 bär. På kinesiska betyder nämligen Mo Yan ”tala inte” eller om man så vill – ingen kommentar. För två år sedan stod Liu Xiabos stol tom under prisceremonin i Oslo. När Nobelpriset åter tilldelas en kinesisk medborgare kommer någon att sitta på avsedd stol, men vad kommer den som sitter där att säga? Vad kan han säga?
Johan Lagerkvist är docent i kinesiska och forskare vid Utrikespolitiska institutet.
Denna text är ursprungligen publicerad i Svenska Dagbladet 12 oktober 2012 .