Given his great contribution to our understanding of tyranny and how it corrupts language, it has become nearly obligatory to begin any discussion of this topic with a quotation from George Orwell.
One of Orwell’s most well-used and prescient warnings comes from his essay Politics and the English Language. “In our time,” he wrote in 1946, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He noted that “defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population…People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”
To bring Orwell’s comments up to date, we might also say that a cabal of generals can seize power, imprison a country’s duly-elected leaders and put an entire nation under martial law and call it “preserving democratic norms.”
The recent military coup in Myanmar, in which a nascent and struggling democracy has been plunged back into tyranny, holds particular relevance to Orwell’s work. Not only does the current misuse of language by the country’s coup leaders fit perfectly with his observations from the last century, but Orwell’s own thoughts on this matter were deeply influenced by the years he spent working in this perpetually benighted land.
Orwell of the Indian Imperial Police Force
From the age of 19, Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name) was a member of the Indian Imperial Police Force. It was a job that corresponded to what he called his “lower-upper-middle class” upbringing – he served as a representative of the British Empire subject to all its obligations and duties, but lacked any real authority or moral agency. He served five years in a variety of posts throughout the country previously known as Burma, including several years in the jungle delta around the capital of Rangoon, now Yangon. Much of his early writing is rooted in these experiences.
In his famous essay Shooting An Elephant, Orwell feels the strain of being alone in a strange land while shouldering the Empire’s burdens. As the local manifestation of British power, he is sent to kill a rogue elephant wreaking havoc on local villages. He dutifully carries out this task, but it renders him emotionally crippled: “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys. My whole life…was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” For Orwell, colonialism was an arrangement based on lies: it corrupted and deformed both the colonized and the colonizer. In A Hanging, another essay, he sets out a powerful argument against capital punishment based on similar foundations.
After years of bearing daily witness to the colonial relationship between the English sahib class and the locals, he came to see the Empire as a “racket.” In his first novel, Burmese Days, he characterized it as an enterprise in which the policeman holds down the native while the businessman picks his pockets. As he later wrote, “I was in the Indian police force for five years, and by the end of that time, I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness I probably can’t make clear. I felt I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.”
Orwell’s views on the nature of political control and totalitarianism were further defined by his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War for a Marxist militia, where he witnessed first hand the corrosive and bloody influence of Stalin’s Russia on the Republican war effort. He came to understand that tyranny – whether arising from an Empire, a political creed, or the will of a strongman – rests upon the institutionalization of lies. Language must be habitually abused, corrupted, and bent to serve the demands of political authority. Myanmar’s newly installed military leadership merely provide the latest evidence of this grotesque process.
Preserving “Democratic Norms”
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power on February 1. Frustrated by their weakened grip on government, they used the results of last year’s elections, comfortably and fairly won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), as an opportunity to retake full control. Myanmar’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, declared himself “state leader” and announced a year-long state of emergency. In predictably Orwellian fashion, the Tatmadaw issued a formal statement asserting such action was in adherence to “democratic norms.” Later, the new leaders banned the use of the terms “regime”, “junta” and “coup” to describe the current situation; several well-known personalities were charged with making social media statements that included these “incorrect words.”
In a further virtuosic display of twisted language, Chinese state media later legitimized the coup by referring to it as a “major cabinet reshuffle” rather than the coup it actually was. And along with Russia, China also derailed a United Nations effort to strongly condemn the takeover. Authoritarian regimes like to stick together.
It’s necessary to point out that in seizing power, the military broke the constitution it wrote in 2008 to facilitate the evolution of Myanmar from military rule to quasi-civilian government. This constitution created a complicated power-sharing process that guarantees the military a quarter of seats in parliament, as well as the critical cabinet portfolios of defence, police and border affairs. While Suu Kyi was forbidden to contest the 2010 election, in 2015 the NLD won in a landslide. Her party won the 2020 election by an even larger margin. But this time, the military decided they no longer wanted to share power with civilians. A few weeks before the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing demanded that he be named President. Suu Kyi properly rejected this. (Despite her political dominance, she has been denied the position of president on a technicality. Her close ally Win Myint serves as president while she has the title of State Counselor.) And so the General took what he could not win at the ballot box.
The ostensible justification for the coup was that the election commission fraudulently facilitated the 2020 NLD victory. Apart from some minor pro-military factions, no one in the country seriously believes this. Within a few hours of the coup, Myanmar was turned upside down, and the nation’s fledging sense of democracy was gutted. Suu Kyi and Win Myint were arrested in the early hours of the coup. Tanks and armed soldiers blocked the 20-lane highway outside the Parliament Building. Elected members of Parliament were held hostage in the municipal centre. Within hours, Naypyitaw, the nation’s capital, was turned into a ghost city.
As Facebook is the primary source of information for most of the country’s 54 million inhabitants, the military ordered internet providers to block the platform to “ensure stability.” Running this phrase through our Orwellian tyranny translator, its true meaning seems abundantly clear. It is meant to limit the flow of information and stifle pro-democracy activities.
Reports From Inside Myanmar
As a university professor in Thailand since 2016, I’ve had the privilege of teaching many students from Myanmar. When they invited me to visit them, I was delighted to do so – Myanmar is a beautiful country and the hospitality of its people is legendary. My students welcomed me like an old friend, arranging introductions to various academics, writers, artists, and musicians. Given this personal connection, when news of the coup first appeared, I quickly reached out to my friends inside Myanmar via email, which had not yet been blocked, to get their on-the-ground observations. For obvious reasons, they all asked to remain anonymous.
One astute observer of the political scene admitted, “I have miscalculated the attitude of our generals. I thought that General Min Aung Hlaing would avoid the way of our previous dictators because he is under international sanctions for serious human rights violations. And the country is under lockdown from the Covid pandemic. But I was wrong. Neither the threat of international pressure or the global pandemic is enough to deter our generals.”
Another correspondent from Yangon offered a sense of the dislocation created by the takeover: “On the day of the coup, the crowded downtown area became very quiet. A long line of people queued in front of the ATMs. People rushed to buy rice and other basic foods in the markets. The internet was temporarily shut down as soldiers raided the telecom offices and cut the lines from around 2 am. We immediately lost connection with the whole world.”
She continues: “The younger generation has been the hardest hit. My son and his university friends have lost their online jobs. Food delivery boys lost their jobs as the online food ordering system is broken. Many people cannot use their ATM because of connection failures. Supermarkets don’t accept cards because their point-of-sale system doesn’t work. The taxi app displays the message ’no connection found.’ If we list the problems occurred by temporary internet shut down, it is going to be a long list.”
Parents everywhere can appreciate her situation. “The young generation can’t stay a minute away from social media and internet access. They soon got fed up with the coup. Even though the internet connection came back in a few hours, the authorities forced telecom operators to ban Facebook, the most popular social media network in Myanmar. People immediately searched private networks to bypass the local internet pipeline. And once they got back on Facebook, they openly expressed their anti-coup sentiments.”
Another correspondent told me: “The military-owned Myawaddy TV Channel announced that the reason for the coup is the potential election fraud in the 2020 elections. Most people know that this is just a transparent excuse and that the military wants to take back power from the people. The generals understand only a guardian mindset. They believe in militarism, not democracy.”
“Today is the seventh consecutive day of mass protests,” added another writer, somewhat bolder in his beliefs. “I have been hearing noises of car honking and revolutionary songs in my neighbourhood and from the Yangon outskirts’ roads since 10 am. It has become the new normal of Myanmar today. The people will not recognize the military regime. They will not… obey its unjust laws and orders. People show no fear. The world is closely watching.”
Not everyone is so effusive or optimistic, however. A 79-year old woman expressed a very different view of the events. “I would exchange my life to end this military rule,” she told me plainly. “I’m too old to live under military rule. I lived enough under the military from 1962 to 2010. It’s more than enough. I lived under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government peacefully from 2015. I thought I could leave my country with democracy and peace before I die. But I’m feeling hopeless now.”
A Once and Future Beacon
Against the tyranny of the generals, various pro-democracy voices have started to give voice to the private views expressed by my correspondents. Min Ko Naing, one of Myanmar’s most prominent pro-democracy activists and former political prisoner of the 1988 coup, has called for non-violent action. He has set up the Anti-coup Nonviolence Movement 2021, which aims to continue the parliamentary activities by elected MPs, coordinate a general strike, and accelerate national and unifying non-violent activities.
But the most powerful democratic voice in Myanmar remains, of course, the 75-year old Suu Kyi, who is still being detained. She has appealed to the people to oppose the military coup through all non-violent means, including civil disobedience and online campaigns, as well as boycotting the military’s unjust laws and orders. Her appeal has led to what many are calling the “Drum Revolution.” To show their solidarity with the anti-coup movement, neighbourhoods throughout the country began banging pots and pans, the traditional Burmese method of driving out evil.
This continuing focus on Suu Kyi as the face of Myanmar democracy presents a great dilemma for many western observers. She was once considered a beacon for international human rights for her courage in facing down Myanmar’s military junta. During her 15-years of house arrest, she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and hailed as an “outstanding example of the power of the powerless.” Amnesty International gave her its highest honour, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, in 2009.
Set against praise for her long crusade to bring democracy to her country, however, has been growing international outrage over an endless internal conflict involving Muslim Rohingya refugees in the north of Myanmar. After her 2015 election victory, many global organizations expected her to solve the Rohingya situation to their satisfaction. But Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn her own government ‘s actions at international forums led to her swift condemnation among the global elite. Amnesty International rescinded her award in 2018, calling her actions a “shamefully betrayal of the values she once stood for.” There were demands that her Nobel Prize be withdrawn as well.
But if dictators and empires can misuse language, so too can NGOs. The violence ensnaring the Rohingya, Rakhine, Kachin, Karen, and other ethnic minorities long pre-dates Suu Kyi’s tenure. By some measures, Myanmar is enmeshed in the world’s longest civil war. All this is the consequence of the extended militarism that began with a 1962 coup that brought the dictator Ne Win to power and led to many decades of one-party rule and set the stage for the army’s continued political dominance.
Suu Kyi’s political career has been devoted to transitioning Myanmar away from this authoritarian rule to democracy. As the daughter of Aung San, the founder of Myanmar’s military who was assassinated when she was two-years-old, she is well-versed in how the army’s mindset has changed during her lifetime. In her father’s era, the military was seen as the people’s servant. Today they serve themselves.
In demanding that she resolve a long-standing internal dispute to the standard of western ideals, her critics have dramatically misrepresented her power and ignored the fraught nature of the 2008 constitution. A Suu Kyi-led government has never controlled the military, the police force, or the border guard. The fact the Tatmadaw retains a veto in the legislature effectively places it above the law.
The mere fact she has been handed a prestigious award by some liberal organization does not automatically confer on her the ability to achieve idealized democratic outcomes. In her first term, she attempted to amend the constitution and return legitimate power to the people. But her amendment failed because she could not get the military to agree to limit its own power. Even within the framework of the military’s own 2008 constitution, her growing democratic legitimacy is regarded as an existential threat by the Tatmadaw. Given what we now know, it would clearly have been impossible for Suu Kyi to have chastised the generals to Amnesty International’s satisfaction in 2018.
As another of my local informants writes, “The recent coup shows that the military has absolute power. The armed forces can take power anytime by any violent means. The previous NLD government was a competition between military and civilian rule. Finally, the military violently abused their power.”
Unlike fair-weather western friends, this Myanmar writer understands the constraints placed on Suu Kyi, and her indispensable role in pushing back against those boundaries: “Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be our beacon of freedom and democracy. She shows us the difference between authoritarian and democratic governments and counsels us to believe in people’s power but not in coercive power. As a spiritual leader, she inspires us to keep fighting militarism with the only weapon we have – courage.”
Freedom is Slavery
Orwell began his writing career mining his Burmese experiences. But it is his last and greatest work, the prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, that holds the most significance today. Through the experiences of the protagonist Winston Smith we encounter Big Brother, The Ministry of Truth, thoughtcrimes, two minutes hate and The Thought Police, all of which have become standard terms today.
Smith worked in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, an agency of the government of Oceania whose raison d’être was encapsulated in the slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” His never-ending task was to re-write historical documents to cohere with the constantly changing party line. The official dogmas were captured by flatly asserted lies: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” Documents that proved inconsistent with this current orthodoxy were sent down the memory hole, a pneumatic contraption from which no piece of paper ever emerged. As Orwell writes, “When there were no external records you could refer to, even your own life lost its sharpness.”
Orwell’s prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us the concepts of Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth, thoughtcrimes, two minutes hate and the Thought Police.
Smith grows doubtful of the Party’s monopoly on the truth. He joins the Brotherhood, a resistance movement determined to overthrow the Party’s dictatorship. There he puts his trust in O’Brien, who, alas, turns out not to be a fellow revolutionary but an agent of the Thought Police.
O’Brien becomes Smith’s torturer and applies to his victim a series of increasingly painful electrical shocks: “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has any real existence?” At first, Winston defiantly asserts that there is an objective past and that there is, in human life, something external, existing in its own right, and immune to human manipulation. In his diary, Smith has heretically written, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”
But after enduring months of excruciating torment, Winston is finally broken. He eventually concedes to O’Brien that two fingers plus two fingers do not necessarily add up to four fingers, but to whatever number the Party says. O’Brien, adopting the conciliatory tone of a concerned parent, gently reminds Smith, “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
The people of Myanmar are now subject to a similar injunction to “try harder.” A military leader has seized power, they are told, to preserve democracy. What changes have occurred should be considered a mere cabinet reshuffle. And to maintain stability, modern communications have been interrupted and certain words banned. By abusing language in this way, authoritarians seek to revoke our democratic freedoms.
Against it all, however, a drum-beat of hope remains.
Patrick Keeney is associate editor of C2C Journal and a visiting scholar at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.