Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Several prominent bloggers, basking in the glow of their medium's collective triumph over the New York Times, have decided on a new project: bringing freedom to Burma, where a brutal dictatorship has recently launched a crackdown on its main political opposition. Now, I hold no brief for the Burmese government, which is by all accounts exceedingly nasty. But it's important to remember that the blogosphere's choice of Burma as cause of the moment is not merely a consequence of its being run by a brutal dictatorship--after all, any number of countries fit that description. In fact, to get adopted by sympathetic Westerners, a nation's suffering population must possess one more thing: an opposition leader with enough political support to be a credible alternative to the current despots. (It helps, of course, if the opposition leader is articulate, attractive and Western-educated, like Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose recent imprisonment set off the latest round of bloggers' outrage.)

Now, I don't deny that this selection criterion makes a certain amount of sense. After all, if the alternative to the current despot is either another despot or complete anarchy--or if there is simply no credible alternative to prefer--then it's hard to muster enthusiasm for deposing the ruling bad guy. But it does mean that the integrity and democratic bona fides of the opposition leader merit careful scrutiny. Corazon Aquino, for example, worked out pretty well--but Robert Mugabe and Jean-Baptiste Aristide (to mention just two cases that come to mind) were both lionized as democratizers in their day, and both were terrible disappointments, arguably every bit as bad as their predecessors.

In fact, it turns out that Aung San Suu Kyi's record is a very promising one. She won an election in 1990, for example, and she has a long history of speaking out on behalf of democracy in general, not just opposition to the current government in particular. Still, because these campaigns are almost always implicitly on behalf of a particular alternative--not just against a particular evil--the details of that alternative should be placed front and center, and examined carefully for plausibility and decency. Western attention is a scarce resource, after all, and should not be squandered on an undeserving politician, however monstrous his or her opponent.

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