Consent of the Governed

I’d like to share a story with you. It’s been on my mind lately, and it’s one I won’t forget.

Not quite ten years ago, I was dressed in black and waiting nervously to enter, stage left, for my role as “Director” in a high school production of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s one-act play, Aria da Capo. Written in 1921, the play followed the first World War and was a pointed criticism of a world that could survive such devastation and forget. The “war to end all wars” did not, in fact, end all wars, after all, and with the clarity of a poet, Millay seemed to see the amnesia creeping over the world sooner than most.

The play is as simple as the point is powerful: two shepherds murder each other over nothing. Two comedic characters come on next and struggle to play their farce over the bodies of the shepherds. When the clowns are too distressed to go on, the director (my role) steps in an encourages them to play on, promising that “the audience will forget.”

This was in early 2002, scarcely six months after the attack on the World Trade Center. The play touched me on one level, as I had the sense that our wonderful librarian/genius mentor/friend/real-life director was seeing the quietly powerful message in light of recent world events that were mostly cloaked in mystery as far as I was concerned. We were all afraid then, if you remember. Half of us were afraid of the terrorists, the other half of our own government, but we were all afraid. One another level, however, I was an immortal youth who would never die, and it was a struggle to truly empathize with the ideas and emotions we were meant to portray.

On the night of our performance, our director took our little troupe into the prop room and told us a story that had been told to her when she was about out age, just leaving Burma to come to the United States. Her mother had taken her to see a woman in Rangoon, if I remember correctly, and this woman described a scene where university students had been brutally slaughtered by the Burmese military the night before. The next morning, where were the bodies? The survivors? Gone. Cleaned up and never spoken of again. The woman told this story to our director in the hopes that it would not be forgotten, in hope that the truth would come out in America and shine a light to burn away the shadowy shackles that chain the people of Burma.

I carry the story with me, uncertain what to do with it. In college, a year or so later, I started researching the history of Burma to try to figure out what riot or massacre my director had been told about. As is often the case with children and adults, I have a poor sense of how old my teacher is in relation to myself, but I am fairly certain she would have been older than seventeen in 1988, during the fairly well-known protests of the students at Rangoon University. I am also reasonably sure she’s too young to have been that old in 1962, during the initial wave of conflict as the military government overthrew Burma’s short-lived republic.

That leaves, from the scant amount of data I could find regarding student protests (Google and Wikipedia were not yet the reliable sources of outline information they now are), the unrest in 1974 over the funeral of U Thant. Did you know that the first non-westerner to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations was from Burma? Did you know, furthermore, that he was instrumental in keeping the Cuban Missile Crisis, no pun intended, from blowing up? Did you know that he supported the many Americans who opposed the Vietnam War? Or that he was unanimously re-appointed to a second term as Secretary-General? His people certainly did, and when their dictator did not treat his funeral as one for a great hero of the people, the students rose up and died for raising their voices.

It seems to be a cycle in Burma, since the military took over. The generals neglect, abuse, and terrorize their people. In fear of the armed military supporting the generals, the people keep quiet for long periods of time, until they can stand no more. Then, when the monks and the students come together in peaceful protest en masse, the military kills, imprisons, and tortures them all.

Burma (which I will call Myanmar only when that name change has been put forward by the people who are now oppressed by their own government, in case you were wondering) has been on my mind lately as I’ve listened to news of the political fire spreading throughout Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt. The issues are different, but they all accuse their governments of failing to recognize the importance of the consent of the governed. Where the situation becomes dangerous is, inevitably, where a small portion of the consenting governed happens to be the portion that is heavily armed, i.e., the military. It worries me to see militaries taking the part of the governments–the point of a military is to protect the governed, not terrorize them.

I worry because the U.S. has a standing army, a large group of men and women who are armed on our native soil whether or not there is an immediate threat of attack. They are trained to obey orders, which is good when that training saves lives in the heat of battle, but worrisome when you stop to consider where their first instinct of loyalty will lie if American citizens ever decide that the government has grown too corrupt to be allowed to continue without severe and possibly disruptive changes. Will they trust the men and women who have saved their lives in dangerous situations, or will they defend the critical public who can never understand what price a soldier pays for the freedom of civilians?

In general, I imagine the U.S. is more economically stable than Burma. Per capita, I’m certain our standard of living is higher, and it’s an old truism that citizens don’t often rebel against governments as long as the majority has enough of bread, circuses, and perceived representation of their interests. Violent instability on a national scale would probably require a bigger economic crisis than the one we’re slowly pulling out of and, most likely, the slow burn of unreasonable suffering, which takes time to build. Such a crisis is not, unfortunately, completely inconceivable…which means, of course, that my paranoid brain is conceiving of it and worrying.

I don’t have any particular point to make by sharing this story, except to note that maybe the U.S. is not as far away from being in the position of the Burmese people as we might like to imagine it is. For now, I have no idea what to do with this information other than to remember it often and share it. Maybe if there are enough of us out there remembering this story, when history presents us with an opportunity to act against violence and on behalf of the consent of the governed, we will be able to make sure that the audience does not forget.

 

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