The paradoxes of progress

 Published in: The Daily Star on July 4, 2018
The paradoxes of progress

Rohingya refugees fleeing into Bangladesh from Myanmar in October 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Humanity is supposed to have progressed. A Harvard University professor, Steven Pinker, argues in favour of it in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. On maximum standards of well-being, we are apparently faring way better than we did ever before. Yet, he shares his disappointment over people like us who have difficulty appreciating and understanding the strides the human race has made so far. Pinker almost risks sounding like Pollyanna, the orphan of Beldingsville, who is happily playing The Glad Game forever, feeling pleasure in pain, suppressing disappointment with optimism that, in reality, has no tomorrow.

Is the world better today?

True, in 1986, we had 65,000 nuclear warheads, whereas we have only 10,000 today. In almost 75 measurable standards, we are now told that there have been improvements in many areas including life expectancy, declining child and maternal mortality, etc. Today we have increased calorie consumption, declining famines, increasing per capita income, reduced poverty rate, decreasing pollution and an acceptable level of democracy and human rights. It’s also reported that people today opt more for leisure and achieve more as well. Wars and genocides are supposed to be relatively less catastrophic when compared to the nine-times-deadlier tribal warfare of ancient times. Apparently, the medieval Europe had 30 times higher rate of murder than today. Today, slavery (in traditional terms) has vanished; executions are unacceptable and wars between countries kill fewer people than what they did a few decades ago. Rapes and riots are also down. Apparently.

But the circus of audacity is far from over. In spite of all the “progress” humanity has achieved, we have dangerous lunatics living amongst us, who threaten the core of conscience. Two days ago, America’s National Rifle Association released a video threatening journalists. It warned “every lying member of the media” as TV host Dana Loesch appears in the video, dressed in black, complete with an hourglass by her side, cautioning the “media” and “Hollywood phony” against their use of free speech, which “alter and undermine” what the US flag represents. The video also warns them about time running out for them. This was shared by NRATV, who define themselves as “America’s Most Patriotic Team On A Mission To Take Back The Truth.” If this be the case, then is falsehood actually being crafted as truth? Have we all started to play The Glad Game just like the little fictional Pollyanna?

Is the world becoming delusional by the minute?

Currently, different parts of the globe look very similar. A ‘New Turkey’ apparently emerged on June 24 this year. Erdogan combined a sense of Islamic nationalism with Ottoman longings and a tinge of Kemal Ataturk nostalgia to win the election. Yet he nullified the parliamentary system, which was established by Ataturk, and replaced it with a presidential one. In 2017, Erdogan won a referendum by a slim majority and put in place a few new changes, and with the last election, he now has full control of the executive with the authority to issue decrees, appoint his cabinet, dissolve parliament and indulge in political appointments. After his latest victory, he can now freely hound opponents, just like he did in 2016 when thousands were put in prisons. He can also stifle media or manipulate news content to his pleasure or fancy.

Another political lunatic that one could always pick on is Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. His anecdotes are ruthless and distasteful. His on-stage performances routinely make headlines. Duterte loves the attention and the spotlight and can’t live without it. His controversial anti-drugs campaign has attracted international criticism to which he remains indifferent. His voters give him the courage to be audacious. Seventy percent of his constituency support him, while the members of his congress can’t help voting to extend the state of emergency. Apparently, he is irresistible.

At this pace, one can’t help but wonder if the deadliest are the most passionate and if the world is giving in to the frenzy of cruelty, and if there have been serious reversals in humanity. Post August 2017, the Myanmar military attacked Rohingya villages, killed and raped women, tortured men, destroyed homes, shops, and mosques. Amnesty International’s latest report labels these atrocities as crimes against humanity under international law. It has also named 13 individuals who commanded these crimes to take place. The 186-page report details almost every crime backing it up with evidence. It also shares how women and girls were raped during or immediately after a military attack, in their own village, in empty houses, fields, schools, and, in one case, even in a mosque. They were also raped in their own homes. And also, when they were fleeing to Bangladesh. Amnesty makes several suggestions including one to the UN Security Council to immediately refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC), so that the crimes can be investigated under the Rome Statute. It also asks the EU and the ASEAN to impose targeted financial sanctions on Myanmar. And then it even asks Bangladesh to allow free entry to Rohingyas, to apply the principles of non-refoulement, and amongst other suggestions, to prioritise post-trauma care through funding and programmes.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t change anything much for Myanmar. In this current world of paradoxes, in spite of them saying “We Will Destroy Everything,” Myanmar still is likely to prosper. After all, all is apparently fair in business and love.

Myanmar’s plans are all intact. Out of the 15.6 percent of GDP accounting for public expenditure, out of which 31 percent is spent for the military, their social and educational spending remains at a high level. The state is investing heavily in the construction of new economic zones in Thilawa, Dawei and Kyaukpyu. Added to their optimism is the new gain that comes from the right of passage of gas and oil between their extraction sites and China, which will yield USD 13 million annually. The government hopes to reduce the 40 percent budget deficit to 20 percent in 2018. Exports are expected to increase, especially to its largest trading partner, China, reinforced by the construction of the gas pipeline. FDI inflows are supposed to grow stronger as investors are secure and assured of a predictable investment environment. Who cares about their poor ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business index, where they are at 170 out of 190? Rankings don’t matter much anymore as with the EU sanctions gone, Myanmar happens to have a total trade figure of 2.09 billion euros in 2017 with EU, its sixth biggest trading partner, out of which 72 percent of its export to EU happens to be garments.

One just wonders if humanity today is all about trade gains and if progress is to be measured in numbers associated with monstrous market practices that uphold the brutal principles based on annihilation of ethics. One, however, also wonders why the world applied different lenses after the collapse of Rana Plaza and threatened to disengage with Bangladesh while it still continues to woo Myanmar? One wonders which bears the bigger mark of shame: Rana Plaza, following which Bangladesh paid a collective price for this national tragedy and remediated, or the atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, which continue to go unchecked and unpunished by the international communities that reap profits out of pain?

Can we expect trade embargoes to hit Myanmar or can we at least expect substantial trade gains from our trading partners? Is this really too much to ask for in exchange for us opening our doors to a persecuted community? Really?

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