NEW YORK — Why are French, British and American warships, but not Chinese or Malaysian warships, sitting near the Burmese coast loaded with food and other necessities for the victims of Cyclone Nargis?
Why has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) been so slow and weak in its response to a natural calamity that ravaged one of its own members?
French junior human rights minister Rama Yade declared that the United Nations’ principle of the “responsibility to protect” should be applied to Burma, forcibly if necessary. And Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang has said that Asian countries’ inaction “reflects dismally on all ASEAN leaders and governments. They can definitely do more.”
So, are Europeans and Americans simply more compassionate than Asians?
Given the West’s record of horrendous warfare and often brutal imperialism, this seems unlikely. Moreover, the way ordinary Chinese rallied to help victims of the earthquake in Sichuan has been quite remarkable, as have been the spontaneous efforts of people in Burma to assist their fellow citizens, even as the military did very little.
Buddhism stresses compassion and mercy as much as Christianity does. Indifference to suffering is not inherent to any Asian culture.
Indeed, none of the Asian members disagreed when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The declaration held that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
Nevertheless, there may be cultural differences in understanding how compassion should be applied. The ideal of universal equality and rights does owe something to the history of Western civilization, from Socrates’ “natural justice” to Christianity and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. Western peoples have not always lived up to their universalist ideals, but they have in modern times built institutions designed to implement them, in Europe and beyond. There is, so far, no Asia-wide institution to protect the human rights of Asians, let alone mankind.
In fact, Chinese and other Asians frequently criticize the West for using human rights as an excuse to impose “Western values” on former colonial subjects. To be sure, such accusations are especially common in autocracies whose rulers, and their apologists, view the idea of universal human rights as a threat to their monopoly on power. But distrust of universalism in Asia is not confined to autocrats.
In many Asian countries, favors invariably create obligations, which is perhaps why people are sometimes disinclined to interfere in the problems of others. You are obliged to take care of your family, your friends, or even your fellow countrymen. But the idea of universal charity is too abstract, and smacks of the kind of unwelcome interference that Western imperialists — and the Christian missionaries who followed them — practiced in the East for too long.
The notion of “Asian values,” promoted mostly by Singaporean official scribes, was partly a critique of universalist Western claims. Asians, according to this theory, have their own values, which include thrift, deference to authority, the sacrifice of individual to collective interests, and the belief that countries should not stick their noses into others’ affairs. Hence, the hesitant response of Southeast Asian governments — and public opinion — to the Burmese disaster.
One possible line of criticism of this kind of thinking is simply to claim the superiority of Western values. But another, more sympathetic response would be to show that individual rights and notions of freedom are by no means alien to non-Western civilizations.
Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, has pointed out that great Indian rulers, such as Ashoka (third century B.C.) and Akbar (16th century), advocated pluralism, tolerance and reason long before the European Enlightenment. He has also observed that famines don’t occur in democracies, because freedom of information helps to prevent them.
Sen, not surprisingly, is a trenchant critic of the “Asian values” school. It has, nonetheless, become a commonly held opinion that democracy, like universal human rights, is a typically Western idea, and that Asian autocracy, as practiced in China, for example, is not only more suited to Asians, but also more efficient. Democratic governments are hampered by lobby groups, special interests, public opinion, party politics, and so forth, while Asian autocrats can make unpopular but necessary decisions.
The two recent natural disasters in Burma and China have put this idea to a severe test. China has not fared too badly, largely because its government was forced by the Burmese example, bad publicity surrounding the Tibetan demonstrations, and the impending Olympic Games to allow far more freedom of information than it normally does. One can only hope that this crack of freedom will widen in time.
Burma failed miserably, and despite belated efforts to make the best of terrible circumstances, so has ASEAN. In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter much whether we ascribe the failures of autocracy and nonintervention to anything specifically “Asian.” Whatever the cause, the consequences remain deplorable.
Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)