Democracy’s arc from Athens to Myanmar

Democracy’s arc from Athens to Myanmar

What would a citizen of ancient Athens have thought if he were able to see today’s mayor present, via video link, the City of Athens Democracy Award to a young woman from Myanmar for her struggles for the oppressed Rohingya minority, for reconciliation and democracy in Southeast Asia? Would he believe that the system of governance born here some 2,500 years ago would be so resilient, that it would adapt to such an extent that today it can provide hope to men and women at the other end of the world? These thoughts were born of Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis’ presenting the annual award to Wai Wai Nu in the context of the Athens Democracy Forum, which, in its ninth year, is focusing on “Resilience and Renewal.”

The concept of democracy – the reality and desire for it – forms an arc from ancient Athens to every corner of the Earth, overcoming the obstacles of time, geography and human passions. Democracy differs from other values and virtues because it is not abstract: It depends wholly on people’s determination to establish it, to protect it, to contribute to its development and survival. It does not depend on faith in something intangible, as religion does, but in our ability to understand that it is a unique mechanism for the smooth and just functioning of society. Its basis is equality, its fuel the desire for justice, so that the greatest number of society’s members can take part, so that all share in benefits and responsibilities, so that all are safe. This “theorem” is proved daily across the world: When one part of society is oppressed, all of society is poisoned. Sooner or later, this will lead to violence and misery, to the reign of injustice. 

From its origins in the exclusive group of free Athenian men to the desire of people in Myanmar and Afghanistan, and in many other lands, we know that democracy is fragile, demanding, often dangerous, but also inherently resilient. This resilience is born of flexibility, adaptability. When all men and women, when the members of every group take part, society develops (relatively) smoothly and with justice. Democracy’s arc is formed by the people who desire it and work for it, to the benefit of all. 

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