How Burma's burgeoning democracy is based on old episodes of 'The West Wing'

 

To most of the developed world, democracy is a birth right. To the military junta, which has presided over Burma for the past five decades, it's a strange and complex form of government which can only be understood by watching DVDs of The West Wing.

The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has revealed that the country's autocratic rulers – who are in the protest of loosening their grip on power – have been using old episodes of Aaron Sorkin's hit series to teach themselves how parliamentary systems work.

Ms Clinton shared that anecdote at a ceremony in Washington to present the Congressional Gold Medal to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, who was recently freed from house arrest.

"The speaker of [Burma's] Lower House, where Suu Kyi now serves, said to me: 'Help us learn how to be a democratic congress, a parliament'," Ms Clinton recalled. "He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of The West Wing. I said: 'I think we can do better than that, Mr Speaker."

Many plot points in the cult programme, about the inner circle of a US President played by Martin Sheen, are grounded in reality. Episodes often delve into sometimes complex processes by which an inhabitant of the White House can pull the levers of power. Although it came off the air six years ago, The West Wing still has a devoted following, and its paths often intersect with contemporary politics. Before his rise to fame, Barack Obama was a model for the character Matthew Santos, a fictional young Democrat politician from an ethnic minority. More recently Sheen and several colleagues have appeared in a public service advert supporting the campaign of Michigan Supreme Court candidate Bridget Mary McCormack, whose sister Mary is the show's female lead. Ms Suu Kyi's visit to the United States is seen as a landmark in Burma's on-going liberalisation. The State media, which has for years pretended that she doesn't exist, even aired footage of her Congressional Medal Ceremony.

It was the first time she has been on government-run television in decades. Wednesday's event was not reported in Burma's state newspapers yesterday, but Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut told the Associated Press that it occurred after deadline and would therefore be in Friday's editions.

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