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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

Myanmar’s Silent Revolution

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by Sonu Trivedi


The Burmese social and political structure, based on paternalistic authority, is inconsistent with democracy’s reliance on equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and assembly, and representative institutions. With its emphasis on hierarchy and status, the Burmese political culture is not conducive to democracy. For almost all of its history, Burma has been ruled by autocratic monarchs and military leaders. Burma’s only experience with democracy was a short period under the 1947 Constitution after independence when U Nu supported representative institutions, free elections and civil liberties. The ineffectiveness of U Nu’s rule was used as a rationalisation for the government takeover by the military in both 1958 and 1962. Since that time, democratic institutions and behaviour, said to be “foreign to the traditions” of the Burmese and a rejected legacy of the Western imperialism, have been suppressed.

Military Ideology and its Root

The authoritarian nature of the traditional Burmese state was based on highly personalised concepts of power and central authority. These stem back to the system of semi-divine rule which has sustained it. Although the colonial period effectively destroyed this monarchical tradition in Myanmar, the centralising processes of the late Burman monarchy were carried on under the British (1826-1948). This was evident in the imposition of modern system of communication, law and order and rational government.

In this context, the imposition of an authoritarian regime by a military elite dominated by one man, General Ne Win, exemplifies a rule pattern not unlike those of the the monarchical days. Perhaps Ne Win is not entirely to be blamed for the military coup nor the resultant political system. In fact the military coup may be conceived of as the culmination of a political process. The government was entirely dominated by the political cliques and their power-mad leaders engaged mostly in factional fights and it was tempting for a well-organised institution such as the military to intervene and impose its authoritarian rule.

The right soil for the growth of an authoritarian system reminiscent of the native Burmese monarchical rule was already there in the society. Pre-conditions for the retreat to native authoritarian rule patterns were lying dormant in the minds of a majority of the Burmese public. Ne Win’s authoritarian political style merely cashed in on this vast store of built-in attitudes and values of the Burmese society that are supportive of his rule pattern. Thus, authoritarianism in line with the old Burmese values returned and has stayed in Burma since the last 45 years.

The socialist democracy envisaged by the military thinkers includes the unity of the will and initiative of the individual man and group on the one hand and the centralised guidance of society on the other. Democratic centralism and individual freedom, therefore, are compatible and when combined produce a progressive and prosperous society. However, the concept and goals of ‘socialism’ as espoused by Burma’s military thinkers have been criticised as being Utopian and vague for they do not tell us how these goals are to be realised. Instead of following a particular school of thought, they sought to blend the traditional Burmese ideas with the popular Western concepts. The ideology provided a theoretical justification for changing the economy and polity of Burma, while keeping up with the Burmese traditions. By doing so, they also sought to unite with the anti-capitalist sentiments of most of the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. Though vague and incomplete, the military theorists’ ideas were part of the continuum in the growth of the Burmese socialist tradition. They provide a frame of reference for analysing Burma’s development under military rule and rationale for the decisions and priorities of the military since 1962.

For a political transition to occur in Myanmar, according to Myanmar analyst Christina Fink, it is likely that there will need to be a convergence of three factors: (i) unified domestic political pressure from pro-democracy supporters and ethnic minority groups who value greater independence; (ii) international pressure—it can have effect if astutely applied (the pressure on the regime both from within and without is the only way forward); (iii) a powerful group in the military which supports the democratic movement. Either the senior Generals need to see that it is in their interest to negotiate with the NLD and ethnic representatives or an influential military faction must break away from the ruling junta.

In the present case, intense domestic political pressure from the recent anti-junta protests of the monks against a tyrant regime for the restoration of democracy and human rights in Myanmar is a classic example of the bottom-top approach for democratisation. The silent revolution hoisted by the monks symbolises the unified domestic political pressure, which might prove successful in bringing about democratic and political transition in Myanmar. But, the second option of applying international pressure should be subtle. Although the United States and European Union members are vehemently opposing the crackdown, China and Russia consider it as Myanmar’s internal affair which does not threaten international peace and security. The ASEAN has been unable to persuade its member-states to even open a political dialogue with the leaders of the democratic group. In the wake of the recent crisis, it is looking at the regional powers—China and India—to exert pressure on the military government. Let us wait and watch what the United Nations special envoy brings to us, as a result of his negotiations and open dialogue with the pro-democracy leaders and the junta. As far as the third option is concerned, it seems to be a distant reality. In the internal politics of military rule, even the splits and schism are, however, not apparent and perhaps operate silently in Myanmar as compared to its role model in the seventies, Indonesia, where transition from authoritarianism to democracy was largely a result of these factors in the internal politics of military rule. Incidentally, a series of events in the later years of Suharto’s regime revealed the inherent volatility of the military government and indicated that perhaps the military was mal-integrated and less cohesive and than ever before. These forces are, however, not perceptible and perhaps operate at a submissive level in Myanmar.

Thus, in spite of the present political upheavals caused by different personalities and styles among the elites and the emergence of a new social consensus among activists, students, academics and journalists, democracy is a far cry in Myanmar. The chanting of the mantra ‘democracy democracy’ is like the slogan ‘water water everywhere not a drop to drink’. The irony of the situation is that even after six decades of independence, Burma is still struggling to resolve its political and economic problems.

Sonu Trivedi teaches Political Science in Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi.

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