Chasing Change in Burma

“Change” has been the most important buzzword in the world of Burma ever since the “8.8.88” events which brought down the flimsy bamboo fence of Gen Ne Win's “Burmese Way to Socialism.” And yet, generally speaking, most activists and analysts who make Burma change Doe-A-Yay or “Our Business” have failed to either affect the process positively, or adequately understand the unfolding process of
regressive change unleashed by the region's capitalist transformation.

The metaphor that springs to mind when I think about our Burma world of activists and analysts is the tale of “The Elephant and Six Blind Brahmins.” Some of us touch the ears and, with confidence, pronounce it to be a fan-like flat and flabby creature while others whose palms land on its legs describe the creature to be like a tree trunk.

Our issues seem to attract analysts, foreign and local, who elevate their more or less monocausal explanations into analytical mono-theisms. For these learned men (and women) tend to hold onto
their respective analyses rather religiously, be they historians mining fruitlessly the pre-colonial and colonial pasts for answers to the big questions confronting present-day Burma, statist political scientists who can only conceive the world through the prism of the (modern) State and state-building, norm-obsessed academics who weave their selective liberal values into their Burma analytical frameworks, or left-leaning analysts who remain stuck intellectually in their stale Cold War analytical paradigm.

As analysts and activists we ignore the ever-evolving realities on the ground—for instance, the increasingly anti-humanist, callous and feudal characteristics of the regime leadership and the categorically repressive nature of the State.

Who amongst the Burmese nationalists such as the late Aung San, or even the Burmese communists of the olden days, would have thought Buddhists in military uniform would behave in a far more fascist fashion towards the “Keepers of the Faith” than the Japanese Fascists during the World War II years? Or who would have imagined that the plight of local farmers in present-day Burma under Burmese rule would be far worse than even that of their peasant ancestors under British colonialism during the Great Depression of the 1930s? 

Worse still, what kind of native leadership would spend $600 million on Russian MiG-29s based on an unsubstantiated perception of threats to the country, while the World Food Program feels compelled to feed the poor in pockets of famine-like conditions across Burma?

In my 20-year involvement in the pro-change activism and debates, wearing different hats as an activist and an analyst, I have witnessed the emergence of pet paradigms, initiatives, policies and strategies. Emphatically, I am as guilty as anyone in having doggedly advanced my own pet paradigms, policy ideas and strategic initiatives.

The world of Burma analyses and policies resembles that of a pseudo-science or logical nonsense. It has no real process of elimination—that is, elimination of bad ideas, strategies or policies whose validity as truth claims can be verified or falsified, even in the face of qualitatively and empirically superior policy ideas and strategic possibilities.

Consequently, various sets of mutually incompatible policy logics (and even policy objectives) continue to co-exist. Some policy and strategy buzzwords spring to mind: sanctions and/or engagements, non-violence and/or armed resistance, dialogue and/or defiance, and reconciliation or re consolidation.

In today's Burma world of “pragmatic incrementalism,” revolution is viewed as an idea whose time has come and gone while radicalism, that is, attempting to address the root causes, has become a dirty word
among the Burmese who say they share with revolutionaries the desire for “real change.” Pathetically, some local talking heads are even publicly scornful of any Burmese who questions the wisdom of unconditional collaboration with the regime whose politics exclude vital operative words such as compromise, conciliation and cooperation.

The Burma ideas currently in vogue are “capacity building,” “civil society,” “gradualism,” “economic developmentalism,” “bottom-up reforms,” and so on. Never mind that the country is fast-heading towards a text-book case of “Natural Resource Curse.” Or that no parallel can be drawn between Burma's militarized, low-capacity and parasitical State under the Neanderthal leadership that lives off the back of forced labor, land and natural resources, and a typical East Asian “developmental state” (for instance, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and China) ruled by visionary and capable autocrats, well-trained bureaucrats, and innovative technocrats leading the labor force whose concern is largely this worldly success, all helped by the infusion of massive foreign direct investment, developmental loans and technological import.

Furthermore, many dissidents have felt compelled to distance themselves from their radical pasts. The cliche “we have found our enemy and it is us” is often thrown around when it comes to the opposition and its failure to effect change in Burma. The more adaptable ones amongst us have morphed into professional analysts.

All this is due in large part to the emerging analytical/academic and policy discourses which conveniently place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the opposition while ignoring the greatest elephant in the room, that is, the militarized State and the callous leadership that is surfing on the latest wave of capitalist transformation in Asia.

Yet the opposition is being blamed for its failures to adapt its strategies and campaigns to the changing geopolitics and geo-economic equations in the region and globally, for its failure to develop viable, alternative institutions and networks, for its lack of unity and for its personality-driven politics, just to name a few.

Before the two momentous events, Cyclone Nargis and the massive crackdown on the Buddhist Order, I too was one of the opposition's vociferous internal critics (while always remaining ever-scathing in my critique of its oppressor in terms of both its policies and leadership).

These are, however, defining events in Burmese history which signal a disturbingly regressive evolution of the psyche of both the decision-makers and their inner circle deputies. Additionally, there is an evolutionary dimension to the nature of State security institutions on which their power rests. 

The security apparatuses, most specifically the Tatmadaw, are evolving from a venerable patriotic force defending and serving the public into a popularly reviled parasitical armed organization serving only the interests of the top generals who behave more like Burma's 18th century feudal
war-lords than 21st century nation-builders.

Since these aforementioned watersheds, unprecedented in the country's living memory, one is forced to reflect critically on one's long-held views and analyses based on the significant new developments on the ground. Paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes, one needs to change one’s view when the information changes.

While other important factors deserve scrutiny by analysts and activists I would assign relatively greater explanatory weight to these two major factors: the militarized State and the regressively feudal nature of the military leadership that is surfing on the latest wave of capitalist transformation in Asia.

For contemporary events and processes in Burma are disproportionately influenced, if not completely dictated or shaped, by one or two personalities and these regime leaders devote inordinate amount of energy and resources to ensure these institutions remain fully in compliance with their whims.

At present we Burmese are in danger of becoming the world's first bunch of social changers whose highest aim appears to embrace the irredeemably oppressive regime in power. In fact, the latter is moving full-steam ahead to legalize its regressive political agenda, institutionalizing a new form of Burmese military rule, control and domination over the rest of the society using the liberal language of democracy. 

Ridiculously, the quibble amongst many of us is over how much constitutional and/or procedural tweaking the regime should permit us to do in Burma's domestic politics.

How times have changed! What of our democratic friends in solidarity with our once worthy cause?

While prime ministers and presidents in the West utter impassioned words of loud praise of and admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi (and presumably her revolutionary colleagues behind bars and in exile as well) policy wonks and career bureaucrats in their governments, quietly and not so quietly, explore ways to, in effect, accommodate the regime's “Burmese Way to Democracy.”

Here George Orwell must be turning in his grave as he would certainly recognize democracies' Double-Speak: pseudo-constitutionalism with a decidedly militaristic bent as the next best thing for Burma! These western liberals who walk the corridors of power certainly know better; but, they must all be pitying us and thinking that this is the best the Burmese can do, or deserve, at this point in history. And they are pushing our dissidents on the ground to swallow this rubbish.

I detect monotheistic views behind this not-so-honorable trend.

All mono-causal analyses single out certain explanatory factors, assign them disproportionate weight and proceed to manufacture narratives, policy or otherwise, as if they were exhaustive of all possible explanations and possibilities. In due course, analysts remain stuck in their mono-causal paradigms, turning their own pet paradigms into monotheistic faiths.

Here I offer sample monotheisms: “the opposition's lack of unity,” “Aung San Suu Kyi's presumed ideologically purity and her rumored stubbornness,” “China's and India's embrace of the regime,” “the omnipotent and ever-expanding modern State,” “the curse of geography,” “the bleeding-heart liberals' Good-versus-Evil Burma view and its resultant sanctions” and “the military's nationalism and its threat perceptions.” The list goes on.

Even if the opposition were united under a more operationally capable leadership and ethnic resistance stuck together, the much-touted unity would still lack socially transformative power, as long as the repressive State and its leadership remain strategically positioned in this unstoppable, amoral process of regional capitalist development unfolding before our eyes.

The most crucial question for me as a Burmese who wants “positive change” for my country is not simply democratization and ethnic equality, but most crucially how we as a society survive ecologically, economically and politically this all-encompassing capitalist transformation enveloping the region.

Dr. Zarni founded the Free Burma Coalition. He is a Research Fellow on
Burma at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, the London
School of Economics and Political Science.

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