How Wrong Can You Be?

When Queen Elizabeth made a public appearance at the London School of Economics shortly after the start of the 2008 global financial crisis, she famously asked her influential academic audience why they didn't see it—the world's worst economic meltdown in decades—coming.

This is a question that one is now tempted to ask the legions of Burma experts, seasoned Burma watchers and Rangoon-based Burmese elites who boldly proclaimed the death of the National League for Democracy (NLD), questioned the relevance of Aung San Suu Kyi, extolled the virtues of the donor-driven “civil society” and quietly promoted the generals' election as “the only game in town,” to borrow the words of Bangkok-based European Union Ambassador David Lipman.

Perhaps the categorical failure on the part of experts and diplomats to understand Burma's ruling class—its psyche, its mode of operation, the level to which it will sink in pursuit of its self-serving and nation-destroying politics and its approach to politics as a zero-sum game—should humble these foreign diplomats and experts.

The generals' election has laid bare any policy-driven evidence packaged in faulty explanations about how dictatorships morph into representative forms of government and why the new structures and parliamentary space would open up new opportunities for democratic change.

A great many experts, from Chatham House and the Brookings Institution to the International Crisis Group and the University of London, have sinned by constructing political analyses which resonated with the impatiently pro-business policies of some European Union governments.

Two patently false analyses spring to mind.

British Burma expert and former International Labour Organization liaison officer in Rangoon, Richard Horsey, created waves among soundbite-seeking journalists and analytical amateurs among Western diplomats by circulating his “Myanmar: A Pre-election Primer” (dated Oct. 18). Dr Horsey boldly predicted: “[W]hile there will undoubtedly be some irregularities, a fraudulent vote count is on balance unlikely.”

As late as Nov. 3—four days prior to Burma's polls—another British expert, Dr Marie Lall of Chatham House, who is also a lecturer with the Institute of Education at the University of London, was extolling the virtues of the politics of “collaboration” advanced by EU-funded local NGOs such as Myanmar Egress.

In her own words, the National Unity Party, made up of Ne Win-era anti-democratic dinosaurs, “is not only set to beat the [junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party] in many constituencies, giving it real power at a national level, it is also likely to take a different stand to the current regime on many issues, starting with land-owning rights for the peasants.”

She concluded: “The elections are the first step out of the impasse between the military and the wider population. The democratic hardliners are today fewer in number and are more likely to meet popular indifference than to lead any popular protest movement, even should Aung San Suu Kyi be released soon.”

Five days later, Lall's favorite party suffered a resounding defeat in the clearly rigged election, winning only 5.6 percent of the total seats contested vis-à-vis the regime's proxy party, which won 76.8 percent of all contested seats.

The election also stripped many Burma experts of any respectability and undermined the validity of their empirically false projections in terms of social change via the regime's “election.”

Up until the time when the generals leaked the story of its party winning a landslide, in the Burma expert world, resistance was proclaimed futile, dissidents were framed as “idealistic” at best and “obstacles” to democratization and development at worst, and “civil society” was spun as the sole path towards Burma's liberation, development and democracy through electoral evolutionism.

Development, the middle class and modernization were in vogue again, and dissidents were deemed to be party poopers who are not really welcome in these circles of influence, grant money and connections.

In these expert discourses, Burma experts were not alone in romanticizing the emancipatory power of the “free market,” humanitarian aid, and (farcical) elections in authoritarian contexts, à la Suharto's Indonesia.

With mind-numbing frequency, diplomats on their Burma “missions” parroted this self-interested spin manufactured in Burma expert circles during exclusive luncheons and dinners in places like Rangoon, Bangkok, Brussels and Berlin, all the while dismissing any argument that Burma's neo-fascist regime, in its pursuit of a military apartheid, has no interest in economic reforms, democratic change, public welfare or human rights.

To top this off, these foreign “civil society promoters” dismissed as “activists' spin” any alternative analysis which argued that election or no election, the generals had absolutely no interest in making any space for anyone who is not part of their inner circle. The natives' realistic conclusion that the election contained no democratic potential whatsoever was written off as simply an expression of “contempt towards the generals devoid of rational discourse, which can be regarded as one basic element of (Western) democratic culture,” as Dr Hans-Berd Zoellner, the Christian priest cum Burma expert from Hamburg University, put it, in reference to my essay “The Generals' Election.

Since the “election,” it has become abundantly clear that as far as the regime is concerned, foreign Burma experts and donor-patrons of Burma's “civil society” were good for pro-election propaganda. For the regime masterfully used these voices to drive an effective strategic wedge between the NLD leadership (for instance, Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Tin, Tin Oo, etc) and the party's gullible elements, who went on to establish a new party—the National Democratic Force—which won only 1.5 percent of all contested seats.

This whole disturbing multifaceted symbiosis among certain diplomats from some European countries and the European Commission, which are in effect pushing to normalize Burma's dictatorship, and Burma experts, as well as select local NGOs propped up with Western donors' money and political support, represents one of the newest challenges to Aung San Suu Kyi, the ethnic resistance and the entire pro-democracy opposition.

Dr Zarni ( is research fellow on Burma at the LSE Global Governance, the London School of Economics and visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
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