Neo-Brahminic Verses About Change in Burma

Unprecedented and fast-paced changes are taking place in Naypyidaw, or so the emerging caste of Burma Brahmins would like the world—and the Burmese public—to believe.

Beneath the mirage of changes, the chameleonic seniors and juniors in generals’ uniform are simply reinventing their grip on Burma’s society, economy and politics.

Among the new Brahmins are international consultants, poverty experts, humanitarians, INGO staffers, EU diplomats, academics with a thirst for making their names as well as per diems, local cronies who want more from the system which has made them and Burmese presidential advisers. Their personal, ideological and institutional interests seem to be gelling nicely.

Whether or not their interests coincide with the public welfare, which has been put on the generals’ policy backburner for a half-century is, well, a qualitatively different question.

But taking the new Brahmins’ words at face value, changes are happening. From the outside looking in, however, our naked eyes may not be able to see them.

In her BBC viewpoint on Sept. 5, which was rather patronizingly entitled “Change in Burma – one step at a time,” Chatham House’s South Asia expert Marie Lall sang the chorus from the generals’ hymn book: “The last three weeks have been a time of fast-paced political change in Burma, though this may be scarcely discernible to the outside world. Civil society organizations, the local press, expats and the population generally—all of whom are used to very slow progress, if any—have been having a hard time keeping up as things are moving on a daily basis.”

These words must indeed be music to the generals’ ears.

In an Aug. 31 article by Andrew Marshall in Time magazine, former labor rights official for the International Labor Orgnanization cum consultant for the International Crisis Group, Richard Horsey, tried to puff up President Thein Sein as “his own man.” There is only one problem with this “expert” speculation—there is no such thing in Burma’s political and military establishment. The military government, regardless of its external forms, is more mafia-like than an institutional embodiment of citizens’ values, interests, concerns and aspirations.

On Sept. 13, Retired police Col Sit Aye,and currently an “independent” political adviser to the president, told the Radio Free Asia Burmese service in Washington that the new (military) government is reviewing hundreds of laws to make legal changes. These are the changes which will conceivably make even victorious Egyptian dissidents envious, I suppose.

In his Sept. 12 interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma , Zaw Oo, a former adviser to the Burmese exile government, also registered his excitement about changes while referring to the recent highly publicized economic forum in Naypyidaw: “It was very significant. The title itself was called the ‘National Level Workshop on Economic Reform for National Development,’ so it was spot on. And also, as you know, Aung San Suu Kyi was at the forum, which made it a very exciting time for all of us.”
But for those of us who lived through various military regimes, either by ourselves or vicariously as exiles through the loved ones we left at home, the winds of change that are blowing from the consultant and advisory quarters remains just hot air.

For the Burma and Burmese sceptics, David Bowie’s song “Changes,” both the lyrics and the music, may be more meaningful to ponder and pleasant to our ears than the Brahminic verses about the supposedly fast-paced changes in Naypyidaw .

Here is my favourite stanza:

“I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through”

The Wiki entry says Bowies’ 40-year-old lyrics may be read as “a manifesto for his chameleonic personality, sexual ambiguity and frequent reinventions of his musical style throughout the 1970s.”

Deep down, every honest and thinking Burmese, from the elites to those of the streets, knows what is on offer as “change” is little more than cosmetic. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says she is detecting some signs of a process of change, or her staunch supporters in Washington are saying they welcome the generals’ positive gestures and would like to see “concrete” changes, they are all being politic.

For anyone who wishes to hold the talk of reforms against the realities on the ground, I have only one simple—not simplistic—litmus test. And mine doesn’t even include the usual call for the release of jailed multiethnic dissidents, inclusive dialogue and national reconciliation. For everything else flows from it.

The foremost requisite for real—as opposed to cosmetic—institutional change is the change in the mental attributes of those currently in power. My first litmus test for the “fast-pace changes” is this:

Have the generals, both seniors and juniors, begun the process of de-internalizing their deliberately instilled self-perception as the country’s “divine and eternal rulers?”

All ruling classes have their own self-legitimizing mentalities and self-perceptions.

The Buddhist kings who reigned in the place we today call Burma, or Myanmar, viewed themselves as Karmatic rulers whose stores of Karma exceeded those of any other individuals—Kyun Daw, or serfs—who occupied various slots within the hierarchy of the serfdoms among the Mon, Shan, Bama and Rakhaing communities.

During the days of the British Raj, the Heaven-born, that is the Oxbridge-trained Britishers, or drop-outs, came with their Civilizing Discourse while Japan’s Fascists self-proclaimed themselves as direct descendants of the Sun, sharing prosperity with the other (lesser) Asians.

Unlike the previous military dictatorship under General Ne Win, today’s generals are no longer building any elaborate system of political philosophy. Nor have they found anything from the Buddhist doctrines to legitimize their “popularly elected” government. So they have finally settled for the military’s “Eternal Paternalism.”

In this new post-election political cosmos in Naypyidaw, or Abode of Kings, civilians have their rightful slots, with the generals remaining at the top. In the generals’ “discipline flourishing democracy,” pliable Brahmins with their dark art of self-censorship are welcome. The generals want the type of advisers who won’t speak truth to power or can’t see a forest from the trees. The more the merrier. But independent-minded citizens, without whom no democracy can be built, let alone thrive, need not apply.

For any self-respecting citizens it would be a grave mistake to let any expert confuse or intimidate us with esoterically Brahministic vocabularies of micro- and macro-reforms, efficiency, poverty reduction, exchange rates, state regulations, revenue flows, market mechanisms, liquidity, supply chains, geo-politics, market integration, globalization, privatization, etc. Private sector means the generals’ backyards and privatization is little more than the Russian-style massive asset transfer, or “legalized” loot and robbery.

Amidst the fog of professional and technocratic talks, reforms need to be seen for what they are: a fundamental shift in power. Throughout recorded history, an unmistakable shift in power—from the rulers to citizens—doesn’t happen with the consent of those in power. There are absolutely no signs of this shift taking place in Naypyidaw —or anywhere on Burmese soil.

The people of Burma’s fight for popular sovereignty didn’t begin in 1988, or even 1948. We the Burmese will do well if we reacquaint ourselves with the analyses of our forefathers. Here is what U Kyaw Min, one of the Cambridge-trained native members of the Heaven-born (that is, the Indian Civil Service), had to say about changes which his employer—the Raj—said it was bringing about.

In his book “The Burma We Love,” he writes: “the word ‘democracy’ has been on the lips of everybody in Burma since the introduction of ‘Dyarchy’ (the administrative separation of Burma from British India as a province of India under the Government of Burma Act in 1935), but I have not seen any real signs of democracy in the administration of the country.”

U Kyaw Min was writing those words 1945, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, may just have been born.

Nearly 3 generations later, democracy in Burma still remains on everyone’s lips.
Burma's rulers continue to pay it lip service while the emerging caste of Brahmins—near and afar—perform their legitimization rites

Dr Zarni ( is a columnist for the Irrawaddy and visiting fellow in the Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science .

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