When Hnin Hnin (name changed for her protection), a 26-year old from Myanmar’s Kayah State, heads to the polls on November 8th, it will be her first opportunity to cast a vote in a national election— Myanmar’s first since a nominally-civilian government took power in 2011. If free and fair, the elections would be the nation’s first democratic vote in 25 years, and would also represent a concerted effort, on the part of those in power, to make good on a vision of a new, democratic and prospering Myanmar. It is a vision Hnin Hnin herself imagines, and one she may very well help to shape with her vote.
If she votes at all, that is.
Western leaders, foreign governments, and much of the international media have characterized the upcoming election as a decisive moment in Myanmar’s recent transition to democracy— the implication being that the transition will ultimately be known as either a duplicitous sham or a miraculous triumph. A free and fair election next month would most certainly substantiate claims to the latter. For Hnin Hnin and others I spoke to when traveling in Myanmar’s eastern borderland, however, this way of thinking about the country’s political landscape is deeply flawed.
“I don’t want to talk about whether the changes are real… All these ideas about ‘transition’ and ‘politics,’ they are happening. But, for us, it is new words, but the same situation,” explained, Khun Aung Naing (name changed for his protection), a middle-aged resident of rural Shan State.
Researching former conflict zones in Myanmar’s ethnic states, I traveled throughout eastern Myanmar and found, unsurprisingly, that my friend was correct. The vital question in Myanmar’s transition is not whether the change is occurring. Instead, the question is whether the way in which “change” is being achieved—and the consequences of that change—are in line with what citizens have been promised.
Take, for instance, a Community Development Center I came across while in the country’s southeast. The Center, with its smooth concrete façade and metal roof, stood in stark contrast to the older wooden structures scattered along the region’s main road. A plastic sign, posted at the edge of the building’s lot, was covered in the brightly-colored logos of the international organizations and foreign governments that had funded its construction.
In many ways, the Development Center existed as a symbol of Myanmar’s efforts to support the 70% of its population that lives in rural, largely impoverished regions beyond the country’s major cities. The Center was also a tangible sign of Myanmar’s increased cooperation with the broader international community— the completion of an internationally-funded project such as this seemed unimaginable just years ago when the military dictatorship blocked foreign aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Change had come, or so it seemed.
In reality, the situation could not be so clearly labeled a success. The Development Center— seemingly a beacon of progress and sign of future governmental support to ethnic minority peoples— was built on land that had been forcibly emptied of farmers, homes, and crops. Villagers were not offered compensation when their farmland was seized, nor when construction on the Development Center began years later. Today, despite having written dozens of letters to authorities and to the parliamentary Farmland Investigation Commission—formed in 2012 to investigate accusations of land grabbing— community members are still without land or adequate compensation.
Land-grabbing, while just one of a number of ongoing issues plaguing Myanmar’s transition, is significant in that it exists not merely as a problem embedded in the current political landscape, but instead is rooted in administrations of the nation’s past. Academics and activists alike have pointed out that many of the legal frameworks that make such land confiscation possible hark back to policies established under British colonialism. More significantly, however, is the fact that the confiscation of large swaths of land has been a key strategy of control under successive military regimes.
Today, despite constitutional reform, economic and legal shifts, and an internationally-legitimized civilian government, land confiscation remains a serious problem. In fact, from recent accounts, it seems land grabs are only increasing as national and regional authorities coordinate with new actors eager to cross Myanmar’s opened borders— from regional enterprises, to foreign investors, and international aid organizations. The controversial Letpadaung mine or Chinese-backed Myitsone dam are only two examples of recent initiatives dependent on long held strategies of land-grabbing, along with forced eviction and the destruction of crops.
“Change has come, but it isn’t really a change. Before it was violence that took our land, now it is ‘progress,’” a man from the area told me.
Widespread and unchecked land grabbing is not the only holdover from the practices of successive military regimes. Illegal taxation also flourishes, as does forced labor. In the southeast of the country, I interviewed several people who reported that both practices had helped to lay the foundation for one more highly-touted symbol of a “new” Myanmar: the installation of a well and clean water point in a rural village.
Which of these is the face of progress: a newly-built well or the forced labor that constructed it? The community development center built with international funding or the unaccounted for land grabs upon which it is dependent?
The point here is not that ‘the transition’ has failed. It clearly hasn’t. Even those most directly affected by the situations described above were grateful for the improvements they saw in their daily lives as a result of reforms—trainings offered by the Development Center, for example, or access to clean water. Observers of Myanmar’s changes must praise such progress—but also be wary of transformations that are only, as Khun Aung Naing said, “new words, but the same situation.”
It is a distinction that Hnin Hnin, like many other voters in Myanmar’s rural regions, is struggling to come to terms with as Election Day approaches. One candidate in her township is promising a new road, another proposes an upgrade to the area’s unreliable electricity grid. Likely, both improvements will happen eventually—but, as Hnin Hnin pointed out to me, the important question to ask is by what means.
So-called “change” and “progress” will continue to emerge in ways that are uneven, partial, and imperfect, and analyses of Myanmar’s transition must shift to reflect this new reality. Rather than rushing to come to a verdict on success or failure, change or stagnation, observers of Myanmar’s political transition must instead take seriously a much more multifarious third possibility that lies between these stark dichotomies: that is, the possibility that “change” is not a simple matter and that, even in its most promising forms, it remains entangled in histories of violence, harm, and oppression.
As my friend told me, “I don’t want to hear anyone else ask if there is change in Myanmar. Of course there is—look around! But what are the effects? That is the question.”