Towards a “normalization” of the political sociology of the elites in Myanmar (Part Two)

Mael Raynaud continues his look at elite politics in Myanmar. Part One can be found here.

In the first part of this article, I tried to understand how the elites of Myanmar have evolved, since the pre-colonial era and until the early months of 1988.

The objective of such a perilous exercise, to sum up in a short article the long and rich history of the ruling class of a fairly large country, was to see whether, over time (and especially since 2011) the political sociology of these elites had undertaken a process of “normalization.” What I mean by “normalization” is that various groups among the elites would increasingly position themselves, politically, according to a left-right spectrum, comparable to what has been witnessed in other parts of the world, and specifically, in the democracies of the west.

Myanmar is far from being an island, ideologically speaking. In fact, starting from a feudal past that Myanmar shares with most of the rest of the world, it has been one country where all the main ideological confrontations of the 20th century have had dramatic local implications. The triangular struggle between democracy, communism and fascism has played a central part in Myanmar’s recent history. The struggle against colonialism, followed by the Cold War, and the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, to which Burma belonged from the start, along with the growing consciousness of the fact that the East-West divide had been replaced by a North-South economic and political division, have all agitated Myanmar politics and the debates among its intellectual class.

The fact that Myanmar had such a rich history with an intellectual class so avid of debating, reading and dreaming about a better future may not have seemed immediately obvious to the rare visitors walking around the streets of Rangoon, a city that seemed frozen in time, in the first few weeks of 1988. But then Rangoon, and indeed the entire country, woke up in a popular uprising that would change Burmese society forever, and, I will argue, for the better.

The story of these fateful few weeks is well known and the role they played in shaping modern Myanmar is relatively well understood. I do believe, however, that the degree to which the protesters were creative in running all sorts of proto-anarchistic initiatives of self defense and self-management (this is where the great movement of spontaneous popular relief response seen after Cyclone Nargis, that played such a key role in making the changes of recent years, can be traced back to), is greatly underestimated. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that Myanmar in 1988 witnessed one of the most fascinating experiences in anarchistic self-rule since the Paris Commune in 1871 or the rule of many cities and towns during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s.

If, as I am trying to argue here, there is indeed a Left in Myanmar, that can be traced back to the movement for independence, then certainly its present day organizational basis was formed in 1988.

Like in these two examples though, the movement was crushed, many people lost their lives and the country went back to being ruled by murderous and kleptocratic generals. But as in these two examples, the fire had not been completely extinguished.

In fact, in the aftermath of 1988, one important event, the creation of the NLD and its victory in the 1990 elections, may have, in part, made another process less visible: the networks built during the events of 1988 not only remained active inside the country (as became apparent during the demonstrations of 1996, not to mention 2007), but also many of the activists that had participated in them fled to the borders of the country. It is here that they joined forces with the ethnic nationalities that had been fighting for their rights since the independence of Burma in 1948. The democracy movement that put Myanmar on the global agenda and led to increased pressure on the military regime, including the imposition of Western sanctions, was born.

Many observers have tried to minimize the role played by this movement in bringing about change. I strongly believe that this shows a great misunderstanding of the social and political dynamics of Myanmar, just like the opposite view, that it is sanctions and international pressure that have precipitated change, does. Like every other coin described in this article, this one has two sides.

At any rate, this is where Myanmar was, when the 1990 elections took place. The elites were now divided clearly along political lines, directly defined in terms of a political choice everyone was asked to make. At one end of the spectrum (I will explain why I define that end as the political far right later in this article), many among the elite supported the military coup of September 1988, and therefore the National Unity Party (NUP), the party created to replace Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). Also drawn from the ranks of the military and the administrative elites of the Ne Win era (the importance of this fact cannot be overstated), was the NLD, and many of those who voted for it (excluding the votes of the masses, here, since this article focuses on the elites).

A third group, which by and large supported the NLD as an electoral strategy but maintained a clearly separate political identity, was made up of the activists of the movement of 1988, specifically the student movement (united under the banner of the ABFSU, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, and the leadership of U Min Ko Naing). This group was, by the time the elections took place, divided into a number of organizations: the main three of which were the ABFSU itself, the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS, a political party) and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF, the student guerillas now fighting alongside the ethnic nationalities.

That this third group had a strong leftist identity is beyond doubt and debate.In recent years, protesters claiming a lineage with this movement have been seen wearing t-shirts bearing the sickle and the cross, or even sometimes the red and black flag of anarchists worldwide. This is yet another really interesting proof of leftist identity.

I have failed to discuss the politics of the ethnic nationalities so far. It’s impossible here to get into the ideological debates that took place within the various political and military organizations representing various ethnic nationalities, nor the complicated relations with the Communist Party of Burma that disintegrated and, for the most part, morphed into groups like the United Wa State Army after 1989. However, it’s fair to say that it’s often underestimated how much the tensions and ideological stances and formations which existed among the Bamar also existed among the ethnic elites.

As I will argue, though, the time has not yet come when ethnic politics gets broken down along strictly political lines, but it will come indeed. The competing visions for the future of the community, among the elites on top of each of the local social Stupas (see the first part of this article), have played a key role in the inner dynamics of all the organizations representing ethnic nationalities, ever since World War II. The exiled Kachin activists who openly talked of a KIO dictatorship ten years ago, for example, have been driven into a renewed support for the leadership by the conflict. But the very different understandings that they had of democracy, human rights, or respect for the environment will doubtlessly resurface as soon as the Kachin join the mainstream political process of Myanmar, even though this prospect seems distant at this point.

In other words, what we see now is a movement of the ethnic nationalities fighting for their rights and self determination, which de facto shuts down the debates around the actual political vision of ethnic nationalities. If there is a left and a right in Myanmar, they exist among the ethnic nationalities as well. It is easy to predict that a relative consensus around “peace and federalism” will, sooner or later, be replaced by debates over what the future should look like for various communities among ethnic nationalities. Traditional, conservative visions will inevitably be confronted by more modern views. It is quite predictable that the more conservative visions will be defended by those who lead the armed groups, and that the more modern views will be promoted, in part, by younger and female members of civil society networks, and especially those who have been involved in the so-called exile movement.

Finally, the early 1990s saw the return of an entire branch of the elite: the business elite. This, recently, has proved to be both a blessing and an issue in the political process. It’s been a blessing because the private sector has been a very clear and strong ally of those who promoted change and liberalisation inside the system. The non-military private sector has played a key role in empowering those dubbed as moderates in the system, and those dubbed as the Third Force, around it.

This is one place where the vision I’m suggesting fails, to some extent. In all logic, the NLD today should be a party to the left of the political spectrum. This should organically lead leaders of the private sector closer to a more pro-business opposition party, which in the Burmese context could only be the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The reality is that, more often than not, the private sector is frustrated by how little the NLD actually has reformed the economy so far. To understand why that is, we need to look at the year that started in the summer of 2007. Within a year, three unrelated events took place.

First, the 2008 Constitution was publicized, and then was adopted in a popular vote in the May 2008 Referendum (which could hardly have been less credible). Second, demonstrations shook the country once again, in August by the students of 1988. Then, in September 2007, Buddhist monks gave this movement its identity–and color–in September, when it became known as the Saffron Revolution. Third, Cyclone Nargis killed maybe 150,000 people in a single night, on May 2, 2008.

It is the combination of these three events that explain the Burmese political process often described as a transition to democracy, which I believe it is not. Rather it is a transition to a hybrid system, made of elements of both democracy and dictatorship. Indeed, new lines were drawn among the elites after September 2007.

Starting from the far right, the first group was made of those who supported the repression of the movement.

A second group was made of people who belonged to the pro-system elite, but were greatly shocked by the killings of monks, and for whom this was the last straw that cut the mental links or the sympathy that they had kept for the military regime. It must be understood that this was the culmination of many years of slowly moving away from it out of frustration.

A third group that grew even bigger after 2007 was made of those who could have been described as being part of the pro-democracy elites, but which had grown disenchanted with the strategies of the democracy movement., For this group, 2007 was a clear sign that democracy would not come through protests, in a country where the army was ready to kill, arrest and torture monks. The second and third groups, of course, were to merge into what became known as the Third Force, those who chose to participate in the 2010 elections.

A fourth group was made of those loyal to the democracy movement, and a fifth and last group was made of those loyal to the spirit of 1988, organized, literally, in and around a movement called “88 Generation”.  

Cyclone Nargis physically brought thousands of those described in each of those groups together to the Delta region. It is important to insist on this: the entire elite was to be found among those providing aid to victims of the cyclone. Furthermore, there was universal understanding that this impressive relief effort led by the people themselves was needed because the State was incapable of organizing it, although that should have been its role.

If democracy was not to be gained in the streets, if the regime was prepared to kill monks to protect itself, and if the failures of the State were such that people needed to take matters in their own hands in the face of a natural disaster such as a cyclone, then certainly a new strategy was needed. This strategy, obviously, crystallized around the 2010 elections and the opportunities they offered.

For a while, the political dynamics among the elites appeared to show that there were now four main groups to speak of: the hardliners, the moderates/Third Force, those loyal to the NLD, and the 88 Generation. This changed as early as 2012, when the NLD decided to participate in, and won the by-elections of April that year. As controversial as this may be to some, I will argue that contrary to a widely shared opinion, the Third Force did not disappear then. The Third Force became the transition itself, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became its leader.

In this scenario, in the coming years the political spectrum could increasingly follow this pattern: first, a conservative far right, nostalgic for the authoritarian era, maybe made up, among others, of religious organizations suspicious of the NLD’s agenda and claiming its support from foreign leaders such as Donald Trump. Second, a pro-business center right supporting the opposition USDP. A similar example exists in South Africa, where those opposing the supposedly leftist African National Congress (ANC) tend to support the more pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA). (Of course, it’s interesting to see, in this instance, an opposition party trying to counterbalance the domination of the ANC, a party founded by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, who became the leader of his country but left behind him a divided and incompetent organization that nevertheless wins one election after another.) Third, a center left party, the NLD, which arguably shares similarities with social democratic parties in the West. And fourth, a radical left that at first tolerates and supports the NLD as the legitimate political party supposed to bring about change, but that is quick to denounce it if its promises are not being kept.

If this scenario is true, then two main shifts are to be expected, in the next few months and years, on the Burmese political scene. That the NLD will lose some of its support on the right, which could mean a new hope for the USDP, if it is able to capitalize on frustration over the NLD administration. And that the ruling party will also lose some of its support on the left, among activists for whom change is not deep enough or fast enough.

In that sense, the campaign for the 2020 elections has maybe already started…

This article is based on a talk I gave at a seminar in Paris in November 2016. I would like to thank Rémy Madinier, Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, Alexandra de Mersan, David Delfolie, Nicolas Salem-Gervais, and Aurore Candier for the opportunity they gave me to consider the issues at hand the way I do here, and for the enlightening conversations we had after I gave that talk. As it is not standard practice to include footnotes or a bibliography on Tea Circle, and since their absence makes the reading more comfortable, this article makes no mention of the many books and academic articles which scrupulous reading was necessary to the writing of such a piece. I am happy to answer to any request in this regard, and can be contacted through Tea Circle.

Author: maelsweb

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He is the Political Information Program Director at the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF) in Yangon: