Political Communication and Transformative Citizenship in Myanmar (Part I)

Matthew J Walton highlights aspects of citizenship that are often ignored.

Editor’s note: The following is the first of a two-part post. You can read Part II of “Political Communication and Transformative Citizenship in Myanmar” here.

Citizenship is undoubtedly one of the more contentious issues in Myanmar today. But with so much focus on the boundaries of national inclusion, discussions usually ignore a key aspect of citizenship: its practice. The following two posts are excerpted from a chapter that will appear in an upcoming volume, Citizenship in Myanmar: ways of being in and from Burma, edited by Ashley South and Marie Lall (ISEAS Press and Chiang Mai University Press, 2018).

The practice of citizenship includes various perspectives on what citizenship entails (the different rights and responsibilities), the roles of state and civil society groups in fostering citizenship, and expectations of citizen participation (as well as expectations of the state in facilitating that participation). A discussion of the practice of citizenship should also include attention to the many “skills” of citizenship that go beyond basic rights and responsibilities. Especially important—but often unaddressed—are the particular citizenship skills that need to be cultivated by government officials.

Developing a broader understanding of a diverse range of citizenship skills and practices is particularly necessary in the context of Myanmar’s rapid political change. Since at least the 2008 constitutional referendum, the country’s citizens have been expected to participate in politics in a variety of ways that were not only previously unavailable to them, they were actively denied by military-led governments. The result is a situation in which the meaning and content of citizenship is either limited among citizens or expressed in ways that do not necessarily accord with centralized notions of citizenship and participation in Myanmar or with international norms.

In these two posts, I consider the practice of citizenship primarily in relation to the national political dialogue process, now officially reconfigured as the 21st Century Panglong Conference, arguably the forum that (in some form or another) will shape Myanmar’s political future. This is a useful starting point for critical analysis, especially because many of the crucial aspects of citizenship practice that I discuss are completely ignored in the current political dialogue process.

The framework for the national political dialogue process mandates broad inclusion of representatives of key stakeholders in Myanmar’s political process. But this is a promise that has gone largely unrealized. In the next few paragraphs, I draw on theories of deliberative democracy to better understand the impediments to developing more inclusive processes of democratic communication. I want to address not just methods of public “speaking” and participation but also the circumstances under which various voices can be “heard,” both publicly and by key decision-makers.

Political theorist Iris Marion Young (2000) has argued for a model of “communicative” democracy, where different cultural forms of expression are equally valued as public discourse, opening up space for modes of speech other than argumentation, including greeting, narrative, and storytelling. This approach would take seriously the fact that most modern political systems privilege modes of communication that are either more natural for or are socialized to dominant groups, thereby reinforcing the political exclusion of already marginalized groups. Remedies would require institutional changes to political systems and processes that would allow other forms of communication (and thus, other “voices”) to be more effectively heard and acknowledged by political decision-makers.

Considering Young’s theory in the context of Myanmar does not imply that non-dominant groups in the country are incapable of public deliberation through argumentation; this is obviously not true. However, engaging with her concerns regarding political communication requires us to think carefully about the topic in relation to Myanmar’s highly consequential national political dialogue.

Various dimensions of social hierarchy in the country mean that argumentation is either frowned upon or seen as the purview of elites, men, one’s seniors, or the highly educated. The norms that make argumentation unacceptable or improper when done by certain groups (for example, young people, women, or those without formal education) obviously hinder the free exchange of ideas and specifically the expression of non-dominant points of view. Even when members of these groups are accepted into public forums and speak in accordance with these norms of argumentation and dispute, they are often not recognized as participants. Female participants in the first Union Peace Conference in 2016 (which, although aspiring to a 30% female participant level only achieved 7%) complained of regularly encountering dismissive attitudes. One woman’s comments through multiple sessions were not included in the official record until she physically took the computers of the facilitators and typed in her statements herself. Another had to take a male facilitator to task for “diluting points put across by female speakers.” Even when women ostensibly had a place at the table, their perspectives were not adequately recognized or recorded, a concern that has continued to plague planning meetings related to the dialogue and other related political forums.

Equally importantly for the Myanmar case, we can easily identify distinctions in the modes of public expression and representation between different ethnic groups and likely between other identity groups as well. One example is the way in which elders from non-Burman communities tend to express their grievances. Rather than list their concerns in relation to specific laws or procedures, they might instead contextualize a contemporary situation of injustice within a historical trajectory of personal and collective experiences, or highlight an expectation of recognition over a more tangible policy concern. This type of communication can have deep resonance for their lived experiences of oppression and injustice and can function as a way of preserving or strengthening communal identity. It is also an example of a historically situated narrative that Young would like to see acknowledged as a recognized speech act with political relevance, but which is more often than not merely dismissed as older generations unwilling to move on from the past. Dismissal of this type of speech act is common in statements by Burman government officials and advisors and I have heard similar sentiments from foreign observers, including some of those advising on the peace process.

Cultivating practices of citizenship that can be effective in furthering national reconciliation in Myanmar will require taking into consideration these alternate modes of expression. But making space for them in the institutions and processes created as part of the national political dialogue is only one step. And in fact, it will be a relatively pointless step if it is not complemented by active training in the complementary citizenship skills that would allow others to truly be able to listen to and appreciate both what is being expressed in these narratives and the modes of expression. That is, in addition to training citizens in various modes of participation, political leaders and decision-makers also need to be trained in the skills that would enable them to engage respectfully and productively with a diverse group of citizen constituents.

Too often discussions of the duties and practices of citizenship assume that these apply only (or primarily) to the mass of citizens, not necessarily to political officials. In fact, not only should political leaders be bound by the same expectations as their fellow citizens, it is useful to think about the ways in which elected officials and other government officials practice a distinct type of citizenship, one that should have higher standards of inclusion, patience, and empathy. There is no lack of negative examples among Myanmar’s recent political leadership. One of the most egregious was former Minister for Livestock, Fisheries, and Rural Development U Ohn Myint’s bullying of villagers in January 2014, when he threatened to slap and imprison people who were questioning him. But in fact, the kind of listening training that Iris Young’s arguments point to would go much deeper, along the lines of training officials to be able to appreciate and learn from the different communicative styles of Myanmar’s diverse population. Discussions about the transformative aspects of democratic practice or citizenship usually refer to those who are participating in politics from grassroots levels and becoming more empowered or engaged. But in the case of Myanmar, an even more important transformative process must occur among government and military officials. And it is both revealing and productive to think about these practices as practices of citizenship, appropriate to different roles in the country.

Continue to Part II.

Works Cited

Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.