Political Communication and Transformative Citizenship in Myanmar (Part II)

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

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

One of the holy grails of democratic studies is the idea of transformative citizenship. Many have theorized about how democracy could be transformative or how engaged citizenship could transform relationships between citizens and government, but it is difficult to really track this concept.

A national political dialogue process made up of biannual 21st Century Panglong Conferences, themselves consisting of 700 elite representatives mostly drawn from a few centrally important institutions, reflects multiple views on citizenship, none of them transformative in empowering or ennobling ways. It further privileges direct political participation and decision-making for a select few, while imposing a set of passive citizenship practices on the vast majority of the population. A meaningful voice in political decision-making (particularly about their own affairs) is the central complaint of almost every interest group in Myanmar, from ethnic armed groups to women’s organisations to opposition parties and student unions. Yet almost every step of the process leading to the current national political dialogue framework (from initial negotiations between a small government team and ethnic armed group leaders through to the drafting of the final framework by a nine member, all male group behind closed doors) has reinforced the notion that for most, citizenship is primarily a non-participatory notion, merely the act of being represented. And this type of citizenship cannot be transformative in the sense of turning people into more active, knowledgeable, inter-connected, and empathetic members of a political community.

What types of citizen engagement might be potentially transformative? A 2011 study looked at the presumed benefits of citizen participation in democratic governance and found that the positive effects of expanded participation are noticeable primarily to those actually taking part, which should not be surprising. The study specified these benefits as coming in the form of “knowledge, skills, and [democratic] virtues” (Michels 2011, 290). This insight helps to distinguish between the effects of different types of “democratic innovations,” for example referendums and deliberative forums. While referendums seem to result in more direct policy influence, deliberative forums would contribute more to individual citizen development, not to mention the embeddedness that seems to be so critical in the citizen-political community relationship.

The designers and advocates of Myanmar’s peace process and national political dialogue process have frequently congratulated themselves for fostering an “open dialogue culture.” While this may be the case relative to the closed-off nature of previous military regimes, the current framework creates minimal opportunities for deliberative forums that would invite mass participation. As a result, any potentially transformative benefits would be restricted—at best—to the small group of elites participating in the 21st Century Panglong Conferences. While the framework’s designers have also continued to insist that civil society will play an important role in the political dialogue, this role (not to mention the opportunities for participation by citizens who do not have political or civil society affiliations) has not been specified beyond being occasional and consultative rather than participatory and transformative. The expansion of local forums and consultations has been at least a partial response to this concern, but without clear indications of how the discussions and insights from these gatherings will be channeled into political decision-making, they are not fulfilling the goal of making the national political dialogue a meaningfully inclusive process.

The simple lesson here is that, for citizenship to be transformative in an empowering way, it must be participatory. And this notion is supported by the activities of countless CSOs and NGOs that have been working in Myanmar and on its borders for decades on projects that have sought to include people in the political process, whether through creating refugee camp councils with explicit guidelines for marginalized group representation, organizing farmers to articulate and present their grievances to MPs in Naypyitaw, or demanding that ethnic political authorities hold regular public meetings in which people’s concerns can be aired and leaders held to account.

The transformative possibilities of political participation can also be found in one of Myanmar’s earliest examples of contemporary political philosophy. U Hpo Hlaing, an advisor to Myanmar’s last two kings, Mindon and Thibaw, wrote the Rajadhammasangaha in 1878 as a manual of advice for King Thibaw. In it, he advocated for a political assembly as a way of guarding against the likelihood of a single individual with absolute power being guided by certain negative biases or hindrances. In Burmese these are called agati and include desire, anger, fear, and ignorance. U Hpo Hlaing wrote:

“…if a number of people get together for any sort of action, there can be no question of following the agati way. In such assemblies what one man does not know another will; when one man has feelings of hate, another will not; when one is angry, another will be calm. When people have agreed in a meeting and preserve their solidarity, there will be no need for fear. For these reasons, we must affirm that if a number of people conduct their business in an assembly there is no way in which the four wrong ways can be followed.” (Bagshawe 2004, 174)

While U Hpo Hlaing’s primary interest in the Rajadhammasangaha was to convince the monarch of the value of an assembly to guide his decision-making, elsewhere I have sought to build on his logic to consider the converse of the process, in which engaging in collective discussion with a focus on building mutual understanding and, ideally, consensus, could positively affect participants’ own moral development:

“Collective decision-making, undertaken under ideal institutional structures, can open individuals to alternate or opposing perspectives, eroding their own self-interest and functioning as a moral practice in itself. When in the assembly, an individual’s bias is revealed and he or she can see not only the perspective of another but also the benefit for the entire community of a particular decision, democratic participation can become a morally transformative activity itself.” (Walton 2014, 42)

National political dialogue forums could thus become a place for transformative citizenship, but only if they are broadly participatory. This would require not just biannual 21st Century Panglong Conferences attended by political elites, but the further development of open and inclusive political forums at multiple levels, all designed with sensitivity to the communication impediments described in the previous post.

Iris Young’s warnings about the pitfalls of certain understandings of democracy sometimes seem as if they were written with Myanmar in mind. One type of public rhetoric that concerns her is appeals to the “common good,” which can simply be a way of masking the continuation of the status quo and of the inequality and differential privilege it perpetuates (Young 1997). For the phrase “common good,” simply substitute “national politics” (as opposed to party politics), “unity,” or any other phrase that Burmese political and military elites use that subtly or not-so-subtly suggests that they are selflessly striving for the benefit of all while others are working selfishly for their own benefit.

Furthermore, in cases where a common good exists (or is presumed to exist), there is no need for “transformations from self-regarding to enlarged thought” (Young 2000, 42). That is, those making appeals to the common good or to unity believe that these sentiments already exist or could be brought into existence without any fundamental changes in their own perspectives and attitudes. An example can be seen in a criticism of President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made by a Burmese political commentator who noted that both dignitaries had simply given speeches to the January 2016 Union Peace Conference and then left, rather than staying to listen or participate further. A Myanmar colleague noted to me that the same was again true for the most prominent speakers at the August 2016 Conference, with the notable exception of President U Htin Kyaw, who attended and listened throughout, seemingly modeling the type of behavior that should be expected from all political decision-makers at these alleged “dialogues.” There can be no personal transformation where, as has been the case among military and political leadership for decades, prominent individuals believe that their job is merely to lecture, instruct, and admonish, rather than listen and learn through participating in a mutually transformative discussion.

By contrast, the type of open public communication Young advocates for would see every political encounter as a potential opportunity for both personal and collective growth, as moments to practice engaged, empathetic, and transformative citizenship. This type of citizenship practice would not privilege what is held in common, it would preserve plurality and respect difference as a source of creativity and growth. It is important to recognize that in this process, the goal is not to transcend difference. Rather, the intention is to create a scenario in which one can learn from another person who is expressing her experience, confront that different perspective as a way of further revealing the partiality of one’s own perspective, and articulate one’s own expressions of self-or group-interest into appeals that can be heard and acted on in the public sphere.

The “common good” is a particularly pernicious appeal in Young’s view, especially in contexts of significant social or economic inequality, where it can mask exclusion, as appeals to the common good are really appeals to support the dominant position. Appeals to the common good, national interest, or unity can narrow the field of political debate and the political agenda by silencing disagreement. Myanmar’s evolving national political dialogue process should be monitored with attention to the ways in which an emphasis on the common good, unity, or the other watchwords of discipline and order exclude voices from the public sphere or from public consideration. There can be no transformative aspect of citizenship when processes of political participation do not allow for the sharing and consideration of dissenting views.

Myanmar’s national political dialogue process is not only the vehicle for fundamental political restructuring in the country; it also sets examples and reinforces precedents of practices of citizenship. Given the nature of the grievances of those who have felt excluded from Myanmar’s political process for decades, it would be wise to reconfigure the national political dialogue so that it can be a vehicle for the development of new models of broad political participation. Only in this way will it be able to act as a catalyst for the creation of an inclusive national identity rather than the imposition of an enforced unity and harmony. In doing so, Myanmar’s leaders will need to recognize and cultivate a diverse set of practices of citizenship, not only in the national political dialogue process but in every one of the country’s evolving political institutions.

Works Cited

Bagshawe, L.E. “Rajadhammasangaha,” Online Burma/Myanmar Library. 2004. <www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/THE_RAJADHAMMASANGAHA.pdf>.

Michels, Ank. “Innovations in democratic governance: how does citizen participation contribute to a better democracy?” International Review of Administrative Sciences 77, no. 2 (2011): 275-293.

Walton, Matthew J. “Buddhism in Contemporary Myanmar.” In Myanmar: Dynamics and Continuities, edited by David I. Steinberg. Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 2014.

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

Young, Iris Marion. Intersecting voices: dilemmas of gender, political philosophy, and policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.


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.