David Brenner discusses the synergies and productive tensions between different perspectives on Rebel Politics.
This is Part Four of a four-part commentary on David Brenner’s monograph, Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (Cornell University Press, 2019), in which the authors reflect on war and peace in Myanmar from various scholarly and activist perspectives. The Introduction can be found here.
Part One, by Lee Jones, discusses the merits of the book in light of wider trends in the fields of Myanmar Studies and Conflict Studies. Part Two, by Shona Loong, reflects on the relevance of David’s book to peacebuilding efforts in Karen State. Part Three, by Kai Htang Lashi, reads David’s book from the perspective of a Kachin diaspora activist. Each of these pieces reflects the unique point of view of individual authors. Finally, in Part Four, David responds to these critiques.
I am deeply grateful to Shona Loong, Lee Jones and Kai Htang Lashi for engaging so closely with Rebel Politics. Their reflections on my thoughts and arguments are generous and constructive. My sincere thanks go to Shona in particular for initiating and facilitating this discussion.
I am glad that my book speaks to the diverse interests of my interlocutors. Above all, this forum illustrates how dynamic Myanmar Studies has become over the past years. It is incredibly encouraging to work in a field where scholars and activists are engaged in productive debates that are enriched by a wealth of backgrounds, including different disciplinary perspectives.
In my response, I want to concentrate on the synergies and productive tensions between political economy, political geography and political sociology perspectives as well as activist knowledge. Let me preface this by saying that this forum is in fact the culmination of long-term fruitful engagement with all three respondents, from whom I learned a lot for my own thought process over the past years. Rather than an end point of discussion, the forum contributions and (hopefully) my response show that the conversation about rebel politics in Myanmar can and should be taken forward in a variety of promising directions.
Rebellion from a sociological perspective
Lee’s engagement with and support for my work over the years has been particularly helpful. This is not least because I have long harboured an interest in political economy. I actually started my doctoral research – upon which most of this book rests – as an enquiry in the political economy of Myanmar’s civil war. Specifically, I wanted to analyse and compare how increasing investments in the country’s conflict-ridden borderlands shape the politics of the Karen National Union (KNU) and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
I thus sought to interview leaders and other elites of both movements. In the process of doing so, I spent significant time with their rank-and-file and wider support networks. These interactions had a profound impact on my research: I came to understand the crucial importance of both movement’s social foundations. Instead of writing a political economy of rebellion, I wrote a political sociology of rebellion.
From a sociological perspective, however, structural shifts in the political economy of Myanmar’s borderlands are anything else than unimportant. On the contrary, understanding them is crucial precisely because they create deep social ruptures. Dialectical analyses that foreground the crisis-ridden nature of capitalist development in Myanmar, such as Lee’s own work, have thus proven invaluable for my contextualisation of these macro-level processes.
When zooming into the ways in which tectonic changes interact with the internal politics of the Kachin and Karen rebellions, it becomes necessary to understand how rebel leaders generate, lose and sometimes regenerate legitimacy amongst their grassroots. I agree with Lee that these contentions over legitimacy are deeply political in nature, and often revolve around questions of ideology.
At the same time, Rebel Politics argues that the struggle over legitimacy is also a profoundly social process. Both explanations are not mutually exclusive but in fact build on each other. That is why I stress how social identities of rebels are intrinsically linked to political goals and ideologies. Dignity and self-esteem in the context of armed struggle is after all tied to the struggle against unjust political orders.
In the case of the ethno-nationalist Kachin and Karen rebellions this means that Kachin soldiers feel alienated when they cannot protect Kachin society from investment-induced displacement by extractive industries, in which some of their own leaders take part in. The same is true for revolutionary Karen activists who lose faith in rebel leaders that do not take their concerns about rights abuses of Karen communities seriously.
The concept of recognition helps to link these political demands with fundamental identity needs, while taking seriously the messy evidence on the ground. The latter includes rebel leaders or local businessmen who get rich by participating in ceasefire economies but are not automatically viewed as illegitimate by revolutionary grassroots. In fact, possessing big cars might reify rather than undercut leadership authority in some situations. Though, this depends on the wider political project that given elites are (perceived to be) part of.
That said, I recognise that the notion of recognition might not be the only or even best way for shedding light on such social interactions and everyday processes. One can rightfully discuss about whether it is necessary or even desirable to make Hegelian thought from Frankfurt travel all the way to Myanmar’s borderlands.
Alpa Shah offers an alternative, but nevertheless complementary, way for conceptualising similar dynamics in her anthropological analysis of intimacy in India’s Naxalite movement. Similar to my observations in Myanmar, higher-caste Maoist cadres from urban backgrounds generated legitimacy amongst lower-caste Adivasi peasant communities not least because they afforded them dignity and respect by way of everyday interactions.
Rebel Politics beyond the Kachin and Karen movements
In his discussion, Lee raises another important point about the scope conditions of my arguments, asking how applicable they are for movements that appear to be driven by economic rationale. I readily agree that not all non-state armed movements fit my definition of rebellion. Some non-state armed groups in Myanmar and elsewhere are clearly invested in business activities and make less overt political claims. To be sure, not all armed groups are rebellions.
That said, Rebel Politics first and foremost urges to eschew inferring the political nature of movements based on their funding strategies or other modes of binary analysis. After all, the Kachin and Karen movements have also been invested in lucrative businesses, which is why they have occasionally been mis-portrayed under the prism of profiteering by outside analysts as well.
I believe that conceptualising rebellion as social figuration is best suited to non-state armed movements that achieve a degree of embeddedness in their social context. This appears to be the case with movements that possess territorial control over pockets of population whom they claim to represent, not least because this provides the means for and obligations of political rule.
My arguments might thus not be applicable to transnational clandestine networks like Abu Sayaf and I am in no position to judge the social relations of groups like Al Shabab in rural Somalia. Yet, they can inform reflections on other ethno-national rebellions with territorial footholds in Myanmar (e.g. KNPP, NMSP, SSA, UWSA) and elsewhere (see for instance the Moro struggle in Mindanao, the Kurdish struggle in the Middle East, or the Tuareg struggle in the Sahel).
Moreover, I believe that my findings can be brought into fruitful conversation with contexts where revolutionary armed movements rule over territory and population albeit professing different, non-nationalist ideologies (for instance in the case of the Marxist-Leninist FARC in Colombia or the Maoist movements in Nepal or India). Despite ideological divergences, the modes of organisation and mobilisation between left-wing revolutionary armed movements and ethnonational rebellions, are not all that different.
In fact, many ethnonational movements take organisational inspiration from left-wing revolutionary guerrilla movements. The Kachin and Karen rebellions for instance both have youth and women’s organisations for mass mobilisation purposes. This should not come as a surprise. Revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh have after all successfully challenged more powerful state adversaries in asymmetric warfare. In that sense, the KNU and the KIO – both of which are far from being Maoists by ideology – are Maoists by practice.
The local dimensions of conflict and peace
Shona comes to this discussion equipped with strong knowledge of the fragmented space of the Karen rebellion. Based on her own long-term fieldwork on the Thai-Myanmar border and a geographical lens, she sheds refreshing, new light on my findings. In particular, she reflects on the spatiality of conflict and peace, which remains under-elaborated in my own writing.
In doing so, Shona perceptively notes the spatial variations of rebel social figurations. This includes striking differences within the same movement, such as the KNU, where relations between rebel leaders, internal opposition and local support networks vary from one brigade district to another. In fact, this is one of the most pertinent findings of Rebel Politics, which I argue explains not only the signing of the Karen ceasefire but also its inherent instability.
Shona expands these arguments in particularly fruitful ways by showing their implications for peacebuilding efforts in Myanmar. Directing our attention to the local scale, she asks ‘where peace might be possible’. This is an important question that could present an opening in a situation where the formal, nation-wide peace process appears to have reached a dead-end. Shona proposes that Mutraw – where the Salween Peace Park is located – might then be a rare locality in which positive peace, defined as the attainment of justice rather than just the absence of physical violence, might be more realistically achievable than elsewhere in contemporary Karen State.
Counterintuitively maybe, this is not despite the strength of the Karen rebellion in Mutraw but because of it. After all, it is in Mutraw where the KNU remains embedded in wider society to a considerable extent. This embeddedness creates reciprocity and accountability between communities and local (rebel) authorities to an extent that is rarely the case in other parts of present-day Karen State (or in fact elsewhere in Myanmar). As Shona points out this is why local communities in the Salween Peace Park currently have an actual say in issues ranging from natural resource governance to cultural revitalisation.
I thus agree that the Salween Peace Park experiment holds crucial insights for reflecting about Shona’s second important question, namely how peace can be made accountable to local communities in Myanmar. At the same time, I recognise that the Salween Peace Park is a rather uncommon place in Myanmar’s borderlands. This is not only due to the comparatively uncontested and embedded nature of the KNU, which effectively serves as the government in these parts of Karen State.
Of similar importance seems to be that the rebel-controlled part of Mutraw is comparatively homogenous in its ethnic composition. Most local communities inhabiting the Salween Peace Park are S’gaw Karen. I am thus not only wondering how localising peacebuilding efforts on the basis of rebel social figurations unfolds in places where ethnic armed organisations are less embedded in local communities, e.g. because they hold less territory.
Importantly, many parts of Myanmar’s borderlands are ethnically heterogeneous and mounting tensions between ethnic minority groups over land and cultural domination have become one of the most worrying trends in recent years. In most parts of Myanmar’s borderlands localising peacebuilding will thus necessitate a fine-grained understanding of local ethnic politics in order to prevent recreating new dynamics of domination and in fact ethnic conflict on a local scale.
This is not to say that we should shy away from localising peacebuilding efforts. On the contrary, I agree that much closer engagement with informal political orders, including governance arrangements involving ethnic armed organisations, is necessary to make peacebuilding more accountable to local communities. After all, Kai Htang’s contribution to this book forum demonstrates that this might indeed be the only way in which positive and sustainable peace is possible.
The diverse politics in rebel politics
Having grown up in northern Myanmar’s conflict areas herself, Kai Htang remains intimately connected with the Kachin community and their struggle. Over the years, I have learned a lot from her unique insights into Kachin politics and society and I am glad that Rebel Politics finds an audience beyond academia. It is particularly good to learn that my sociological approach resonates with the communities who are at the heart of Rebel Politics.
Kai Htang is a spokesperson of the Kachin National Organisation in the UK, a group of vocal diaspora activists. In that sense she is in fact part of what I conceptualise as the wider revolutionary figuration of the Kachin rebellion, even though she is not a member of the KIO and its armed struggle. In that role, she is active in defining Kachin politics. Kai Htang is also passionate about organising humanitarian relief to the people caught up in the Kachin war. Her intervention consequentially directs us back to the lived experiences of people suffering not only from contemporary armed conflict but also from previous attempts to pacify ethnonational grievances with militarised ceasefires.
Importantly, Kai Htang’s strong advocacy for Kachin self-determination brings us back to the politics in Rebel Politics: both the Kachin and the Karen rebellions are heterogenous movements, in which a variety of voices engage, negotiate and contest with each other over the way forward. The KIO officially fights for greater political autonomy for Kachin State in a federal union of Myanmar (despite the organisation’s name). The social foundations within which the KIO is embedded however encompasses many diverging opinions, including people supporting the official KIO policy of federal autonomy and proponents of other forms of self-determination, including independence from Myanmar.
In that sense, Kai Htang’s remarks stand emblematic for a wider feeling of stark disillusionment that can be encountered amongst many Kachin. As she points out, these sentiments have been fuelled by the dire experience of a 17 year-long ceasefire that has missed to address the political root causes of conflict as well as the violence that the re-escalation of war has brought over many local communities after 2011.
In addition, many Kachin and other ethnic minority communities feel particularly disappointed because Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascend to power has not created significant space for political compromise either. On the contrary, the current peace process seems to have come to a dead-end. At the same time, it is also important to point out that in 2020 many Kachin people are tired of war. The KIO for one has been reported to engage in ceasefire negotiations with the Tatmadaw again. It is far from certain whether these talks will yield results. This is not least because Kachin leaders and revolutionary grassroots have not forgotten the dire experience of the previous ceasefire.
It is impossible to predict how the plurality of opinions within the Kachin rebel movement will play out. One thing is certain though: as with the Karen rebellion, the Kachin rebel social figuration is far from static. My book Rebel Politics does therefore not claim to be a straightforward roadmap for the future. It does though provide an analytic for understanding how the interaction of interdependent actors continuously creates and recreates a multitude of social pressures that drive the trajectories of armed struggle in often-unforeseen ways. In that sense I hope that Rebel Politics is useful for anyone concerned with finding genuine solutions to one of the world’s most protracted conflicts.
Dr David Brenner is Lecturer in International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. His work explores the politics of conflict, (in)security and development. Informed by long-term research in Myanmar’s borderlands and sociological theory, it sheds light on the politics of rebel movements, (non-)state formation, ethnic conflict, and the cultural politics of domination and resistance. You can follow his work on Twitter @DavBrenner.