James T Davies reviews Matthew Mullen’s book on understanding change in Myanmar.
Matthew Mullen’s important, entertaining and engaging book Pathways that Changed Myanmar documents the stories of the diverse actors living and working for change inside Myanmar under military rule. Stepping away from the well-known narrative of the democratic movement challenging a brutal military junta, this book reflects the fact that change in Myanmar came from multiple sources. It records the actors whose contribution to change often flew under the radar in the literature on Myanmar.
In my own work in and on Myanmar, I have also found stories similar to those in Mullen’s book. One such story is that of Nai Tin Aye, a former school principal and rebel who has long settled in Australia, where I have been lucky enough to know him. This year, Nai Tin Aye returned to his village in eastern Myanmar for only the second time since he fled in the early 1990s. He had been involved in the armed resistance for autonomy before participating in the 1990 election. A warrant was issued for his arrest after the military government cracked down on political opposition following its heavy electoral defeat.
Nai Tin Aye’s home village had been contested territory between armed insurgents and the government for decades. The village suffered the insecurity of war, as villagers were forced to labour and porter without pay and were subjected to suspicion, threats and violence from the Burmese military.
The situation improved vastly with the negotiation of a cease-fire by intelligence chief Khin Nyunt in 1995, which stands to this day. However, Myanmar was then ruled by a military regime that injected the majority of the budget into the armed forces and spent very little on social services or infrastructure, especially in far flung parts of the country. In a story that can be found across Myanmar, villagers organised to fund post-conflict services and development.
With the cease-fire, travel became much easier. Lacking local employment, young men and women crossed into Thailand and elsewhere, legally and illegally, to make money they could never make at home. Much of this money was sent back to the village to support families and the community. The diaspora who had fled the village earlier due to political or economic reasons also sent remittances. Durable concrete houses replaced bamboo structures, and donations to the monasteries increased rapidly. Motorcycles and cars became accessible.
These remittances also allowed the villagers to come together to build roads, bridges and new school buildings, and eventually to fund the infrastructure to bring electricity from the grid to all houses in the village — after some negotiation with officials. Such self-reliance projects are known in Myanmar as ko htu ko hta (literally “self-raise self-stand”). Nai Tin Aye notes that the government would not deliver such necessities to the people. “If we didn’t have ko htu ko hta, we would have nothing,” he says.
Local government administrators were generally no barrier to these projects. Upon their completion, officials would arrive and formally open the new road or building. In some negotiations with government, for instance to connect the village to the power grid, some convincing in the form of gifts was required. Relationships with officials needed to be maintained through such gestures. Likewise, travelling to and from the border without proper documents posed challenges, but nothing that could not be overcome through negotiations with officials if one was stopped.
Nai Tin Aye’s first homecoming was in 2015, and I visited him in the village then. The impact of ko htu ko hta was obvious everywhere we went. It was also obvious that individuals were making huge sacrifices for change in their communities. Nai Tin Aye himself did not see his family for decades after his work for political and social change forced him to leave. I arrived in the village shortly after the return of his son, who had been working in Singapore for some years, away from his own son. Another young relative, not yet out of high school, told me of his plan to find work overseas once he graduated. Despite the change of government in Naypyidaw, opportunities for young people have improved very little. As a result, a generation is invisible in the village, and children are left in the care of grandparents.
Pathways that Changed Myanmar also sheds light on such cases of everyday resistance to the military regime, in which individuals avoided supporting and even sabotaged state institutions. Mullen cites the entertaining case of a chef in Kachin state who purposefully undercooked meals for Myanmar soldiers with an eye to debilitate them. Occasionally Mullen stretches this argument of “evasion and obstruction” a little too far. Are those engaged in the illegal jade trade in Kachin state really avoiding the state as an act of resistance?
Mullen reflects on the debate concerning the effectiveness of the wide-ranging sanctions that the United States, European Union and other countries imposed against the regime. This was a policy explicitly backed by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy as well as by many vocal democracy advocates along the Thai-Myanmar border and further afield in Europe, the US and elsewhere. It was supported by powerful and influential actors. The US government followed the requests of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. Myanmar policy was a bipartisan issue in Washington, and was promoted by human rights organisations.
Mullen documents how the sanctions were felt on the ground by communities. Sanctions were often understood by community organisers inside Myanmar as a policy that constructed them as helpless. Sanctions materially deprived them of the resources to create change. It was also a policy from afar. There was evidence that sanctions were not hurting the generals and their cronies’ economic activities, but rather that the rest of the population felt the harshest impact. Mullen notes that sanctions may have also encouraged a siege mentality in the military government and provided incentives to stifle domestic dissent.
What do these legacies mean for Myanmar as it moves forward under the NLD government? While some of the actors of government have changed, many remain the same — particularly in the local bureaucracy, where people most often meet the state and its institutions. Reforming entrenched distrust of the state, corruption and patronage networks is a huge challenge. The patterns that Mullen documents, of negotiating and compromising with the state and its agents, will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in Nai Tin Aye’s village, the same patterns of development are continuing today.
I encountered other cases of everyday resistance during recent years of transition in Myanmar. The case of a man from the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine state comes to mind. He had obtained permission from officials for his high-achieving daughter to attend university in 2016 — a rare opportunity for this mostly stateless community. He hoped his daughter would return and make changes in their community. His friend described him as a sycophant — insincerely pleasing agents of the state for benefits. The term had no negative connotations, as this has long been a method of survival in all corners of the country, in a similar way to corruption. Similarly, grassroots civil society organisations have long had to negotiate permission from local authorities to hold training and seminars. Rohingya community leaders in ghettos in Rakhine State today befriend the police guarding the ends of their streets. Gradual negotiated steps towards positive change gave, and continue to give, immediate benefits to communities. Such instances also give agency to individuals and communities.
Likewise, the contention over the best way to deal with Myanmar’s military regime continues, parallel with the ongoing transition in the country. Discussions with friends and acquaintances about the book evoked similar language to that inside the book. Some were pleased that the work of previously sidelined or dismissed voices was now being covered. Others shrugged off the work as that of apologists for those who engaged with the regime.
Mullen’s book sheds light on the reality of everyday life under military rule, and the stories he reveals challenge the narratives we have become accustomed to. During this often difficult period of top-down change in Myanmar, the book is a refreshing reminder that change comes from multiple sources and carries various meanings for each of us.
James T Davies is a PhD student at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.