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

Mael Raynaud explores elite dynamics in Myanmar’s social structure.

I wrote this article several weeks ago, and I never met U Ko Ni. But many of my friends and colleagues did, and like the rest of the nation, they were deeply shocked and saddened by his murder, just like I am. Just hours after his funeral, I could not forgive myself not to dedicate this article to his memory. I sincerely hope this contributes, even just a little, to a better understanding of the history he was such an important part of.

When I first started to research the history and the politics of Myanmar 15 years ago, the way the world, and indeed many people inside the country, saw the country’s political dynamics was pretty straight forward. The very simplistic, but largely prevalent view at the time was that the maybe 5% of Burmese at the top (the oppressors) were bad people, and that the remaining 95% of the population at the bottom (the oppressed), were good people and were the victims of an Orwellian dictatorship. The successive leaders of the Tatmadaw, the army founded by Aung San, had pushed the country down the drain, economically and politically, while his own daughter, who lived alone under house arrest, led the movement for democracy and human rights.

To me, the journey into learning more about Myanmar has been a journey into understanding that things were a lot more complicated. And the first step on this path was to realize that what there was to understand was not the history and politics of a country, which is an abstract concept. What there was to understand was a complex society, made up of tens of millions of individuals, very different from one another.

Many authors writing on Myanmar (or Burma before 1989) have focused on major political events that have shaped its history and politics, as well as its international relations. Such authors tend to have focused on the political leadership of the country, which has largely meant, for half a century, the leadership of the Tatmadaw, as well as, since 1988, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Others have written about ethnic nationalities, which, sadly, ever since the independence of the country has, to a large degree, meant writing about civil war. Others still have written about everyday people, farmers or city dwellers, members of the Bamar majority or one of many ethnic nationalities, people of all creeds and cultures.

The following article, published in two parts, focuses on the elites, the second layer of what I will describe as Myanmar’s social Stupa, in reference to the pyramidal shape of the magnificent Buddhist shrines that dot the country.  In the first part, I’ll describe the evolution of the elites from pre-colonial times to the uprising of 1988, when the modern political dynamics of Myanmar can arguably be said to have formed.

In the second part, I’ll describe the evolution of the elites since 1988, with two objectives. First, I’ll try and see whether these elites can be broken down into different political categories, or to put it simply, how various sections of Myanmar’s elites position themselves politically. Then I’ll try and verify whether the spectrum observed matches what can be seen in the West, whether or not it’s possible to read the political sociology of Myanmar’s elite as following a “classical” Western political spectrum, from the radical left to the far right.

This raises at least two questions. The first is: are we witnessing a “normalization” of the political sociology of Myanmar’s elite, as the country matures politically and gains experience with the practice of democracy. Or does Myanmar follow a specific political pattern that’s fundamentally different from what can be seen in other countries?

The second question, hidden behind the first, is: how do we look at Myanmar? How do we try and understand its politics and its society ? Can we use the kind of lenses we would use in other countries (specifically the West) or do we need  an approach that is Myanmar-specific ?

The answer I’ll provide to the first question is: yes and no. The answer I’ll provide to the second is: we need both. Maybe this will be frustrating to some readers. But I strongly believe that giving a definitive answer to either one of these two questions is precisely what leads so many observers to be wrong about Myanmar, or at least to have views that are questionable because they’re too limited.

The elites, in this article, will be defined as the socio-economic class at the top of the country’s “social Stupa”. This group is made up of all those with direct access to power, be it political, economic, or religious power and  those able to influence one or several of these powers. In the more contemporary context, the elites are defined as the larger group directly below the country’s leadership, in opposition to the middle-class and the masses, the poor, the proletariat.

Last but not least, we’ll look at the elites from three different angles:

  1. the historical angle (elites evolve with time, and the socio-political contexts of their time);
  2. the geographical angle, which, to an extent, coincides with the ethnic angle (the elites of Yangon are different from the elites of Taunggyi), and
  3. the social angle (the various elites, religious, economic and political, are not only different, they sometimes do not react in the same way – for example, to demonstrations of 1988 or to Cyclone Nargis in 2008).

But let’s start at the beginning… It is usually considered that there were three main dynastic regimes of pre-colonial Burma: the Bagan dynasty (1044-1287), the Taung-ngu dynasty (1486-1752), and most recently the Kon-baung kingdom (1752-1885), although some would argue that “the long 19th century” in Burma really started in 1782.

In the most recent period at least, Burma knew a relatively classic feudal system, with a cakravartin (universal) monarch at its helm, surrounded by a large and complex palace life, a royal administration, with princes at the top and manned by the ahmudan (civil servants, a group that, as we’ll see, has never stopped forming the backbone of the Burmese State), military generals, the athi (probably best described as a “proto-bourgeoisie,” although the comparison with the European concept of bourgeoisie must be a subject for another time), and the the sangha, the Buddhist clergy.

Arguably, the most significant aspect of the Burmese feudal system (a system similar to what could be found in other parts of Southeast Asia) was that it was organized according to a “mandala system”, a patchwork of centers and peripheries where any given periphery, or myo (loosely, a district and the town that usually gave it its name) could owe allegiance to one or several centers.

This political organization, it must be stressed, is easily recognized in some of the issues faced by present day Myanmar, in at least three ways. First, many areas confined within the borders of the country, as drawn by the British, barely considered the Burmese palace as just one among several centers they were connected to since they were also connected to centers that are now located in foreign countries (Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, or Luang Prabang being some of the best known examples).   

Second, since each periphery is simultaneously its own center, there are not one but many social Stupas in Myanmar. The leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization or the United Wa State Army are at the helm of their own local social Stupas, and people below them on those Stupas can hardly be described as existing on the main Burmese social Stupa with its center (since 2005) in Naypyidaw. In that sense, a mental picture of Myanmar’s political geography would need to include one “big” central social Stupa centered around the Yangon-Naypyidaw axis, and smaller Stupas, essentially based in conflict areas along the borders of the country (Mai Ja Yang in the case of the Kachin Stupa, a Stupa linked to Naypyidaw, to Myitkyina – where, among other things, the Kachin State Parliament sits, and also to Kunming and Beijing, etc).

Third, an obvious consequence of the previous point, Myanmar is still a place where local leaders, be they local commanders of the Tatmadaw, a local militia, or any other local authority, enjoy a significant degree of autonomy in the way they run the areas under their control, as is painfully evident to those, like the NLD today, who try and rein in the periphery, only kilometers outside of government buildings.

The main criticism made of colonization is that it purely and simply decapitated the highest layer of the social Stupa, especially in a country like Myanmar where the king was sent into exile to India, which greatly weakened the social structure of the country. This, then, would be at the origin of the issues facing modern Myanmar.

To really evaluate whether this is true or not, a comprehensive study would have to be made of where exactly on the social Stupa, were, the grandfathers of the leaders of the independence movement and leaders of the newly independent Myanmar in the 1950s and later.

While it is true that the British destroyed the existing social structures to an extent, and that this couldn’t help but have negative consequences after independence, the social Stupa did not disappear overnight, and it is unlikely that the leaders of Burma after 1948 came from long lines of poor farmers. Interestingly, as the Tatmadaw came to create its own elite, many of the leaders of the Tatmadaw in recent years do come from very humble backgrounds, including U Than Shwe and U Thein Sein. Another issue, much more controversial, would possibly be the positive role played by the British as they built universities and provided an education to the leaders of Burma which was qualitatively probably better than that received by many in the leadership of the country today, after decades of steady decline of the education system.

The plight of the economic and religious elites under the British could not be more different. While the British largely tolerated, and sometimes supported, the leaders of the Sangha, not to mention Christian organizations, as long as they did not interfere with colonial domination, it is well known how large segments of the Burmese economy came to be controlled by foreigners, not only British, but also Chinese and Indians. This matters tremendously since the country, after having expelled thousands of Chinese and Indian business people, experienced a long period without a real private sector, under the Burmese way to socialism (1962 to 1988). In fact the whole economic elite had to be rebuilt under the SLORC and the SPDC (from 1988 to 2011), regimes known for their corruption, cronyism and mismanagement, not to mention international sanctions. In other words, the economic elites are in a process of being rebuilt from the weak and often questionable basis that existed prior to recent reforms.

As we’ve seen, it is among a “new” elite trained in British universities or universities built by the British, that the movement for independence developed, which, in the context of the years between the two world wars, more often than not meant a new educated elite under a strong Marxist ideological influence. The first and second major protest movements that promoted a pro-independence agenda (built around the double influence of Marxism and Buddhism) took place in 1920 and 1936, and were led by university students, notably General Aung San and U Nu.

As the second world war approached, a third ideological influence gained prominence: Japanese fascism. This, especially knowing the role played by the Japanese in building the Burmese army, also carried with it consequences that are still felt in Myanmar today. After the war, and after independence was achieved, the much famed first democratic era of Burmese history profoundly shaped the relation of the elites with democratic life, and the specific brand of Burmese democracy.

First, the issue of the nature of the political system, centralized versus federal, was the central issue facing Myanmar’s democracy from the onset. Second, U Nu put Buddhism at the center of his political vision (which, as will be discussed in the second part to this article, is one of the reasons why the left/right model doesn’t completely apply to Myanmar). Third, political parties could be described as having two defining traits: they cared less about ideology than the promotion of the personal egos of their leaders and therefore were constantly broken down by what has come to be known as “splitism”.

As the joke often heard from Burmese activists goes, if two Burmese politicians are left in a room, they’ll form five parties: one each, then one coalition between the two, and then yet another party each, to oppose the coalition. Also, as one such Burmese activist once told me: “In Europe, people know that it’s better to be number 5 in a party with a chance of winning the elections and governing than number one in a party with no such chance. In Myanmar, people don’t understand that yet”.

When the democratic era ended, all the networks associated with democratic life disappeared: the political parties, the media, the trade unions, and civil society (with the exception of organizations sanctioned and controlled by the regime, like the BSPP, the propaganda machines of the regime, the official unions and mass organizations). Education, key to training successive generation of members of the elite, started a catastrophic journey into decline.

Yet, two specific sections in the elite thrived: the military and the administrative elites. Still today, it’s hard to find a politician, a businessman, a scholar, even a journalist, an activist or an intellectual of any kind whose family cannot be traced back to the administration or the army of the Ne Win era (one important caveat is that this is not true of the young members of civil society organizations based in Thailand before 2011). While this is hardly surprising in a country that has lived through a socialist and isolationist experience, all this had major consequences over the dynamics, organization and ideas of the Burmese elite, at least until the fateful year of 1988.

This, and what followed, will be discussed in the second part of this article…

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.

Photo: Rangoon University Students’ Union Committee 1936.

Author: maelraynaud

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.