Transitions

A Few Thoughts about Social Engineering in Burma

A Few Thoughts about Social Engineering in Burma

When you first arrive in Naypyidaw, as I did last week, you can’t help but experience a peculiar sensation of equal parts awe and fear. In just a few years, the then-ruling military junta carved a new Burmese capital out of pure jungle. It came at a cost of billions of dollars to a country where most people live in poverty. "Only an autocrat would come up with a grandiose project like this" I mused, "at the expense of all other important things, of course." 

During his reign from 1992 to 2011 as Burma’s top strongman, General Than Shwe made the decision to build Naypyidaw hundreds of miles inland from the traditional coastal capital of Rangoon. He and his comrades hyped it as one of the world’s ten fastest growing cities. Today you can drive down spotless four-lane roads (almost entirely bereft of traffic) past impressive vistas of apartment blocks, ministries, and hotels. The roads are lined by rows of replanted palm trees. The gigantic buildings, roomy gardens, and neon lights glowing 24 hours a day dazzle visitors who are arriving from parts of the country where frequent power shortages and darkness are the norm. 

But dictators don’t only have a fondness for hypertrophic building projects. They also have an irrepressible tendency to redesign society to their own peculiar specifications. It’s an urge that also manifests itself in small, everyday things — as I’m frequently being reminded now that I’ve returned to my home country again after 16 years of life overseas. 

That’s the thought that occurred to me whenever I came back from my rounds in the capital and stepped into the lobby of my hotel, where the staff invariably welcomed me with the greeting mingala-ba. In practice it means "may you be blessed" (though it literally translates to "auspiciousness to you").

This greeting always amuses me. When I was a student in Burma 25 years ago, no one greeted one another with such formal affectation. The only exception was in our school classroom, where students would greet their teachers while standing at attention with folded arms. This salutation was originally adopted in nationalist schools in the 1930s when the country was under colonial rule. It was supposed to serve as an authentic Burmese replacement for the English-language greeting. "Good morning, teacher" (or "good afternoon"). 

Actually, though, the typical greetings among Burmese usually take the form of rhetorical questions: 

"How are you doing?"

"Are you well?"

"Where are you going?"

"Have you eaten your meal?" 

The greeting that tends to startle my Western friends (especially women) is one that the Burmese say when they haven’t seen each other for a while: "You’ve put on/lost weight" or "You look exactly the same." 

It turns out, though, that greeting habits have changed under the decades of military rule. Apparently mingala-ba is the new thing. When I looked at the "Greetings" section of a recent edition of Lonely Planet‘s Burma edition, it advises travelers to "greet someone by saying mingala-ba." It also recommends that you should accompany the words by pressing your palms together in a prayer-like fashion — a custom, known as the wai that actually comes from Thailand. There’s nothing especially Burmese about this at all. 

In the 1990s, the junta enforced this newly fashioned mingala-ba greeting in civilian-military interactions as a Burmese norm. The sights of people (ironically teachers of public schools in most cases) putting their palms together and paying prayer-like respect to the generals were commonplace in Burmese media. A state-owned paper then claimed (in a state of delusion) that the common sight of people paying respect to generals prove how much people admire the military even though the military leaders are not dynastic kings. 

Physical entities such as Naypyidaw and social practices such as mingala-ba have been put in place through direct coercion. The effects of Junta-imposed socialization shape people’s interpretation of their world and define appropriate behaviors. Ultimately, imposed fashioning of norms and knowledge influences political action. 

Another striking example of this principle at work involves the census. Many people here in Burma, including many opposition activists, rather blithely accept the official government census figures, including its numbers on the ethnic groups in the country. Yet the Burmese military has long insisted on using the term "race" rather than "ethnic group." The junta deemed the number of such "races" in Burma to be 135. This is actually a figure from the colonial era that was based on a survey of linguistic diversity, including a variety of dialects, and certainly not in any traditional understanding of the term. 

Some observers point out just how sloppy the junta was when it came to conducting the census. The military, which had attempted to deny the importance of ethnicity for several decades, suddenly changed course in 1988, when it began aggressively promoting this colonial breakdown of "races." The junta claimed that these 135 races had to be consulted in the formation of any new constitution and regime. Some scholars believe that this was intended to complicate Burma’s political landscape and create the impression that the pro?democracy opposition (despite winning a landslide election in 1990) was incapable of representing "country with 135 national races." Yet quite a few activists and journalists I’ve met here maintain that there are indeed 135 races, and they express their concerns about ethnic cleavages in the country based on this count. 

What this shows is that statistics about ethnicity have become a completely artificial construct. The world view implied by this approach has entrenched itself, making it much harder for people to imagine other ways of thinking about their country’s ethnic diversity. So this is a good, if somewhat depressing example, of how the old ruling elite’s way of shaping reality has survived the transition to a more liberal form of rule. 

I would argue that all autocrats tend to suffer from a kind of compulsive-obsessive disorder. As a rule, they don’t like to leave things to chance — no matter how trivial some of those things might seem to be. The old junta fit this pattern quite well. Over the past 25 years they have made extensive efforts to condition people to think and feel in ways that serve the dominant ideology. 

Burma’s society is changing and whether or not I agree, there is little that one man can do about it. But let me make one caveat: If constructed practices are to be the new norm, let there at least be a little sense about it. Please don’t greet a bereaved person with the mingala-ba greeting, because death is not an auspicious occasion. 

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here