An expert's point of view on a current event.

Build Burma from the Ground Up

Relying only on the state to implement democratic reforms in Burma is a fool’s errand. But there’s a better way.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages

Burma has entered a new period of political evolution. It's a process rife with opportunity, to be sure. But perhaps this is also a good time to consider the risks.

Burma has entered a new period of political evolution. It’s a process rife with opportunity, to be sure. But perhaps this is also a good time to consider the risks.

Defining a political path as "democratization" does not necessarily ensure that it will be democratic. In today’s Burma there is a distinct possibility that political elites — in league with outside experts or capitalists — will push ahead with reforms while ignoring the interests or ideas of average people, leaving many sections of the population even worse off than under tyranny. Such an approach must be contested. The voices of average Burmese must be incorporated into the decisions that will govern their future.

Twenty years of media and NGO reports have presented Burma as a totalitarian state, with all the sophisticated and encompassing powers that implies. The reality is actually rather different: This is a state that has been strong at violence but weak at management. While Burma’s military state demonstrated a terrifying ability to quash dissent, it was never interested in establishing a rationalized bureaucracy with the ability and will to know and regulate every aspect of people’s lives. Indeed, the military rulers often crafted implicit deals with the rural people (who make up two-thirds of the population), allowing remarkable freedom for villagers to devise their own coping strategies while the state took its pound of flesh.

This does not mean things were good: far from it. Human development and economic indicators have declined for years. But it does mean that the wrong evolution risks making things worse.

The problems lie primarily in two areas. First, state-led reform has serious limits. President Thein Sein and other reformers cannot impose their will on the country’s periphery or in deeply-entrenched institutions such as the military. Second, liberalization in the absence of existing political structures can have dire consequences. Lacking education or skills, millions of people could be forced off their agricultural land and shunted into a low-wage, low-skill manufacturing sector. This would be exploitative even under the best of circumstances, but the further problem is that such a sector does not even exist in Burma. What then will the vast majority of Burmese do? Fire-sale liberalization could produce surplus populations, turning the long-awaited Burmese dream of democracy into a cruel nightmare.

The realities of the system have not, however, prevented the development aid machine from deploying to construct elite-level solutions that ignore Burma’s political and economic reality. Indeed, international financial institutions are re-engaging the state; bilateral development aid will flow through state structures as well. This focus on elite institutions extends even to Burma experts: In Foreign Policy‘s recent project "16 Ways to Fix Burma," the suggestions largely focus on outcomes (build a multi-ethnic democracy, develop the rule of law, buttress the economy by exploiting cheap labor, etc.) that presume the state’s ability — and desire — to lead such changes.

This focus neglects the functioning institutions that have taken up many "state" roles in thousands of Burmese communities over the last decade. Indeed, a remarkably robust and powerful set of citizens, self-organized into groups outside of the state, has performed the necessary heavy lifting that has enabled society’s survival under a capricious and abusive military government. Many observers may have missed this because these groups have always flown under the radar. Their genius under the regime was to deliver services, subvert abusive policies, and mobilize local resources, all the while steering clear of anything that could be construed as politically threatening. Simply put, they learned to beg — and beg quietly — for permission to do the job the state should have been doing.

These groups must be made central to political reform. But because of the particular bargain they crafted with the state — freedom to operate in exchange for political silence — civil society organizations now risk being ignored. This is because, while political space has certainly increased, civil society groups may not necessarily be eager to capitalize on it, especially when "politics" has long signified a narrow set of dangerous activities (street protests, opposition) off-limits to civil society groups. Such groups may see little to dissuade them from this stance even now, when the political process has come to refer to an equally narrow domain reserved for elite parties and periodic voting rituals. Civil society activists do not realize that their activities could also encompass writing op-eds, mobilizing communities to contact administrators, drafting amicus briefs, lobbying parliamentarians, etc.

Hence, rather than constructing powerful political narratives that can then be channeled into real political maneuvers, it is likely that civil society groups will continue to quietly deliver social services as junior partner to a state struggling to absorb the flow of funds. Indeed, many civil society leaders are terrified of explicit politics. Zin Mar Aung, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science, puts it this way: "Young people talk about participating in civil society, but they do not dare to participate in politics." She goes on to critique such a binary way of seeing domains that should be intertwined. But she and many others who echo her sentiments are correct that, if there is nothing to pull civil society groups and citizens into the political realm, most of the organizations and individuals will simply continue to do what they did under the previous status quo.

So who can politicize them? The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, is now in parliament, doing the important work of learning how to govern. Myanmar Egress, the indispensible technocratic civil society group, is assisting with the state’s governance reforms.

In this vacuum, some non-traditional social movements have recently emerged, suggesting a different route for politicizing and mobilizing civil society. Take the contentious issue of land displacement. At first glance, the state of affairs looks grim, a perfect example of the limits of top-down reform: President Thein Sein has explicitly stated that the land holdings of average Burmese people must be protected. Despite this, land grabs have been occurring with relative impunity, and not only in remote areas, but right on the outskirts of Yangon. In fact, on the same day last month that Thein Sein declared land’s sanctity, businesses connected to parliamentarians bulldozed farmers’ paddy fields.

And yet, in response, a land justice movement is coalescing behind mobilized citizens’ groups and an increasingly free media. In a forthcoming study in The Journal of International Affairs, SiuSue Mark, of the British-financed Pyoe Pin Program, outlines how "NGO workers, lawyers, journalists and average concerned individuals [have] freely come together after hours and weekends" to organize advocacy and lobbying work. Advocacy efforts in parliament succeeded in making minor but meaningful changes to the land bills. More importantly, mobilization has brought the issue to national recognition, as the media have given attention to (and hence protection for) farmers protesting displacement. Though this movement has not yet achieved a resounding victory, it has shown many what is possible. Thomas Kean, an editor for the Yangon-based Myanmar Times who has reported extensively on the land movement, says, "I don’t see why [this kind of advocacy] can’t be replicated on other issues."

SiuSiue Mark analyzes this movement as being led by civil society, but perhaps a distinction must be made here: These individuals contesting regressive policies are explicitly outside of structured groups. As Mark’s colleague Lyndal Barry puts it: "Artists mobilized outside of the civil society groups, and these people have a huge amount of social capital. They are acting because it’s their role and their desire and their compassion, not just their job." The insight here is that the state, the opposition, and civil society have become insular domains that rarely interact with one another. It took these figures, who routinely cross the borders between the three spheres, to mediate among them and innovate citizen political participation.

The quintessential intermediary is the former political dissident, and many of them are looking for creative ways to re-engage the political sphere. They appear poised to capitalize on this space and to keep these kinds of movements expanding and deepening. The 88 Generation Students Group, an increasingly active affiliation of former political prisoners, is holding rallies, conducting civic education, and militating for pro-poor policies. If anyone can politicize civil society groups, it’s them, given the vast social capital they hold as a result of their decades-long struggle.

These evolving dynamics indicate what Burmese democracy can look like. Reform should encompass these actors as well. To the extent that resources and advice will come from outside, the same countries that have unleashed their corporations upon Burma by ending sanctions have an added responsibility. They must work though civil society and their interlocutors who are committed to preventing elite capture of the spoils of capitalist liberalization. But as this is unlikely to happen, it may fall to the Burmese themselves. Artists, journalists, and political activists must pry open political space and demand that civil society join them there.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Yale University.

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