A Burmese Spring? Part two.

Here’s an article written for Oxford Left Review that is now two years out of date:

The April by-elections in Myanmar saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) win 43 of the 44 seats they contested, bringing them for the first time into a Burmese parliament. Their leader and figurehead of the pro-democracy movement, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in a township just outside Yangon. Her pro-democracy party even won all even won all four seats in the newly built capital, Naypiyadaw, where powerful men from the military establishment form over half the electorate. Despite allegations of electoral malpractice, including the claim that ballot papers had wax dripped over the NLD box to stop it being ticked, both parties – the NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – have accepted the results.

In 1990 the NLD decisively beat another party backed by the military elite after a full-scale popular uprising sparked by an argument about music in a tea shop. That result was simply annulled. The Orwellian State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) argued that it needed time to draft a new constitution. In a typically comical example of shocking governmental incompetence it ordered every farmer to plant Jatropha (physic bean). The plant’s Burmese name ‘Jet Suu’ can sound similar to ‘Suu Kyi’ said backwards and it was hoped that planting it across the country would diminish the influence of the Lady. Other, less ridiculous, measures were also slowly undertaken to appease political unrest. A constitutional convention was formed and in 2008 it issued the new Burmese constitution. Power was formally transferred to a civilian government around a year ago. The recent by-elections are just the latest episode in the remarkable – but still fragile – transformation the country has seen since then.

In the west the images coming from Burma may conjure images of the other major democratisation story of our times: Arab Spring. Is this a useful comparison?

Most importantly, the change happening in Myanmar is not a popular movement in the way the series of protests and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East were. There were no big rallies on the streets of Yangon – no fiery confrontations with the authorities. This is mainly because there didn’t need to be. The military establishment know that they have had almost no popular legitimacy since the late fifties, when their coup against the ineffective democratic government was widely supported. This legitimacy vacuum was demonstrated recently by the badly-named ‘Saffron Revolution‘ of 2007. (It is badly named because the monks who led it wear Maroon, not Saffron.) That uprising ended when the government filled fire engines with insecticide and faced down the protesters. The current process is essentially an elite-managed spectacle, thought with some popular involvement. The Burmese popular uprising parallel to that of the Arab Spring happened in 2007 and 1988 and current events are a delayed response to that movement, perhaps accelerated by governmental worries related to the Arab Spring itself.

The causes of the Arab Spring and the ‘Burmese Spring’ also demonstrate a similar parallel. When Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself on January 4th 2011 (coincidently Myanmar’s independence day, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and Burmese independence hero Aung San is celebrated) crippling food price inflation was a crucial short-term factor behind the firestorm his action precipitated. Likewise the Saffron Revolution was ignited by an eight-person protest over rapidly rising consumer prices, including a surprise removal of fuel subsidies which had large knock-on effects throughout the economy. In both cases, of course, there were multiple other factors – most obviously long term and widespread corruption and oppression – but commodity prices played a very significant short-term role. Once again, in the Burmese case it is the events in 2007 which parallel the Arab Spring. The by-election was not a sudden, unpredictable outpouring of grievances but a state-managed spectacle aimed at soothing grievances aired five years earlier.

One obvious contrast between the two movements has been the role played by the US and other powerful global actors. The oppressive regimes in the Arab world were supported by the US whereas Myanmar famously was not. This is due to US image-management and strategic interest rather than some serious disjunct between the two cases. Myanmar was made a Cause célèbre not after the massacre of 1988 but rather in the mid-nineties at exactly the time when China’s ‘most favoured nation’ status was decoupled from its human rights record. Human rights discourse had recently become newly important and the US was casting around for someone else to condemn in an attempt to shore up its fragile self-image. Predictably the recent move towards dialogue by the US (and, obediently, everyone else) coincides with a new recognition of the importance of Myanmar’s strategic location between India and China. That and huge reserves of oil and gas found recently off Myanmar’s southern Andaman coast. (European and US energy companies have in fact operated continuously in Myanmar despite the ban on doing so. Unocal, now a subsidiary of Chevron, paid off villagers who have sued them for allowing those guardian their pipe line to rape, murder and enslave local villagers.)

To be fair to the US, they were supporting democracy in both regions prior to the Arab Spring and events in Myanmar. The US ‘freedom agenda’ promoted by George Bush Jr. is now widely recognised by individuals such as Condoleezza Rice to have been incompatible with their support for oppressive regimes such as those in the Middle East. They console themselves that they spent millions of pounds funding pro-democracy movements which eventually played a major role in forcing governmental change. The sovereignty of allied governments such as that in Egypt could be attacked openly; funds were channelled through legal NGOs. In Myanmar the CIA still has to play the key role of smuggling in funds for pro-democracy groups and has had to engage covertly with key players in the pro- and anti-democratic elites. (The pervasiveness of what the US called ‘low-intensity warfare’ should not be underestimated.) And the main difference between the two cases is that what in the Arab world was a spontaneous rising with, after a slight hesitation, support from the US is in Myanmar a spectacle managed in partnership between the US and the native military-industrial elite. Pro-democratic US rhetoric forced a positive line on the uprisings in the middle-east. In Myanmar US desire to support democracy and overriding material interest are for once running in tandem.

Aside from the controlled nature of change in Myanmar, perhaps the most important disjunct between the Arab and Burmese cases will be the difficulties associated with democratisation. GDP PPP per capita in Myanmar, at something like $1,300, is around half that in Yemen, less than a quarter that in Egypt or Libya and a sixth that in Tunisia. Moreover, Myanmar has been systematically isolated, spied upon and brain-washed for around half a century to an extent that only Gaddafi’s Libya can hope to compete with. (The proportion of the population thought to be government spies – possibly 10-20% in Libya and 13% in Myanmar – is similar in both countries.) Finally, Myanmar is almost the most ethnically diverse country in the world. It’s population of 48 million is an explosive mix of over 130 ethnic groups who have been at war with the central government (and each other) since independence from the British in 1948. Though an air of state failure hangs around parts of Yemen and Libya, Myanmar is still tearing itself to pieces in what is now the longest running war in the world. Many ethnic armies are supportive of the NLD in the hope that they represent the best hope for a genuine federalism, but with so many groups and so many divergent interests it is not clear if even Aung San Suu Kyi has the political capital necessary to pull of a miraculous outbreak of peace in the hills. These three factors – extreme poverty, a legacy of sustained and near-total oppression and a highly combustible ethnic cocktail – make democratisation in Myanmar a much more difficult proposition than it will be for the new regimes born of the Arab Spring. The first two will also make the ordinary people in Myanmar far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global capital when that particular tsunami hits their shore.

A stage-managed spectacle it may be, but things are changing in Myanmar. The currency was recently partially floated and other smaller economic and political liberalisation measures are announced regularly. It is likely that the very worst cases of grinding poverty, as well as phenomena such as slave labour, will be diminished as NGOs are allowed more extensive access to the country and accountability gradually improves. The long-term focus of the pro-democracy movement is now on the 2015 general elections. Civil society needs to be rapidly developed. A base of party activists needs to be found. There is a constant threat of hard-line factions within the military elite getting cold feet and winning more power from the reformists. A lot depends on whether president Thein Sein can play his cards right within his party. The slow pace of transition is not necessarily a negative thing; rapid IMF-led economic liberalisation such as that seen in post-Soviet Russia and much of the South in the nineties would probably severely undermine Burmese economic development. Sudden neo-liberalisation is a recipe for serious social problems and the populace needs time to engage in a sustained process of collective political self-education if change has any hope of working in their interests rather than than of Western shareholders and a tiny domestic elite.

Drawing parallels between the Arab and Burmese democratisation movements is not particularly illuminating. If there was a Burmese Spring it was in 1988, or perhaps in 20007. What we are witnessing now behind the Teak Curtain is a controlled governmentally-managed process in response to these aborted revolutionary movements. Such parallels also overlook the very different role of the US in both situations. In the Maghreb and the Middle East it was forced to withdraw support for tyrants to avoid attaining new heights of hypocrisy. In Myanmar it is reinstating support for the military-backed government in order to serve both the interests of the people and of its hungry corporations, which appear to be aligned. Finally, parallels forget the Myanmar has been closed in spirit to North Korea than Egypt and that it remains much poorer and more politically isolated and underdeveloped than countries Tunisia or Oman and even Libya and Yemen. As in those countries, the Burmese road ahead is long, dangerous and uncertain. It will almost inevitably involve extensive further violence and repression in the coming years. In both instances, however, there is at least the possibility of genuine positive change for the masses. While 2012 is not the year for a Burmese Spring it has been a milestone in a process which should be greeted with cautious optimism. It remains to be seen whether a genuine popular movement on the back of a NLD landslide in 2015 may finally end the military-industrial stranglehold on the country.