Burmese Days: Whither the National League for Democracy?

Reviewing Thant Myint-U’s “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century” on the eve of Burma’s election.
A fisherman on Inle Lake (source: author’s own)

As the train shuddered to a halt, I awoke to find dozens of camouflaged soldiers filing onto the train, some with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. One took a seat next to me, took out a small plastic box filled with dried areca nut, betel leaves and slaked lime, and began preparing neat little packages for chewing. Noticing my curiosity, he passed over the little box for me to try myself. My first few attempts were shoddy but were shared willingly amongst his comrades. When I’d produced a suitable package, I promptly chomped it down, prompting a carriage full of red-stained grins from the Shan rebels with whom I shared my journey.

This is my lasting impression of Burma from a month-long visit to the country in 2015. A country with an almost unique propensity for violence and yet apparently, officially the most generous in the world. This contrast, shown in that very train carriage, is a theme explored by Thant Myint-U in his recently published book, The Hidden History of Burma: Race Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century (2020, Atlantic Books). Thant, Grandson of U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, gives an insider account of a country in the midst of a whirlwind of change. Having returned from a childhood in exile, Thant came to play a direct role in much of the policy making and negotiations in the nation as it creaked open, often serving as interlocutor between East and West. Given his experience as both insider and outsider, Thant has a unique position to diagnose the ills within Burma (his preferred moniker for the nation now known officially as Myanmar).

As a peripheral member of Burma’s political class, Thant notes how generals wary of foreign colonialism, especially amidst the heightened tensions of the War on Terror and later the Arab Spring, failed to understand Western intentions or thinking. Many did not speak English, and few had been abroad. Just as detrimental to Burma’s development however were Western perceptions of the long-exoticized nation. During the swaggering foreign policy accompanying the Bush and Blair years, Burma was portrayed as a Manichean struggle, the good, generous Burmese people pitted against the bad, power hungry army (the Tatmadaw, as they’re known to Burmese).

A signpost outside a military barracks in Mandalay reads: “The Tatmadaw Shall Never Betray The National Cause” (author’s own)

The truth is of course more complicated. Through his retelling of modern Burmese history, Thant Myin-U traces the often-overlooked causes of conflict in a complicated nation. Among them: ethno-nationalism, but also burgeoning capitalist markets, seismic economic restructuring, proletarianization and the thunderous march of neoliberalism.

Sometimes through the stories of everyday people swept up in these changes, the author portrays the often-harrowing effects of both internal mismanagement and outside ignorance. Many caught up in cycles of trafficking and exploitation were denied access to aid organisations that were hampered by Western criticisms of their willingness to work with the dictatorship. For example, an HIV prevention charity that maintained a working relationship with the government was forced to pack up and leave by its Western backers. Efforts to improve the lot of the Burmese people were often crushed by an obsessive focus on democracy. As Thant puts it “showing solidarity with the democracy movement was politically expedient. Results didn’t matter.”

The Burmese Road to Capitalism

The author explains how in the course of studying for his PhD in Burmese history, he embarked on his own journey from anti-military activist, to a pragmatic policy maker, working together with sometimes well-meaning but occasionally incorrigibly corrupt generals. Having formerly campaigned in Britain and America for the harshest possible sanctions against the government, Thant became the man who would brief incoming foreign diplomats on the situation in Burma, as well as the generals in the newly built capital of Naypyidaw on the outlook of their new partners.

As sanctions lifted, a more advanced brand of capitalism began to get off the ground in Yangon and Mandalay at the least. Although it had existed in its illicit forms for years (he says that it’s almost no exaggeration to state that the “seed capital” of Burmese enterprise was a product of drug smuggling by former Communist Guerrillas), a deluge of foreign capital and rapidly expanding markets began to take its toll on Burma’s delicate cobweb of cooperation. One of the defining moments of modern Burma, the Saffron revolution was, he makes clear, first and foremost a strike against rising consumer prices and bus fares. The West however chose to see these events as a “pro-democracy uprising…. and the economic dimensions of what was happening in Burma were almost entirely lost.” After Cyclone Nargis blew the doors open to foreign investment in the country, unequal distribution of the dividends came to foster many more dramatic divides.

As the country began to open up, the cautious generals chose to retain a slice of power. The pace of democratic reform frustrated Western observers who had perhaps hoped that the destruction of Nargis had simply beaten the U.S. army to the emancipatory punch. As Myint-U puts it, “The story had changed, but the world saw only a fairy tale. Few did their homework to understand what was actually driving the positive momentum and how best to keep it going.”

The Rohingya and Race

The elephant in the room of any discussion of contemporary Burma is the dire situation of the ethnic Rohingya minority. But the twin issues – of development and ethnic strife – cannot be separated. Thant Myint-U points out that “in the absence of a good conversation on issues of equality and the economy to come, there was little resistance to those who peddled an alternative set of conversations around race and identity.” A traditional, communal economy became one in which labourers deprived of their land were forced to scavenge for fragments of jade amidst mine sluice, and the allure of identarian myths, fear of a fifth column and most importantly, the pay of a well organised guerrilla outfit were tempting for many. Ethnic conflict proved to the West that the generals were still in charge. To many in Burma, it showed that they weren’t in charge enough.

Racial pride, fears of a tradition under threat and historical grievances amongst the once-independent Arakanese were a cause of distrust in Rakhine communities. At a time when the country was changing fast, nativist myths easily replaced older customs. Thus, those who looked and worshipped differently became the targets of paramilitaries, often with the tacit support of the army. Discourse about the right of residence for those deemed to be colonial-era imports overlooked the tragedy that unfolded as hundreds of thousands were shepherded across the border.

Added to the mix of historical prejudices however was a new element. New technologies have played a role in the issues, with Thant singling out Facebook as an overlooked variable contributing to a uniquely grotesque affair. Poor understanding of the local markets that they had dived head-first into often left foreign companies in a pickle. In various forms it has been repeated across the world; in India, the Philippines, Pakistan and Indonesia – rumours spreading on social media can quickly become murderous mobs, but rarely in as devastating a form as in Burma. Tech companies from California, comfortable with the hard and fast rules of markets and data, soon found themselves face to face with hard political realities.

A farm worker stands in a rice paddy in northern Shan state (author’s own)

At the time I visited Burma, the first open elections in almost 60 years were just a few months away. In November 2015, 22 million Burmese went to the polls to choose a government. In summer, many were already excited, willing to talk about politics with foreigners and optimistic about the future. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. However, many political positions remained reserved for the army, giving them control of key ministries such as the interior, defence and the borders. Many in the West lamented this – in their eyes it was an incomplete transition. But Daw Aung San (Daw being an honorific similar to “Auntie”), despite being denied the presidency, still pulled the levers of the economy, education, health, and other non-defence related issues.

Five years later, foreign observers remain disappointed with her. Having failed to live up to their expectations and seemingly incapable or unwilling to criticise the role of the Army in Rakhine state, formerly beloved Aung San Suu Kyi was stripped of awards across the world. Her backers felt they had been duped by her apparent commitment to democracy and human rights, understanding little of the domestic complexities. Today, as modern Burma votes for the second time, critics have once again come to the fore.

Thant Myint-U however makes clear that in spite of the protestations of Western media, change has been taking place across the country at breakneck speed. Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have not proved to be the champions of liberal ideals they were imagined to be, growth has averaged 6.2% per year since 2015. Poverty halved between 2005 and 2017. Although not meeting the lofty Western standards of liberal democracy (considering the disenfranchisement of minorities and the sometime suppression of opposition media), more than twice as many Burmese prioritised the economy over democracy. Furthermore, nearly half actively support a role for the Tatmadaw in politics. Nearly two thirds believe that democracy does not effectively promote economic growth.  

This matters little to foreign observers of Myanmar. Many were complicit in building a cult of personality around the activist-turned-leader that infected the West just as much as Burma itself. It was an image that could only lead to disappointment. Criticised in the run up to this current election, the NLD has been accused of supressing minority votes by declaring them “conflict regions” inaccessible to polling agents. New York based Human Rights watch has labelled the elections flawed. The country’s handling of coronavirus has been poor and with opposition parties reduced to rallying online, the NLD maintains its position as the only party with serious name recognition.

Burma’s flawed constitution, which the NLD has promised to re-evaluate, does little to address these concerns regardless. In truth, even without the suspension of voting in conflict zones, the election would always have been won convincingly by the NLD. Because the largest party is free to appoint local governors to the provinces, as in the last election, minority parties, despite strong regional showings, are not guaranteed a seat at the table. The disenchantment with Aung San Suu Kyi shows the delusion of liberals that spun a dream from the few selective thread of Burma they chose to pick up only to reel when it came unravelled. The suggestion that political ideas discussed with great enthusiasm almost exclusively in the echo chambers of university departments could ever prove pragmatic in the harsh realities of the Global South was once again exposed as fallacy. Ten years into Burma’s quiet revolution, it’s remarkable that Western commentators have yet to learn from their previous missteps and acknowledge local realities.  

The issue is not that Daw Aung San is not the liberal she was expected to be, it is that she is only the liberal she was expected to be. Short on answers of how to deal with the broader crisis of precarity for rural labourers and inequality among urban residents, simmering issues were never likely to be solved by a symbol with few concrete policies. It is not simply that she has failed to live up to the expectations of liberalism, but that liberalism has failed to live up to hers.

Thant Myint-U paints a portrait of Aung as a leader more interested in personal character and ceremony than in governance. He writes that “Her rule was never about government solving people’s problems. Her instincts were conservative. Personal responsibility was paramount.” For the West, this shouldn’t have been a shock. Expecting a colour revolution that would bring about sweeping changes, democracy, market liberalisation and alliances with the West were always unrealistic ambitions – in Burma just as much as in their original incarnations.

As Burma matures as a nation, the NLD and the Tatmadaw (or their political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party) no longer form neat diametric oppositions. Revolutionary fervour has waned on both sides and Thant writes that today, both share a “Naypyidaw view”, where nationalism, nativism and free markets are the unquestioned truths of modern Myanmar. He points out that despite his analysis of Burma’s modern ills, in post-socialist Burma “today, Neoliberalism is held out as the only alternative to the corrupt and crony driven capitalism of the past.”

There is a pessimism to the book: without looking past the next elections (the ones taking place today), Thant Myint-U neglects to propose solutions to the problems. Although he notes that “instead of building inclusive state institutions and a welfare state, the focus has been on injecting a new layer of partisan competition onto an already fractious political landscape. At a time when markets and democracy have come to be seen in the West as increasingly unable to cope with issues of inequality and climate change, they have become Burma’s only prescriptions for the future.” What his suggestions might be however remains unclear.

Furthermore, perhaps due to his position, he refuses to elaborate on the role that Aung San Suu Kyi herself might have played in the creation of her own mythos. He portrays her as a powerful symbol and a pragmatist but ultimately short on solutions to Burma’s problems. What is clear however is that whilst Aung San Suu Kyi may not have brought sweeping liberalisation, by working together with the military, she has gained a foothold for modernity in the country and brought a degree of normalcy to one of the most complex nations on the planet.

 Western observers need not be disappointed that an NLD victory on Sunday means that Burma has stalled on its path to modernization, but that a gradual process is unfolding. Given recent American elections, it would be surprising to hear vocal criticisms of the electoral process coming from Washington. What matters for many Burmese people is that a vote is being held at all, that people retain their optimistic spirit, and that by diversifying cooperation with their neighbours (projects such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor) improvements could really be impact lives.

Houses on Inle Lake, central Burma (author’s own)

Burma is almost unique in its hardships. Destined to be a centre of strategic competition, squeezed from both sides by the burgeoning economies of India and China, Burma also maintains the longest running civil war in the world and a geography especially susceptible to climate change. The open period of opportunity could be slight.

During a boat trip out onto the famously beautiful Inle Lake in central Burma, I asked my guide about a new structure. Behind the rickety wooden houses sitting on bamboo stilts atop the still lake, cranes creaked above a towering mass of concrete. “It’s a Saudi Development” said our guide. “It’ll be a luxury hotel when it’s finished”. International finance capital had made its way as far as the deep jungles of Shan state. It is often the overlooked piece of the puzzle for understanding the changing political scene. How it will be harnessed will depend not on todays election results, but on ambitious, distributary economics. One hopes that Thant’s book finds its way beyond Burmese policy circles and penetrates the misconceptions of Western commentators alike.

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