Burma's collective action problem

Gemma Dursley

Sep 22, 2008 (DVB), In order to understand the problem of collective action in Burma, imagine the following scenario: citizens in a town of around 100,000 wish to convert a patch of waste ground into a public park.

Costing about $500,000, it's too much for any individual to pay, but a bright spark comes up with a solution: everyone should contribute a little money, say $5 each, and eventually the total will be reached.

I quite like parks, enjoy a picnic now and then and consider contributing. However, I know that my $5 will make almost no difference to the park's provision. I also understand that if everybody else contributes, the park will be provided whether I contribute or not. And if no others contribute, my $5 will again make no difference , the park will remain a dream.

If, like most people, I prefer having more money rather than less, then it would therefore be irrational for me to give $5 and rational to hold on to it. In the meantime I'll just hope everybody else contributes, and enjoy the park and my picnics on the back of their efforts.

Of course, if everyone thinks as rationally as I do, there will be no park. This problem is analogous to that which faces the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Like the park, democracy and human rights are public goods, things everybody can enjoy. This inclusiveness is inspiring, but it is also problematic , if I haven't contributed to the struggle, I can still benefit from democracy and human rights.

And, like the $5 contribution towards $500,000, my individual participation in pro-democracy activity is almost meaningless. Working for democracy will surely cost me time and the other things I could have done instead of going out onto the streets, but with almost 2100 political prisoners languishing in Burmese prisons, I stand to lose a lot more than just this , the potential costs of rebellion are very high indeed.

It is therefore rational for me, and you, to wait for others to contribute and to 'free ride' on their efforts. The net result? Nothing changes. No park, no democracy.

Political scientists call this 'the problem of collective action' and it is one which all social movements face. Some succeed in mobilising people to work for a public good and even succeed in attaining their ultimate objective. Most, however, fail.

Grievances and zealots

Whilst this problem seems obvious and fundamental, it is often forgotten. With most Burmese people living in the shadow of extreme poverty and systematic human rights abuses, seasoned Burma-watchers are often surprised at how much the people can endure. What will it take to see people rise up and refuse to be bullied into poverty?

A similar idea is prevalent in much Marxist thought: when the grievances of a group of people are intense enough, revolution is only a moment away. As Bob Dylan sang, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. Yet, alone, this is obviously false. Grievances and frustration towards states is commonplace throughout the world, yet large-scale protests are rare events, revolutions rarer still.

Thinking in terms of the collective action problem helps us understand this. If we lump people together in a group , 'disadvantaged Burmese', say , we can see that the group would be far better off if it rebelled. But it is individual persons who join groups and rebel, and unless the benefits of participation outweigh the costs, they are unlikely to contribute. Even impoverished, abused individuals have something to lose, leading a careful observer to wonder there was more to last year's protests than just economic conditions.

Undoubtedly, there are individuals within the opposition, many now imprisoned, brave enough to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the costs of collective action. Across the world, movements have their own Daw Suu Kyi and their entrepreneurial zealots on the ground, but alone or as a small group these brave , and uncommon , people are almost powerless. Indeed, their primary task is to overcome the problem of collective action, mobilising ordinary citizens and persuading them to join up.

Pro-junta militia and collective action

In fact, it is not only movements which face a collective action problem but also states, elites, and their agents.

Although there are many within the SPDC, Union Solidarity and Development Association and the business community in Burma who benefit materially from the crushing of the pro-democracy movement, it is rational for these individuals not to spend time and forgo income participating in repression activities, but instead to free ride on the contributions of others who do this. How, then, has the SPDC managed to convince people to join in its programme of tyranny?

Particularly pertinent for the pro-democracy movement are the combined repressive activities of the Swan Arr Shin and USDA , the pro-junta militia. Talking about them as a group, however, makes us forget that they are a collection of rational individuals. How has the junta managed to mobilise thousands to take part in USDA and Swan Arr Shin operations? At many events, activists are outnumbered by these people and other state agents. How can this situation be reversed? How, in other words, has the SPDC solved its collective action problem, while the opposition has failed to solve theirs?

With so much emotion surrounding the courage and spirit of the pro-democracy movement and the rightness of the cause, it isn't easy to start thinking in such dispassionate terms as 'rationality' and 'individual costs and benefits'. However, it is because the SPDC has done exactly this that it has managed to solve its collective action problem; this is something the opposition must face if it is to be victorious.

Unless the pro-democracy movement examines ways to overcome the irrationality of participation in pro-democracy activities and faces the fact that it can, at present, be rational for people to join pro-militia groups, it will not be able to combat the forces of violence ranged against it.

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