Politics returns to Burma

This is the first in a three-part series examining recent developments in Burma. Tomorrow, Animating Burma’s reform from within

Reflecting on his time as a political prisoner from 1997 to 2000, a Burmese friend once told me that he would like to go back to prison, for just one week. Seeing my surprise, his confederate clarified: “It was actually a hopeful time. We were together, we talked about all the ways we would change the country when we got out. I’m out but nothing changes, I can do nothing, it feels like I am in prison.”

Describing Burma as an open-air prison often obscures more than it illuminates. Burmese life is not dominated in the way the word ‘prison’ suggests, but is rather repressed and restricted. The ‘prison’ metaphor, however, successfully outlines the way life is put on hold, and invokes a sense of suffocation and enervation. Indeed, for two generations a particular group of Burmese have been trudging through anemic existences, feeling the attendant dull ache that seems, at least for my two friends as they looked back on it, worse than the prison time.

Perhaps nowhere is the feeling of indefinite delay more pronounced than in Mae Sot, the Thai border town where tens of thousands of Burmese live in exile. While conducting interviews in 2010, dissidents and activists repeated the phrase “we are waiting for the spark” like a mantra. The prison’s effects also morph, taking on different forms depending on how groups navigate the state and their own lives: inside, even those who expressly disavow traditional “big-P” politics have long seemed to be waiting for that moment when the entire system would begin to change and life could begin again. Thus we see an entire community – both inside and outside the country – trying to balance living and waiting.

Is now the moment they have been waiting for? Those same ex-political prisoners are unsure, but they tell me of the palpable and undeniably new feeling of possibility suffusing Rangoon over the past six months. And indeed, Burma’s reforms are shocking: Thein Sein’s government, meant to be the Tatmadaw’s puppet, has already freed most political prisoners, expanded press freedom and internet access, legislated the right to strike, signed a ceasefire with the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army-South, created a human rights commission, and convinced erstwhile exile Aung San Suu Kyi to return to politics. Perhaps most symbolically resonant, in halting the Myitsone mega-dam project, the government has committed an act that would be anathema to its predecessor: appearing to succumb to public pressure by reversing a contentious policy.

Yet their policies are still steeped in indeterminacy – no one knows what might happen. Why then the blithe endorsements of the regime, or conversely the vociferous condemnations from the likes of Maung Zarni or Bertil Lintner? The radically divergent accounts are alike at least regarding the unequivocal nature of their conclusions. What explains this?

The sheer suddenness of the changes in an environment inured to such dynamism may clarify the polarisation in responses. Life in the virtual prison has been static, predictable, and in those regards, almost safe. As this gives way to a deluge of political occurrences, sensations of speed, risk, uncertainty, and peril are inserted back into the world, creating a phenomenon simultaneously frightening and thrilling. It is difficult to know what these events signify. Hence each side falls back upon their classic modes of interpretation, demanding that either everything has changed, or nothing has (“the generals are evil, this is just another insidious trick!” versus “Burma is on the road to development, bring in the IFIs!”). These actors respond to the abyss and uncertainty of politics in Burma – between military and civilian opponents, between Burman and ethnic, and so on – by fleeing to the safety of discourses like Law and internationally-orchestrated Development. In doing so, however, they miss the opportunity to articulate an actual vision for where the country will go from here, and the politics that would animate that path.

Instead, many seem to be fighting the interpretive battle today so as to justify policies enacted over the past twenty years – note Human Rights Watch’s contention that the recent political prisoner release can be ascribed to its advocacy, or the Wall Street Journal’s unsubstantiated claim that sanctions have caused the current thaw. We could conclude the precise opposite: that the military regime did not want to be coerced by hypocritical neo-colonists, and hence was more obstinate regarding political prisoners or détente than it otherwise would have been. We cannot determine which way the cause-and-effect runs, hence these commentaries only open up the counter-arguments through their opportunistic or obtuse claims.

While they fight these battles, we might entertain the possibility that these reforms might signal opportunity – for either immense improvement or vast deterioration. The task becomes to analyse how Burmese people can insert themselves into the flow that these events are creating, and direct it toward desirable ends. Changes in Burma’s political life will cause anxiety and dissensus, but they must be engaged. And we need to address how certain discourses such as Law and Development become comfortable panaceas that distract from these painful but necessary political conversations that Burma now has to embrace.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is Founding Research Associate Fellow, HR+SM Program, and Advisory Board Member, Sexuality, Gender, and HR Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He spent five years working in international development for various agencies—from the UN to international NGOs—where he directed projects in Burma, India, Thailand, and other countries in Southeast Asia.

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