Retaking power in Burma (Pt. 2)

Part one demonstrated how in Burma peripheral state agents engage in fragile bargains with local societies, resulting in space at the margins for civil society activity. Juxtaposed with this somewhat optimistic reading, we also saw how these bargains only hold because ordinary Burmese have been trained to be silent – and thus civil society space is not capitalized upon to impel political changes. This is largely a result of despotic power deployed by the military-state aggressively dominating the political realm, foreclosing on political organizing and preventing mass political consciousness from developing.

But can the upcoming elections alter the existing stasis? They can be a necessary first step. Social and political evolution may begin in Burma through a cyclical three-part process, each led by what can be referred to as ‘political opposition’, ‘grassroots civil society’, and ‘elite civil society’ leaders. The process involves first structuring an alternative political discourse that breaks from ‘traditional’ politics and which centres around socioeconomic idioms, and from which opposition forces will begin to build a collective political consciousness.

Second, grassroots civil society can also begin to make gentle demands on the state for better governance. It is critical that these demands come from multiple sites, and essential that the state sees them. If these demands emerge from thousands of different places, through multiple different idioms (Buddhist, human security, moral, pragmatic, and so on), the state may not see the gentle demands as out of the ordinary, but rather as symptomatic of systemic problems in Burma. This can undermine the current equilibrium, and force the state to act on them.

Finally, because the demands are gentle, they are unlikely to precipitate a crisis, but rather may produce moments of compromise as the regime seeks a new balance to ensure stability. At this point advocates in civil society at the elite level (Third Force, the UN, etc) who have been articulating technical-administrative policy solutions will become indispensible to the state. New bargains will allow the state to manoeuvre while maintaining stability, and will improve conditions for the grassroots. At this point the cycle either begins again, or stops. The point is that it’s the demands which constitute the mechanism for change, and the demands can begin through these elections.

For instance, the very existence of the election gives some civil society organizations an opportunity to broach politics carefully. Take the example at the top of an NGO holding civic education. When authorities inquired about the content of the sessions, NGO members replied that it was their responsibility to educate the people about the upcoming elections, elections the authorities themselves after all endorse. The NGO also invited authorities to participate and share their thoughts, remaining true to their word of including everyone, and further defusing any suspicion on the part of the state.

We see here how the NGO is not fixated on whether the elections themselves will change things. Instead it has used the process to evolve the programs it can run. The elections are providing cover for the building of political muscles at the grassroots. And while most organizations will likely not have the skills or the wherewithal to be as active as the NGO mentioned here, they will still act as conduits for disseminating information that emerges from specific political campaigns.

Therefore, it is imperative that there is something meaningful to disseminate – political parties must get their messages to the people. The recently announced Election Law banning mass rallies need not cause democrats to abandon the responsibility of campaigning in other ways, of taking advantage of these civil society networks. For instance, in 1990 mass rallies were also constrained, and yet the people learned enough about the NLD’s message to reward it with a majority of votes.

Today, the internet, satellite radio, and an explosion of uncaptured media (see here and here) can be added to the list of information dissemination opportunities. These are not as essential as the classic ‘word-of-mouth’, which will enjoy more freedom than usual given that politics are not officially outlawed during this period around the election. More importantly, because the complexities of power in Burma are not lost on the millions who live there, people will continue to navigate them, knowing when and in what context they can share their opinions about what is occurring.

Word-of-mouth will allow people to learn what those campaigning cannot tell them explicitly. While it will not contain the kind of detail necessary for robust democracy (a citizen will not be able to pore over the specifics of a proposed platform), nor can it act as an assault on the regime’s lies and misdeeds (it won’t draw out the connections between regime policy and the daily miseries, showing where state propaganda stops and reality begins), word-of-mouth can communicate the general tenor of what a given party stands for and what it opposes.

The official messages, on the other hand, can work mutually with the hidden, acting as the concrete description of what opposing parties would do differently if given the opportunity to govern. As I have argued elsewhere, the critical questions thus surround the content of the political information communicated: will opposition parties design platforms, plans, and policies that will resonate with the average Burmese person? Will opposition groups not participating use the space around the election to communicate what they stand for, what they would do differently if they were given governing responsibilities?

These questions, rather than questions about procedural fairness, should dominate the discussion. We know the regime will do everything in its power to tilt the hand towards the status quo. And while energies can be directed at making these tactics known, these injustices should not become an obsession that removes focus from the real issues inside: reaching out to people, evincing their needs and desires, and turning them into political demands of whatever new regime takes power in 2010. Ultimately, the elections are just the first step in a larger process of inciting civil society to get back involved in the political conversation. If the elections are the destination, then they are a dead end. But if they are seen as the point of departure, toward getting average people to put pressure on the state, they may be the first step in a process of change. Part three will explore how this alternative politics would look and feel like in practice.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is currently an MPA-ID student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and is leading a number of research projects through the university’s Human Rights and Social Movements Program. 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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