Retaking power in Burma (Pt. 3)

The first two parts of this article suggested that an alternative politics could be fashioned in Burma by focusing on socioeconomic idioms. But it remained vague on exactly what this alternative politics would look and feel like in practice. Part three turns to an example from Burma’s own recent past, exploring in more detail the actions of the 88 Generation Student (88GS) group, arguing that it operates as a model of this kind of alternative politics that can coax ordinary Burmese to become re-engaged with the political realm. Its remarkable Open Heart Campaign portrayed the values and desires of average Burmese people – providing a set of key data points that reflected the daily realities to which any future political projects must be accountable and resonant.

Part two suggested a model for change: alternative politics impels civil society demands, and the state reforms, at which point the cycle begins again or settles into a new equilibrium. And here is the big question: what keeps the cycle going, what allows it to stop?

The problem with focusing only on socio-economic indicators is that political voice itself is not a goal, only a way of getting some improved material outcome. The risk then is that new equlibria will be found once the material outcome improves marginally, and then silence will descend again. Or worse: episodic flare-ups will emerge and then dissipate when palliatives are delivered from the government. A good example are the small 2009 protests in Mon state over an absence of electricity during school exam time. The protests were successful in attaining their short term goals (electricity), an impressive feat in itself. But a year later, according to informal reports, electricity is again absent, and so are the protests. In other words, there was a point where people could not take it anymore and they demanded change. They got what they asked for, and so they stopped. When the same conditions emerged again, for whatever reason it was not enough this time to motivate collective action.

How to escape this trap? Politics must tap into the normative groundings – a community’s collective values – to insist that citizens go beyond bargains with the state. As collective values (of justice, fairness, decency, the proper relationship between society and state) are put into politics, they become the interests themselves: instead of just militating for socioeconomic benefits, the politics transforms the socioeconomic claims into the basis for the values. So it is not simply “We need electricity.” It is “We need electricity… because we are a member of this country and the role of the government is to provide it!”

Here is where politics can be truly transformative: the project of evincing these values may create the values themselves. Or, rather, a commitment to the values can crystallize through the process of asking constituents to reflect on their situations. There is thus a pedagogy to politics: by asking people what they value, the political subject can come to value the values even more, and be willing to then go the next step and demand them.

The 88GS did just that. Led by former political prisoners, many of whom were released in 2005 after the ousting of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, the group of about 40 core member began to engage the citizenry with small campaigns that slowly worked to build both a political consciousness and habituate defiant actions. Its respective and progressing Signature, White, Prayer, and Open Heart campaigns of 2006-07 began to demonstrate how a movement can be built through coaxing involvement of ordinary people, sustaining that involvement, and increasingly motivating them to act.

Knowing that it was too much to request that people immediately take explicit risks, 88GS members consciously worked to gradually build from small actions that were both non-threatening and anonymous. As interviewees in the 88GS put it, the group built upon the confidence and momentum in the successes of early conservative activities, eventually introducing bolder campaigns which would compel citizens to ‘show their face’:

“First we tried the Signature Campaign, to get the [political] prisoners released. And people could do it because there was no risk to them: there was no document with their personal information, just their signature. Next was the White Campaign, which allowed people to be involved with little risk – they could tell the authorities, ‘We are just wearing a shirt [it happens to be white].’ But people were still afraid, because they were in public. But when they did not get arrested, this built their confidence.”

The strategy of plausible deniability emerges: those ‘participating’ in these activities could always feign ignorance if accosted by authorities. The colour of a shirt, the act of praying; these are not explicitly political actions, and could be painted as coincidences. In Burma, where law is utilized as a tool of oppression, these kinds of political actions demonstrated a sophisticated politico-legal shrewdness on the part of the actors.

In so doing, rather than giving the authorities the pretence to destroy the nascent movement at the outset, the 88GS devised ways to gradually build momentum by remaining legal. Moreover, by making its actions explicitly non-political, the 88GS utilized symbolic repertoires to deliver messages to the broader public: both ‘everyone knew’ what they were ‘really’ doing, and yet no one was sure. The ambiguity in this space is a strategy outlined in Part Two in regards to the civil society realm, here turned to politics.

Evidence of the efficacy of this approach was born out by the responses: the 88GS claimed 200,000 signatures, and incited the formation of other independent groups. But it was the Open Heart Campaign (OH) that constituted a truly noteworthy political action, both in regards to its socioeconomic focus, and regarding the type of engagement requested of people.

The OH encouraged people to write letters to Than Shwe to ‘share their hearts’ – to let the leading general know how difficult living conditions were, how the government could help, and how the state often chose to exacerbate the hardships. The fact that 2689 letters made it to the 88GS (many more are assumed confiscated by authorities) shows a willingness to engage in politics when the political idioms are grounded in everyday life. “They wanted to speak out [locally], but they could not. The people knew they might get in trouble, but because they knew they had done nothing wrong [they felt that writing the letters was worth the risk]. This was an opportunity.” There is significant political nuance here: not able to speak up locally (as there was no tradition of raising demands), people saw OH as a less confrontational politics that could reach the central state and cascade back down to their own realities.

The OH did not have an opportunity to be taken further than this. Some 88GS members with whom I spoke actually lamented the 2007 fuel de-subsidization, given it came just when they were starting to build something. The irony was that the 88GS had created the very political consciousness that precipitated the protests, actions that in turn eventually undermined the 88GS. Though consistently excluded from breathless Western media accounts of the Saffron Revolution, evidence shows that it was 88GS members who led the first ‘walking protests’ after the desubsidization (even these first protests were brilliant politics: they took the quotidian act of walking to work and made it a political commentary on a callous regime’s neglect of people’s livelihoods). However, if the 88GS had devised a way to communicate the messages more broadly (to people across the entire country), and strategically (through civil society organizations), we can see here the potential creation of a political consciousness operating both about local issues, but also transcending the local – allowing Burmese to see their struggles as shared.

But the lessons of the 88GS do not stop here. Rather, the letters themselves constitute a window into state-society relations that usually remain opaque.  First, certain state-society relations that other socio-legal systems would declare abusive, are in Burma seen as natural (and even legitimate) under the correct circumstances. Take forced labour, which is mentioned directly in 95 of the letters. While unequivocally a crime under international law, if one reads each letter, it becomes clear that Burmese do not always share this understanding. It is typically not forced labour in itself to which the letter-writers are objecting: only 24 percent of the letters mentioned forced labour as abusive, objectionable, or illegitimate by definition. 71 percent of the letters, on the other hand, expressed forced labour as just one symptom of a larger socio-economic problem, while the remaining 5 percent made both arguments simultaneously.  Case 10 outlines this succinctly:

“I run a shop. When the shop is usually opened, the customers come. However, now, I am forced to labour, so I cannot always open my shop. I also was forced to give the money for that. These hinder my works. The present situation is bad for the poor. There is no job for the one who want to work.”

Forced labour here is embedded in a larger struggle to manage socioeconomic realities. Strikingly, the act was only mentioned explicitly as a human rights violation in a single letter; moreover, many subjects seem to present forced labour as better than nothing, provided the state does its part by supplying resources, ending wasteful schemes (like the planting of jatropha), and respecting people’s dignity.

This example illuminates how an un-contextualized political agenda (based on external norms of law or human rights, for instance) may fail to connect with Burmese people. A campaign to end forced labour might mean an end to social services like critical infrastructure. As such, most peasants would oppose it, ignore it, and/or might feel they are being manipulated by it. This may be why many average citizens have rejected the ‘traditional politics’ based on human rights, procedural democracy, and rule of law. They do not reflect the precarious life led by many at the margins, they do not tap into collective values and daily concerns.

Yet these letters on forced labour are also not simply socioeconomic demands. They are linked with a broader sense of justice – there are certain things that the state should not do, certain things it should do that it currently is not doing.  Political messages that understand this nuance can compel recursive, dynamic cycles of challenge that build on one another, slowly compelling the state to do more, even as what people can expect from the state expands. But much depends on the initial set of demands. We can learn a great deal from the 88GS in this regard, and a great deal about Burmese people by reading their own words in the OH Campaign.

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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