Retaking power in Burma (Pt. 1)

Prevailing current opinion is that Burma’s elections this year will be a charade and the opposition is right to condemn them. Burma, commentators say, is a totalitarian state controlled by a military clique that has ruled the country for nearly half a century. But the myth of totalitarianism should be challenged, as should the assumption that there is no potential for meaningful social change to exist around the election process. Because while the conditions for politics in Burma are hardly ideal, a legitimate opportunity for reconnecting with average people – and opposing the military’s march toward pseudo-normalcy – exists in this year’s elections.

The debate requires an accurate understanding of how power in the country functions, particularly in regards to how it operates to constrain and/or animate politics. So to examine power, let us begin with a story in two parts:

The first is that society is so suffused with fear of the state that Burmese will only whisper about politics, even when they are walking along a noisy city street. The sheer number of journalistic accounts telling of this narrative is remarkable (Google the words ‘Burma’ and ‘whisper’ together), and demonstrates its durable and diffuse reality in Burma, not to mention the media’s ongoing obsession with it.

But the second part of the story complicates the first: if people are afraid to speak of politics, one might expect lots of men with guns on those streets. Yet, the thugs refuse to materialize. How can these two phenomena exist simultaneously? The common explanation is that Burmese people live under the constant watch of the state, and over time have internalized the panopticon: there isn’t the need for men with guns at every corner because people discipline their neighbours by silencing themselves.

This story is largely true: oppositional politics – which have primarily involved militating for “human rights”, parliamentary political processes, and legal reforms – is viewed by people as irredeemably dangerous in Burma, to be avoided. If politics is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to remain strong, the Burmese collective political muscles have degenerated over the years.

Juxtapose this first story with another: that of the NGO currently holding sessions on ‘civic education’ with local community associations, discussing both procedural and normative issues around democracy. “What is the right form of government?” “What do other Constitutions around the world look like? How does ours compare?” “What is the role of an engaged citizenry?” The NGO is able to hold forums around these kinds of questions. And while this NGO may be somewhat exceptional – in that it has etched out an ability over time and with painstaking effort to hold sensitive activities – it is not Myanmar Egress. By which it is not that controversial organization that sometimes appears the exception that proves the rule. Rather, this NGO is more like the others: just one of a rampantly growing Burmese civil society sector. Estimates have 240,000 organizations delivering social services, running spiritual groups, assembling cultural and recreation events, and providing community-based forums for discussions about socioeconomic development. While all of these groups (Egress included) have to navigate the state in one way or another – which entails, inter alia, never encroaching into the terrain of the political – many are effectively independent from state domination. This story is also true.

How can both stories then exist side-by-side? How can the state evince seemingly totalitarian tendencies in certain spheres, but abandon so much space in others? A simple answer is that events in Burma have been consistently misinterpreted by external critics. They assume that militarised Burma is a nightmarish reflection of the ‘modern state’, a hegemonic collection of institutions and structures that centralises and bureaucratises everything to control and discipline all aspects of political subjects’ lives.

Burma, however, lacks the population management tools needed to reach into every corner of its nation and control its citizens. To illustrate: there are no biometric identity cards, no security cameras on every street corner; there is neither a robust social security system, nor a sophisticated taxation apparatus. Indeed, when cyclone Nargis occurred in 2008, communication was so poor that the military had to get its marching orders by interpreting the newspapers! The Burmese state is a different animal altogether.

Does this mean the state is not as bad as it is sometimes portrayed? On the contrary, in many ways it can be even more brutal and despotic in the absence of these other structures. The key is that Burma’s military-state deploys resources selectively to create its regime of control, and the generals prefer control on the cheap. Indeed, realizing totalitarian control would necessitate sacrificing resources currently expended on priorities for maintaining political stability: namely, buttressing military and police apparatuses such that they can quash any perceived threat, and directing resources toward military families and business-sector clients.

In Burma, power radiates out of centres and dissipates over geographical and institutional space, operating through peripheral officials who dominate political activity, attempt to monopolize violence, extract resources (through small-scale resource plundering), and maintain social order through intermediaries (communities themselves). In fact, the military-state likely sees totalitarian control as actually risky, as it leaves civilians with few avenues for escape from the state: patronage networks, maintained through bribes and personal relationships, would be restricted, likewise would the black market that keeps resources flowing to places of demand. Whether consciously or not, the military-state has avoided power relationships that spur collective resistance.

In this way, it is helpful to utilize political scientist Michael Mann’s typology: the state deploys high despotic power (the ability to crush what it can see) but low infrastructural power (an absence of institutions that would allow it to see everything). Where it is strongest, the state attains significant control at reduced cost: despotic power, while focused around political expression, leeches into the social realm as well. When people are significantly dominated politically – and when almost any act can always be interpreted as a political one – silence comes to deafen much of the population (punctuated by moments of collective eruptions at the indignity and oppression of it all – 1988, 1996, 2007 – before silence descends again). This results in a simple avoidance of political topics; coded speech when there is speech about politics at all; a lack of trust in general of those outside of the family; and an absence of ‘social capital’. In this regard the state gets something for nothing.

Civil society space

At the same time though, because power is not total, there are spaces at peripheries – both institutional and geographic – for civil society to grow and function relatively autonomously. Power dissipates concentrically, both through the three institutional branches of the state (military, Peace and Development Council [police], administration), and away from the geographical centres of power (Rangoon, Naypyidaw, major cities). Therefore, a local commander in a distant Chin state village (geographical), or a low-level official in the marginally powerful Ministry of Social Welfare in Rangoon (institutional) may both be distant from the centres of military-state power.

As a result, these agents retain a certain autonomy to recreate their own systems of control. Many choose to be as despotic (in the case of commanders or police) or as uncooperative and/or scrutinizing (in the case of state administration) as the central state. This is especially true in ethnic areas where “security threats” are privileged by police or military on the ground – often agents there are even more abusive than the standard centralized state. However, many agents cannot afford to replicate the central state’s will. This is because they are constrained from both above and below: superiors from above demand a subdued populace, while the agent must manage patron/client relationships, as well as ensure that conditions don’t completely deteriorate for the people below.

Many state agents thus must propose a bargain: they reach out to civil society for assistance. This is somewhat risky: civil society has some inherent political content – indeed, people getting together to talk about how to address social problems tends to lead to conversations about the nature of those problems, which is inherently political. But in the end the state agent feels the bargain is worth the risk. Civil society political content is likely too meagre itself to spark rebellion, given the way that power pre-empts the formation of broader political consciousness; given the way that collective forms of political resistance have been put down by the despotic power of the state in the past. And so the state agents allow civil society participation; not only that, they often prevent centralized-state penetration of civil society activities: they lie to their higher-ups, or more accurately, engage in the brilliant strategy of plausible deniability when interacting with civil society: ‘Just don’t tell me what you’re doing!’

Local state agents therefore simultaneously deploy two contradictory desires: they want to ensure civil society does not act politically, yet they also refuse to know what civil society is actually doing! This results in tense and symbiotic bargains which remain stable only provided civil society is both apolitical and will always remain so. In other words: the state vets an organization, ensures it is only delivering services, and then is compelled by the limits of a system of despotic power and its own need for plausible deniability to become partially blind to civil society’s future activities. And herein lies the opportunity.

Let us imagine if civil society organizations began bending the rules. Not breaking them (holding mass rallies), but simply bending them (beginning to facilitate covertly political discussions: talking about politics through other idioms). Given that these pockets of space do exist in Burma for discussion and perhaps even politics, imagine if there was a mechanism for imbuing that civil society with political consciousness and get it to begin disrupting the current ossified bargains.

Part two will explore how this might play out. The argument will not be for rebellion, but rather that the expected elections may be a first moment in a slow process of repeated negotiations with, and demands of, the state. These demands, emerging necessarily from a number of different realms of civil society, may lead to a potentially radical transformation of power and society in Burma.

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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