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Barriers to collective action in Burma

Gemma Dursley

Nov 06, 2008 (DVB)-Observers of Burma are often surprised at how much the people can endure without rising up. While junta members and cronies become grotesquely wealthy and live in relative freedom, most Burmese barely eke out a living in the shadow of a brutally repressive government.

It is a mistake, however, to think that anger and frustration lead inevitably to a people’s uprising. Whilst such feelings might be necessary for a backlash against military rule, they are certainly not sufficient.

The collective action problem

On the contrary, even for those suffering great hardship, it is irrational to join together in collective action. This is because the individual costs of participating in rebellion are greater than the individual benefits received from the collective good a movement seeks. It is rational, therefore, for people to free ride â€" by keeping one’s head down and letting others get on with the revolution, one can enjoy the benefits of democracy and human rights without the costs. Of course, if everybody thinks this way, nothing happens. This is the collective action problem.

Lest we be overcome by pessimism, a variety of social movements across the world have solved the problem and achieved great victories. Political movements across Eastern Europe solved it earlier this decade, the civil rights movement in the USA solved it, groups campaigning against environmental degradation have solved it.

Indeed, there is no shortage of strategies for overcoming the collective action problem. Mark Lichbach, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, identifies scores of solutions in his book ‘The Rebel’s Dilemma’, a compendium of theories on collective action.

However, uprisings and revolutions are infrequent events, which reminds us that authorities work hard to ensure activists fail. The Burmese regime, unencumbered by human rights legislation and dismissive of world opinion, has created more room for manoeuvre against dissident action than most governments around the world.

Resources for collective action

Moreover, every strategy for collective action which Burma’s pro-democracy movement could employ demands resources. We might identify two basic resources which are particularly essential: leadership or ‘movement entrepreneurs’, and organisation.

Leaders and movement entrepreneurs are at the heart of a movement, and are crucial in turning grievances into real dissent. Their zealotry is such that the collective action problem does not apply to them, and they are willing to sacrifice much. They provide a symbol around which a movement can coalesce and promote a vision of the future. They interpret events, identify opportunities, and communicate findings in the hope of moving others to participate.

Thus in 2007, prominent members of the 88 Generation group launched the initial protests, while the later leadership of monks provided both symbolic resonance and a ‘bridge’ between the people and a dream of a democratic future.

But movement entrepreneurs can only realise the potential of recruits to the extent that they have the organisational capacity to do so. Bringing individuals together in marches, demonstrations, and strikes demands extensive coordination and planning.

Few movements start from scratch. Decades of communist rule in Poland were ended partly as a result of a social movement built around the Solidarity trade union. Burma’s Sangha, probably the largest non-state organised body within the country and until recently partially shielded from the State Peace and Development Council gaze, was critical in providing an organisational framework for the 2007 uprising.

Building on pre-existing organisations, with premises and core staff already taken care of, allows entrepreneurs to concentrate on mobilisation within a framework with which many people are likely to be familiar. In addition, groups usually promote shared goals and values, which helps overcome the atomising effects of self-interest lying at the heart of the collective action problem.

Exacerbating the collective action problem

The SPDC is fully aware of the opposition’s resource needs and works hard to block their satisfaction. Systematic denial of basic political rights greatly restricts leading dissidents, as the widely reported detentions of prominent activists testifies. When these movement entrepreneurs are imprisoned, forced into remote insurgency movements, or compelled to work underground, they can effect little mobilization.

In recognition of the power of organisations, the SPDC has issued outright bans on many groups and strictly controls the formation of new ones. The Free Funeral Service Association was pressured to close because, in addition to its meaningful work, it had the potential to act as a nexus for dissidents and connect them to people suffering at the hands of the junta’s economic decisions. The National League Democracy, the only legal organisation pushing for meaningful democratic political reform, is so heavily circumscribed and watched that even the most basic political party activities are impossible to carry out.

All this adds up to an absence of effective, organized opposition within the country. For the individual weighing up whether or not to participate in pro-democracy activities or the individual considering pro-junta militia work, this void affects his or her decision-making calculus in a number of ways.

Effects on the opposition

If it looks like a cause will fail, most people will not sacrifice time or money for it, no matter how right the cause is. Currently, the weakness of the opposition contrasts with signs of the invincibility of the junta, producing a vicious downward spiral into pessimism. Although millions of hearts might be with the opposition, far fewer brains, feet or fists are with them. Expectations matter.

In other countries where power is contested, there might be a marketplace of groups looking for recruits, leading to discussion and analysis of competing political programs. In Burma â€" at least in large towns and cities â€" public recruitment into effective political activity is the sole privilege of the pro-junta militia movement.

An inability to develop mass-based pro-democracy organisations also prevents emergence of an opposition bureaucracy which could appeal to the ambitious organisational class, currently attracted into the Union Solidarity and Development Association by the long-term opportunities offered.

SPDC actions have obvious negative effects on the opposition, but also boost the pro-junta militia by lowering the potential costs of participating in violence. Vigilante action taken to punish USDA and Swan Arr Shin members has occurred but is very rare, as no organisation can coordinate such tasks. If it does occur, the chances of escaping harsh sanctions are low.

Many activists even sympathise with SAS members, pitying their exploitation. Lack of political discussion and awareness among many people means that they often participate in pro-junta activity with little knowledge of the project they are engaged in.

Although the outlook is grim, identifying the specific ways by which the junta blocks routes to effective collective action rather than invoking vague explanations like ‘fear’, is the first step by which the opposition can begin to develop tactics to circumvent these obstacles.

This is the third in a serious of articles by Gemma Dursley for DVB on Burma’s collective action problem.


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