An eye-opening analysis of the struggle for reform reveals how little outsiders know about the multitude of conflicts within that troubled land
PUBLISHED JUST last month, “Pathways That Changed Myanmar” places a powerful magnifying glass over what precisely has happened and is continuing to happen in a country still beset by horrendous problems following its emergence from isolation. Hopefully this book will be able to effect changes of its own in outsiders’ perspectives.
Opinion-shapers around the world should take note: Myanmar’s chief obstacle is not the dearth of democracy. Rather, it is the confounding grey areas that have dominated virtually every aspect of the struggle for reform. Where black-and-white conclusions are elusive, understanding Myanmar’s overcast skies makes the overall picture far clearer.
American Matthew Mullen – a lecturer at Mahidol University’s Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies – presents remarkable insights on almost every page. In light of his analysis, the struggle there could well serve as a map for other such movements elsewhere, those continuing and those still to come.
Drawing on five years of research across the country, Mullen reaches well beyond the political power play between the immovable military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to offer a deeply nuanced review of the disparate efforts that brought about Myanmar’s seemingly miraculous “opening” to the world.
These range from the international sanctions on Myanmar, weighed in a chapter tellingly titled “Cure and Disease”, to the monetary help from abroad, including all those small remittances sent home from Burmese migrant labourers in Thailand and elsewhere. But within the country itself an amalgam of approaches were used against the military dictatorship. While the catastrophe of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the succession of political upheavals over decades all nudged the country in turn towards reform, a host of other factors played their own crucial parts individually.
“There were sensational, straightforward efforts, but also messy, complex action that was less clearly memorable and righteous,” Mullen writes. “Struggles for change were endlessly diverse, as were the interests of those struggling.”
It was the violent uprisings against military rule – the “contention” – that grabbed world headlines, yet far more widespread and far less acknowledged was “subversion”, entailing everything from feigned ignorance and petty theft to sabotage and even murder. A third pathway has been termed “reconstructive politics”, a form of “creation” involving “calculated compliance, negotiation, relationship building”.
This last pathway was the one pursued by “the Third Force” – “a loose network of individuals and organisations who sought change through engaging the junta or creating opportunities where the state was failing ... Through disorientation and persuasion, reconstructors were able to sideline, soften or penetrate the state.”
All approaches were effective and also had their drawbacks, Mullen says, and debate over which was best is “impossible to resolve”. Indeed, one of the book’s more poignant sections acknowledges that history, arising from media coverage of the period, will remember only the prominent players, disregarding the substantial contributions of those effecting change quietly from below.
World attention has been riveted on Suu Kyi, the monks of the Saffron Revolution, the outspoken activists and the political prisoners, and completely overlooked the “pragmatist” Third Force that sought a middle way between the junta and NLD.
Its representatives were willing to stand for office in the 2010 elections despite knowing the polls were fraudulent. Mullen quotes Yale University anthropologist Elliott Prasse-Freeman: “Their genius under the regime was to deliver services [to the people], subvert abusive policies and mobilise local resources, all the while steering clear of anything that could be construed as politically threatening.”
“Reconstructive politics is not a channel to a Nobel Prize,” Mullin adds. “It was, however, a means of creating change under and within a military dictatorship.” A resident of Karen State told him, “We do what we’re told some of the time so we can do what we want most of the time. Soldiers will make your life easier if you make their life easier.”
Another pathway involved probing for weak points in the state’s defences and “testing the limits of resistance”. People would avoid “investing” in anything to do with the state, evade taxes and misreport resources. Alternatively, “simply surviving is absolutely a form of resistance”, Mullen quotes border physician and rights researcher Voravit Suwanvanichkij as saying – just going about your life, although this “often meant tolerating some level of oppression”.
This approach of “everyday resistance ... can be confused with acquiescence”, Mullen concedes, but even such “weapons of the weak” contributed to the country’s eventual turnaround.
Having shaken off its pariah status, Myanmar nevertheless remains in the grip of uncertainty. For those involved in the struggle, the author notes, “Defining success was something of a gamble because all changes were tenuous and reversible.”
Foreign investment is pouring in, but it’s channelled to the dominant Bama population, bypassing even the neediest ethnic locales. Old laws, the prior dispensing of which had protected innocents, are being revived with predatory intent. Because the generals retain control over key ministries, the ruling NLD has no effective control over law enforcement, the military, border affairs, the penal system or state resources.
By way of cautioning outsiders that there is a vast among of work still to be done before tenable goals are achieved, Mullen closely examines the multitude of woes that plague ordinary citizens on a daily basis, issues that political change thus far seems incapable of addressing.
In remote villages, for example, the only contact the people ever have with what should be a beneficent state is when a soldier comes by looking for a bribe. The citizens are utterly on their own, and when natural calamity, greedy businessmen or even family illness visits, they’re in grave trouble.
There are the ongoing conflicts with ethnic armies, for whom military offensives have so often aborted ceasefire efforts. And then there is the appalling predicament of the Muslim Rohingya, whose continuing oppression “may amount to acts of genocide” in Mullen’s measured view.
Even here there are grey areas in need of illumination. The author points out that the mid-2012 emergence of the xenophobic Buddhist monk U Wirathu coincided with the country’s opening to the world. While domestic opinion was inflamed by the rape of a Buddhist in Rakhine, allegedly by three Rohingya, there is a compelling theory that the underlying anger stemmed from the metaphorical dissolution of borders and the “aggression and hate that had built over decades of systemic oppression”.
Disturbingly, “democracy and human-rights networks within the country were largely silent or participants in the animosity”. Perhaps they were cowed “by the intensity of the anti-Muslim rhetoric”, but Mullen witnessed activists shifting their focus to “deceitful Muslims who are trying to take over Burma and need to be done away with”.
He has by this point in the book made it clear that the groups striving in their own unique ways for reform had clashing views and agendas. And there was after all, he writes, “the absence of a clear moral high ground in the struggle ... All along, the pathways to change had been littered with sexism, ageism and racism, though few if any in the struggle would have [earlier] contemplated a Myanmar “purged of Rohingya and Muslims”.
Somehow, even in the face of such internal conflict and NLD powerlessness against the entrenched military, Mullen writes, “there are potent political muscles at the grass roots to tap”, the same muscles in fact that responded to the calamity of Cyclone Nargis when the state failed to act. There is still the will to fight on, steadily gaining ground by increments. Years ago a community organiser told Mullen that “every inch matters for us”.
“If we can do something today that we couldn’t do yesterday, that is a big deal ... If we gain an inch in our community we have changed the whole situation. And when this is happening all over the country, the whole situation can change in a major way.”
Pathways That Changed Myanmar
By Matthew Mullen
Published by Zed Books, 2016
Available at Amazon.com, US$20 (Bt711)