ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Burma and Western Precepts of Democracy

The failure of Burma's "8888 Uprising" in August 1988 to usher in democracy has influenced the western critique of the military junta's rule, criticism that has been loaded with "liberal democractic" precepts that do not understand the unique political history of the nation. A greater engagement with the democratic period in Burma from 1948 until 1962 could perhaps offer more relevant solutions than what are currently offered by western organisations.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW September 27, 200825Burma and Western Precepts of Democracy Sunjay Chandiramaniinquiry of Burma under one-party rule and the difficulty in obtaining informa-tion about Burma, has meant that the study of this period in Burmese history has been transformed into an unbalanced political critique.Burma’s Democratic PastThe authoritarian rule in Burma for the last 46 years has obscured the fact thatfrom independence in 1948 until Ne Win’s coup in 1962, save for a two-year emergency period in between, Burma actually was a democracy. It was also an active participant in inter-nationalaffairs, both as a member of the United Nations (UN) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Yet the democratic years of Burma (known as the “pyidawtha” period) were plagued by internal instability. Furthermore, foreign aid for economic development often had ulterior political motives that the government did not accept. The goal of the following account is therefore to attempt to pick apart two aspects of the situation in Burma, that of ethnic conflict and of foreign isolation, that have been widely criticised by elements of the western human rights regime. With the addition of historical evidence from the pyidawtha period, one can perhaps begin to understand how these western political critiques are insufficient in framing Burma’s internal problems, and therefore the solutions they offer fail to account for Burma’s unique modern history.Ethnic ConflictOne of the most common critiques of the Burmese government by the human rights regime has been its treatment of ethnic minority separatist groups. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has discussed at length the ongoing violence between the ‘Tatmadaw’ (national army) and the Karen minority group. Yet, the entireHRW report focuses exclusively on the stages of conflict following Ne Win’s coupin 1962 and makes no mention of the history of the Karen insurrection during the pyidawtha period. The document’s brief outline of the origins of the conflict states:Burma’s rebellions have long been driven by a mixture of genuine grievances and Sunjay Chandiramani ( is an MA candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development, Geneva.The failure of Burma’s “8888 Uprising” in August 1988 to usher in democracy has influenced the western critique of the military junta’s rule, criticism that has been loaded with “liberal democractic” precepts that do not understand the unique political history of the nation. A greater engagement with the democratic period in Burma from 1948 until 1962 could perhaps offer more relevant solutions than what are currently offered by western organisations. August 8, 2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the 8888 Uprising in Burma (named so because of its occurrence on August 8, 1988), the failed attemptbysections of the Burmese population to end the military regime under Ne Win and create a multiparty democratic system. Since 1988, Burma has remained an authoritarian state, defying the results of the 1990 election, which called for a democratic govern-ment. Indeed, the reluctance of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military junta, to ease their iron grip on power has baffled most of the outside world, especially in the after-math of cyclone Nargis, which struck the country on May 3, 2008. In the face of widespread devastation, theSPDC was not only reluctant to open the country to foreign aid workers, but also pressed on with the planned constitutional referen-dum, which essentially legitimised its one-party rule. Farcically, the govern-ment announced on May 29, 2008 that the referendum had been passed with 92.48 per cent of the vote, with a turnout of 98.12 per cent.1 Given the magnitude of the disaster left in the wake of the cyclone, such figures are simply not credible.In the aftermath of Nargis, some western voices have expressed their frustration with the regime through an-gry calls for overthrowing the SPDC.2 Yet the actual substance of these calls for re-gime change is lacking any sort of histor-ical context. Unfortunately, western knowledge of Burma for the past 20 years has been coloured by the language of the development discourse, which seek mainly to criticise the existing structures and promote change that mirrors the di-rection of liberal-democratic develop-ment (in the western context), and has no real insight into the nuances of Burmese history. Instead, the west’s unwillingness to engage in a historical

political-military-economic opportunism. Especially following the military take-over by General Ne Win in 1962, ethnic nationality elites have been excluded from meaningful participation in politics.3

Political exclusion may well have been the case after 1962, but the article fails to mention that this was only so due to the Karens’ unwillingness to join the political process during the pyidawtha period.

Upon gaining independence in January 1948, the Burmese central government granted, in the 1947 constitution of the Union of Burma, a large level of autonomy for minorities. The Karens – as well as another minority group, the Shans – were to be “constituent states” under the central government, with their own i ndividual heads of state and the ability t o draft and enact their own laws.4 A dditionally, chapter X of the constitution gave the right for minority states to secede from the union after 10 years.5 From the constitution at least, it appeared that Burma’s democratic government a llowed the country’s minority groups to a large amount of their

managei nternal affairs.

Yet even with these secession rights secured, and under a democratic regime, the Karens rebelled against the union in only a few months following independence [Trager 1966: 102]. They did not give a chance for these guarantees of autonomy to come to fruition. Therefore, groups like HRW who allege the de- politicisation of minorities after 1962 are missing in their analysis the refusal of the Karens to be efficacious participants in the pyidawtha democracy. Though during the authori tarian period the Karens have been excluded in the political process, this cannot be seen as the main point of contention that started the conflict, but rather as a reaction to the refusal of the Karens to peacefully agitate for their own cause, using the tools and institutions granted by the central government during the democratic period.

And even if it can be demonstrated that the Karens had good reason not to wish to join the democratic union, an engagement with these historical events by western groups such as HRW would only serve to enhance and give greater weight to their own arguments. As it stands now, their silence on this period has the exact opposite effect.

Unwanted External Influence

Another criticism by western groups has been Burma’s unwillingness since 1962 to engage in foreign relations with the rest of the world. This is a fair criticism, as the vision initiated by Ne Win, entitled “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, was designed to limit Burma’s exposure to outside influence.

However, like the case of violence with the Karens, Ne Win’s programme was a r eaction to unfavourable events that

o ccurred during the pyidawtha period, during which Burma played a significant role in international affairs, only to find itself in one significant circumstance b ullied by the United States (US).

An often forgotten episode in the bilateral relations of the US and Burma is the covert support given by the US to Kuomintang (KMT) forces from China, who had retreated into the Burmese countryside following the defeat of the Chinese

September 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW September 27, 200827Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. These KMT fighters set up camp in remote areas of Burma and by 1951 had grown tenfold from an initial number of 1,200 men to 12,000 [Taylor 1987]. These forces made themselves unwelcome to the central government by causing disorder in the rural areas of the state, and by 1953 had even constructed an airstrip, and were receiving aid from the PRC, now based in Taiwan [Trager 1966: 319].As Burma was one of the first states to recognise the PRC (ibid), it is clear that the Burmese wished for cordial relations with the new communist Chinese government. However, contrary to the Burmese govern-ment’s wishes, the US supported not only the Nationalists in Taiwan, but also the existence of the KMT rebels in Burma. A declassified telegram to the US state department from ambassador David McK Key in Burma provides the necessary evidence to show the extent of American support in 1951 for the KMT troops and their failed insurgency in China’s Yunnan province. Key wrote:this adventure has cost us heavily in terms of Burmese goodwill and trust. Participation by Americans in these KMT operations is well known to [the government of Burma] and constitutes [a] serious impediment to our relations with them [FRUS 1951: 289].Key went on to further state that to deny such official US connection with these operations [would be] meaningless to [the government of Burma] in face of reports they [are] constantly receiving from their officials in border areas thatKMT troops are accompa-nied by Americans and [are] receiving [a] steady supply of American equipment (ibid).The grievances between the US and theBurmese government over theKMT forces would lead to Burma refusing US aid from 1953 until economic recession in 1956 required them to once again resume the programme. With knowledge of these historical events, the seclusion of Burma initiated under Ne Win’s coup in 1962 is placed in a context that may warrant some level of justification. And even if western groups determine that this seclusion is not justi-fied, their arguments would benefit from the global view of Burmese foreign rela-tions that is given through engagement with the pyidawtha period.Prospects for ChangeAs such, any sort of changes in Burma’s government will need to be heavily steeped in the local context of Burma’s history and political tradition, and should take from the pyidawtha period lessons, both for why democracy failed, and perhaps to give some context to the actions of the SPDC and the protest movement in Burma. To this end, it is heartening to see that the SPDC has recently come under the scrutiny of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On July 8, 2008 ASEANalong with theUN and the govern-ment of Burma published the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, which estimated the total cost of damages to be $ 4 billion.6 ASEAN has begun the process of raising $1 billion in aid for Burmese recovery. More importantly, at the start of its 41st ministerial meeting on July 21, 2008, ASEANasserted its “deep disappointment” with the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is the icon of both the 8888 Uprising and the hope of a unified Burmese democratic movement.7 The continuing cycle of arrest and imprisonment of Suu Kyi and the refusal of the SPDC to allow her to assume the post of prime minister after her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 1990 general elections, has been a “cause celebre” for organisations critical of the SPDC’s autho-rity. Given the fragmented nature of Bur-ma’s multiple ethnic groups, it is evident that Suu Kyi’s role would be vital for unit-ing the nation in lieu of authoritarian strong-armed tactics.The object of this endeavour has been to place Burma’s authoritarian rule within its historical context, and not to condone its actions. By looking back to Burma’s demo-cratic period and its failure to adequately deal with Burma’s various ethnic groups and economic difficulties, it becomes clear that solutions based on ambiguous, loaded concepts such as “democracy,” “liberalisa-tion” and “human rights” are not sufficient in order to solve Burma’s mountainous challenges. Authoritarianism in Burma ex-ists for reasons more complex than simple human lust for power, and consequently requires solutions that are sensitive to and aware of Burma’s own political history.Notes1 See ‘Burma Approves New Constitution’, available at 05.stm.2 For example, Wiillem Buiter writes,“the deeply evil military regime that has ruled and destroyed that country for the past 46 years must be overthrown to safeguard the fundamental and inalienable rights of its people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. — irrelevance-of-national-sovereignty.3 ‘“They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again”, The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State’, available at The Constitution of the Union of Burma, available at http://www. html/ Consti-tution/ 1947. html #THE%20KAREN%20STATE.5 Ibid, available at html/Constitution/1947. html# RIGHT%20oF% 20 SECESSION.6 For complete report see rwb.nsf/ retrieveattachments? openagent & shorted=ASAZ-7GRH55&file=Full_Report.pdf.7 See ‘Bush asks Myanmar to Set Free San Sui Kyi, The Hindu, July 25, 2008, available at http:// 7250345.htm.ReferencesForeign Relations of the United States (1951): The Ambassador in Burma (Key) to the Secretary of State, Vol VI, Part 1, pp 288-89.Taylor, Robert (1987):The State in Burma, C Hurst & Co, London.Trager, Frank (1966): Burma: From Kingdom to Republic, Pall Mall, London.For the Attention of Subscribers and Subscription Agencies Outside IndiaIt has come to our notice that a large number of subscriptions to the EPW from outside the country together with the subscription payments sent to supposed subscription agents in India have not been forwarded to us.We wish to point out to subscribers and subscription agencies outside India that all foreign subscriptions, together with the appropriate remittances, must be forwarded to us and not to unauthorised third parties in India.We take no responsibility whatsoever in respect of subscriptions not registered with us. MANAGER

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top