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Perspective On Political Development In Myanmar Politics Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

This thesis is a sincere attempt to understand certain aspects of isolationism to be the basic ideology of Myanmar’s policy. Myanmar, rich in natural resources and hence, a potential country that locates in a strategic region of a dynamic continent, continues to remain one of less developed and crisis-ridden country in Southeast Asia. Until recently, the country has been under one form of military rule or another since 1962 that insulated the state from the outside world for many decades and isolated the government, political structure and processes from the larger population within the country. The decades of internal divisions and conflicts, and of military rule, have transformed the country into a trouble state, unable to meet its full potentiality and to respond satisfactorily to the democratic aspirations of the younger generations. The political development in the last few years mark a significant step forward towards political civilianization to government, greater political pluralism and an end to the dominance of a single leadership over all decision-making process. This makes the question of sustaining and nurturing the ongoing positive political transition process central in Myanmar. In this context, it is relevant to pay proper analysis on the political development in Myanmar until very recently by looking at the most critical component of it, that is, isolationism, because it is directly linked to durability of the new developments inside Myanmar.

One of the significant characteristic of political process in Myanmar has been existence of a two-way or mutual isolationism though the intensity and vitality remains dynamic. Isolationism was two-way in the sense of governmental isolation from the societal demands on the one hand, and on the other, societal tendencies to avoid authority and politics. Historically, the people of Myanmar have been denied a proper space in political set up and processes to the point that political activities had become a privilege of few to the exclusion of many. The societal tendencies to dissociate from authority and politics in response to force and fear had been a part of the country’s political traditions. It has been a tradition in Myanmar to consider government as one of the ‘five evils’ of life from which one was desirable to remain dissociated. [1] 

Peoples’ efforts were directed towards isolation from government and politics, but when avoidance was not possible, contact with the state consists of either attempting to gain some benefit from it, or offering little resistance possible to the demands it impose. In case of utter dissatisfaction to authority, one had option to retire a reclusive life in jungle or far away from the reach of authority, unless he/she tends to bear state’s harsh punishments. During the colonial era, some indication of presence of limited political space for the people was found even though it was not a lasting experience (Langpoklakpam 2011: 30).

Independent Myanmar under U Nu’s liberal-democratic regime attempted to provide an all-inclusive and open political system, but the strong undercurrent of isolationism in the country’s political tradition exerted. In the absence of strong democratic tradition, different disgruntled section of society sought a rightful place for them through direct and violent confrontation against the state. Many groups who felt excluded from state power structure took up arms to fight for political power and to get their voice heard. In fact, the parliamentary democracy itself lacked democratic character (Callahan 1998:49-67).

With the coming of direct military rule through a coup d’état in March 1962, the isolationist tendencies was reasserted to the extent that governmental isolation from society was absolute and the new system was supported by creating ideological justification and in the wake of resistance, employed force and fear to sustain it. The practice of total isolationism implying political alienation, state interference and tight control and economic autarchic policy, but denial to people a share in politics and decision-making, led to breakdown of the political and economic stability, and in view of the growing societal aspirations for participation, military pursued a conciliatory policy of liberal isolationism in a very reluctant and top-down manner. The corrective liberalizing ideology was faster in pace in the economic field, than in political arena where it was often reverse at will. Centuries old isolationist tradition in the political process of Myanmar was politicized by the military leaders and employed as a tool to govern the country and to reconstruct an ideal socio-economic and political order of military perception.

As corollary to internal politics of isolationism, Myanmar followed a skilfully crafted external policy of isolation. But, as mentioned, the prolonged pursuance of the practice of internal and external isolationism led to the breakdown of political and economic stability, and in view of the growing societal aspiration for participation, military re-shaped it ruling ideology which, as military leaders claim, would ultimately led to establish a democratic and participative political system in the country. To the goal, internal political reform measures were initiated, but the pace of implementation was slow and annoying to the opponents of the military rule. Myanmar gradually opened up to its people and to the outside world by late 1980 and very recently, a semi-democratic and civilianized government have been installed in Myanmar.

In other words, isolationism remains one of the basic ideologies of Myanmar’s policy. As Thant Myint-U (2010) says, over the long past, Myanmar state had responded to the trauma and test of history by burying themselves in a sort of reflexive isolation from the people, society and the outside world. The Myanmar state stands autonomous, insulated from and non-malleable by societal demands and dissent, while the society itself is porous to the state’s wilful interferences. Again, the relative non-autonomy of the state and its institutions from the interest and belief of the power-holders and high officials constitute the important feature of the political process in Myanmar. The recent political developments have certainly exhibited that isolationism has withered away from Myanmar, but, at the same time, the seemingly democratic political system that emerged after the 2010 elections is reversible, and the study of politics of isolationism in the context of Myanmar is still relevant to the study of political development in the country.

Background and context

The unconsolidated nature of post-independent Myanmar state which was directly related to national unity and state sovereignty, shaped the pattern of state-society relations in Myanmar, and had impact on the functioning of state institutions. Different regimes based on certain ideological foundations, ranging from democratic rule to isolationist government, have been tested with each ideological shift accompanied by reversal in state policy toward society and its institutions, but political crisis due to lack of legitimacy continued under all regimes. It means that the attempts of successive governments to consolidate the state have been unsuccessful. That shaped concerns for state security and social control priority of each government, the continuance of which relegate developmental goals of state existence a secondary concern. The prioritizing of security agenda evolved into attempts of having strong state, re-assertation of state or establishing a strong and penetrative state built around security concern. The understanding that strong state means weak society has become evident in the political process in Myanmar. No doubt, political impasse continues because Myanmar needs co-existence of a strong state along with a strong society.

The first twelve years of post-independent Myanmar called the Union of Burma (Myanmar), which was dominated by the leadership of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), a political platform of pro-independent forces, was more or less democratically organized and comparatively inclusive from a political and ethnic standpoint. However, within a decade of independence, Myanmar faced great political turmoil in the wake of conflict among different political ideologies and division within the ruling AFPFL, communist revolts and growing autonomy demand and secessionist posture of some ethnic groups. The situation really looked dismal and it sapped government’s energy and financial resources. The continuous political turmoil fomented by weakening economy de-stabilized the state and such weak state of affairs resulted in the growing dependence of civilian leaders on the military’s political interference and correspondingly, importance and political leverage of the latter in the politics of Myanmar was on the rise.

From the struggle of independence of the country and subsequent successful military campaigns against the disruptive forces, military had earned belief in the guardian role and status of saviour of the country; and thought they were entitled to play a role in the nation’s political and governmental affairs. Accordingly, military intervention in the politics, first in the form of a constitutional caretaker government (1958-1960) as temporary measure to “aid to civilian government” peacefully took over power at the request of the Prime Minister U Nu. The caretaker government was entrusted with the task of handing over power to civilian government after restoring stability and prevent break-up of the country. The caretaker government was led by General Ne Win, a strong nationalist and one of the original members of the “Thirty Comrades” [2] , and it ruled the country for eighteen months, and later like a professional army, the general handed over power to the democratically elected government under former Prime Minister U Nu in 1960.

The new democratic government under U Nu proved to be short-lived. The political crisis of the period before the caretaker government erupted once tight control and order of the military line of governance wither away with the end of caretaker government. The emerging political situations were very annoying to the military leaders. Disgusted with the civilian politicians and confident of their constructive role in politics, two years later, military assumed direct political power for the second time. The military, again headed by General Ne Win, staged a coup d’état and dethroned civilian leaders from occupying political core position. Soon after the coup, Ne Win established a Revolutionary Council with some other trusted military leaders such as Aung Gyi, Tin Pe etc.

The Revolutionary Council was a direct military regime which ruled Myanmar for fourteen years until it was replaced by a civilianised military regime under the constitution of 1974. In Ne Win’s view, he was compelled to resort to a coup because, as he claimed, parliamentary democracy was not suited for Myanmar and more importantly, the integrity of the union was in danger in a more opened political system, and by open engagement with world community. It was declared that reconstruction of society and economy could not be expected to be achieved through parliamentary democracy. Strongly affected by Thakins’ [3] distrust for capitalism and outside interference, Myanmar looked inward for fulfilling the task of nation-building and development. The military leaders set out a journey of rebuilding Myanmar in their own way. In doing so, they were also greatly influenced by Dobama creed as shaped by pre-colonial Myanmar and memories of colonial hatred, and also by Buddhism. The military regime configured an isolationist political order. The innate nature of Myanmese isolationism was politicised by the military to build a strong and developed nation. [4] 

Ne Win institutionalized a one-party state built around the Myanmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) with himself as supreme leader. He organised a politically closed and ethnically exclusive system of governance which denied adequate political space for the larger populace beyond military’s limits. In many ways, the system of politics under Ne Win shut out not only the population at large, but also most non-military or civilian elites, both bureaucratic and non-bureaucratic from the political arena and limited their access to the decision-making processes. In the name of implementing the ideologically crafted guide to reconstruct Myanmar called the Burmese Way to Socialism, the military junta curbed all democratic rights, and all political activities. The Tatmadaw (military of Myanmar) stayed in power relying on the belief in their guardian role toward national unity, sovereignty and development. Such belief took shaped due to the military’s self-exaggerated role in the freedom struggle, and due to failure of the democratic regime under U Nu to configure a consolidated state.

The total curbing of space for political activity for the populace, pursuance of national identity which was antagonistic to minority aspirations, and above all, economic breakdown due to mismanagement and neglect, however, sustained challenges to state power, legitimacy and unity of the country. Conversely, the state became more and more isolationist, coerce and repressive. The oppositions were suppressed, rigid command system of military type managed the life of people and systematic watching through network of informers caused widespread fear dominating the society. The Tatmadaw, during the process, through a series of purges, had transformed into a personal instrument of Ne Win.

The politically closed repressive regime of the military with its legitimacy being contested was left with little autonomy to pursue policy goals outside security agenda. The culmination of public frustration in 1988 where thousands of people took to the street of capital Yangon and other cities demanding end of military rule, political reforms and democracy was erupted due to monopolization of political and economic power in the hand of the few military leaders and their incapacity and misuse of power. The failure of controlled economy and the monopolization of political and economic resources based on total isolationism and nationalization respectively disrupted national stability and eroded state’s legitimacy.However, the military junta brutally suppressed the popular demonstrations demanding liberal political and economic reforms. The state and military leaders faced not only critical challenge to its legitimacy, but also large-scale oppositions and credible alternative to its rule.

Around this time, by launching another coup, a new type of military government called “State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)” re-established strong grip on power. The new military regime formulated a new ruling ideology, and as have been mentioned, with the ideological shift there came a new outlook to society and institutional power of the state. In economic term, that came in the form of abandonment of ideologies of state controlled economy and Myanmar embarked on a transition to an open economy implying cautious diplomatic and economic engagement with the willing units of international community. That economic consideration, however, largely came as subordinate to political or more specifically security issues. The political relaxation proved an ad hoc strategy to mitigate the agitating masses, to promote acquiescence of the masses, and above all, to retain the control of the military government over the state. Politically, state move from total isolationism to a policy of gradual liberalization of isolationism by providing some space for political to society, though often subdued when it went beyond tolerance level of the military. The military convened a National Convention and pursued a political civilianization process albeit in a very slow manner.

Security and regime maintenance remains the priority of the new military governments, SLORC and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) since 1997. For that a perception of threat to national security emanated from external and external sources was created, and at the same time, it a liberal isolationist state emerged. The pursuance of a skilfully calculated liberalized isolationism, political as well as economic, enabled the new military to consolidate their powers while protecting it from threats emanating from internal and external sources. To legitimize its rule, the SLORC took a number of political measures aimed at placating public opinion. It whipped up nationalism and as mentioned, employed propaganda techniques magnifying the threat perception to national unity and security from the tented elements within the country supported by external forces. It changed name of the country, capital and other important cities with indigenous names such as Myanmar became Myanmar, Rangoon became Yangoon and so on. But most importantly, it announced its decision to hold multi-party General Elections. Elections were actually held in 1990, but contrary to the belief and expectations of the SLORC, the result was quite astonishing, amounting indeed a silent revolution to the military’s isolationist regime.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, the national hero and the architect of modern Myanmar, win a clear sway over seventy per cent of the seats. The SLORC officially accepted the results, but refused to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. It was announced that the new elected body would create a parliament to frame a new constitution citing the constitutions of 1947 and 1974 as no more relevant to obey. With this claim, the SLORC, in its own terms, initiated process to frame a new constitution by convening a National Convention since 1993. However, instead of encouraging participation of elected NLD leaders in the constitution making process, most of the them who refused terms of military were arrested, and denied them share in political transition process. The National Convention started functioning with certain hand-picked representatives.

The military government launched its own path of ‘building democracy’ in Myanmar with the beginning of the new millennium, but the process largely denied the oppositions from participating in the process. That is, in pursuance of a military crafted and military dominated democratic regime, a significant development was made in August 30, 2003, when the military advanced its Seven-Point Roadmap towards a “flourishing-disciplined democracy” as officially depicted that basically involved completing of a new constitution, a referendum on that constitution, a new general election on the framework of the new constitution and installation of a new government thereafter. The plan was denounced by many opponents of the military regime terming it as an effort to legitimize the junta and an attempt to prolong their regime. The road-map and the constitution are supposed to pave the way for democracy, but the provisions of the new constitution which was approved by a highly untimely referendum in 2008 (the constitution took 15 years to complete) makes sure that full civilian rule is not established and military is assured of an important place in the new dispensation as well.

The military vacate seat of power in favour of a military-dominated civilian rule only after it succeeded in designing a political system that safeguarded its own core belief of guardian role and corporate interest. The recent political changes fall short of a genuine democratic transition since the military remains fully in control of the political system after having successfully engineered the political civilianization process. Amidst seemingly political openness, military tacitly retains dominant position. The road-map failed to be an inclusive process. In the wake of societal assertion for credible political space and political activity, and the subsequent political reform processes, the centuries-old isolationism is wanned away. What continues is military’s dominant role in Myanmar’s politics implying as Aung San Suu Kyi once maintained that the present political development is ‘reversible’, that is, isolationism can return back unless genuine democracy has been established in Myanmar.

Conceptual Analysis: Isolationism and political Development

Isolationism as political concept, motive and process is not new. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato discussed isolationism in his writings vis a vis the role of the state in human activities. In his classic work the Republic, Plato contends that isolationism in essential to the vitality of an ideal state. Plato advocates a clear separation of citizens from foreigners, and also observes that unless rulers engage in “the exclusion of the other, cities will never have rest from their evils…and then only will [the] state have a possibility of life and behold the light of day” (Plato, translated by Lee 2003:180). According to Plato, citizens of an ideal state will experience severe negative effects from exposure to foreigners and foreign culture.

In modern period, isolationism is basically a term in international politics and it is generally used to signify the theory and practice of non-involvement in the affairs of other countries. It is used to mention the classic example of United States of America’s foreign policy of isolation during the nineteenth and part of twentieth century. It was particularly operative in America’s intension to remain aloof from European power struggle by remaining outside Europe’s system of entangle alliance. Swiss neutrality is another example of a state choosing to opt-out of foreign entanglement. These isolationist strategies of US and Switzerland have practically involved a policy of non-involvement in the conflict with other nations, and for economic protectionism. The case of US and Switzerland involves conceptualization of isolationism in a liberal democratic framework and foreign policy perspectives. The case of Japan during the period of 1641 to 1853 and Bhutan’s isolationism was configured from the need of cultural and identity protection. During early period of Mao Zedong’s communist regime followed an isolationist foreign policy motivated by ideology of communism. These are example of countries pursuing isolationist policy in national interest and often, they are partial and short in period.

In this study, isolationism as political concept is analysed in the context of third world country Myanmar. Like Albania, South Korea, as mentioned by Turku (2009), Myanmar’s configuration of isolationism is distinct. Isolationism in the case of Myanmar encapsulates a form of political order and entails a philosophy of ideal social, political, cultural and economic life of the people. In the context of Myanmar, the concept of isolationism is taken to mean by this study a closed political system where larger section of the society is discouraged to engage in political process, and political sphere and activity are limited to few leaders at the top. The political arena constitutes what state has allowed or tolerated. The state in Myanmar since 1962 until very recently has been highly autonomous in the sense that it has, for the most part, not provided societal forces with the means to make effective demands on the state (Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe, 1997: 296). The state subdued the societal demands with the use of forces, and by controlling or manipulating intermediary institutions and channels between the state and the people, and by intimidating or repressing opposition activists and leaders (ibid.). On this spectrum, Myanmar occupies high state-society isolationism and low state responses to societal forces and demands. Under the military rule, isolationism was politicised. During the period of isolationist political order, the Tatmadaw was transformed into a personal agency of Ne Win’s political supremacy in Myanmar. Under his personal rulership, isolationism became an instrument to fulfil his dogged determinism to stay in power; the constructionist and modernizing elements of isolationism were discarded. This study intends to focus on certain aspects of isolationism to be a basic ideology of Myanmar’s policy under the military rule.

Isolationism as basic state ideology constitutes a significant political change in the process of political development in Myanmar. Here, it can be remind that the term “political development”, as tool for analyzing the nature of positive change that inevitably come in every political system, is subjected to varied interpretations and lack precise connotation. This makes Packenham (1964: 109) says that the concept of political development “itself varies from writer to writer, and, therefore, has not been employed as criterion.” In fact, almost every scholar or groups of scholars concerned with the politics of the developing areas have come with different formulation for studying the political developmental processes of these countries.

The term political development emerged from the liberal political tradition of the west and the concept was first used by American scholars. The historical experiences of European and American process of political changes were explicitly used as basis for analyzing the political development of developing societies and comparing them with those systems of the west. Gabriel Almond and G. Bingham Powell (1966) presented a major theoretical work which was concerned with political dynamics and focused explicitly on political development as a subject and as a concept. These writers argue that political development is the response of the political system to changes in its societal or international environment, and in particular, the response of the system to the challenges of state-building, nation-building,


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