Culture: Political Science: Misunderstood Myanmar:
Chapter III: The Milieu Interieur (Part III)
By Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.
International Business Executive, Political Scientist
Editor’s Note: This paper is the sixth of a series of chapters excerpted from Dr. Koh’s book, ‘Misunderstood Myanmar: An Introspective Study of a Southeast Asian State in Transition’. With years of experience operating a business in Myanmar (Burma), Dr. Koh has first-hand knowledge and a deeply practical understanding of the economic and administrative opportunities and challenges currently existing in the country. This segment explains Myanmar’s internal affairs scenario. –JP
Addendum Notation: Chapter 3 has been divided into three segments, the third of which is presented here; the first and second segments of Chapter 3 were published in the two preceding issues of this Journal. - JP
But how could and how did the Tatmadaw perform the way it did being in effect practically hard authoritarian or autocratic without having some kind of “rebellion” from the populace or even from within its ranks?, I asked the group.
Brother replied: “From the anecdotes I related, you will see that whenever there has been a crisis, it was the Tatmadaw that stepped in to resolve the problem. Indeed the Tatmadaw has been labelled by locals or written about by foreigners, as having been the ‘Saviour’ of the Country and this is a fact.”
“This notwithstanding, both locals as well as foreigners advocating a change in government are perfectly conscious of the fact that the Tatmadaw is very much a part of the governing equation and the Generals are part of the control system of the country. Hence any precipitous change of Government will throw everything out of gear. What is perhaps true, is that there is a general sense of Orwellianism pervading the atmosphere but this is only because admittedly the Tatmadaw tends to operate on a rather Cicerosian philosophy of “oderint dum metuant” -- i.e., let them hate as long as they fear – something Myanmar learnt from the former colonialists, good or bad, I am not certain. This for those who are au fait with Myanmar, is truly a necessity because if you let go freely, before you can say Jack Robinson, ‘mischief’ occurs.”
“It is therefore “a means to keep everyone on the straight and narrow,” interjected Sir, who added, “indeed even with this we still have the occasional bombs exploding.”
Brother then continued, “now to address your other query, about the possibility of a rebellion from within the Tatmadaw. This possibility, though we are aware that many are wondering (and perhaps hoping that it comes to pass) is a piped dream. Let me offer you reasons based on training and culture. Our military training is such that ‘total obedience’ is the norm of our governance policy – be it the military or government. Hence commanders and other leaders always have the last say. You might say that it is a case of power or might is right. This maxim existed even in the days when we were colonized, and after that during independence when we had to fight what was classified the “Deep red communists,” that is the communist Party members. This was drummed into me even when I was a young officer. The public will confirm this and even the Myanmar scholar Dorothy Hess Guyot made the observation of how the Japanese in their time experienced Myanmas’ absolutist or stubborn streak (oddly enough probably tutored by the Japanese themselves through Dr. Ba Maw) whence the philosophy of ‘tathway, tathan, tamient’ – one blood, one voice, one command got into its psyche.”
“I know you have once quoted Governor Dalhousie on how he saw Burmans as being the most arrogant people in the East and the most pertinacious in the pursuit of it, not excluding in his estimation of our pretensions over it. If this holds water and the Tatmadaw is responsible for the defense and therefore the integrity of the State, should it not be tough and mindful of any external interference and local disturbance so that the Tatmadaw government has to practice a hierarchical, top down and autocratic form of governance? And by the way, if you know political philosophy it is quite different from what some scholars term us as being ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’ when indeed our main political party in the old days was named AFPFL (Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League). Perhaps one might call our system strong authoritarianism or more properly ‘oligarchic authoritarianism’ if you like.”
“Now it is quite clear that any “rebellion” from within is not possible because the Tatmadaw operates on the adage of “Nwa Kwe Kya Kiak/Swe,” that is, where one or two cattle stray from the herd it makes it food for the tiger, and this is well drummed into each and every soldier. Hence any hope of a fracture from within is improbable unless there is a neglect of the welfare of the populace because any ‘stand alone’ (as opposed to united) policy if put into practice would prove disastrous. I hope you now have a pretty good overview of the philosophy, structure, role and position of the Tatmadaw in the history and development of Myanmar and it is up to you and future generations of Myanmar and Myanmar scholars / analysts / watchers to extrapolate where Myanmar will go with its Tatmadaw.”
Sensing that the gathering, having heard the responses, felt the meeting had ended, I quickly interrupted with, “I have no doubt that all of you are fully aware that many foreign Myanmar watchers have the impression and indeed criticize the Junta Generals for considering themselves egoistically as being superior to civilians and all others and of egoistically proclaiming that only the military can save the Country from disintegration. Indeed I recall on a number of occasions when not only Generals but also bureaucrats have said that even spirits would defer to generals. In many ways, I do get the same impression. What do you feel is the answer to such criticisms?”
This time BG. Myo Than replied in his very debonair way that, “to take your second point first, as you have just heard from Brother, history has proven that indeed this is the reality of the position. The Tatmadaw has always emerged to save the Country! It is thus in a pole position but candidly not necessarily a nationally enamored position especially by those who feel rightly or wrongly that they have been disenfranchised. Every Myanma knows that but for the Thakins, the Tatmadaw, we would have continued to be a colony even though historically by the late 1940s whether or not in fact the British could have continued to keep Myanmar (and for that matter India) as colonists, is a matter for conjecture. The fact is that it was the Tatmadaw that fought for Independence and returned it at least in part to its past glory of its independent status if not its total Mandala and galactic state position.”
He continued, “after all, I can tell you that if you look into our Archives you will find that in our ancient history when under attack by Sir Archibald Campbell’s forces in the Rangoon Area, our military under General Bandula held on in spite of heavy odds, preaching to his men the gospel that in the event they lost the battle, it must be only because of the loss of its Supreme Commander (i.e. Bandula himself) and not for any other reason – certainly not because the British is a superior force, and every Myanma who has studied history knows this.”
“On your first point, this is something which is rather complex which I am afraid analysts particularly of the western mould or indeed occidental scholars will take a very, very long time to comprehend partly because of their own ethnocentricity. It is not a question of egocentricity on the part of Generals but rather one which lies in the religio-cultural sphere of Myanmas. Perhaps in an occidental way I might say that this question of ‘superiority’ is a zero-sum game; one of complementarity; of culture imbued in Confucianism – punishment never being served up and courtesy never extended down and yet no one consciously goes out to demand either. Basically we have no illusion that we should never lead the emperor but only serve him. This is the reason why we have so often maintained that those attempting to write and analyze Myanmar politics and development should never do so until they have taken the trouble to understand our religion, culture, history. From this point of view a Myanmar scholar wrote that Myanmas are inherently unable to serve as ‘internal observer and constructive critic’46 and do you agree with this after some 20 years with us??
“Perhaps you might undertake some research on how many writers on Myanmar are anthropologists. You will find that most are political scientists, historians with a couple of (local) economists who have had some foreign exposure but who are out of touch with government policies both pre -1988 and post -1988. Most depend on secondary material as well as most dangerously, the rumor mill, as basis for their work.”
“But what then of culture and religion from the Generals’ point of view although I have experienced a fair number of situations which are rather complex to comprehend in my own western-orientated, scientifically-trained mind,” I interrupted.
BG. Myo Thant’s response was, “even though we are Buddhists, historically Hinduism by virtue of trade exchanges since the second century BC has had great influence on Myanmar and you know our leaders have always been accorded the status of the Bhodisattava (future Buddha). Indeed the son of King Anirddha, Kyanzittha was referred to as such in a number of stone inscriptions. Also for Myanmas the King has always been a Chakravatin (Universal Monarch), a Dhammaraja (King of Buddhist Law), so that he is endowed with practically divine power as well as some “magical” power. Generals are considered by people as being an equivalent of kings. Hence this is perhaps why people treat Generals with awe and respect and accord them dues which sometimes I feel are over the top. These facts you will be able to gather from the writings of a few scholars and perhaps you have read them.”47
“But,” BG. Myo Thant continued, “let me tell you what is perhaps less known, and that is our traditional belief is manussutta bawa dullaba, that is, the golden opportunity of rebirth as a human being is as rare as it is precious and hence the belief in the sanctity of the human being and its inherent dignity and value and therefore by this anything is possible since the result is reincarnation positively. This particular philosophy was presented as an Ideological Defense Working Paper at a National Security Council Meet in 1959.”47
I then returned to the question, or rather accusation, of “General’s egocentricity,” in spite of which it is noted that they appear to have to “humor” Sangha members.
BG. Myo Thant responded thus, “as a researcher, you must know of concrete examples in Myanmar history where civilians (not too many of them) have reached high positions and have Endeavour to run the Country; these far and large have resulted in ruination. Just think of Dr Ba Maw, U Saw and even U Nu. Their terms of office have been very short and problematic. As for generals who might have ‘come to grief,’ it is because they probably did not continue to do good in their present life, and the karmic force which was responsible for their high positions ran out. Karma is rather like accounting. There is a debit and a credit side, with good deeds – making sacrifices, giving donations, building monasteries, supporting the Sangha – these give credit. Not doing good deeds, increases the debit side. And if one actually does bad acts he accumulates bad karma – Yadaya Chay.”
Sir, obviously bearing in mind BG. Myo Thant’s and Brother’s accounts, butted in and said, “now on your observation of generals visiting monasteries to offer gifts and to pray, you might like to know that this is not peculiar to Myanmar Generals only. You may like to know generally in Buddhist-inclined countries this is a very common occurrence. On a very, very confidential basis, in a regional country, in two of its most recent coups d’etat, its military leaders were in Yangon praying at the Aung Myay (Victory Corner) of the Shwedagon Pagoda, after which they returned to their country and the following day the coups were executed successfully.”
Citing Daw Ni Ni Myint’s work, Sir further explained: “Also not only do our Generals pay respect to the Sangha members and their leaders, – “abbots” – but also the British appeared to realize the potency of the Sayadaws’ influence and power. In the time of Lord Dufferin, for example, the British too ‘humored’ the Sangha (even if with their shoes on in and around Pagodas / Monastries48), during the Burmese struggle against British Imperialism 1885 - 1895. They got the Thattanabaing from Upper Myanmar to visit Yangon so that he could exert his authority over the Sayadaws of Lower Myanmar. Furthermore the British also utilized their services to curb [sic] the anti-British resistance movement as in the case of having the Thathanabaing in Mandalay declare that a certain Sayadaw who had assisted a pakan ‘Prince’ to create an uprising was a man whom pongyis should not associate with! 49 So you see we too work with the Sangha.”
Brother added, “one of the key functions of the Tatmadaw to ensure that the primary aim of the Government to achieve peace, stability, order and security prevail within, among and between the diverse ethnic groups, is achieved - Myanmar being a very heterogeneous nation. The Tatmadaw you might say must serve as the ‘UN of Myanmar’ in Myanmar, and incidentally this is why you will find in the ‘7-Point Road Map’ to a Democratic Government, that 25% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the Tatmadaw.”51
Seen in the light of the above exposition by my respondents, some of whom had worked very closely with the key decision making Generals in the past, it is inevitable that, as Lee Kuan Yew concluded after the crackdown on the NLD in May 1966, that at the end of the day, “the Opposition in Burma has to face the realities in life. The one instrument of effective government there is the army50.”
I then posed the subject of how I had queried one senior bureaucrat in charge of the clearing of cemeteries for the construction of roads, especially where it is known that the site is haunted, what he would do because “In Malaysia and Singapore, contractors will not undertake the contract, causing project delays”. The bureaucrat told me in Myanmar, he has, “no problem as long as the order came from a high ranking official like a General.” I enquired if this is a fact and the reason for it.
BG. Myo Thant replied, “This is true because the sense has always culturally been that Generals are people of high karma and therefore are powerful so that whatever the ghost, it will defer to Generals. Naturally some prayers would have to be offered.”
“On the other hand,” I remarked, “whenever generals leave their bases and visit another area, one of the first things they do is to visit a monastery and ‘pay obeisance’ to the Sayadaw and deliver ‘offerectories’ (gifts) to them. Does it imply that Sayadaws are more powerful than the Generals even though I can see logically that Sayadaws have their pongyis and lay ‘flock’ who owe some ‘allegiance’ to them if nothing else and playing ball with Sayadaws makes sense?”
BG. Myo Thant’s response to my remarks on visiting monasteries was, “it is generally felt that “[T] he spirits or ghosts are subservient to military officers (generals) because such people are ‘high’ and if they ordered construction over a ‘ghost infected’ area, the ghost would ‘concede.’ There is no retribution,51 if that is what you are getting at.” It thus seems to me that military officers believe they have control and influence not only over what is seen and known on the countenance of their land but also of that which is unseen and unknown. The reference to “unseen and unknown” in Mansell’s work on the paranormal52 applies here it seems. The Generals appear to believe that such is their ‘unseen and unknown’ power and omnipotence.
In addition, BG. Myo Thant responded as follows to my remarks on visiting monasteries: “You are observant and indeed we make it a point to pay our respects to the Sayadaws but your interpretation is all too secular even if politically it is only right to court everybody.” He then went on to elucidate his point: “But let me inform you what is really in the deep subconscious and culture of every Myanma which causes them to put Generals on the pedestal. This is Buddhism which forms the superstructure and substructure of every Myanma’s psyche and this includes that of our Generals. This is Karma and the impact of Karmic forces. “
Brig. Gen. Myo Thant continued with, “while nature and nurture do play a part in our development as military officers, these in themselves are dependent on a force superior to nature because the nature aspect itself is controlled by the karmic force of what one did in the previous life. It is this karma which is responsible for the pon, awza and the ana characteristics which keep military officers superior and this position can be maintained and improved on (or perhaps lost depending on one’s actions) in the current life.”
At this point I barged in, commenting that, “Civilians too do reach high positions in life and likewise there are Generals who get knocked.” Sir countered, “It is true civilians too can be endowed with such merits if their karma has been good but unlike generals who are prepared to sacrifice life and limb for the Country, you will find very few civilians in really high positions and even when in high positions they are not accorded the same status and respect.”
Sir continued, “how many can you name in Myanmar’s history even going back to the pre-colonial days who have been granted the same respect as Generals and for how long, even if ever?” BG. Myo Thant then illustrated his point by referring to the Governments run by Dr. Ba Maw, U Saw, U Nu, etc., all of whom being civilians and obviously of high karma because of their past lives; nevertheless they did not persist in accumulating, over their present lives and by their actions, karma so that yadaya chay developed and the Country did not make progress under their tenure nor did they last long. Indeed he thought the civilian governments torpedoed the very foundations of governance, as in the case of the “AFPFL Split.”
After some twenty years of dealing with both the Generals and Myanmas in general, what is clear to me is that as Ileto pointed out, even in history, the Sangha Sametgyi of the organization of political works was the Sangha Sametgyi of the organization of political monks and was prophesied to be the Setkya Min representing the cosmic-center of the empire of the world. Moreover there are expectations of the Maitreya Paya Alaung bringing about a perfect Buddhist society. These and the forceful and nonchalant way the British brought about the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty 53 linger in the collective memory of the Generals (and the people). So why should the Generals not prudently venerate the Sayadaws, one might ask, perhaps?
As Sarkisyanz has noted, in the context of the struggle for independence, Buddhism represented a religious means for attaining political ends as far as members of the intelligentsia were concerned, whereas for the majority traditionalists, Buddhism represented a political vehicle towards attaining a religious end54.
Finally, with respect to the military which operates a monopolistic state, which by its very nature implies authoritarianism and state political hegemony rather in line with Castell’s (1992) concept of developing states (or states in transition), there is hardly any necessity to pretend to be legitimate as far as the acquiescence of their subjects are concerned. This “legitimacy” may be exercised for society, especially in a case which is not yet fully aware of its destiny and interests.55 No doubt, however, the humanism of Buddhism will modulate all actions taken by the Junta. My long exposure to them has persuaded me that they are perfectly aware of this. These issues concerning the boundaries of the humane may be summarized in the oft repeated Myanmar philosophy of: “once you have eaten one grain of rice from someone, you must never forget it!” And they do not. In point of fact, even to get rid of rabid dogs running around Yangon/Mandalay, two sets of meat - one laced with a poison (which I usually supply) and the other a piece of normal meat - are placed side by side for the dogs to consume so that those in charge are not guilty of being “inhumane,” taking a life or killing a living being, because it is up to the dog to choose!
Brother mentioned how there are some scholars who are aware that Myanmar is serious about developing a modern, democratic state and not engaging in Fabian tactics. To reinforce his point he suggested, “read the August 1st, 2003 issue of the Nation Column and you will find Professor Jeffrey de Celte from Columbia University saying that ‘the US needed to rethink planned sanctions against Burma!’ Also in the International Herald Tribune dated 9th September 2003, Professor Brigitte Wells writes, ‘sanctions worsen Burma poverty.’ On the push, especially by foreign parties, for change, Brother said that, the Hon. Senior General, Than Shwe is on public record as follows: “We have no intention of prolonging the process (of democratization) unnecessarily. If we receive international assistance and support, the process of establishing a democratic system in our country will be speeded up. But if there is a hostile attitude from other countries, the process of democratization could be prolonged. However, we on our part, have no intention whatsoever to unnecessarily prolong this process.” “So why should anyone doubt?” Sir queried.
Following this, Brother added: “From the above it can be seen that it is worthwhile for all those pushing for rapid change in the system, including the removal of the Tatmadaw in the Country’s developmental process, to be cognizant of the Myanmar political culture, history, landscape and ground conditions. Any student of Myanmar’s developmental trajectory must bear these points in mind. Without citing specific scholars, Myanmar watchers/analysts and international professionals and governments, it is too well known that the pressure on the Military Junta is principally to democratize and liberalize a’la West. For this, the much touted starting point is the handing over of power to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party because they ‘won’ the General Election held in 1990 and this ostensibly would be the panacea of all of Myanmar’s problems.”
Brother continued, “then there is the accusation of Human Rights abuse and the ‘cure’ for this problem is trade and other sanctions laid out by the Americans? But we must persist against these odds and soldier on and by the way it is not as though we do not try to accommodate Aung San Suu Kyi or that she is not aware why a handover of governance is not possible.”
On delving more deeply into the question of the relationship between the Junta Generals and the Sangha, it seems that some of my key respondents are aware of the Sangha Sametyi and the prophecy of the coming of the Setkya Min, which makes the King/Throne presumably considered in modern terms as being represented by the No.1 General (and indeed all generals). When we add to this BG. Myo Thant’s reference to the influential U Pa Murak of the U Yin Tauk Monastery and of his reference to him having considered that politics is Buddhism and Buddhism is politics, the inevitable conclusion must be that the nexus between Generals and Sangha is tight and that it would at least account for their visits to monasteries, as part of the tacit “protocol” whenever they are on outstation visits.
“But Brother”, I interjected, “what seems incongruent to me is that ostensibly the State-Sangha relationship from what I have heard thus far is more than cordial. Indeed looking at State Television, I cannot help seeing how Generals venerate Sayadaws, yet in September 2007, the “Saffron Revolution” occurred!
In point of fact I was caught in a traffic jam at a road junction in Mandalay caused by some 1,000 monks marching five abreast. There must have been 1,000 of mainly 20-30 year olds with few 40-50 years old. They marched barefooted, orderly, some chanting but most appeared rather “disinterested” being more concerned with attending to the problem caused by the hot sun – wiping their perspiration and obviously feeling the discomfort of the hot road.
Following my description, Brother responded with, “this is a fair point you have raised. We can assure you that the State-Sangha relations are the best. The September 2007 “anomaly” is the result of mainly militant pongyis who had crossed our borders to a foreign country and were instigated and supported by foreign elements which I cannot mention but which perhaps you can guess. We have been having problems with it for some years at the border. What is most unusual in that generally, after early morning alms collection monks are not permitted to leave their monasteries and yet these pongyis (monks) were out on the streets even during mid-day and to ensure that the problem was contained the relevant Law was applied to stop the march which in some areas in Yangon was turning rowdy. After controlling the street rioting, we got down to the roots of the matter and found some arms and ammunitions in some monasteries. We then informed and called upon the State Sangha Council members to inform them of the problem, seeking their opinion as to whether the problem ought to be resolved in a religious way i.e. by the Sangha Council or by the State/Government. The response positively was that the problem was not a religious one but rather, a political one55. Hence it was the Government which would be the appropriate authority to deal with the “recalcitrant” monks and so indeed we did”.
Indeed, when it comes to the preservation of the unassailable position of the Junta and its leaders, no stone is left unturned. It is incumbent on the Generals to secure maximum karma and in this instance one of the top leaders even acted as Patron of the Boddhi Tatung (1,000 Buddhas) Monastery in Monywa, the Chief Abbott of which is the renowned and highly respected AGGAMAHA SADDHAMMAJOTIKADHAZA BHADDANTA NARADA MAHABAWDHITATAUNG SAYADAW, or simply known as Sayadaw U Narada. With his urging, the LAYKYUN SSETKYAR BUDDHA IMAGE, a 424ft high, - 380 ft high image sitting on a 44ft base/throne - the highest standing Buddha image in the world which took some 13 years to make, was finally completed and “commissioned” in February 2008. The patronage ostensibly was to confer prolonged rule, good health and success for the Patron and his family, among others.
Equally interesting is the fact that the desire for “karma” is not peculiar just to Myanmas only so that their monasteries are kept so sacred and as a place of repose for all reasons and at all seasons. This applies also to a number of ASEAN and South/North Asian States. The earlier story of top military leaders of a country in the region praying at the Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda a couple of days before executing a successful coup in their country demonstrates the esteem held upon certain very holy and “accurate” monasteries.
Military leaders could sometimes be at the receiving end of the abovementioned religious or superstitious practices, as Brother intimated in the following story. According to him, there was an attempt to undermine the position of the top Generals of the Junta in very recent times. In this case under the practice of Yadanache56 (small changes made to effect major changes or to change the luck/fortune of a person) the services of a very well known Auklan-saya (an occult practitioner) was secured, to plot the downfall of the Generals. As soon as the information leaked out, Sir added, “I was told that the parties to be adversely affected immediately sought the services of an Ahtetlan-saya (Sayagyi Maung Shein) an equally renowned practitioner to counter any moves which had been made by the Auklan saya. Simultaneously the Auklan-saya’s house was raided and the paraphernalia consisting of golden statues (each with a square horoscopic chart of the subject to be targeted at its base, the In), fashioned in the image of the people to be ‘punished,’ were seized. The Auklan-saya was sentenced to 27 years jail for the occult practice, after a trial.”
On the matter of the role and position of the Tatmadaw, I asked the final question of what the problems might be for the Tatmadaw Generals. BG. Myo Thant’s response was, “those who write and analyze Myanmar’s Tatmadaw, in subjective focus lack the comprehension of our history, culture, psyche and ethics. In objective terms they do not understand the internal dynamics of our State governance and politics. This is partly the legacy and burden of our colonial past and of our colonial past actors currently impinging and distorting the perceptions of locals and foreigners.”
BG. Myo Thant continued, “the Tatmadaw Generals have no problems except in facing foreigners who feel that they are God’s nominated agents of change without realizing that there is a time for everything and that the Tatmadaw and its Generals will decide the appropriate time because historically when under threat from both external and internal forces it was always the Tatmadaw that saved the day.” Brother rounded the session off by saying, “I hope it is obvious to you that the very philosophy abetted by our culture implies that succession in the Tatmadaw will, ― unlike those who do not understand the psyche and tradition of the Tatmadaw / Government leaders and the military structure so that they talk in terms of a ‘coup’ ― always be an orderly affair. In fact, as you know, there is no need for ‘military coups’ when there are other ‘non-bloody’ forms – ‘non – traditional security threats’ - as you have just heard, available, although Generals need not and do not indulge in these. We just pay homage and pray at proper monasteries to Buddha.”
En Route to Democratizing Myanmar
Experience of the practice of democratic governance and laisseize faire economics inherited from the British, post independence, proved chaotic to Myanmar. Indeed Gen. Ne Win who was the personification of the Tatnadaw had to step in, two times, in 1958 and again in 1962 by applying a tough top down, authoritarian form of governance so admired by his former collogue and leader Gen. Aung San – the Heibei Kyoku system. This despite in Western tradition, the military would steer clear of any governmental, political, economic and governance areas of a state. Likewise Gen. Ne Win held that laissaize faire economics served to enrich foreigners at the expense of locals by their utilizing all sorts of commercial tricks like undeclaration of commercial invoices and considering that the key element, rice was readily available and people would not starve, self dependence, undependent of any import would be feasible. This took Myanmar down the autarkic road.
Considering the pivotal role of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s political, economic and sociological spheres not to mention the maintenance of state stability as illustrated in the foregoing ‘chats’, Gen. Ne Win’s move in the direction of autocracy and autarky caused Myanmar to become of little geopolitical and geo-economic significance to the international community so that it posed no ideological political or geo-economic threat to any party and no party took an interest in it. Its firm neutralist international relations policy and low profile under Gen. Ne Win, who kept the internal politics humming for quite a long while, led foreign scholars to mention facetiously that if Myanmar had been totally devastated by an earthquake, the international press would have reported, “Ne Win dies, takes Burma with him57”, implying that the Myanmar Military acts much more than the normal military force of a democratic State so everything is controlled by the military and that only one man counts.
Talking to various Junta members, the sentiment that came through is that the role played by the Tatmadaw in governance is something which has been thrust upon them by history and their predecessors. In the words of BG. Myo Thant, “we inherited the work of the 30 Thakins, which formed the nucleus of the Tatmadaw. In recent years you have seen for yourself the kind of sacrifices we have had to make over and after the 1988 riots, so need we say more? Foreign forces project the false image that our Junta is having a good time and will hold on to power in a repressive way; that we will not relinquish our hold. This is totally wrong. Actually, the current Chairman of the SPDC, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, in his first official interview with the press in 1998 after the “8888 Conflagration” discussed several of the oft misunderstood issues encountered by the State, the Government and its people. During the interview, he stated categorically, inter alia, ‘… my genuine desire is to see our Country develop and prosper, and to see the emergence of a democratic system’ 58”.
BG. Myo Thant continued, “having been posted of the goings-on in the world at large, but bearing in mind the somewhat unique position of Myanmar, the Senior General Than Shwe was desirous to rectify certain misconceptions pertaining to the policies and goings-on within the Country. In this vein, he outlined our Government’s policy saying:
We are vigorously engaged in the national reconstruction of this country. We are working for our nation’s peace and development. At the same time, we are trying to place our country on the path of democracy and to build a democratic system. So, first, we have to establish conditions for peace, tranquility and law and order. At the same time, as we are trying to establish political stability; however, we must also hold up the economic foundation of our nation. So we are definitely trying to do both.”
It seems that some people, especially locals who are influenced by external forces were not quite satisfied with that, Sir said, “Gen. Than Shwe had declared including his assurance that the Tatmadaw had no intention to … prolong the process unnecessarily.59” Though the standard view in western democracies is that it is not normal for the armed forces to assume responsibility for the State for any extended period of time, it may be worth the while “to Endeavour to understand that because of the particular circumstances and condition in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw believes that it has to assume responsibility for a ‘certain period of time,’” Sir added.
Despite the clarification and assurance that the military government’s aim was to move into a democratic form of government, and to improve political and economic condition within the State, some countries like the US decided to impose sanctions on Myanmar (as will be discussed lengthily in subsequent chapters). As cited previously, the International Herald Tribune on 22 June 2004 quoted Professor Steinberg’s article entitled, “How to Influence Myanmar: Sanctions may be satisfying, but they do no good.” Steinberg’s call suggests that certain informed scholars have been aware of goings-on in the milieu interieur of Myanmar.
In sum, the comprehension and ideals of some (but all too few) scholars seem to be in relative accord with the policies of the military government. It seems that Myanmar cannot be more explicit in its political and economic ideologies than what has been committed and guaranteed by the Senior Gen. Than Shwe in his press conferences as narrated by Brother, when he reiterated that “having international assistance and support will greatly facilitate our economic and political endeavors and will also help to build a democratic system more quickly, by facilitating the handing over of state power back to the people. We could reach this goal within three years.”
The conditions for the transition to the oft declared move towards a “modern democratic state” are clear, at least according to my key respondents. Given that the Minorities/National Races, secessionists, insurgency, narco-problems are resolved; given that the disengagement and non-interference of foreign forces and/or the termination of the bankrolling of opposition political forces by foreign parties occur, the transition to “modernity/democracy” will be set in motion even faster. In such circumstances, there should be no reason to be suspect or assume that the fulfillment of Myanmar’s Seven-point Road Map to Democracy would be aborted or that there would be any reason to take the Senior General’s commitments cum grano salis.
On the contrary, this should be taken by foreign powers that are meddling in the internal affairs of Myanmar as warning that their much touted desire for a democratic governmental process in Myanmar is determined, paradoxically, not entirely by the Myanmar Government but also by fiddles they either play or do not play, that is, largely dependant on them. Time and again, in informal chats on the subject of transition to a modern, democratic liberal state, with a broad spectrum of government members of SLORC/SPDC, what came through repeatedly is that they are disappointed that foreign governments, especially, and even many Myanmar scholars, seem to be unaware of which countries were involved in what the military Junta considers the sacred document, namely, “The Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” crafted and endorsed by Zhou En Lai, Nehru and U Nu, in 1954. In point of fact on one occasion, a former Minister of Information seemed a little “irritated” when the issue of change and democracy was raised by me and he remarked, “read the ‘Five Principles’ and you will see that the sacred cow is the non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Also, do you know that this Document is the germ of the Bandung Conference and the precursor document of the Non-Aligned Movement? Let me also let you in on another point. There is a move to revive/review the basic concepts on the 50th Anniversary, i.e., in the year 2004.” Admittedly, I felt a lot silly and ignorant, as a research student!
In summary, the Government in general and the Generals in particular have asserted in more ways than one and on more occasions than one that they are on transit to a modern democratic system of government. Practically in every copy of The New Light of Myanmar, the Government’s newspaper, this is declared but time must be allowed for them to gain adequate confidence or alternatively to get out of their “xenophobia”, in particular their “Anglophobia” or aversion to the British politics, culture etc brought about so obviously by their past colonial trauma. Any hard sell or push to move quickly will only cause the Generals to withdraw into their comfort zone, clamp up and ossify. In this situation perhaps the best axiom to bear in mind is that, unlike first principles of geometry wherein the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, in politics the reality is (and especially with respect to Myanmar which is in the books of the milieu exterieur, the “xenophobe”) the longest distance between two points is the straight line, from what I can see.
Oversight of Governance
As the past is the antecedent of the future, it would be instructive to have an introspection of some of the phases of development, which undoubtedly have caused the SLORC/ SPDC military government to tread gingerly. Indeed, in retrospect, there are frank admissions from former key government officials self-tagged as “oversight” when referring to certain moves undertaken in the exigency of the time, which are expounded below.
First, B.G. Myo Thant referred to the Multiparty Constituent Assembly General Election (MCAGE) held within two years after it assumed governance produced negative impacts such as internecine warfare, clashes between the military government and the so called elected generally styled “Opposition” and the conundrum of over-commitment and over-stretching in its promise of the achievement of democracy. In that context, on a number of occasions over friendly chats about progress, or lack of it, made by the Government in its transition to multi-party democratic form of government and economic liberalization, Government members among my key respondents categorically mentioned that, “the task was more difficult than had been anticipated.” This is embodied in the words of Brother as follows: “The situation in 1988 was so critical that it was analogous to that of the Shakespearean Desdemona falling in love with any first person who came along including that of the Ass, Bottom. The difference, if at all, is that foreign forces unaware of local conditions of Communists opportunistically trying to grab the ground, supported the local elements, thus unraveling the change we were trying to make.”
Brother continued: “Modernizing the economy without the appurtenant infrastructure in terms of financial and technological capital and international connectivity in place was in itself a gargantuan task. When added to this, you have the local centrifugal forces financed by external forces, not excluding the disenfranchised ‘Myanmar Diaspora,’ trying to change the political system, post haste, to ‘political laissez faireness,’ then you have an enormous problem.” I then enquired, “in what manner did this affect Myanmar’s economic progress?” His response was, “progress in both the economic and political fronts must reasonably be expected to be derailed. Even we did not anticipate the robustness of the reaction.”
It appeared to me from the remarks of Brother that the implication was that, since the Country was on the verge of an anarchic state, “fire fighting” moves had to be made by the Government for damage control. Ad hoc measures to appease the ground including announcements of the implementation of “perestroika and glasnost, mistakenly a là the West” were made to diffuse the pressure and to remove the pervading sense of Orwellianism. To engender the process, in quick succession roads were repaired and widened; urban slumps were cleared – for which the Government was criticized, in spite of alternative sites being provided (a sore point according to Sir) - buildings which were left unkempt for years were required to be spruced up (owners were given deadlines to do so, or Government teams would undertake the sprucing at a fee); border trade with neighboring countries was opened; the all important agricultural requirements were tended to and the patient looked well enough to go in for major surgery – “the Multiparty Constituent Assembly General Election” (MPCAGE), in BG. Myo Thant’s words, in the tradition of the past.
From what I could glean from my key respondents, a posteriori, the ground was obviously misread. In spite of the removal of certain “unacceptable personalities” and the ostensible appeasement of the populace with the change of governmental system (the latter of which I suspect was not “radical” enough), the impact of foreign intervention and support of what was thought to have been a spent force – the “Opposition” made up of former disenfranchised and sidelined government members including the most unanticipated appearance of the charismatic alter ego of Gen. Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi – the remodeled /reincarnated “Government Party” lost the (MPCAGE).
A reappraisal, it appears, revealed the potency of support or interference from external/foreign parties on their local “satellites” - a key point, according to BG. Myo Thant, “the Government might have borne in mind considering the ‘backroom maneuvers’ undertaken by some US senators’ (including that of Mr Solarz), direct negotiations with the Government on the role of Aung San Suu Kyi in governance, not to mention the unusual appearance of the six US naval vessels in the Andaman Sea/Bay of Bengal area.” In BG. Myo Thant’s view, the US wanted a “total handover of Government to NLD, which of course was out of the question.”
A second point brought up by BG. Myo Thant was that the Government was unable to contain the exaggerated peoples’ accusation of it indulging in Fabian tactics in moving towards democratic governance and of the right or legitimacy of which of the two protagonists should constitute the Government, that is the Junta or the Opposition NLD, the latter of which had actually won a vast majority of the seats in the MPCAGE.
A third point was that convening - the nation into a National Convention in 1993 to set up a Constitution was overly premature or, as some Government members put it, was a case of “rush invariably producing rash.” “While pressure to change on the ground was high,” as BG. Myo Thant puts it, “the move to appease the ground and the decision to have the Constitution written and taken so quickly do not appear to have been a very appropriate move. It was perhaps reminiscent of the rather precipitous ‘throw out’ of the British, for independence.” Interestingly enough, in this context, BG. Myo Thant soliloquized: “Did history repeat itself?” I presume he was alluding to the much needed but rather precipitous push in 1947 for Independence or even the 1974 Referendum/Election.
BG. Myo Thant continued with the fourth point - that the coming to terms between the Government and the National Races/Minorities60 did not work out as smoothly, satisfactorily nor quickly as had been anticipated and indeed produced somewhat more issues than solutions. This is because the British Government made the granting of Independence conditional upon a 10-year Secession Clause for the Minorities to be incorporated in the Agreement. Considering this, some of the National Races/Minorities were still gunning for their state independence despite their original agreement to, by way of a top secret “Side Letter” (the existence of which had been explained by Brother earlier), not to implement this 10-year Secession Clause which had been entered into among and between the parties. On this Brother lamented, “Old habits die hard. These people have been so used to running their own affairs for such a long time and some like the Karens, Kachins had been put in ‘privileged positions’ by the British, so it was obviously a little difficult to swallow, being ‘controlled,’ despite the “Side Letter” to negate this clause as I have explained previously and as Brother Myo Thant, reminded again, not to mention their having signed a “Renunciation Treaty” on this matter in 1959, and their leader’s receipt of heavy compensation to Minority leaders by the Central Government, subsequently. This historical element along with the lack of development in the Border Areas and egged on by external elements to go independent, created problems unexpectedly.” Indeed from the discussion it appears that some of my key respondents are not sure if succeeding generations within the National Races/Minorities had been fully apprised of the real situation by their forefathers so that, to quote Brother, “the younger leaders now probably feel that we have taken them for a ride.”
After hearing the narrative, I enquired: “What is the secret “Side Letter” about which I have not come across anywhere?” Brother replied: “This is understandable because the Letter is top secret. Briefly, the top secret “Side Letter” which I have never seen except on one occasion when the Senior General Saw Maung in a discussion with me called it up to review. I saw that it was signed by Gen. Aung San and the Mong Pang Sawbwa (the Chief Shan Spokesman), negating the Secession Clause with the undertaking that they would always remain part of the Union. This as you probably have seen in a copy of our 1947 Constitution was included to achieve Independence as the British wanted it so. You may recall I had explained this previously.” For this slip, I apologized.
Brother continued: “In 1956 the Government came by a document by some Sawbwas entitled ‘The Shan States and a Federal Policy,’ wherein an armed movement was planned along with a Rebel Army. This turned out to be the Shan State Army (SSA), which was being secretly organized. In 1959, the Shans started putting on the heat on the Government, at which time all the Shan Chiefs were brought down to Yangon and shown the ‘Side Letter Agreement.’ Having been persuaded, after seeing the evidence, their governing authority was subsequently dissolved by a State Notification; compensation was given to the leaders in full. Since then the whole Country came under the Central Government/Administration in Yangon. I hope the picture is clearer to you now.”
Finally, in my view all action taken without prior confidence-building measures (CBMs) between the various factions probably caused some “suspicion/unhappiness.” Thus, for example, according to BG. Myo Than, some opposing participants made the last point in the guidelines for the new Constitution for which the National Convention was set up, a crucial and critical issue. The last point which became a bone of contention was the clause allowing the Tatmadaw a definitive role in the national political leadership; a role which the Tatmadaw had in any case played especially in times of crises or turmoil in Myanmar’s past history, as the rakyat / populace itself realizes. The end result was that the NLD delegates decided to walk out and boycott the National Convention set up to write the new Constitution. The question is, was the calling of the National Convention premature and who should be held responsible for the delay in the march to a democratic system of governance?, Sir queried.
In sum, the perception from the Government’s view point appears to be that the call for a transition to democracy is a great idea but time and space are crucial ingredients for a successful transition for, alas, should a mistake occur, the consequences would be profound. Because of this the Myanmar government had raised the perennial question of who would underwrite the risks, come the time. This is the dilemma posed for the Tatmadaw and the Junta.
As for Aung San Suu Kyi’s persistent push for the rapid transition to democratization and all the other western liberal ideas, the comment and prevailing sentiment from the members of SLORC/SPDC camp, including that of Lt. Gen. Kyaw Ba,61 is that, in his words, “because of ASSK’s overly long exposure to western influence, she has romanticized such Western ideologies that they have become idée fixe with her - no one can fail to see that there is more than a little ‘deculturization’ in her approach.” From what I could make out, he meant that Aung San Suu Kyi is hardly “Myanmar” anymore in her ways and her thinking and is quite out of touch with the ground.
Political liberalism must be driven, both internally and externally, with foreigners playing important roles in bringing transparency and information especially to a closed and isolated country, asserts David Steinberg. 62 The fact of the matter, historically, is that the Tatmadaw has always been the “savior” of the integrity of the State and the vanguard of national independence and sovereignty for the Country, and this is generally known not only by the people, but also by members of the NLD. This slow pace of change is, therefore, not generally a question of “delay” as some perceive it, 63 on the part of the Tatmadaw, assert some retired Government ministers, but more of the “keeping of tradition.” On this I concur as the government seems not to be “ready” because of the unsatisfactory past experience of doing things precipitously. Indeed, the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, is conscious of this fact, and of the fact that any progress to be made in the transition to a liberal and democratic form of government, can only come about with the concurrence of the SPDC and when the Country is fully ready for it. When asked, Brig. Gen. Myo Thant speaking obviously on behalf of his colleagues present, expressed it thus: “We cannot launch into another ill prepared 1990 Multiparty Constituent Assembly General Election when all governmental institutions are not fully in place.” This sentiment was unanimously accepted.
Additionally, considering that it is well known that foreign forces are instrumental in instigating and agitating change not to mention bankrolling the “oppositional forces,” the country leaders are even more suspicious of what might happen if they were to accommodate the NLD’s push. The NLD itself is not unaware of this and of the fact that any dissention within the Tatmadaw could spell trouble for the Country. Equally, based on the skepticism of my key respondents, the Tatmadaw is conscious of the fact that “the NLD is endeavoring to generate trouble between and among the Tatmadaw leaders, particularly the “Triumvirate”, so that an opportunity might arise for it to strike,” in Brother’s view.
“To put it simply,” as Brother commented, “any hurried and aggressive push on Myanmar in the democratic transition particularly if it is towards democracy a là the West, and especially if supported by external elements, or for that matter, any attempt of alignment with the NLD to push for overly rapid democratization, will prove to be anathema to its very achievement.” Thus it became patently clear to me, based on my experience communicating with some of the other policy makers, that any “hawk” in Government pushing this line of “accommodation” with the NLD as well as liberalizing / democratizing too rapidly or vigorously will, in my judgment, be castigated because as stated earlier in this Thesis, the Junta members recall very distinctly the causes for the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) over Gorbachev’s move towards the overly rapid launch into Peristroika and Glastnost. If we recall Brother’s earlier comment on Tocqueville’s view that “the change from any autocratic governance to a liberal/democratic system is perforce a hazardous one,” it should not surprise us that for the Junta, in Brother’s words again, a “middle road” has to be found and time must be allowed for this. The happy position or consolation is that none of the main actors has any illusion over this and all opposing factions attuned to the culture should be cognizant of this.
Editor’s Note: Chapter 3 has been divided into three segments, the third of which has been presented above; the subsequent chapter will be published in the following issue of this Journal. - JP
46 My subsequent research revealed that this bit came from David I. Steinberg, The Road to Political Recovery, The Salience of Politics in Economics, in Burma: Prospects for a Democratic ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Cambridge: The World Peace Foundation and Harvard Institute of International Development, Washington D.C., Brooking Institute Press, 1998) p.272.
47 Readings of references BG. Myo Thant made have been checked and the relevant publications are :
John Cady : Religion and Politics in Modern Burma, Far Eastern Quarterly, p.6
Lucien Pye and Mary Pye: Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimension of Authority, Cambridge, Mass:
Belknap Press, 1985.
47 Hawkers of Human Hope and Ideological Defense Working Paper presented at “The Conference of the
National Security Council, 22nd April 1959 by the Director of Education, Psychological Warfare, Ministry of
Defense, Burma p.6.
48 The “Footwear Incident” is said to have been one of the reasons for the fight for independence. When visiting monasteries or the palace, all visitors are required to take off their shoes, something the British refused to do and this was considered disrespectful and caused great unhappiness among the locals.
49 Daw Ni Ni Myint – Burma’s struggle against British Impalism 1885 – 1895. p.96/97.
51 E.Sarkisyanz, Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution: The Hague/Martinus Nijhoff, 1965, p.135.
50 in Bertil Lintner, Narco–Politics in Burma, p.435
51 This view coincides with what U Kyi Win, the former Joint Secretary of the Yangon City Development Committee (Yangon Municipal Council) who was in charge of Yangon environmental health matters including that of having to clear such “infected roads/areas.” He was also the former Head of Cleansing, involving but not limited to crematorium services for Yangon and faced this situation a number of times.
52 Donald E. Mansell, The Unseen Unkown.
53 Reynaldo C.Ileto “Religion and Anticolonial Movements” in N. Tarling Ed., The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia (Vol.2), (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992).
54 E Sarkisyanz, Freiburg University, Buddhist Background of the Burmese Revolution, The Hogue/Martinces Nijof, 1965, p.135
55 Gillian Koh, Ooi Giok Ling, Relationships between State and Civil Society in Singapore; Clarifying the concepts, assessing the ground, ISEAS, 2004, P. 168/169.
55 In spite of the Sangha Council attributing this to “political problem” some of the ring leaders were disrobed by the Sangha Order before their imprisonment.
56 Golden statue in the image of the targeted person is made; an “In” in the form of a square horoscopic chart of the subject is placed at the base of the statue which is then put on an altar (auklan.) A gold or black candle (Mahadepan candle) is then lit and prayers are offered, whereupon the problem for the target subject starts – sickness or accident or whatever is desired. In this event 7 leaders/commanders were targeted.
57 Robert H. Taylor Myanmar: Military politics and the prospects for Democratization, Asian Affairs Journal of the Royal Society for Asean Affairs, Vol. XXIX, Part 1 Pg.3 February 1998.
58 Reproduced in The New Light of Myanmar, 14 June 1998.
60 Although the expressions “minorities, ethnics, ethnic minorities” had been widely used in early years, in more recent times, post the 1988 Conflagration, the preferred expression is “National Races” as this gives a more acceptable connotation of integration of the Nation.
61 Lt. Gen. Kyaw Ba (Retd) is a former Regional Commander and Minister of Hotels and Tourism/SLORC/SPDC Member.
62 David I. Steinberg, “The Road to Political Recovery, The Salience of Politics in Economics,” in Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Cambridge: The World Peace Foundation and Harvard Institute for International Development, Washington D.C., Brookings Institute Press, 1998), 269.
63 Specifically, the U.N. declares in a statement that the Myanmar’s Roadmap to Democracy is bound to fail for failing to set a timeline, ergo delaying the efforts.
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