Culture: Political Science:

Misunderstood Myanmar: Introduction (Chapter 1):

Toward an “In-Senseof Myanmar


By Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.

International Business Executive, Political Scientist



Editor’s Note: This paper is the first of 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 first introductory segment presents and discusses an “in-sense” of Myanmar. -JP


Numerous accounts on Myanmar have already been archived, yet many still are in the process of being documented to be attuned to the fast changing times. But much of Myanmar in the collective memory of the people who helped, in one way or the other, to sculpt its political, economic and socio-historical landscape have tended to evade documentation. By “In-sense” of Myanmar I mean an experiential endeavor “to make sense or meaning” of the hard facts, the events and the people who unfold them right before their very eyes.  Many writers have viewed Myanmar through the lens of a postcolonial academic; as a hard-hitting critic; as a journalist however with a disguised agenda; as a world development analyst; or as a post-conflict reconstructionist. However, there are few who have dared to view Myanmar from the obverse side of what they consider the “retrogressive Myanmar coin,” so to speak, that is, from the eyes of the Military Junta − or from the perspective of the country’s “governing elites.” “Such documenters and researchers have neither the gall nor the information to prop their writing”, commented Brother, to my above observations. “In-sense” here implies making sense from within this taciturn, low profile and “elusive” Myanmar group. From this point of view is the group trying to apply Lapham’s “gag rule”, namely that the absence of evidence does not imply the evidence of absence[1].


Interpreted through my participant observations, having spent 20 years of my lifetime there, as well as through some exchange of communication, and collated random notes following many a tête-à-têtes, "microscoping" domestic events as they were being magnified in the international arena, the “In-sense” of Myanmar is a compilation of thematic narratives on the pitfalls and vicissitudes of Myanmar in the context of the wide expanse of varying world views.  The “In-sense” derives in large part from the importance I give to personal accounts by Myanmar’s current and [not so-distant] past officials relating to my sojourn in the Country. What seems obvious from my research is that the perceived “Rip Van Winkle” State – Myanmar – unlike Abu Ben Adhem who “awoke one night from a deep dream of peace (but did not find) an angel writing in a book of gold” but instead was disillusioned to find its ego bruised. In addition attempts were being made to deprive it of its sovereignty with its past colonial masters applying Fabian tactics on its development, faustianwise, in the view of Brother.


Before I commence, it is imperative that I first elaborate my subject position on Myanmar. As a regular visitor and a foreign direct investor[2] in Myanmar for some 20 years, I have had opportunities to associate with leaders who were very much involved, directly or indirectly, with government policy formulation not only in the post-1962 socialist era formative years of Myanmar but also earlier, as well as with senior academics, particularly those who were involved in the Myanmar Historical and Language Commissions not to mention those involved in Buddhism studies.  A number of such people who were then inducted into the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and its derivative, the State Peace and Development Council  (SPDC) consented to contribute their views to this thesis project as my participants, contributors or key respondents – however one wants to call them.


In the years following what I term the “1988 Conflagration”, I observed the government making attempts towards the Country opening up, both politically and economically. Prior to the SLORC days commencing late 1988, I could hardly discuss any business proposals or meet socially with any Government official without prior written appointment and approval, and it did not matter what level of friendship or the equivalent Chinese, quanxi,[3] had been attained.


Conduct of Meetings.


These could not be held without any senior government member or official having a whole retinue of subordinates furiously taking minutes of whatever transpired and having the meetings photographed, ostensibly to honour the visitor and/or for record purposes but which, I suspect, was for security reasons - a throw back, perhaps, to the Aung San assassination debacle[4].  Indeed it was difficult, if not hazardous, for me and more so for my business colleagues even to endeavor a social visit to officials’ homes as it was well known that invariably there would be the anticipated “prying eye” of the Military Intelligence (MI) looking from unknown quarters. On probing, I ascertained that at that stage of development, government members/officials/bureaucrats were not permitted to meet foreigners privately.


Rather anecdotal to this, in 2000, one expatriate who was on an eight-month assignment in Mandalay and who, over the period lived in the Mandalay Swan Hotel, in his profound sense of observation felt that his loyal, punctual and most obliging taxi driver could have been a government spy – a Military Intelligence, “MI”, plant Apart from this, he was perfectly happy with the people and his assignment was carried out successfully as far as he was concerned.  This was how Orwellian the Country was perceived to be. This perception is where we shall take-off discussing whether Myanmar really is Orwellian or it is only perceived to be so.


At the time, telex and telephone calls were the fastest mode of communication and this had to be done past midnight, Singapore time, because the lines were jammed and in any case, senior government officials would be available in their offices practically 24 hours each day.  Even for preliminary “sounding out” appointments, telephone calls had to be done past midnight as there were only three into-country telephone lines for general use.


My visits from early 1988, revealed infinitely more stringent checks through customs than had been in 1986.  It appeared that officers were instructed to go through all luggage with a fine-toothed comb, so to speak. What normally took about an hour and a half to clear the airport, went on for nearly three hours.  People appeared fidgety and I discreetly enquired from my contacts if there was any problem. The reply was that the situation was a little “unstable”.  Since I usually do not see civilian policemen around, I assumed that the military (Tatmadaw) men, who enforced law and order, had taken charge of the airport at this time. I was able to verify subsequently from sources at the Ministry of Defence back then, that the civilian police force’s principal duty is for the maintenance of law and order and that they do not have any role in “crisis” management as was the case in controlling the “1988 Conflagration.”  This being so, and not noting any particular increase in the usual ubiquitous Tatmadaw men, I again enquired why this was so.  The short reply from my contact (a very senior government official) was that the Tatmadaw couldn’t intervene in any domestic local issue of the Country (apart from national defence) unless requested officially and specifically by the Government, in line with the legislation on “Aid to Civil Authority” embodied in the 1974 Constitution.


In my subsequent visit sometime in July 1988, the situation in the Country appeared “tense,” and I decided not to visit the Country thereafter until a more appropriate time because information gleaned by me revealed that “small scuffles” had broken out here and there in the Country after my last trip.


Right about the first quarter of 2002, I immediately tapped the minds of core SLORC/SPDC members, whom I had bumped into here and there in the course of my business affairs, and with the caveat that all information exchanged would be kept in utmost confidence, we freely thrashed out fundamental conceptions of Myanmar’s many mores and major events in its history, face-to-face as well as through the telefax and telephone, the most convenient means of communication at that time.  To put it in another light, this might well be “history writing/recording” in postmodern times.


After accomplishing my extensive research and being fully acquainted with the events as the “secondary literature” on Myanmar today provides, I made discreet communication regarding my thesis to a handful of Myanmar friends, including senior Myanmar government members and academics – some of my “research collaborators”. One in particular, who we will refer to as my “Brother[5],” or so we call each other, a distinguished man schooled in a very prestigious British university as well as a top British professional Defense Institution[6] and holding high political position during the SLORC days including the SPDC time, gladly responded and contributed much to the research, especially pertaining to views from the “inside.”  These comprise insightful views of his own as well as from the “collectivity” of the generals, including some of the top ones, especially General Ne Win, Brig. Gen. San Yu, and others to whom he used to report.


Brother (among others who I would term “key respondents”) and I had the primary aim of “clarifying some historical facts,” which are written or published already in the rich literature on Myanmar/Burma and to “uncover” others which have thus far been practically inaccessible to past scholars.  Make no mistake, however, that this “rich literature” largely comprises examples of what Michael Aung-Thwin explains as the “historically periodized” manner of studying developments in a nation’s distant and not-so-distant past, which is according to him the reason for a “disconnected” history telling[7].  Instead, as we attempt to gain an “In-sense” of Myanmar, the following elaboration has been deliberately memory-induced; it makes a full 360-degree turn.  Now history becomes personal, intimate and real to the person/s telling and hearing it.     


The structure of this thesis is as indicated in the Summary but for expedinary of the reorder, I would briefly restate that following the present Introduction, in Chapter 2, I discuss how Myanmar is perceived in the international arena by the foreign press and scholars, by non-governmental organizations both local and international, by other states and by the Myanmar diaspora itself – all of which in this Thesis comprise the milieu exterieur.  Such perceptions have more often than not been inaccurate, or at least, they must be reconsidered and/or substantiated.  The only too well known disproportionate criticism from the milieu exterieur, as will be unveiled, in itself impels a great amount of reckoning and understanding.


Chapters 3 and 4 narrate my interviews and discussions with the “insiders” of Myanmar, the members and former members of the Myanmar government, including those within the immediate vicinity of that “inner circle” who I will call my “key respondents.”   In the entire Thesis, I shall refer as my “key respondents,” those Myanmar nationals who have, in one way or the other, served the Myanmar SLORC/SPDC Government, or those who are currently serving the SPDC, including those who served as aides to Gen. Ne Win, Gen. Brig. Gen. San Yu and other Myanmar “progenitors”, as mentioned earlier. Indeed, the observation by Shelby Tucker[8] regarding the great difficulty of obtaining information in Myanmar could not be more accurate because these personalities who immensely contributed to this Thesis “volunteered” with one caveat - that their identities remain strictly confidential, unless given permission to otherwise reveal a portion of their identities.


In addition to government personalities (among whom are academics / scholars), I narrate my meetings and conversations with influential members of the Sangha, as well as private sector individuals, both in business as well as general workers. These are individuals I met in the course of my 20 years of professional / business sojourns in Myanmar as well as for the research specifically or purposely conducted for this study.  This chapter also exposes the perceptions of the milieu interieur by utilizing metaphors, which my respondents themselves have availed of, to capture the significance of the events and/or people they allude to. The chapter then moves to a discussion of their views regarding the misconceptions (or the lack of them) of developments, and the rampant stereotyping, by elements of the milieu exterieur or, as Government members often put it, by the “hegemonic Westerners with their own agenda.”


Chapter 5 serves to portray the nexus between the view of the Developed North (Western) countries – the milieu exterieur – and that of the Government – the milieu interieur – the latter being the obverse side of the milieu exterieur’s  “Free World” coin. The chapter discusses whether or not the “ international community’s views” - of Myanmar having been caught in a “time warp,” or that progress/developments made are “cosmetic” or that it is a “repressive regime,” including the imposition of trade and other sanctions − are flak or if these are the result of the Government’s moves and intents having been misunderstood / misconstrued or simply if it is a method for foreign elements to denigrate and castigate the Government. The chapter also covers the political/economic philosophy of the Government behind measures undertaken (or allowed to lapse) by it, in spite of offers of aid towards development made by the milieu exterieur, as comprehensively as is possible. It inter alia attempts to demonstrate whether or not the popularly held scorn that “putting 4 generals together would not add up to Standard Three (education)[9]” is purely a myth.


Chapter 6 endeavors the task of locating Myanmar in history, and most especially, deduces from its narrative an introspection of how events in Myanmar’s past could have worked for or against it during the times it was reeling under colonialism.


Chapter 7 deals with mapping out issues on the domestic and international plane, which pervade Myanmar in the present time, explaining its pitfalls and vicissitudes that it has encountered, thus far.  It is hoped that, in the light of the perceptions and views held by policy makers in the milieu interieur as revealed in the earlier chapters, and the parallel (mis) comprehensions of those in the milieu exterieur who are incessantly pushing for rapid change of a particular nature, the rationale of the response (or lack of it) made by the powers-that-be in Myanmar can be better understood and utilized as the basis for formulating a new modus vivendi in the push by the milieu exterieur for a more democratic and open Myanmar the latter of which, in their ethnocentricity, – americentricity on eurocentricity – they  opine is the only way ostensibly  to a “prosperous” and “stable” Myanmar. Indeed one of the objectives of this exercise is to ascertain and verify the validity of the “concept” so that the on-going course of development of Myanmar could be changed for the betterment of the dramatis personae in this play.


Chapter 8 Conclusion – Quo vadis Myanmar? puts forward some suggestions on how this Thesis, the distillate of some 20 years of observation and study of Myanmar, might contribute in some small measure to the epistemology of developments in Myanmar, positive or negative.  The hope is that all parties interested in enhancing Myanmar’s future will be able to formulate a new “middle road” in their relationship with Myanmar, towards the crystallization of a joie de vivre not only for the most part of 53 million Myanmas but also, for themselves, in the new millennium.





[1] Lewis H.Lapham, Gag Rule-On the Suppression of dissent and the stifling of democracy, New York, The Penguin Press, 2004,p.88.

[2] As a 49% foreign direct investor in a “Build, Operate and Transfer” joint venture operation with the Directorate of Hotels & Tourism, in the Mandalay Swan Hotel (Mandalay) and 100% FDIer in the Swan Building, an eight-storey “mixed development” building, which was constructed on a “Build, Operate and Transfer” basis, in Yangon.


[3] The term quanxi is most properly associated with China, or those countries with a predominantly Chinese culture such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore and extends throughout East Asia. Quanxi is the Chinese term for the construction of close family relations, or a joined network of relationships with the emphasis on the individual and informal groups rather than formal organizations. Building quanxi means building relationships. This is achieved through socializing within ones group, and also among members of different groups in order to expand ones web of relations.

[4] On 19th July 1947 while Aung San was chairing an Executive Council Meeting of the Interrim

Government, at about 10.30am, in the Secretariat Building, 4 men burst into the Chamber and shot him

along with 7 other Members. They died. (Shelby Tucker, Burma the Curse of Independence, Pluto

Press, London, 2001, p.139.)



[5] One sample of a reply to my inquiry from (a respondent among others), is annexed. See ANNEX “B”.

[6]Members of the armed forces are not permitted to reveal their personal details and this may have contributed in 

 part to the perception that they are lowly educated.


[7] Michael Aung-Thwin, “Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma”, p.152.


[8] Shelby Tucker, Burma the Curse of Independence, Pluto Press, London 2001, p.185.

[9] Reportedly asserted by Aung San Suu Kyi and is generally very well known in Myanmar, as some kind of a “joke.” In his time, Brig. Gen. Aung Gyi had attributed the sorry state of the country to it having been led by “former privates and sergeants of the 4 Burifs” (4th Burma Rifles) c/f The 1988 Uprising in Burma, Dr Maung Maung, Monograph 49/Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1999, p.152


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