Culture: Political Science:


Quo Vadis Myanmar - 2013 on?

by Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.

International Business Executive, Political Scientist




Myanmar which in the mid-50s was, even by the World Bank's reckoning, a leading state in the Region with a good and healthy, political and economic prognostication under the influence of friendly Eastern European states and the USSR, indulged in political and economic vivisection - autocracy and autarky - in the early 60s.


This experimentation was indulged in, in part, because of its unpleasant past colonial experience of having been back stabbed by its two colonialists; its psyche and ethos of ethnocentric pride; its historical experience of having lived in a mandala or galactic state environment/setting when it was, inter alia, the most powerful state south of China and East of India. Indeed, its prowess was demonstrated in its early history by the conquest and sacking of neighboring states, though not Bismarckianwise.


Nevertheless Myanmar kept low keyed and to itself and was hardly seen or heard thereon. Meanwhile its economic condition deteriorated, not having had any infusion of foreign technology nor capital. By 8th August 1988 (affectionately labeled the "Four-Eights" incident), Myanmar hit the international news headlines with its labeled "Four Eights" conflagration, when rioting, looting, arson and beheadings on the streets went on rampantly. The prognosis of the once thriving state looked extremely gloomy. The once leading Southeast Asian state became a basket case after thirty-four years of their own "Monroe Doctrine"- cordon sanitaire a'la Myanmar. Myanmar was at its nadir.


Currently, some 25 years after the Four Eights Conflagration Myanmar is again in the limelight but this time for the right reasons - it positing a modern, democratic socio-political and econo-political developmental trajectory, to the consternation of all Myanmar watchers, scholars and governments particularly Myanmar skeptics, most First World states, save China.


This, to the extent that the query is whether or not this liberalization trajectory is for real and in the affirmative what is its durability especially in light of its apparent sustained more recent past gradualist approach in geo- and econo-political development in the world. Whether or not, this is a flash in the pan is the query. Indeed prior to the government's recent movement in the direction of glasnost and perestroika a'la Myanmar, most foreign governments were chary that the new Constitution finally completed and implemented in 2010 would come to life not to say whether or not the declared 7-step Road Map to Democratization could possibly turn out to be just a figment of the Junta's imagination, inter alia not to say merely to tantalize Myanmar skeptics. Nevertheless with some 15 years exposure to confidence building measures (CBMs) since joining Asean - an invitation it rejected since 1967 because it simply was not ready - the exploitation of its natural endowment factor (oil/gas, timber, minerals, fisheries, gemstones etc), and the retaste and impact of capitalism and modern technology, renewed infrastructural development, support from its Asean Brothers, Myanmar is ready to move in the direction of not necessarily Stalinist glasnost and perestroika but a combi-developmental model, one a'la Myanmar!


After over decades spent in Myanmar undertaking both desk and field research, mingling with the public and private sector individuals - the Junta elites, bureaucrats, private sector businessmen and the man in the street, anthropologist wise, it is patently clear to me that Lord Dalhousie could not have been more correct when he labeled the Burmans the "most proud people” he ever encountered in his many years of sojourn in the East. It is in this light that I have had the opportunity to analyze closely and understand the psyche, ethos, mores as well as morass of the country, its leaders and its peoples!


Myanmar's problems and its leaders' weltanschauung, and future developmental prognosis are, from the inner Junta's perspective, one of complementarity - a sort of zero-sum game and that of the Game Theory buttressed by an inherently inseparable arcane and arcana of Buddhism; in particular that of the impermanence and cyclical nature of things. After all, it is too well known that "to be Burmese is to be Buddhist!


Thus, while the antagonists with their protestant ethic feel, that by economic and political sanctions and the like, Myanmar is castigated and placed in the international dog house, for the Government, it is just one phase in the cycle of its existence for which they will get out of, in the fullness of time; they are sanguine over this and are confident that the essential part of the international community, when it finds its Nirvana, will absorb and welcome them as part of family of the international community. It is at least in the past, because of such an outlook, policy and philosophy that offers of SAPs (Structural Adjustment Programmes), MAIs (Multilateral Agreements for Investments) etc were rejected.  These were in part, at least for the Government, "neither substantial nor meaningful" designed to "beggar thy neighbor" and were of what they reckon the "Oliver Twisty nature and reprehensible" when viewed in their own historio-colonial background and perspective, declared a number of generals in charge of the economic and political affairs of the state. In short, "the throwing of bananas to donkeys and unfit even for a monkey's consumption - a farce" - it was felt!


Quo vadis Myanmar, 2012? Will there be a volte face in the international political and economic stance of the Government. Is the daily exhortation as evidenced in every issue of their state newspaper and mouth piece, the "New Light of Myanmar" of their looking to be a new "modern democratic state with prevalence of Law and Order", déjà vu, when they are quite capable of positing modernity and of being modern? A fair deal and time without the indignity of their having to undergo "myat na piat" - loss of face - which is critically important and magical for them is, in my view, the essence the international community ought to factor in, in their dealings with the Junta, if a positive response is expected.


Alas, after years of intimate contact with the decision makers, nothing can stop Myanmar's progress towards achieving its "Prague Spring" for the simple reason just as Deng's "Southern Visit" transformed the economic and political landscape of China of which they are only too familiar, so also the exposure of the senior members of the Myanmar government to many developed countries especially in the last two decades; the removal of the inherited xenophobia arising from the exposure to confidence building measures CBMs; the extraction of internationally strategically important and sought after natural endowment factors available in abundance in the country, there is no looking back. Myanmar is neither masochistic nor perverse in any sense of the word as all those familiar with their psyche and ethos motivating their modus operandi, will attest. They are silently proud and appear inert because the order of the day to all their representatives when attending international fora is to "open your hearts and ears but never your mouth" and this accompanied by their Ciceronian outlook and attitude of not minding if others do not like one so long as one is respected, account for their apparent "inexplicable conduct" ‒ the “Myanmar Exceptionalism”. Myanmar will, in the fullness of time and circumstances under their control, make drastic liberalization improvements. These considering in more recent times their latent cognizance of the Buddha-endowed critically important geostrategic and geographical position on earth!


In sum, it would be fair comment to say that no party should expect any apologies from Myanmar, nor from experience, would Myanmar expect any and since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, advances in the infrastructural and socioeconomic fronts in the past two decades will not permit the government to go into reverse gear as far as development and openness go. They have passed the critical socioeconomic, geo- political, hump and can be expected to integrate into the Asean & International World order.


In other words, the prognosis for Myanmar's march towards a modern, democratic developed state is unstoppable from formal and informal research with the powers that be and no party should think otherwise even if its multi-ethnic population and history will act as a slight retardant.


Change by a revolution can and will be quick and indeed instantaneous the government is only too conscious of, but orderly evolution takes time and the current Junta being acutely aware of this, is in no hurry as the overly rapid evolution in the early 1991, only created "disorder" and anarchy the latter of which Myanmas fear more than tyranny, in their deep psyche! Hence a "return to the tribe" in Popperian terms they will not, but some degree of "xenophobia" would persist - and apart partially from strategic consideration, it would take some time to eliminate so that without illusions they are at all times always conscious of the “bear outside the tent.”


After all both John Stewart Mill as well as Rousseau the important liberalists did add important caveats to the practice of democracy and liberalism; these are not a “free for all”! The objective fact is that basically contrary to popular concept, the Government is neither totalitarian nor dictatorial but perhaps an oligarchy for those who know the inner workings though a nanny, paternalistic state they surely are and so their future determined march to modernity, democracy and openness to the world cannot be derailed. Having said so, Myanmar would not permit the "one-world government" concept to prevail on them especially bearing in mind the world order of the new "pacificism",  nor should any party be suspicious of their being the "Trojan Horse" for others, because for knowledgeable students of history on the Region, the Domino Theory in Southeast Asian did not eventuate largely because of Myanmar's efforts; they may be assured that Myanmar will continue to be the "dyke" to prevent any outflow of "undesirable forces" disrupting peace in the Region, whenever these are a factor.


In sum, the actions of the past two and a half decades for the Government in my view have been to apply a reverse "cordon sanitaire" on the negative forces, of the international community because inter alia, pragmatically, existentially and realistically having been at the bottom of the barrel it has nothing to lose! There is only one avenue left and that is upwards, to find their second renaissance and to have their "paradise regained," in their own time and pace!




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