11 Minutes To Read

Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Myanmar edited by Adam Simpson, Nicholas Farrelly and Ian Holliday, Routledge, 2018, 452 pages.

11 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Mael Raynaud reviews a new resource for scholarship on Myanmar.

    A decade ago, let alone two decades ago, it was fairly easy for anyone working in Myanmar or researching this country to stay up to date on existing works (there weren’t that many) on each and every topic, from agriculture to human rights, and from international pressure on the then-ruling SPDC to the state of education in Myanmar’s universities. Today, it is a challenge to stay on top of the flow of publications even in the limited field in which one is working, whichever it might be. While this recent explosion in the production of knowledge about Myanmar is of course a very good thing, it also makes our work more challenging.

    If only there was a way to find, in one place, a good summary of where Myanmar finds itself, today, on each of the main topics one can be interested in… Adam Simpson, Nicholas Farrelly and Ian Holliday have indeed come as close as anyone could get to succeeding in this difficult endeavor, with their co-edited Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Myanmar. This is one book everyone working in Myanmar, or trying to understand this country—businessmen, academics, aid or development workers, diplomats or journalists alike—should read.

    This handbook, which can either be read in the proposed order, or in any order fitting the interests of the reader, is organized in seven parts: fundamentals, spaces, cultures, living, governance, international, and a broad final part on “challenges”.

    Part I: Fundamentals

    The State: Maitrii Aung Thwin brilliantly makes the point that while many international observers focused on the electoral process as the key element to political change, in the last decade, they have often overlooked deeper aspects of institutional change, leading maybe to unrealistic expectations when it came to the NLD government, and to underestimating how much the “system” has changed, in that period.

    The Defense Services: Andrew Selth, too, challenges a common perception, that of the inevitability of a return of the military to the barracks, the only question being “when?”. To him, on the contrary, the Tatmadaw sees no separate military and political roles for itself, and therefore very much could remain a central political force for many years to come.

    Democracy: John H. Badgley and Ian Holliday, in their historical account of the “process of building democracy in Myanmar”, come back to the deep roots of contemporary issues. For instance, they remind us of “a local magistrate hopelessly corrupted by familial greed” depicted in Burmese Days by George Orwell in 1934, a story that sounds all too familiar… A welcome reminder that to issues so old and so deep as those facing Myanmar, there is no quick solution.

    Ethnicity and Identity: Violet Cho’s description of the processes through which several ethnic languages, including Jingpaw, and the S’Gaw and Pwo Karen languages, came to be equipped with writing systems, is fascinating. She “explores ethnicity in Myanmar as socially constructed and process-oriented”, acknowledging that in pre-colonial times, social markers related to class, rather than race, were key to defining one’s identity.

    Part II: Spaces

    The Capital: Nicholas Farrelly tells us that Nay Pyi Taw was designed as a place from where a limited transition to democracy, one that secured significant powers for the military, could be managed, and that it remains as much today. In that sense, Nay Pyi Taw is the symbol, the tool, and the embodiment, of the hybrid system of governance defined in the 2008 Constitution.

    Urban: Jayde Lin Roberts shows us how the fact that all the master plans, for each one of the townships of Myanmar, were drafted in Nay Pyi Taw, is both the consequence of a lack of capacity (there are very few urban planners in Myanmar), and an issue in itself, in that it exacerbates inequalities between the center and the periphery.

    Rural: After reminding us of the fact that “70% of the population of Myanmar can be defined as ‘rural’ residents”, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung aptly sums up the issues facing millions of farmers and their families: insufficient income, extreme weather events, the depletion of natural resources, land tenure insecurity, and shows us the coping strategies they use in order to get by. She concludes, unsurprisingly, that rural areas “trail the major cities with respect to all socio-economic measures”.

    Borderlands: Patrick Meehan and Mandy Sadan offer an interesting geographic and historical account of the borderlands of Myanmar. They convincingly show how “engaging with the history and hybridity within Myanmar’s border regions is essential to analyzing their contemporary dynamics”.

    Cyber-spaces: Gerard McCarthy asks whether the Internet, and Facebook in particular, is a place where new freedoms are being expressed, or a place where hate speech and the phenomena linked to echo-chambers and actual violence are made worse, a question not specific to Myanmar. Sections on political entrepreneurship, civil-military relations in transition, and of course, the infamous section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, complete this important chapter.

    Anomalous spaces: Myanmar is made up of a myriad of different realities. Nicholas Farrelly explores some of those at the margins, from rebel-controlled territories to Special Regions, from Self-Administered Zones and military bases to Special Economic Zones, and offers that, in this context, there may also be “anomalous futures” for a number of areas across the country.

    Part III: Cultures

    Languages: David Bradley provides an overview of the linguistic diversity of Myanmar. For the non-specialist, this chapter is a good opportunity to distinguish between the three main language groups found in Myanmar: Tibeto-Burman, Tai-Kadai, and Mon-Khmer.

    Religion: After discussing the 2014 Census and the issue of Buddhist-ethnicity (the old question of the link between being Buddhist and being Burmese), Charles Carstens proposes interesting examples of the complexities of religious identity, notably through interviews of Myanmar citizens challenging official registration of religion and ethnicity.

    The Arts: In a time of tension between the past and the future, and travelling from Bagan to the dozens of art galleries that have opened in Yangon in recent years, Charlotte Galloway shows us that artists have been modern for a very long time. She shows us how an important divide has also existed in recent decades between art that was politically acceptable (by the military government), and art that was politically motivated, and banned or censored.

    Public Discourse: Thomas Kean reminds us that the media has been a vital element of the transition that started in 2011. While the history of the media in Myanmar, from the colonial era to the 2010 elections, is reduced to two paragraphs, a history that largely remains to be written, the chapter offers in-depth analysis of the media in the last decade. While “public discourse in Myanmar is still largely led by its print media industry”, and while the internet provides for “a whole new ball game”, the chapter does touch on the broadcast media, and television in particular, that remain more controlled and “largely overlooked”.

    Exiles: Inga Grusß covers the role of the exiled media for the country and its people, showing its relevance as a vital source of information for the populace inside the country. The advocacy effort of this exiled media deserves credit in this chapter for not only garnering international responses to the many issues facing Myanmar, but also for constituting a fundamental element in its recent history.

    The Youth: Jacqueline Menager’s chapter, inspired by her PhD dissertation, “Myanmar’s New Generation: A Study of Elite Young People in Yangon, 2010-2016″, offers much needed research into the lived experiences of the educated youth, a fundamental group among agents of change, but one that is greatly under-studied. She shows us how, living through a period of great social transformation, “Myanmar’s youth are dismantling decades of tradition and conservatism”.

    Part IV: Living

    Political Economy: Following his brilliant and authoritative 2014 article “The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition”, Lee Jones shows how the evolution from a catastrophic State-controlled economy to a limited and exploitative form of capitalism in the 1990s has led to deep inequality and social conflicts, as well as a small economic elite, while corruption and violence have continued unabated.

    Agriculture: Ikuko Okamoto’s chapter offers, in the first half, a historical perspective on successive governments’ attitude towards agriculture, from the Burmese Way to Socialism (1962-1988) and the military regime (1988 and 2011) to the Thein Sein era (2011 to early 2016). In its second half, the chapter tackles the technical and economic challenges posed by agricultural mechanization, the expansion of agricultural exports, and efforts towards poverty reduction.

    Banking and Finance: Thomas Förch tells us that the banking sector “remains at an infant stage” in Myanmar, with about half a dozen private banks trying to make space for themselves in a sector largely dominated by banks controlled by the State, just as they, in parallel, work hard to modernize their general infrastructure, internal operations, IT systems and customer relations. Förch then wonders how resilient the banks are, evaluating the main challenges ahead, and insisting that significant reforms are still needed.

    Foreign Direct Investment and Trade: Jared Bissinger shows us how the liberalization in telecoms or the exchange rate policy, since 2011, has been accompanied by policy intransigence in the financial sector. He then takes us on a review of Myanmar’s trading partners, China, Thailand, and Asian countries on the one hand, and the West, on the other hand, which has only developed business relations with Myanmar to a much more limited degree. Still, overall, “since 2012, there has been a significant and broad-based increase in incoming FDI to Myanmar”. Bissinger presents the legal frame and the reforms undertaken in recent years, as well as the challenges and risks involved, for all parties. Bissinger’s section on the bureaucracy, its bad habits and lack of capacity, is of particular interest.

    Part V: Governance

    The executive: The chapter co-written by Ian Holiday and Su Mon Thazin Aung is a good summary of the history of the executive branch since Independence. But it is with its case studies of the Thein Sein administration “in operation” that the chapter is at its most interesting. Insights into the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project in 2011, the 2014 public service media bill, or the decision to accept the word “federalism” in the same year make it an engaging read.

    Legislature: Renaud Egreteau presents a history of the legislative branch, and the two houses of Parliament at the Union level and the 14 subnational parliaments. His chapter, that builds on several of his publications of the last few years, is a must-read on this topic.

    The Judiciary: Melissa Crouch presents a very useful analysis of the powers of the Constitutional Tribunal, the Courts Martial and the Union Supreme Court, before listing the main issues in reforming the justice system: the centralization of the courts, the limited realm of judicial authority, and concluding on “a culture of procedural authoritarianism, where there is little room for substantive justice in individual cases”.

    Civil society: Christina Fink and Adam Simpson provide a good overview of the “development” of civil society from the 1990s onwards, and their account of the evolution of civil society, both in exile and inside the country, is a welcome addition to research in this field, that has often been divided between authors writing about either one of these two movements.

    Education: Marie Lall covers government schools, monastic schools, private schools, institutions of higher education, the recent process of education reform in what constitutes one of the stronger chapters of the book. Unfortunately, though, the chapter opens with the often repeated but highly questionable notion that “decades of underinvestment and civil strife resulted in the slow and steady decay of the state education system across the country”. One wonders when exactly was Myanmar (across the country) equipped with such a great education system. While perceptions of universities, reserved for a tiny elite in major cities, were indeed very positive after Independence in 1948, it would in fact be important to acknowledge that the education system of Myanmar needs to be built, rather than re-built.

    Health: Céline Coderey offers a sad, if accurate and informative, picture of “a history of neglect”, as she describes the structure, functioning and weaknesses of the healthcare system in Myanmar. Coderey examines recent efforts to reform this system, before showcasing the general feelings, among Burmese practitioners, about the real, but all too limited, progress being made.

    Part VI: International

    The world: David I. Steinberg, with the long-term view allowed by his many decades of observing Myanmar, reminds us that “the quintessential orientation of Myanmar’s foreign policy since independence has been neutralism”. Taking us on a journey from the choice of U Thant, a Burmese, as General Secretary of the UN, to the balancing of American and Chinese influence, the forced rapprochement with China as the country became a pariah under western sanctions, to the new and important role played by the European Union, a new American approach, and the “pivotal 2015 elections”, and back to its initial in a full circle, Steinberg finally suggests: “a return to the traditional foreign policy balance – a new form of neutrality adapted to the post-cold war era, is likely”.

    Regional: Jürgen Haacke examines Myanmar’s relations with Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After years of relative disengagement, the Japanese government “enthusiastically re-engaged as a major provider of ODA”, in recent years, just as Myanmar’s relations with other ASEAN members expanded and improved. Haacke then details the support received from Japan, and from ASEAN, and the evolution of those ties, particularly in the context of the Rakhine crisis, and under the new NLD government.

    Neighbourhood: Renaud Egreteau and Li Chenyang concentrate on Myanmar’s relations with its immediate neighbours, China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. They conclude, like David I. Steinberg, that “a carefully non-aligned, balanced, equidistant and probably reactive neighbourhood diplomacy may thus best suit Myanmar in the near future”. In other words, a policy of neutrality strongly influenced by the reality of Myanmar’s geography.

    International Non-Governmental Organisations and Advocacy: John Dale and Samantha Samuel Nakka offer some fascinating insight on the work of international NGOs, the way the political evolution of the Myanmar State has shaped their work in Myanmar, how they have, in turn, influenced the work and infrastructure of Myanmar’s civil society, inside the country and along its borders, and its ability to reach an international audience.

    International Law and Intern-Governmental Organisations: As Tyler Giannini and Matthew Bugher unsuccessfully try to find cases of international law having influenced the leaders of Myanmar, in recent decades, they provide us with a chapter that helps explain the challenges facing the west in its response to the Rakhine crisis, and generally the limits to Western influence in Myanmar.

    International assistance: Ian Holliday and Zaw Htet provide us with a good overview of the evolution of international assistance to Myanmar by first presenting a history of aid being provided to the country, and then by presenting the changing reality of recent years. They conclude with a section on the difficult relations between international donors and the NLD Government.

    Part VII: Challenges

    Peace and Reconciliation: After five years of a peace process initiated by President U Thein Sein, defined by a contradiction between cease-fire agreements in parts of the country and renewed violence in others (including two years when the process has come under supposed NLD Government control), Kim Jolliffe offers a realistic, if not optimistic conclusion: “untangling the political and financial economies that have driven war will likely take decades”.

    Democracy and Human Rights: Morten B. Pedersen’s chapter is a bit of a misnomer. While it provides an in-depth and valuable analysis of the “disciplined democracy” that characterizes Myanmar’s political system today (under the 2008 Constitution), there is little to be found in the way of discussing human rights. Regardless, Pedersen writes from the vantage point of an analyst who was one of the first to understand the process that led to the opening of 2011.

    Gender: Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi faced an impossible task, presenting the many aspects of gender issues in Myanmar. Still she does an impressive job at it, covering women in political representation, as well as in the Constitution, Buddhism and gender, gender and sexuality, women’s rights in the reform era (with a special focus on the anti-interfaith marriage laws), gender based violence, gender and development, and women in education.

    Nation-building: Matthew Walton argues that “there is no Myanmar nation, despite Burmese Buddhist leaders’ multiple attempts in the modern era to create one. These attempts have mostly been through the use of force”, but then concludes that this “is not to say that one cannot emerge”. His chapter tries to unpack the ways in which the Bamar majority has simultaneously and paradoxically tried to show that while all the people of Myanmar were brothers and sisters, the Myanmar nation was essentially Bamar. He then describes counter-efforts by ethnic nationalities to build their own nations’ rationale. Education is showed to be a central issue, with the damaging role it has often played, in relation to nation-building, in Myanmar, but also with its potential to be the place where solutions are found and a future built.

    Class inequality: Elliot Prasse-Freeman and Phyo Win Latt make an important contribution to the debates on social injustices, in Myanmar, or maybe more accurately contribute to fill the gap in such debates. Sadly, after describing a tiny elite having benefited and benefiting from the exploitation of the resources of Myanmar, and showing that only 7.5% of the population is middle class or affluent, they fail to actually pay any attention to those middle classes. While we get to know who the “crazy rich” are, in Myanmar, and while the plight of the “crazy poor” of the country is all too self-evident (but not to the elite), one still searches for any research on these maybe four or five million Burmese in-between.

    Environment and natural resources: Adam Simpson shows how “the environment in Myanmar is inextricably linked to its turbulent and authoritarian political history and the associated issues of justice, inequality and social activism”. Corruption, abusive and rapacious exploitation are major themes in this chapter, which then logically concentrates on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).


    Myanmar Futures: The editors opened this handbook reminding us that “a so-called crony-class”, “people who prospered under the military government have generally secured their financial and social status, and are well placed to continue extracting maximum returns from the improved national economy”. Still, they wrote that “a rising generation of Myanmar thinkers, artists, writers and policy makers actually has little experience, at least as adults, of military rule”, pointing to their potential for demanding faster, and more tangible, change. One is tempted to add young business people, civil servants, farmers, or workers, who find themselves in the same situation (but are too often overlooked, in Burma studies, as agents of change), and to single out journalists, activists, aid workers and the staff of civil society organizations among the too generic “intellectuals” and “writers”.

    Throughout its 40 chapters, the book offers a much welcome and quite successful attempt at presenting academic research on all aspects of life in Myanmar. There is still so much to learn about the country, for foreigners and for the Burmese themselves alike. This book could only tackle its fair share of the task, but that it did. To anyone passionate about Myanmar, this book truly is a gold mine.

    Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant. 

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