14 Minutes To Read

Myanmar’s Search for Normalcy in an Abnormal World

14 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Matthew Arnold discusses the importance of seeing Myanmar as a country undergoing normalization.

    Myanmar’s evolution out of military dictatorship began in 2010. In the years since, much has changed, much has not. After two rounds of semi-elected government and a third set to start next year, it is a good time to reflect on the project of changing Myanmar – its intents, successes and failures, and prospects for the future. In questioning the nature of the transition, starting with its intentions, achieving a shared sense of ‘normalcy’ seems to be the most common denominator.

    Across a wide range of actors – the military, democracy advocates, businesspeople and social activists – the goal, in simplest terms, is to no longer be an isolated pariah state that is cripplingly poor, oppressive and riven with ethnic strife. This essay reflects on how a grounded sense of ‘normalcy’ is desirable for Myanmar’s transition. It shows how a sober assessment of how the military’s involvement in politics and the entrenched dysfunction within the state requires that the international community dispense with grand hopes for the country’s transition. Instead, international actors should seek to embrace the country’s complexity in order to support its pursuit of normalization.

    Myanmar’s transition can be understood as a ‘search for normalcy’. Generally speaking, the world embraced this search. What ‘normalcy’ ultimately looked like was surely different between countries, such as the US and China for instance, but most longed for a Myanmar that was no longer a global outcast, comparable to North Korea. By engaging the military in a structured process, many countries seeking to support change hoped that gradual reforms would add up to structural changes in how the country is governed. Even the West saw positive change as possible, albeit only tentatively in the early years.

    Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), also implicitly accepted this gradualism when they contested by-elections for the national parliament in 2012. Despite deep reservations over the military’s claim that they would manage the transition towards ‘discipline flourishing democracy’, this signaled the party was joining the transition project for the duration. Working within the confines of the 2008 Constitution would be the medium for the changes the party sought for full democratization, including ultimately reforming or replacing that constitution.

    For their part, the military appeared to realize that they had to accept the NLD back into the political process. Aung San Suu Kyi was then a global icon of democracy. Accordingly, the military appreciated that the economic growth and international acceptance they sought required her involvement in the transition. If Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest and was actively deriding the 2008 Constitution as regressive and un-democratic, the international community leave crippling sanctions in place and Western countries driven by her opinions.

    Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to participate in the 2012 by-elections, where she and her party members won a good number of parliamentary seats, conveyed to the world a sense of legitimacy to the changes unfolding in Myanmar. Her participation encouraged greater international engagement with the Thein Sein government, even if it meant assuming a wider acceptance by international actors for the parameters of change laid down by the military in the 2008 Constitution. After winning elections in a landslide in November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi assumed executive power as the ‘State Counselor’ to overcome the constitution’s schedule preventing her from the presidency.

    Featured image courtesy of Insights Unspoken, from Flickr Creative Commons

    The Entrenched Dysfunction of the State

    In 2016, as the de facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, together with the NLD, assumed responsibility for a state apparatus that was not fully under their control. The 2008 Constitution had been meticulously designed to assure the military outright control over the security apparatus and their major economic interests, prosecutorial immunity for past transgressions, and a veto-proof presence in parliament over the constitution; plus, one vice-president post and a majority in the National Security Council tossed in. In this manner, Myanmar was left with what was in effect a split government — nominally democratic and led by civilians, but with the military securely immersed in the country’s politics, governance and economy.

    This meant that the transition was to be defined by the military’s prerogatives. Mirroring this would be the ongoing contestation of those privileges by pro-democracy political parties like the NLD as well as the dozens of ethnic armed groups that could not accept a political settlement that was not based on consensual federalism achieved through negotiations. Hence, the transition has essentially been a contest of ‘competitive governance’ between the military and elected, civilian government. This, in turn, is framed against questions of who belongs in Myanmar and how they should jointly rule the country; sensitivities manifest most starkly in a wide range of insurgent groups, but present across the country’s incredibly diverse society. 

    This ‘competitive governance’ has proceeded with high stakes, due to numerous problems entrenched over decades of misrule and stagnation. Myanmar in 2010 was plagued with deep and widespread poverty, ongoing conflicts across the periphery in its near entirety, and a state apparatus with little to no capacity at service provision and habituated towards autocratic rule through surveillance and coercion. Reforming the state apparatus was going to be a massive challenge. 

    This general dysfunction meant that for the newly elected governments, particularly the NLD in 2015 but to some extent also the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that assumed power in 2011, the transition started needing to show basic competence to govern in the most rudimentary ways – health, education, roads and jobs – rather than focusing solely on achieving major structural reforms. Not that the latter weren’t sought. They were and some achieved, notably in telecoms, currency exchange, debt relief, and decentralization.

    What is often missed in the story of Myanmar’s recent past is just how weak the state was in terms of its basic coherence at governance. Assumptions that military dictatorship translated into a strong state apparatus were wrong. Coercion and the stifling of opposition was possible through a predatory bureaucracy and brutal crackdowns by the military, but behind this façade the depth of the state to function was spectacularly limited. Myanmar could not afford to be a heavy police state such as those seen in the Soviet bloc, thus much of its oppression was achieved by the banal levers of local administration. Its counter-insurgency campaigns involved the widespread use of proxy militias left to run loose and brutal clearance campaigns against civilian populations, i.e. counter-insurgency on the cheap.

    Since 2010, the sheer extent of the country’s dysfunction has overshadowed prospects for change. Myanmar’s would-be reformists – ranging from those merely wishing to push a façade of change to bolster economic growth all the way to the true believers amongst the country’s democratic and social activists – faced the seemingly overwhelming problem of how to structure and sequence reforms. When everything in effect needs reform, where do you even start? The magnitude challenge of overcoming Myanmar’s compounding social, political, and economic ailments seemed near insurmountable. The complexity of it all overshadowed and threatened to overwhelm reforming even the most banal aspects of regular governance.

    A foundation of basic governance needed to be laid to achieve the state building that similar countries had done post-independence in the 1950s and ‘60s. With the state near dysfunctional from top down and an economy lagging decades behind its regional peers, the basic competence to govern – manage budgets, improve basic education and health, build roads – was imperative. In this sense, the ‘transition’ was less about emerging from dictatorship and more about achieving rudimentary coherence as a state, something that should have been done in previous decades. International actors seeking to put Myanmar on a path to ‘normalcy’ must not miss the country’s need for basic governance structures.

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    An Enduring Role for the Military

    The USDP government of President Thein Sein sought reforms in economic governance, ceasefires and a peace process, and engagement with the West because the USDP longed for a sense of normalcy, and hence legitimacy, from the international community and the Myanmar public. Yes, they were former military, but they too were tired of global pariah status. During the USDP government there were tensions at times with the military, for instance over leadership of the peace process, but generally the government and military worked together relatively well. These tensions were overshadowed by the feud between the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Shwe Mann, and his former colleagues in the military and presidency.

    Even as the NLD assumed power in early 2016, many political analysts were surprised at the extent of accommodation the military seemed to be according to the new government. Building off its earlier themes of wanting to shed pariah status, there seemed to be a pragmatic realization that ongoing détente, and even engagement, was needed at least publicly with the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. With that in mind, and despite some performative critiques, the military accepted the creation of the State Counselor position and her de facto role as head of state. 

    It is unclear if the military ever expected the NLD to come to power when they drafted the 2008 Constitution. While the military undoubtedly wanted the transition to proceed in terms of ‘discipline flourishing democracy’, especially if it produced significant economic growth and if their core security interests were protected, the military was also happy to let the civilian government take responsibility, and hence blame for any of the country’s misfortunes. As such, by 2016 they partook in a strategy of supportive distancing from many matters of routine governance in order to allow the NLD government to proverbially hang itself with its own rope.

    As seen across Asia for decades, and in Burma during and after the 1962 coup, debates have long raged over the merits of autocratic but relatively competent governance, including that led by generals, versus the seeming chaos and ineptitude of electoral democracy. Militaries in Asia, amongst many other regions, have long claimed that they are simply more competent to develop countries economically and provide stability and that in return, their respective publics must accept the loss of rights. Autocratic populism has seen a surge of popularity in recent years across the world, including in the West.

    Opposition towards electoral democracy has not disappeared in Myanmar. Since 2010 opposition has occurred regularly, for instance with the military encouraging Buddhist nationalists to support race laws and questioning the competence and intents of the NLD. The military has also excelled at placing Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in awkward political positions that would expose them to criticism from Western supporters and/or lose domestic support. A prime instance was placing her on commissions to investigate violence in Rakhine state in 2014. The application of ‘lose-lose’ situations for the country’s democrats has become a rather refined art form of the military since 2010.

    Choosing a Way Forward

    Compounding these tensions and adding complexity to the country’s politics are contesting narratives of change and legitimacy. Many see a better future via parliamentary democracy, versus others who insist on starting with a negotiated peace settlement premised on federalism. While not necessarily exclusive to one another, they are nonetheless hard to synchronize emotionally and politically across the spectrum of Myanmar society and politics. It is also hard to make them sync in the practical terms of specific near-term reforms. Such tensions raise all sorts of ‘chicken-or-egg’ conundrums, such as whether there should be constitutional reform or decentralization before a peace agreement lays out a federal future, for example.

    Amidst these quandaries, it is useful to focus on what is feasible for the country in terms of transitioning to what can be understood as ‘normal’, or at least a trajectory of ‘normalization’, amongst such a disparate range of political and social interests. As Myanmar’s peers of Southeast Asia indicate, ‘normalcy’ could refer to rudimentary control over the state’s territory through consent, being able to provide basic governance and social services, and the ability to grow an economy based on legitimate sources of income that can lift the wider population out of poverty. There may be autocracy and illicit economies present but not enough to result in global condemnation and isolation. With time, it is hoped that the country might even grow a healthier sense of nationalism – i.e. as an ‘imagined community’ — that dissuades widespread insurrection. Perhaps a shared sense of what is normal and a palpable sense of progress towards it is the only way to overcome massive ethnic, religious and social cleavages.

    Indeed, as the transition was beginning, The Economist remarked that framed against the violence concurrently unfolding in the Middle East’s ‘Arab Spring,’ Myanmar’s historic flux appeared to be progressing as a “revolution without losers.” Rather than abrupt, seismic change, most stakeholders accepted that gradual evolution was needed from military dictatorship to something else, roughly democratic and market-oriented, and with greater accommodation of the country’s diversity. Simply, it just wanted to be another normal Southeast Asian country, generally trending for the better but with the ups and downs experienced by everybody else. This observation often escaped outsiders looking in, who generally had grand expectations of quick change, be it economic, political or for a peace deal. Domestically, the stark prospects of quick revolution, with winner take all, seemed to have lost their appeal.

    Moreover, what seems clear is that within the country there is an immense amount of hope for change but also exceptional levels of pragmatism and patience. Outsiders have tended to romanticize or sensationalize the country, for better or worse. Within Myanmar, more moderated hopes are prominent. It is from a greater sense of these expectations from within Myanmar that the country’s transition should be weighed.

    When Aung San Suu Kyi famously said she was just a Myanmar politician rather than a global icon for democracy, it was a plea for acceptance of her relative normalcy as a Myanmar party leader and legislator. Or, it was at least a hope to be left alone to get on with what she wanted to do most – reform Myanmar rather than save the world. Her parameters for what was needed and possible were defined by Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution and her political capital. The global accolades certainly were not turned down, but one would be hard pressed to show that she was driven primarily by achieving global fame. Many Nobel laureates have enjoyed lucrative lives dispelling wisdom around the world, but she chose to stay home. It’s worth remembering that. 

    Even the military has its complexes about what it means to be normal. Since its earliest days, the Tatmadaw has gnawed at what could best be understood as an inferiority complex. Shortly after independence, KNU insurgents nearly succeeded in capturing Rangoon and the Kuomintang incursion in 1949 onwards left large parts of the country under foreign control. This deepened a sense of weakness and inadequacy that manifested itself brutally over time as the military undertook autocratic control over the country. More recently, reading its White Paper setting out defense policy, one is struck by the sense of it wanting to shed the toxic abnormality of its modern history and become a ‘professional’ military, at least as it defines one. It’s telling that one of the first reform areas that international agencies succeeded in engaging the military over was preventing child soldiers. Self-respecting militaries simply did not partake in such wretched practices.

    More significantly, for the military, an economic rationale for change has been primary: normalcy means economic growth more than anything else. The refrain amongst the country’s elite over the 2000’s that they were “tired of being poorer than Laos” was grating. As that decade had worn on, over-dependence on China and the risks of outright economic collapse in much of the country were more of an existential threat than anything else, and military recognized that.

    Perhaps most significantly, the country’s complexes about wanting to be normal extend to its most odious event of recent years. The exodus of the Rohingya in 2017 understandably provoked global outrage. Across the world many were aghast that so much of the country’s leadership and public seemed ambivalent about the plight of the Rohingya. There’s no sense saying otherwise as such sentiments were widely true. Rather, what was striking within the country was the resentment that was universally felt about the term ‘genocide.’

    There are few words that have such uniquely negative connotations for a country. It grated across Myanmar’s political spectrum because it placed the country, again, as a global outcast facing scorn around the world. Even for those Myanmar people who saw the Rakhine crisis as the fault of the military, it was hard not to resent the global accusation as it risked superseding all the positive changes that were unfolding.    

    The point of this observation is not to condone actors such as the military or lower expectations of positive change by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead, it is to highlight the grossly myopic hopes that pervaded international expectations for the country in the early years of the transition until the pendulum swung the other way and the country was wholly condemned for singular issues in Rakhine. All of it was based on perceptions of the exceptional. This was particularly true for the West as they personalized their hopes for the country in Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Her near deification abroad, especially in the West, was ultimately counterproductive for the country. These expectations never could have been met.

    Celebrating Normalization is Okay

    Although it is hard to see Myanmar as normal right now, it is important to remember that it is in the midst of an important process of normalisation. There are near endless reasons to let cynicism and doubt drive international understandings of the country because there are still massive problems unfolding, such as the Rakhine crisis and the drugs trade. Instead, this should remind outsiders that more pragmatic expectations for the country are needed. The military designed it so that they could manipulate the pace and scope of change in the country. Myanmar’s present reality is a story of five decades of military dictatorship and about seven to eight years’ worth of conditioned reform.

    In other words, what is called for is patience and the celebration of relative normalcy in all its boring forms, like planning and budgeting, building new roads and ensuring garbage collection, empowering communities to participate in development, and nudging an economy forward that was stuck between the socialist planning of the 1960s and the crony capitalism endemic after the 1988 coup. The exceptionalism of the country was over-sold for too long. Celebrating normalcy does not mean accepting dysfunction and mediocracy, just more thoughtful, grounded expectations of what is possible – what is going to be an extended process of gradualism, i.e. at best, slow but steady change spread across many reform areas.

    For those who believe in liberal democracy, within the country and across the world, there is an onus to help Myanmar’s elected governments to show that they can govern. Namely, Myanmar’s public needs to believe that democracy can lead to the normalization of Myanmar, represented by economic growth, international acceptance, increasingly representative government, and improved living standards freed from an autocratic state. The best leverage elected governments have against the military is proving their competence to govern and deliver the essential changes that the public desires most – jobs and poverty alleviation, stability and progress towards peace, basic infrastructure such as local roads and bridges, and improving social services like health and education.

    Framing Myanmar’s domestic prospects is also the reality that the last decade has been distinctly abnormal for the whole world. The rise of autocratic populism, rising geo-political tensions between China and the USA, economic flux and technological revolutions, and now an historic pandemic. If Myanmar’s transition had started a decade or two earlier, it might have achieved different results or at least been in better sync with the times. For instance, it might have captured some of the market pioneered by the Asian Tigers and the geopolitics might have been more conducive to international cooperation in Myanmar. Rather, economic growth models have moved on, great power geopolitics have intensified, and the international system is more widely questioned. The UN is weaker and divided by squabbling powers. There is resentment within developing countries over what are perceived as lopsided applications of international justice. 

    Within these wider considerations, the project of changing Myanmar – it’s intents, successes and failures, and prospects for the future – remains cloudy. The sheer complexity of the country and the entrenched dysfunction mean there is no quick fix, or singular moments of massive change. This means questioning grand plans that have become entrenched behind paradigms of international support for the country, for instance that a single peace process is feasible or that the constitution can be amended or replaced just once.

    A lot of our conceptual frameworks that help define international support now seem archaic and misplaced in Myanmar, stuck as they are in the early 2000s of state-building around liberal democracy. Civil war and insurgency, fragile and weak states, state-building and nation-building, free market and crony capitalism. Try and frame out Myanmar one way or another and it all blends together as an alphabet soup of conceptual frameworks that lead to over-simplification and false hopes. Simply put, there is no magic paradigm for understanding Myanmar; it is too complex. Trying to frame it out too much just leaves overly simplified hopes for the linear progression that the international community was so keen to support. A single peace process and a couple elections were never going to change the country. 

    There is a need to re-establish a framing of the country that is healthier and more grounded in what is possible rather than what was and is simply wished. Namely, observers should ask, ‘what is the target for change when everything seems so problematic and exceptional?’ and seek a sense of normalcy relative to what is possible for Myanmar. The country is searching for a semblance of normalcy, mostly benchmarked against the relative successes and failures of its regional neighbors in Southeast Asia. Rather than crossing a clear threshold whereby the country is blessed with normalcy, it means working methodically to untangle the messy, convoluted knot that is Myanmar’s governance, politics and economics and being patient and thoughtful through the process. This is a transition of normalization and given all things considered, Myanmar is progressing in important ways that shouldn’t be taken for granted but also shouldn’t be forgotten either.

    Matthew B. Arnold is an independent researcher and policy analyst. He has been resident in Yangon since 2012 and received his doctorate from the London School of Economics.

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