Playing the World for Fools
Joshua Kurlantzick writes about the upcoming election in Burma
The Rangoon headquarters of the National League for Democracy, Burma’s main opposition group and the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, isn’t very impressive. In front of the simple squat structure, a fading red sign tells visitors – and military intelligence, always lurking – where they are. Inside, men in their seventies and eighties, dressed in the traditional longyi sarong, sit on plastic chairs around chipped tables, sorting wads of the nearly worthless currency to give to colleagues in jail. Younger supporters flip through glossy magazines full of photos of celebrities.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010
In his article on Burma, Joshua Kurlantzick, like so many others, throws up his hands when faced with the country’s brutal regime (LRB, 19 August). He also makes several errors. Human development reports on the situation in the Irrawaddy Delta, including the recent, highly critical UN Development Programme report, do not substantiate his claim that many are starving there. He overstates the power of the few ethnic armies remaining: at most 60,000 troops dot the country, in contrast to the half-million in the SPDC’s army. He relays the old hope that the military will crack as a result of internal pressure, but then writes about the stabilising force of its patronage networks. Finally, Kurlantzick claims that the regime used ‘its détente with the West as leverage to gain concessions from China’. This détente never existed: Khin Nyunt was deposed because he believed that the West would end sanctions in exchange for Suu Kyi’s release; the West changed nothing, Khin Nyunt was removed.
Kurlantzick presents Burma’s political system as coming close to collapsing under its contradictions; he drills home the point by writing that ‘the junta would do well not to be too confident.’ Yet he simultaneously asserts that the regime is playing everyone for fools. Which is it? Perhaps neither. We can better understand Burmese politics by recognising that power in this society is bound up with its contradictions. The regime is both powerful and out of touch; it has established a sophisticated patronage scheme which is the only conduit for social mobility, but it has also been unwilling to deliver services to the people; it has crushed political opposition, but has been incapable of indoctrinating the population with its propaganda. There are significant cleavages between the despotic state and grassroots society, and those have allowed civil society groups to emerge and deliver social services. It is possible that activists might be able to use the upcoming election to politicise the pacified civil society, for instance by pinning the absence of services on failures of governance. Turning the prosaic struggle to survive in Burma into an active political matter could spur on its population to demand accountability for the health, education and welfare failures that the military has perpetuated. This might lead to a gradual amelioration, with the state responding to the people’s demands in order to maintain stability.
Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Joshua Kurlantzick writes: Elliott Prasse-Freeman seems to be out of touch with developments in Burma. Not only are some of the ethnic minority armies still powerful, but the junta has recently upped the stakes, issuing them with an ultimatum – not for the first time – to join its border guard. The most powerful ethnic army, the United Wa State Army, has refused – also not for the first time – and remains one of the most powerful non-state armed groups in South-East Asia. Groups like the UWSA are often better trained than the Burmese military, and are fighting for what they consider to be their land – a powerful motivator.
Prasse-Freeman doesn’t seem to understand my use of the term ‘détente’. I didn’t mean to suggest that Burma and the West had engaged in some kind of high-level 1970s style diplomacy, but to note that there had been a period of slightly decreased tension, for which Khin Nyunt was indeed punished. Numerous Chinese officials have expressed the fear that closer relations between the West and Burma would lessen China’s influence, and the Burmese regime clearly uses that leverage against Beijing. To suggest that Burma’s relations with the West do not concern China is absurd.
I don’t deny that it is possible for small-scale change to come out of the election. But it’s just as likely that the poll will lead to greater desperation and atomised violence, as has already been seen throughout 2010.