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FROM BURMA TO MYANMAR: Critical Transitions / Vol. 82, No. 2 (Summer 2015)

Arien Mack, Editor

This issue in the Transitions Series examines the nature of the changes taking place in Burma/Myanmar, questions whether more and different changes are necessary, and speculates on what the future is likely to hold.

This is the fifteenth issue to be published in the Social Research Transitions Series. We began to organize this issue when there was a great deal of optimism about the changes that were occurring in Burma/Myanmar. This special issue looks at the extent to which the optimism was justified.

Calls for the rule of law sometimes signify desire for substantive political and legal equality, and sometimes are used to justify technical interventions, especially to reform courts and police. While the rule of law can generate confusion by signifying different desires for different people, in Myanmar it is more problematic when used to justify technical interventions. Mistaking intention for weakness, the advocates of institutional fixes insufficiently recognize that the rule of law’s absence in Myanmar is not an instance of failure. It has been willed. To talk of rule-of-law reform via institutions actively opposed to the rule of law is not sensible. The best prospects for the rule of law in Myanmar lie instead with the desires it signifies, and the political demands and actions it motivates.

Since 2012, Myanmar has transformed from a “pariah state” and one of the world’s least attractive business climates to a “frontier economy” transitioning to a democratic form of government and attracting foreign direct investment from around the world. Driving this new investment is a transnational vision of economic development that seeks to transform Myanmar’s emerging megacity (Yangon) into a “smart city,” incorporating it into the existing transnational archipelago of other smart-city development projects fueling the growth of today’s global, knowledge-capitalist economy. If realized, this vision will undermine Myanmar’s democratic transition because it exacerbates existing sources of inequality, and introduces new ones.

Myanmar’s first multiparty national legislature in 50 years has played an influential role in shaping the country’s reform process and the evolving relationship between citizens and their government. Parliamentarians have used a variety of means to expand their mandate and weigh in on key issues. They have accomplished much more than expected in terms of representation, legislative performance, executive oversight, and constituency services. This is due to the dynamic leadership of key figures in parliament, the tolerance up to a point of senior administration and military personnel, and the effective engagement of civil society organizations.

Ethnic conflict has ravaged Myanmar since independence in 1948, and it cannot be solved overnight. The advent of a new quasi-civilian government has caused a significant change in the political atmosphere, raising the prospect of fundamental reforms in national politics and economics for the first time in many decades. The current talks must move beyond establishing new cease-fires and be fostered by an inclusive political dialogue at the national level. Key ethnic grievances and aspirations, including land rights and inequitable distribution of resources, must be addressed. Both the government and the ethnic armed groups need to ensure that measures are enshrined in law to protect and promote the land rights of existing, displaced, and returning ethnic populations, and that these are included in cease-fire and peace agreements, as well as in their respective land policies.

Why does anti-Muslim violence take place in Burma now and with what costs? Three related arguments are made to answer the puzzle. Firstly, the pattern, nature, level, frequency, and impact of anti-Muslim violence during the quasi-civilian regime that took power in 2011 have changed and been distinct from religious riots in the previous reign. Secondly, both "hardliners" and "reformists" of the transitional regime are complicit in ongoing communal violence in Burma and taking advantage out of it, in contrast to prevailing depiction of the violence as actions of “dark forces” and “hardliners” behind the scene. Thirdly, the paper investigates unprecedented trend, which is an emerging conflicts between Burmese Monastic Order and its lay adherents, that would lead to a societal transformation in the long-run while the immediate and medium-term costs of the religious violence remain to be very devastating.

The paper examines the peace process between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government in their attempt to sign nationwide ceasefire agreement with the goal of holding political dialogue that would ultimately lead to peace and stability in the country. The study shows that despite the willingness to move forward with the peace plan, there remains lack of trust. For peace to prevail there needs to be short-term and long-term strategies. The short-term strategy should focus on critical issues such as ending armed conflicts in Kachin and Shan states, and building mutual trust between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government, particularly the military. The long-term strategy should focus on issues pertaining to post-ceasefire period of political dialogue, establishing a federal union, and achieving peace and national reconciliation.

United State and Myanmar relations have profoundly altered for the better during President Obama’s tenure in office. They have helped Myanmar move along a trajectory of progress with a speed that few could have predicted. But the credit for these changes must go to first to those elements of the Myanmar leadership within the tatmadaw, outside of it, and in the opposition who fostered such changes. The external elements are but supporting actors in this drama. US-Myanmar relations are at their apex since Independence in 1948. There are still many hurdles to overcome, any definition of “success’ is likely to engender dispute, and there is always the possibility of negative repercussions to internal chaos that could alter the best laid plans. Progress is sometimes tempered by stasis, progress by setbacks. Yet, in spite of the Cassandra cries of some both internal and external, modest optimism is the most appropriate prediction.

Myanmar saw little economic growth from 1962 to 1988 as it pursued a self-reliant industrialization strategy. Half-hearted economic reforms implemented in the 1990s bred crony capitalism and a rentier economy under military rule. Only in 2011 under the government of President Thein Sein that serious reforms to establish an open market economy were implemented. Consequently, some progress has been made in macroeconomic reforms. Despite achieving high GDP growth rates serious challenges and gaps remain and reformists in the government face hard choices as political stability and leadership succession issues become prominent in the lead up to the 2015 general election towards the end of the year.

In 2011 Burma embarked upon a program of economic reform. Designed to accompany and support the new quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein formed the same year, these reforms were also motivated to re-position Burma geopolitically. The economic reforms enacted thus far include measures to bring about greater macroeconomic stability, attract foreign investment, and deliver a degree of institutional change. Burma’s reforms are, however, components of a ‘top down’ process that as yet emphasizes state-direction over the assertion of economic rights and freedoms that, in the long-run, must be the true drivers of the country’s renaissance.

Despite common claims that monks in Myanmar are expected to remain aloof from politics, there is a long history of monastic political engagement in the country. This activism has continued during the present transition period, with monks being involved in issues from land rights protests to anti-Muslim campaigns. Of particular interest, beyond the mere range of issues, are the motivations and methods as well as the ways in which monks have justified their participation in political issues. Based on field work in Myanmar from 2011-2014, this chapter identifies four different ways that monks explain their participation. First is invoking the duty of a monk to defend the sāsana, the Buddhist religion, second is a further consideration of other “vocationally correct” ways for monks to participate in politics, third relates to the particular characteristics of monks, and the fourth looks at the importance of the intention behind any act and its purpose. The range of views on monastic political engagement reveals the ways in which the monastic vocation in Myanmar is being discussed, challenged, reinforced, and transformed during this period of change.

The present transition of Burma, known as President Thein Sein’s initiative, has been started by the military regime in 2003 by seven-step road map. The recent development of current Burma is the last step of the road map. The entire design of the transition totally excluded the voice of women and lack of gender inclusion. Since after 2012 bi-election, people of Burma has been experienced the conflict that emerged from the violence in the form of communal ones along with the idea of nationalism. Now, such violence has come to reach the peak and individual rights of Buddhist women are being manipulated under this scenario.


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