Burma Takes Lessons from Poland
Like the post iron-curtain Eastern Europe, Burma needs greater economic reform, a rebuilding of state institutions and a slow opening up of space for civil society that will create the conditions for political change over the next decade or two.
A generational shift in Burma is inevitable.
Poland is making its own direct contribution, by helping senior Burmese decision makers, opposition leaders and business representatives to understand the “technology of transition” – that is, the sequencing of technical reforms, which has helped to make Poland one of Europe’s healthiest economies today.
Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski during his visit was impressed by Burma’s willingness to open up and learn from other countries that have navigated the painful transition from dictatorship to democracy. One general asked him “How did you manage to implement such dramatic political changes without bloodshed?” A young woman at a democracy workshop told the assembled journalists and lecturers, “We thought that Burma was a one-off example. Now we see that countries far away have had very similar experiences. We feel less lonely – it all worked out for you.”
Given that spirit – and appropriate foreign assistance – we hope that it will all work out for Burma, too.
Burma has experienced a millennia of a corrupt and brutal Oriental tyranny, bound up in ageless custom, which had given way to a lighter picture of childlike and happy people, not particularly hard working or disciplined but with many attractive qualities and a welcome sense of individuality and independence. These interpretations of the Burmese character are important because they’ve proved long lasting, and have deeply influenced Burmese self perceptions.
For the British, it meant that Burma was not a very important place and that there were few serious policy choices to be made. More than half a century later, General Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council used the same characterisations to make the argument that the Burmese were not suited for democratic government and that for all the good things about them, they needed to learn discipline and teamwork. Life came too easy to the Burmese, and they had to work harder, learn to do things for themselves. Some British observers called Burma the Cinderella Province, beautiful and ignored compared to its sisters, Madras, Bengal and Bombay.
But British Burma also included areas that had never been part of royal administration. These were mainly the highlands that surrounded the Irriwaddy Valley, one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world, home to hundreds of languages and mutually unintelligible dialects and to an array of often proudly independent cultures, each melted in its own little mountain niche. Not surprisingly that it’s these very areas that have been the primary site of the country’s armed conflict for the past fifty years.
The Kachins, for example, were a medley of people who lived in the far north just below the Himalayan range. They were never part of the Burmese government system and in the late nineteenth century had taken to raiding and looting the frontier towns. They eventually accepted British ownership and American missionaries converted nearly all to one form of Christianity or another.
Other peoples in the region were from the Siamese-Chinese family – the Karens, and the Thai, the Mon or the Shans. Many of the Karens had joined the Baptist Church but the majority of Karen speakers were never Christian. Many Karens cooperated with the British rule after Thibaw’s downfall and large numbers of Karens were recruited into the army and military police.
The vast array of ethnic groups tended to increase the sense of difference and made harder the emergence of a single national identity.
In Colonial times Burma was a plural society, with different communities, with different religions, cultures and languages living side by side but separately. Many benefited from the peace and prosperity of the early colonial times anxious to enter the dynamic modernity showcased for them in Rangoon.
But the new and dynamic modernity was resolutely alien to the post 2WW independence movement, uncompromising British at the top and with an assortment of Indian communities, energetic and entrepreneurial, creating the country’s new urban class.
An anti-Indian character was deeply etched into the ethnic Burmese nationalism, with disastrous consequences in the years to come.
Soon a powerful ethnic nationalism, based narrowly on Buddhist and Burmese-speaking people, one that saw little need to accommodate minority peoples, took root. At the centre of this nationalism would be a desire for a new martial spirit.
The Burmese civil war was the longest-running armed conflict in the world. In Burma by the 1990s the military was the state. Army officers did everything.
The Indian communities in Burma had shrunk considerably since the early twentieth century but there certainly remained a strong Indian presence across the country, especially among the professional and commercial circles.
During the 60s, general Ne Win ordered hundreds of thousands men, women and children to be expelled from Burma and sent to India and Pakistan. Burma lost valuable human resources, educated professionals and entrepreneurs. Ne Win’s Burmese socialism had been an economic catastrophe
By 2006 the population was surging ahead reaching 53 million people, a very young population, the majority having been born after the 1988 uprising. Towns and cities became more crowded with fewer and fewer qualified teachers, doctors, businesspeople and inferior infrastructure, including lack of electricity. Many moved north in search of new opportunities or simply to survive to the jade mines and the bustling Chinese border towns or across to Thailand, where hundreds of thousands of Burmese today toil away illegally and for little money, in construction jobs, performing menial jobs and in the sex industry. HIV/AIDS spread rapidly, in a society with increased narcotics use and where family planning had been virtually nonexistent since Ne Win years. There is an impending human crisis in which millions of the country’s poorest are finding it impossible to meet basic needs or obtain the most essential health care.
The award of the Nobel Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 raised her profile enormously around the world and has been a great boos to a growing confederacy of Burma activists in London, Washington and elsewhere. The internet also helped the Burma lobby spread its message and gain political support.
In the transition to democracy, unlike as in Poland, the especially difficult challenges for Burma will be:
• Hundreds of different ethnic and linguistic groups who have been at civil war for over 60 years.
• Humanitarian crisis, brought about by war and poverty. Hundred of thousands of people are displaced by the fighting and tens of thousands more are refugees. There is a resilient narcotics industry where some of the richest businessmen are tied to the drugs trade.