Burma: the history behind the protests

Burma specialist Dr Michael W Charney, author of the History of Modern Burma, gives his ana

Burma (officially named Myanmar) has been under de facto military rule, in one guise or another, since 1962. In 1987, Burma received least developed nation status, inflation was out of control, and demonetization of Burmese bank notes had impoverished the middle class.

A spark was provided by a fight between students and locals at a teashop in 1988, but like the present demonstrations, which were initiated by increases in fuel prices, protests quickly coalesced around the issue of Democracy, whose introduction, it was widely believed, would invite effective government and sound economic policies.

Instead, the military reacted swiftly and harshly. In general appearance, the present demonstrations appear eerily reminiscent of those in July and August 1988.

Nevertheless, there are key differences. Of course, the current demonstrations are on a smaller scale, even given the recent crowd of 100,000 in Rangoon (also known as Yangon), but this may change over the next few days or weeks if they are not quickly suppressed by Burmese riot police and soldiers.

More importantly, while monks did participate in the 1988 demonstrations, they did not lead them, which is a unique feature of the present protests. Monastic garb provides some protection against soldiers who might easily fire on a civilian, but who would suffer a serious loss of merit in harming or even killing a monk.

Moreover, while government propaganda has for two decades portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) as agents manipulated by the West, hurting their appeal, monks command the respect of most in Burmese society both outside the army and within it.

Although according to the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, in Burmese history monks have played an important role in social activism, especially in the 1920s when they led rural opposition to colonial authorities and urban moneylenders. This is due to colonial heritage.

As the British turned the traditional intermediaries between the throne and the villager, the village headmen, into agents responsible only to the colonial state in the 19th century, Burmese communal identity and cooperation centred on monks. In a society where the two main institutions are the military and the monastic order, it is only natural, when the regime permits no other outlets for dissent, that monks should stand up and play again their historic role in voicing the complaints of Burma’s general population against military rule.

In September 1988, a military coup established the first of two military 'councils' that have ruled the country and whose members and their respective families have pillaged the economy through privatization ever since. At the time, the regime promised to improve the economy, provide peace, and ensure stability to set the right conditions for the transfer of power to an elected government. Although the regime permitted elections in 1990 it refused to recognize the sweeping victory of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to remain under house arrest.

The Western and Japanese response to the failure of the regime to recognize the NLD’s 1990 electoral victory was too slow and fluctuating to be effective. Sanctions imposed on the country in the last two decades have thus appeared to be ineffective in the short term.

A lifeline was also thrown to the regime by members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) who were more interested in gaining an economic stake in the country than supporting Democracy. As Western sanctions have expanded and ASEAN has begun to reconsider the domestic situation in Burma as a threat to stability in the region, the regime has had time to reorient itself economically to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which was just as anxious to draw Burma into its economic orbit, gain access to its natural gas and oil reserves, and to gain more direct access to Indian Ocean trade.

However, Western sanctions may have been crucial in an indirect way over the long term. The regime’s dependence on the PRC has made it vulnerable to shifts in the PRC’s international relations. Although the PRC has played a key role in stymieing attempts to bring the Burmese situation up before the UN Security Council, it is also concerned about improving its international profile now that it is sponsoring the 2008 Olympics and is eager to counter the negative press resulting from recent problems with Chinese exports to the US and elsewhere.

Moreover, the PRC is most interested in political stability on its frontiers. Although backing the military regime in Burma has appeared to be a safe bet in pursuit of this goal, widespread domestic opposition in Burma and the promise of rallying at the UN against the regime may change this view.

Indeed, recent reports suggest that the PRC is finally pressuring the military regime in Burma to engage in serious negotiations with the Democratic opposition. Unable to turn to anyone else, the regime is increasingly finding itself stuck in a corner and will either have to fold or more completely isolate itself from the international community.

It is well past the time when the kind of increased US sanctions promised by President George Bush would have had any tangible impact on Burma’s domestic political situation. Currently, the only realistic chances for Western states to encourage a peaceful transfer of power in the country is to exert soft pressure on the PRC to persuade Burma’s military leadership to relinquish control of the state to those elected in 1990.

Michael Charney is currently Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS and is a specialist in Burmese history. His research focuses on Burmese intellectual and religious history. He is the author of Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma’s Last Dynasty, 1752-1885 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2006) and has recently completed his manuscript for The History of Modern Burma for Cambridge University Press.

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Donald Trump and the age of rage

What the rise of Trump tells us about our failing politics.

I met Donald Trump at a party in midtown Manhattan hosted by Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair journalist. It was October 1999 and the party was being held to celebrate the launch of Dunne’s new book, The Way We Lived Then, which is about old Hollywood (the title is a nod to Anthony Trollope).

Trump wasn’t there to talk to people, of course, but to be photographed, an ambition at which he fully succeeded, significantly helped by the presence of his striking new girlfriend, Melania Knauss (now his third wife). Trump’s urgent need to be noticed manifested itself as a kind of weird social radiance. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that I’ve forgotten the other guests at that party, many of equal ­celebrity, far greater achievement and much more ­interest. Trump registers with people, including, to my surprise, with me.

Those strands of Trump’s personality have served his presidential ambitions well. He leaves an impression, his central point of difference from the amorphous Beltway professionals whom he ridicules. “Ghastly” or “vulgar” aren’t really criticisms in Trump’s world-view; “forgettable”, however, is the bottom of the moral scale. This instantly creates asymmetries for his opponents: it is difficult to inflict reputational damage on a politician who neither needs nor craves respectability.

But personal magnetism – I cannot bring myself to type “charisma” – does not explain the Trump phenomenon. He is the most spectacular beneficiary of something far wider and more international: the perception that politics as we know it is failing. Running against Washington is as old as Washington, but never has it looked quite like this.

How do you like anti-politics now? For it is anti-politics – the contempt for the “establishment” and the convenient flight from serious debate about how it could better exercise power – that has taken Donald Trump to within striking distance of a shot at the White House. And as the search for the right person or plan to stop him becomes frantic (the responsibility is America’s, the concern is global), we should ask the wider questions. What if intelligent people – pundits and voters alike – had stood up more bravely for the political mainstream, pointing out the necessity of compromise, pragmatism and disappointment? Strands of the Republican Party now regret the visceral attacks they sanctioned against President Obama. The party unleashed a demotic rage that subsequently turned against its own establishment. The analogy applies far beyond the Republican Party: is anti-politics a parlour game that has got out of control?

Ironically, the ascent of the establishment as a focus of hatred and political anger has coincided with the decline of the establishment as an instrument of power. Think of the weakness of the establishment currently governing the Republicans in America. It has proved notably useless at doing all the things establishments are supposed to do: manipulate power behind the scenes, undermine mavericks and keep the show on the road.

This failure seems especially out of character for the Republicans. Even allowing for the insanity of its Tea Party strands, you would have expected the GOP – if its “establishment” was what we imagined it to be – to have snuffed out this Trump nonsense, probably during a grouse shoot in South Carolina, or over a few holes of golf at Augusta National in Georgia. Isn’t power what these people do? No longer, it seems, except in our imagination. So why are we so sure that the establishment, which can’t even cough up a decent candidate, is the power pulling the strings? I am beginning to wonder if the establishment’s new role, far from the exercise of unchecked power, is to provide a convenient palliative sideshow. So long as we insist that the establishment is messing up the world, then we won’t have to face up to tangible and worsening political problems and our reluctance to debate them seriously.

***

Donald Trump is both the em­bodiment of political failure and the result of political failure – or perceived political failure. He represents political failure because he has accelerated the descent of political discourse: “They’re rapists, build walls, ban Muslims.” He is the result of political failure because he taps in to a deep, subliminal anger: the conviction that “the system” has betrayed and abandoned the people.

Why do so many people feel this way, to the extent that even Trump (and other preposterous candidates) become palatable? Despite widespread political correctness, there is one group that it is perfectly legitimate to despise: politicians. When I worked for a newspaper, I was surprised one day to hear a reporter, usually so fair and mild-mannered, describe her hatred and contempt for politicians – “the worst people, just disgusting”. This is the kind of comment you hear from normally civilised and balanced people, who usually don’t know any politicians personally, but feel quite certain of the truth of their conviction.

In Britain, the parliamentary expenses scandal, though indefensible, was not the cause of this contempt, but rather its consequence. Given the strength of the underlying hatred, an appropriate story was always going to come along that allowed our contempt to be channelled into ridicule. I’ve seen news stories operate along the same lines in professional sport. When a manager or team has become unpopular with the fans, an event or “error” will act as a lightning rod for general ill-feeling. Usually the tipping point is quite routine; people get away with much worse when their stock is high.

Why are politicians and the “establishment” so despised? The new populism is partly a delayed consequence of the end of deference, in part fuelled by the emergence, especially on social media, of a strong, hard-edged and almost daily picture of “the will of the people”. Maybe this is what real democracy looks like?

Economics is also central to the “age of rage”. In the loosest terms – except among the very poorest – even “late capitalism” has continued to raise absolute living standards, albeit increasingly slowly. But few people judge their wealth according to absolute living standards. Wealth is perceived as relative to something else: relative to the past, relative to others (especially those inside “the establishment”) and, crucially, relative to individuals’ own expectations.

By those criteria, most people feel much poorer. The political class itself is the target of these economic frustrations, exacerbated by the financial crisis, even though politics is far from a complete explanation.

Second, there is a sense that politics has “failed” at ground level. This has two deep causes, which, taken together, create a significant credibility gap. First, as politics has been professionalised, its practitioners have become better at knowing what to say to get elected. Whatever their other failings, none of us can doubt that politicians spend more time than ever working out what the electorate wants, and devote greater energy towards trying to suggest that they know how to deliver it.

Having professionalised electoral messaging, politicians simultaneously professionalised avoiding controversy once in power. The degeneration of the political interview into unlistenable banalities is only one side of the coin. The flipside is the gaffe-hungry media, encouraged by an anti-politics sentiment in the electorate. The “gotcha” culture of debate doesn’t make politicians accountable, it makes them evasive.

The continual threat of being “caught out” saying the wrong thing – or saying ­anything – coexists with the perpetual expectation that politicians will be saying something at all times. We have drifted towards the assumption that politicians will speak in public non-stop, yet without taking any risks: the definition of a boring conversation. Trump’s ghastly voice seems fresh to so many people because he isn’t schooled in this tradition.

Professional political strategy clings to the notion that any vacuum creates space for an opposition advance. I think they’re wrong, and that it is impossible for politicians to have interesting and important things to say on the hour, every day. My view, in contrast, is that politicians devalue their own words by printing too many of them. But would they do it if the electorate didn’t expect it?

***

The ultra-professionalisation of politics has coincided with a huge crunch on the state’s capacity to expand. A simplistic history of politics in the second half of the 20th century would show parties winning power by handing out an ever-expanding range of goodies. Today, however, that ­arrangement is pincered from three sides: an ageing population, burgeoning expectations, and the weight of existing commitments to taxpayers, such as pensions. So, the central challenge facing overstretched liberal democracies is obvious: people want more services and benefits than they want to pay for. (Evidence that voters prefer not to focus on this contradiction lies in the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders, who promises more of everything without explaining how to pay for it. Both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns channel political disenchantment, but they exploit the feeling in opposite ways.)

For governments, however, a credibility deficit accumulates over the long term. And even quite effective administrations, as a result, leave the impression of significant underachievement. In other words, just when politicians have professionalised the art of saying the “right” thing, they have found it harder than ever to get things done in office. As with living standards, it is this deficit – the gap between political promises and governmental performance – that is causing problems, not the performance alone. Are today’s governments really worse than some of those gone? If so, when exactly were these exceptional governments of the past? These questions, intriguing as they are, do not figure in how people think.

How can the political class narrow the credibility gap? The tempting answer is to suggest providing the kind of sparkling, error-free government that has never existed and never will exist. The other problem, revising improbable expectations, at least might be achieved. In the ultra-professional era, political parties have suffered from a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: if, despite the long-term problem of credibility, they don’t play the media-friendly game of promises and button-pushing, someone else will.

After all, what does the alternative look like? “You can’t have this, lower your expectations, things are going to be hard”: it’s easy to see why politicians don’t relish saying these things, even when they’re true. The whole process that has led to today’s political disenchantment is all too rational: rational politicians coming up with rational avoidance strategies for problems that may not be soluble. Haven’t we, the electorate, played a part in that process, too?

Domestic frustrations are compounded by threats emanating from abroad. Hyper-terrorism, globalisation and migration on an unprecedented scale are huge problems and challenges with no obvious solutions. Donald Trump has exploited fears on both counts with crass answers. How much harder it is to turn complex approaches to the two problems into easy soundbites.

When I was living in New York in the late 1990s, the Clintons seemed to represent a great deal of what was wrong with politics. Ethically they hovered somewhere between dodgy and outright corrupt. Their personal relationship seemed an extension of political lobbying, more an alliance than a marriage; politically they told us how much they cared, rather than showing it. Bill had the partially redeeming quality of charm. Hillary had a talking-clock voice and predictable opinions – her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, was beyond parody – without Bill’s knowing wink.

And now? If she is up against Trump in November, I will happily stuff envelopes and campaign for her. Whatever it takes. The nature of my U-turn says everything about Trump: nothing about Hillary, whose reputation has become even more tarnished and whose political voice is more jaded. If she must be the future, we can be in no doubt about the impoverishment of the choice.

There is a view that a win for Hillary, and the restoration of competent (but cynical) middle-ground politics, will show the hollowness of anti-politics as a movement – a frenzy that won’t survive the cold rationality of the ballot box. This opinion holds that it is parties that have gone nuts, not the people. “This is not the revolt of the public against the party leadership,” argued Philip Collins in the Times. “It is the revolt of the party activists against the public.”

Yet the view that a Hillary win will see predictable centrism safely restored feels wide of the mark. I doubt a simple reprisal of Clinton-Blairism (which Daniel Finkelstein defined as the idea that it is “possible to do everything without upsetting anybody”) can get us out of this hole. Trump taps in to something frightening. If it’s defeated this time, it will still come back, even if the man will not. Until the deficit of political credibility is reduced, the demotic potential of the populist “outsider” will remain.

And next time I’m pretty sure it will be someone nastier than Donald Trump. The need is to find a better Hillary Clinton. That will only get harder if intelligent people go on paying lip-service to anti-politics. There are always establishments. The important question is how good they are.

Ed Smith is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster