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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The alien among us: searching for the meaning of David Bowie

A tribute to the man who reinvented pop culture and changed Britain, by John Gray, Olivia Laing, Philip Hoare, Kate Mosse, Paul Du Noyer, Kate Mossman, John Burnside, Will Self and Yo Zushi.

First published in a special issue of the New Statesman on 15 January, 2016, marking the death of David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016).

Philip Hoare: Lighting up a blacked-out Britain

In the hot summer of 1976, in white school shirt, black evening waistcoat and trousers, my hair slicked back and sprayed gold, I took the train to London where Kraftwerk’s crackling nuclear “Radioactivity” and the surreal brutality of Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou gave way to the man himself, sunken-cheeked, too thin to be caged by the fluorescent array of strip lights behind him. In the oceanic darkness of the arena, I felt I was utterly alone with him, like everyone else. He was in his new incarnation, as dark as the times: Jean Genet out of Man Ray, burned black and white into our monochrome dreams, singing of “the return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”. He arrived at Victoria in a slam-door train and was driven away standing in an open-top car like our great dictator.

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John Gray: The shifting shaman of the modern age

If your aim is to be original, you will most likely end up looking and sounding highly derivative. Striving for self-expression, you turn yourself into a mouthpiece for the ruling clichés. David Bowie did the opposite. Knowing himself to be – as a matter of fact or fate – utterly singular, he chose to become a clairvoyant who served as a channel for the shifting spirit of the age. Along the way a succession of selves emerged, each of them novel and original. A commonplace view has it that Bowie was a chameleon who kept reinventing himself in order to exploit the turns of fashion. But his changes served a deeper end. By becoming Nobody, he became many people and at the same time himself. . .

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Kate Mossman: Reading the runes

A week ago, critics were reviewing his new album, Blackstar, and trying to locate the surprise. It had to lie in the music this time, when last time it was all about the delivery. He’d gone and got himself a jazz band, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, whom he first saw playing the 55 Bar in Manhattan early in 2013 (with a power only Bowie could wield, he sent the sax player out to do some of the promotional interviews for the album). Many of the songs are semi-improvised, with a ponderous, ambulatory structure that adds to a sense of mystery unfolding.

The centrepiece title track is a strange, ten-minute movie-of-the-mind that starts in the unsettling soundworld of eastern deserts and then breaks, unexpectedly, into a light Motown-tinged ballad with a tune that wouldn’t be a million miles from Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love”, if you laid one on top of the other. This epic track actually came out last year, along with the album’s two other substantial offerings, “Lazarus” and “Sue”. I wondered if the joke, this time round, was that when you finally got your hands on Bowie’s new album you realised you’d already heard the best stuff for free.

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Yo Zushi: In defence of “bad” Bowie

Tonight remains the Bowie album I return to most often. Its critical panning seems, now that Bowie is gone, an aberration: no album that begins with the seven-minute masterpiece “Loving the Alien” and contains the rocking “Blue Jean” should have received the drubbing it got. The TV-special-style cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is as stirring, in its cold, almost Brechtian way, as Station to Station’s “Wild Is the Wind” (1976) – it’s like watching Elvis in Vegas through a sheet of ice.

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Kate Mosse: King of the outcast girls and boys

Where were you when you heard the news? My ma had always said she could remember precisely what she was doing, how the day felt, when she heard Elvis Presley had died. I’d never understood what she meant, not really, until today. I thought I would never forget the white of the tablecloth at the Santa Catalina Hotel, the swirl of Spanish and German, a little Russian and English being spoken around me. A half-eaten piece of bread and a third cup of coffee, growing cold. A little cheese and an apple cut in four.

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Will Self: A vaudeville star who spun new worlds

Unlike “Sir Mick” and “Sir Elton”, Bowie had refused state honours from the British government. And he’d done it not once, but twice. The message was clear: he didn’t seek status or preferment in this world, at least not the sort politicians dole out. I never met him myself. Indeed, my only direct connection with him was fairly bizarre: a copy of Alethea Hayter’s classic work of literary-critical history Opium and the Romantic Imagination, with “David Bowie” inscribed on the flyleaf, together with his Swiss address, in charmingly juvenile, cursive handwriting. I’d acquired the book from a friend, Kevin Armstrong, who at the time (mid-1980s) was playing guitar in Bowie’s Tin Machine band. It kicked around the house for some years until, suffering from my conscience, I mailed it back to him.

He never thanked me, even though I’d put a return address, but I bore no ill-will; I reasoned he must be busy. Or, if not busy, like some deity who’d created not just one world but many, he was resting from his ­labours. I wouldn’t claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie’s oeuvre but then I don’t need to – his music, in common with that of the Beatles, constitutes the backdrop on to which the transitory experiences of my own life have been projected; a romantic imagination indeed.

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A Martian up a ladder throwing paint at a canvas

Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.

It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.

Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.

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Paul Du Noyer: Close encounters with the Bromley boy

Where the former Beatles turned their speech into Scouse-American sing-song and Mick Jagger trademarked a high-camp mockney drawl, Bowie’s pronunciation remained as neatly clipped as a Beckenham privet hedge. He chose his words with studious precision and delivered them with the quiet stoicism of an Ealing Studios RAF pilot. He knew that journalists are easily seduced by famous people who remember their names, and could flatter you with earnest inquiries about life back in England.

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This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie