By Maung Zarni
August 5, 2013
Over the past three years, change in Myanmar has transpired at a dizzying pace. A cursory look at the turn of events, ranging from the release of hundreds of political prisoners to restored diplomatic relations with the West, indicates on the surface a new national direction
after decades of dictatorship. But what is Myanmar transitioning towards and how best to understand the changes?
Thomas Carothers and Larry Diamond, two of the world’s leading authorities on democratization, reached more or less the same conclusion after recent visits to the country: that Naypyidaw’s goals, definition and modus operandi of “democracy” are at odds with the essence of a truly representative government.
Carothers likened Myanmar’s reforms with Arab leaderships’ top-down reforms in the decade prior to the Arab Spring convulsions that swept through the Middle East and Northern Africa. In his own words: “The steps taken by Arab governments were not democratizing reforms, rather they were carefully circumscribed efforts designed precisely to head off the possibility of true democratization by alleviating popular dissatisfaction with regimes.”
Diamond was more direct in his assessment of Myanmar’s situation: “I think the transition is still very much in an early stage, and it is not clear by any means at this point that electoral democracy will be the outcome of it or that electoral democracy is the intended outcome.”
Myanmar’s domestic barometer of reforms, opposition leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, initially endorsed President Thein Sein, an ex-general and former prime minister of the previous ruling junta, as a man she could engage in working towards democracy. However, in May she said there have been “no tangible changes” since his government’s much-lauded “democratic” reforms were launched beginning in 2011.
Why then is the international community coddling the country’s former and current generals and extending them aid packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of people, reforms and democratic transition? Why do Western governments continue to shower praise and prestige on Thein Sein and his supposed reformists even as they preside over a campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against ethnic Rohingya, mass anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by state-backed neo-Nazi Buddhist groups, and a humanitarian crisis driven by their escalation of war in Kachin State?
The short, blunt answer is the pursuit of capital interests. Myanmar’s generals have agreed to the externally driven, market transformation of its ailing political economy in exchange for access to Western aid and investment. It is noteworthy, however, that this re-engagement after year of sanctions-imposed isolation with the liberal West has been largely on Naypyidaw’s own terms, apart from a few symbolic concessions for public relations purposes.
From the perspective of global capitalists, Myanmar is viewed variously as a “resource brothel”, a “frontier market” and/or a strategic linchpin for respective “grand strategies” in the unending game of Great Power rivalry, currently waged mainly between China and the United States.
In the last decade of the 19th century, in parliamentary discussions in London, Burma, as the country was known under colonialism and military rule until 1989, was framed as “one of the world’s last unexplored markets” that awaited Britain’s “exploitation” – then a perfectly honorable word in reference to non-European communities and their natural resources.
In the days of Bible-and-gunboat imperialism, facilitated by Europe’s intellectual advances and the resultant Industrial Revolution, the expansionist rhetoric focused on so-called “civilizing missions” and the “white man’s burden”. In the post-World War II period, when overt empire-building was no longer fashionable, paternalistic discourses shifted towards “modernization” and “stages of development”.
New lingo, same agenda
Fast forward to the World Economic Forum held in Naypyidaw in June 2013 and the buzz phrases ranged from “top-down democracy”, “empowering civil society” and “socially responsible investment” and “corporate-assisted free markets”. Transnational corporations, government aid agencies and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) now effectively serve to deliver so-called progress, modernity and development on a capitalist platter
But at their darkened heart, international policies towards Myanmar are designed to extract optimal spoils out of one of the world’s last untapped frontier markets. Civilizations may indeed still clash over abstract faiths and manufactured belief systems, but the more consequential actors are capitalist elites and their supporting institutions geared towards the pursuit of maximized quarterly profits.
The feeding frenzy over Myanmar has revealed the paper thin line between the US policy establishment and its associated corporate interests. This June, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was seen downing Coca Cola straight out of a plastic bottle at a ceremony in Yangon. The occasion: the soft drink manufacturer, one of Albright’s corporate clients for her Albright-Stonebridge Consulting firm, had just opened its first-ever bottling factory in Myanmar.
As chair of the US National Democratic Institute, Albright was also reportedly in the country to promote democracy and interfaith dialogue. Her lesser known mission was to teach, as the Coca Cola website puts it, “the people who have never had a sip” how to drink Coke properly on behalf of one of her top corporate clients.
She is not the only one with an apparent conflict of interest between democracy promotion and personal profit. New York-based hedge fund honcho-cum-philanthropist George Soros has also bid to join Myanmar’s gold rush. He recently made an unsuccessful bid through a business consortium for one of the country’s two mobile telecom concessions offered for international bidders. His bid was placed while his Open Society Institute doled out funds for democracy, education and civil society development from a prime real estate Yangon office secured from the Ministry of Commerce.
Former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell, President Barack Obama’s initial point man for his Asian “pivot” policy, claimed while in government to oversee “the historic normalization of US-Myanmar bilateral ties”. Now, in his capacity as founding partner and chairman of the Asia Group, a private strategic advisory and investment group, Campbell “tirelessly advocates American interests, especially the promotion of trade and investment”, according to his company’s website.
That includes his group’s current bid to win a lucrative contract to upgrade and modernize the Yangon airport. “This is a thrilling opportunity to help advance the progress Myanmar has made over the past couple years by enhancing prospects for economic investments, and ensuring connectivity for Myanmar with ASEAN and the world,” he was quoted as saying about the still pending airport contract in a March 11 Foreign Policy article.
To be sure, the Americans are not alone. Amid the unfolding pogroms against the Rohingya and other Muslims, the Islamic Gulf state of Qatar apparently had no qualms in accepting a multi-billion dollar telecom contract from a government complicit in ethnic cleansing fellow Muslims. Nor did Norway’s telecom giant Telenor, a concession some commentators saw as a nod to Oslo’s decision to wind down its funding for exile groups, including the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma broadcaster that for years criticized military rule but now faces financial difficulties with the withdrawal of donor funds.
If Karl Marx were alive, he would clearly recognize the process underway in Myanmar – characterized by pervasive land grabs, economic disempowerment, armies of working poor, and filthy labor conditions that mirror the conditions of the English working class in the mid-19th century – as the often ruthless capitalist process he termed ‘primitive accumulation.’
Unlike Europe’s history where capital accumulation created a strong middle class and thus democratized feudal societies, Myanmar’s current economic and political reforms are simply aiding the ruling military-crony class. Those top generals have effectively refashioned themselves from ham-fisted isolationists to market friendly proxies for the global market forces driven by the European Union and United States.
Looking beyond the rhetoric of democratization, reforms, elections, and the limited binary perspective of hardliners and reformers, it is important to understand the driving forces behind the capitalist transformation of Myanmar into a global frontier market. Those forces are best understood through what I term a “Triple Insecurity Perspective”, or TIP, namely traditional national insecurity, global insecurity and human insecurity.
First, national insecurity straightforwardly refers to the permanent sense of in-security of nation-states, which in its crudest form is about the uncertainties with respect to “regime survival”. Second, global insecurity is defined as the overall sense of insecurity and vulnerability of the world’s economic and political order, which in turn rests on the security of the nation-states which make up the global political economy.
Third and finally, human insecurity refers to the absence of “the security of the individual and communities in which he or she lives as opposed to the security of the states and borders” – my own inversion of the definition offered by the London School of Economics Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit.
TIP argues that since the end of the Cold War global capitalism has been bringing communities, natural environments and national political-economies into a single overarching whole in a process widely referred to as “globalization”. Here the three discourses of security compete for primacy in policy making and practices.
While talking about the rule-based, predictable international order, every nation-state is preparing for eventualities such as calamity and war. Driven by a profound sense of insecurity, both domestically and internationally, even the United States is now known to be spying on its own allies, citizens and rivals alike as the global surveillance PRISM scandal clearly showed.
While all three of these insecurities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the issue of vulnerabilities – such as refugees, internally displaced persons, the unemployed, etc – typically get placed on the policy backburners. The security and well-being of persons and communities are trampled upon, literally and figuratively, especially when the other two insecurity regimes – national and global – team up to form an exclusive symbiosis out of strategic calculations and political expediency.
That is why we often read stories about how the policies and practices of states, corporations, multilateral agencies and international financial institutions collectively contribute to the detriment of grassroots communities and faceless human persons, their natural habitats and their access to livelihoods, safety, freedom of movement, association and so on.
Military crony capitalists
Seen through this prism of insecurity, or TIP, Myanmar’s “top-down democratic reforms” are less about democratization and more about global capitalism. They are primarily about the country’s national ruling elites making an elite pact with globalist capitalist forces while morphing into a social class of their own, namely military crony capitalists.
In this pact, national leaders open up their hotly sought after markets and resources in exchange for normalization, recognition, legitimacy and access to capital and technology. Naypyidaw is opening the country up only on the terms agreeable and favorable to its most powerful stakeholders, that is, the military and its national insecurity regime. In this process even the country’s most influential politician and global icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, has found herself on the global capitalist stage where she no longer controls the script, setting, or tone.
The still unfolding case of ethnically cleansed Rohingya Muslims presents an empirical and potentially revealing test case for the Three Insecurity Perspective. Having forged a symbiosis with Myanmar’s national security regime, the West and its capital interests have so far continued to unconditionally embrace Thein Sein’s “democratic” regime despite its well-documented complicity in the brutal pogroms against marginalized Muslim communities.
In spite of the abject poverty in Rakhine State, the areas the Rohingya co-inhabited with the Buddhist Rakhines until the pogroms last year are strategic and potentially lucrative in Myanmar’s emerging capitalist economy, including a strategic deep sea port, fertile agricultural land with potential for industrial agriculture, a resource-rich fishing industry, and the site of origin of China’s 2,100-kilometer long twin gas-and-oil pipeline designed to carry fuel across Myanmar into southwestern China.
The emerging symbiosis between global capitalist forces and the security interests of Myanmar’s ruling military-crony class has not been sufficiently weighed by most Western scholars and other Myanmar watchers. Most have ignored the hard fact that ethnic and religious minorities, 40% of the country’s total population, are being further marginalized and disenfranchised, pushed from their traditional lands or otherwise decimated.
In 2006, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization published a report which highlight the enormous commercial importance of the country’s minority regions. The report noted that the Irrawaddy Delta, the historical rice bowl of the country and the world in the 1920s and 1930s, is now saturated, while lucrative virgin lands are situated in Kachin, Chin, Karen and other borderlands. Norway is now bidding to broker “peace” between the Myanmar Army and its subject ethnic peoples in these same borderlands while Norwegian capital interests are already investing in Myanmar’s emerging mono-crop plantation sector.
In the civil war between East and West Pakistan in 1971, West Pakistani General Tikka issued a chilling order to his troops: “I want the land, not the people.” Chillingly, Myanmar’s national security regime is now bidding to reacquire perceived as lost land in western Myanmar without the Rohingya people. In the Karen and Kachin areas in eastern and northern areas, the army has reportedly “marked” for expropriation farm lands that now belong to the Karen and Kachin communities who lived under armed resistance groups.
Indeed, peace and development appear to be on the horizon as the Myanmar gold rush accelerates behind the push of foreign funds and local impunity. But without properly contextualizing Myanmar’s transition in this entangled web of three insecurities, understanding of supposed reforms, political change and democratization will remain half-baked – no less half-baked than a democracy being midwived by Naypyidaw’s national insecurity regime and its new global capitalist backers.
Maung Zarni (www.maungzarni.com ) is Associate Fellow with the University of Malaya Centre of Democracy and Elections and concurrently a Visiting Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics. He tweets @drzarni.
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