The deep roots of Myanmar’s crisis

The deep roots of Myanmar’s crisis

Can the history of Myanmar’s political economy help us make sense of the military coup?
In this episode of Himal interviews, we speak to Geoffrey Aung, an anthropologist of Myanmar whose area of research focuses on the politics of infrastructure and the economic history of postcolonial Myanmar. He is currently a PhD candidate at Columbia University. In the context of the military coup and ongoing violence against civilians, Aung talks to us about the changing composition and strategies of the resistance movement, the limits of international intervention, and why a nuanced history of postcolonial Myanmar might help us better understand the current crisis.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Shubhanga Pandey: Hello and welcome to Himal interviews. This is Shubhanga Pandey, the editor at Himal Southasian, and today I'll be speaking to Geoff Aung, an anthropologist of Myanmar, who works on the politics of infrastructure, and economic history of postcolonial Myanmar, and is currently doing his PhD at Columbia University.
In the context of the military coup and ongoing violence against civilians, in this episode we try to look at the roots of economic and political power in the country and see if a more nuanced history of postcolonial Myanmar helps us better understand the current crisis.
Hello Geoff, welcome to Himal southasian podcast.
Geoffrey Aung: Thanks for having me.
SP: I was thinking if we can start by talking about the resistance movements we're seeing in Myanmar. Because in a lot of reporting and coverage about the protests, we don't really get to know what the variety and what the composition of the various resistance movements and protests and strikes that are going on in the country, and also their geographical spread. So I was thinking if you could unpack this for us and just talk about what are the different forms of protest and why it's important to know that.
GA: There's a lot happening across the country and a lot has also changed certainly since early in mid-February as well. But we've seen in urban centers these massive demonstrations early on, occupying large intersections. We saw also in smaller towns and cities across the country similar large turnouts, large marches and demonstrations. There has been some institutional grounding for this ongoing show of mass defiance. So in Yangon, for example, the major trade unions were really important in swelling the demonstrations early on. There have also been, I mean in some ways the earliest thing that happened was a public sector strike right, and so there's a general strike that's the backdrop for all of this.
But it began with public sector workers, and so you had a certain amount of pre-existing structural unity maybe in some sense among public sector workers who had roughly shared experiences – not necessarily across sectors but within sectors, so let's say health workers of various kinds, civil servants in township administrations. There were also actually a lot of people who work at banks as well, were really important in terms of some of the economic implications of this general strike and then there are workers in certain industries like, let's say shipyard workers in Mandalay were really important, railway workers as well. So you could do a sectoral breakdown in some sense.
And then in other places, like in Dawei for example, quite consistently actually, even from early on, some of the most consistent, most organised demonstrations were run by teachers and engineers. And so teachers of course are part of the public sector and so again that's part of this public sector grounding to this Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). And then the engineers really raised the question of student unions as well, which in the Dawei area are pretty important political actors.
SP: And so do you expect, you know, because of the intensification of violence, the last two three weeks, I mean do we also see the nature of protests or the strategies changing in response, or should we expect to see that?
GA: Yeah, I think that's probably fair to say. One of the patterns that's taken shape has been essentially in many ways the security forces have managed to reclaim the central areas of a lot of urban centers and recurring demonstrations have shifted into typically tighter, more residential areas. In Yangon, for example, this has been one of the key patterns, and so demonstrations have shifted into tighter more residential areas as well as industrial outskirts and peripheries of various kinds, industrial zone areas – Hlaingthaya has the largest factory concentration of factories in myanmar, North Okkalapa is another industrial periphery for Yangon.
So demonstrations have sort of shifted to these areas where among other things it's possible actually for people to build more effective barricades and maintain more disciplined protest formations, but repression has followed. I mean there was massive bloodshed in both Hlaingthaya and North Okkalapa, but in some areas because of the tactical affordances of some of these areas they've actually been able to fight cops and soldiers to a standstill and there's a holding pattern in some places.
I would also say that as urban areas have become, as it's been more difficult to retake some of the really central urban areas, I would say that rural areas in general have become more important as well. So, for instance, around Dawei in the south, Dawei town is now relatively quiet although there are still strikes and demonstrations in Dawei, but the surrounding villages have really seen an upsurge in marches demonstrations and strikes which has been really amazing to see.
And we've also seen urban protesters in a replay of former uprisings, I mean basically in 1988.
We've seen protesters from urban areas also going to territory held by armed groups, particularly the Karen National Union where they're training in things like firearms, hand-grenades, tactical strikes on military facilities and so there's a lot of talk about expanded armed struggle. Of course the country has been in let's say varying forms of civil war for quite a long time now, so civil war is not something new. But we're seeing maybe the possibility of an expanded civil war, potentially.
SP: Right, and are there any kind of organisational or operational linkages between the National League for Democracy (NLD) and groups of protesters on the ground, because we also know there's a government in exile largely represented by I think NLD MPs. Is there any connection of that kind?
GA: Sure, there's a few key I guess institutional nodes in that sense that have also been quite important, of course. I mean there's the CDM the Civil Disobedience Movement and there's the CRPH which is, let's see what does that stand for, the Committee Representing the People's Hluttaw [lower house] I believe, so this was the elected government that was deposed in February, right. So these are largely NLD MP's as you say, and they've managed to stake a claim to being a sort of parallel government. And then there's the General Strike Committee, there's the General Strike Committee of Nationalities.
The relationships between these different institutions has been tense at times as far as I understand at least, I'm not someone who's on the inside of these conversations, so I can't really speak with particularly privileged information, but as one would expect, there are certain tensions and difficulties where you have let's say CDM which is a genuinely popular uprising which produces a very different kind of political character than the CRPH, which is a group of deposed MPs. Then you have the General Strike Committee of Nationalities which raises the question of the ethnic borderlands and what kind of representation they have or might expect from a shifting political terrain. These are difficult political questions to work out. I haven't seen any massive conflicts between these institutions erupting in public at least, so there's a certain amount of discipline in that sense that's been maintained, which is probably a good thing, but these are a few of the key institutions at least.
SP: Now if we can zoom out a bit from the immediate crisis and you know try to make sense of the political and economic structures and sources of power in Myanmar, especially over the past few decades. I was wondering if you could briefly describe the kind of economic or structural transitions that the country has experienced at various stages since 1948. Because the story we often hear is one of you know 60 years of authoritarian rule that's replaced by a multi-party democracy and now that's in crisis, but I guess the story is more complicated than that.
GA: Absolutely, it's a big topic, but I think a few things to keep in mind – one obvious thing is that the so-called multi-party democracy period of the last ten or so years would probably be better understood as a hybrid civilian-military diarchy right, so the military of course held quite a bit of power under this quasi-civilian democratic experiment, holding a few key ministries holding 25 percent of elected parliamentary seats, maintaining certainly massive economic power. So it would be a mistake to overestimate too much at least, the degree to which a full democratic blossoming had taken place, let's say.
And then for the preceding period of supposedly something like 50 years of authoritarian rule, there as well we have to differentiate somewhat carefully at least. So sometimes that kind of generalisation becomes something like, you know Myanmar has been under a kind of authoritarian socialist rule for 50 years and thus the reform period that seemed to take place beginning around 2010-2011 had to succeed, right. So I mean there was a flattening of the previous historical period that served to justify some of what I would say were quite unequal and unjust power relations going forward, because supposedly the preceding period was so bad we just had to accept whatever kind of opening that 2010-2011 period seemed to offer.

The country has been in let's say varying forms of civil war for quite a long time now, so civil war is not something new. But we're seeing maybe the possibility of an expanded civil war.

Now it was not 50 preceding years of authoritarian socialism, certainly in the sense that from the early 1990s we saw the beginning of a shift towards a market-oriented economy and so in the 1990s the socialist economy was really dismantled, private capital returned to the country, the military began taking up very important positions in the emergent private sector, especially through two military conglomerates that were founded during that time. There were a handful of national entrepreneurs which is a nice word for them, military associates who accumulated quite a bit of capital in the 1990s and became themselves sort of tycoons – they're known in a less friendly way as crony capitalists, I would say they're just capitalists but they run a lot of the really big private sector conglomerates in the country, so that was another key shift that happened at that time. And then in the 2000s there was a firesale of state assets, many of which went to these national entrepreneurs.
So you had a process of privatisation of market liberalisation over twenty-something years preceding that 2010-2011 reform period. Part of what that meant, I've argued at least, is that the military secured its position in the private sector in a way that they could formally at least relinquish some political power and still maintain quite a bit of control in the country through an alternative set of arrangements, namely again through the private sector. For me that's one of the key differences between the 88' uprising and the 2010-2011 period, because an election followed 88' right, I mean people tend to sometimes fall into saying the 88' uprising was some sort of failure, but it brought down the socialist government. The coup that happened at that point happened after the popular uprising because so much had been done to upend the existing order and the military did concede to holding elections; they just didn't recognise the results, right. And so why is it that by 2010-2011 they said okay, we will concede to at least a modicum of multi-party democracy – the key difference to me seems to be largely in that economic domain. And then you can go back even further right, so I mean you can always keep going back further, but the 60s, 70s and 80s, even there as well I think it would be a mistake to see this as a single stagnant period of military dictatorship.
One of the things that I find interesting when I talk with some of my older family members in Yangon is they emphasise actually that the military seized power in 62' but it really wasn't until something like the mid-70s or even the late-70s when it became grindingly clear how much had been lost. So for a certain period of time it seemed like okay this might be temporary. You know at that point as well, Burma, as the country was known in English, was really a regional leader; the education system was quite strong, the economy had been relatively strong, even things like the airport was the main travel hub in mainland Southeast Asia. In many ways, Thailand and Burma had reversed positions at that point. And so you know the military took power and people were like well you know how bad could it really get, and it took a while before that really became clear. There were the protests around U Thant's funeral in the mid-70s, there were strike waves as well, there was an ongoing communist insurgency, there were uprisings in the minoritised ethnic borderlands, there was a lot going on, but it wasn't really until the 80s when it got to a point where that kind of popular uprising could explode in the late 80s.
And even things like state-owned enterprises right, I mean it wasn't until the 80s that the massive failure of the developmental regime also became too much to ignore. And so even that period you have to carefully historicise right, so this is why I find it not entirely helpful to think of the 2010-2011 period as this dramatic break with supposedly preceding 50 years of authoritarian socialism, because it's just not accurate actually.
SP: Right, that's really useful and I think the nuances really help us think through maybe what's happening today. I mean for example, there's a lot of talk about how  the choices that the military made now seems irrational and flies in the face of all interests they might have. I mean if we follow the same logic of these kinds of constant calibrations they're making, on their political and economic power, can we understand the coup in that same way?
GA: Well I understand why it's been difficult and certainly for me as well, I include myself, it's been difficult to make sense of the logic and justification that the military might have had for seizing power and because in many ways, the political dispensation that they had done so much to shape for the preceding ten years was really quite a bit very much in their favor right, so why smash that alignment? Well there are a few things, for one thing I think as surprising as the coup seems to many of us, I think you could also argue that it in many ways instead of producing radical break with the preceding period, it simply entrenches pre-existing power relations where, as I've argued, the military maintained massive political power and certainly economic power as well, and so in a way the the coup simply formalises what had already been the reality. so there's that, there's also the fact that the economy did start looking pretty grim around 2017 and part of that owes to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, where you had some companies getting cold feet a little bit, you had western businesses that were showing a little bit more hesitation to invest and do business, you had tourists who started staying away, but there were other economic factors as well. I mean a lot of the larger projects that the NLD was trying to bring forward stumbled in various ways, you had also the NLD making very little progress on the peace process as well.
So there were a number of factors where you could say perhaps that the alignment between the military and the civilian political leadership was always a fairly tense one right and if it was based in some sense on a fragile base that was at least in part material, and that is to say economic, then if the economy starts looking pretty bad a few years ago, then you might say okay then the conditions that sustain that alignment were historical, right, and once they changed then you would expect the political alignment to change as well.
I have to say, I admit that's a somewhat speculative position, but I think it's worth considering some of those factors at least in a little bit more detail than they've generally been considered so far. I think it's been a little bit frustrating to see how quickly people have chalked it up to a question of personal animus between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, which is certainly there, I mean the top-level relations between the civilian political leadership and the military are not good, that's definitely true, and that absolutely matters. I just think that might be a starting place for trying to explain what's going on but I don't think it can be the end point of how we understand what's happened.
SP: You mentioned the potential flight of foreign capital or at least hesitation among some for investments in the country. Now there's a lot of conversation also about what the rest of the world can and should do in determining events and even outcomes in Myanmar and you know it's something that comes up immediately, the possible economic sanctions, withdrawal of capital, all of that. How grounded do you find those debates in light of what the nature of investments, the flow of capital, the political economy of Myanmar looks like today.
GA: Yes and no. I think it is true that western capital broadly speaking has become more important over the last 10 years just because, part of why the civilian-military diarchy, part of why that elite hegemonic pact kind of made sense was that it would bring more foreign investments to the country, mainly western capital, because Asian capital: Chinese investors, Thai, Singaporean had always been there. So in part, the story of Burma, of Myanmar as having been radically economically isolated was not entirely accurate, because there was plenty of business being done in the country, it just wasn't for the most part by western companies. So it is true that over the last 10 years or so, western capital has become more important, but it's still not even, not very close in terms of importance to Chinese capital, Thai capital, Singaporean capital.
For me at least, you know given the core dynamics of capital investment, of capital flows,  capital accumulation in the country, the core dynamics have depended on Asian capital for decades and decades and I don't see western sanctions radically altering that and I do think they would matter on the ground and I do think that the discussion around sanctions is not one that I tend to find very productive.

The so-called multi-party democracy period of the last ten or so years would probably be better understood as a hybrid civilian-military diarchy.

From the side of a lot of people who've been in the streets in the last couple of months, and not just the streets right, but also in the villages let's say as well, in these shows of defiance, supposedly there's a lot of support for like Responsibility to Protect (R2P) for example, supposedly there's a lot of interest in some form of foreign intervention whether that's UN intervention or western intervention. I think it's important to be honest about the likelihood of those kinds of scenarios, which is fairly low. I think where there could potentially be actions from foreign governments would be in terms of potential recognition of the CRPH as an alternative government. It's a very tricky issue because I mean as we saw like let's say with something like Venezuela right, where a bunch of countries suddenly recognised Juan Guaidó, is that you know then you suddenly open yourself to accusations of imperial intervention of one kind or another – It's a tough issue.
For me what it comes down to is that, I'm not necessarily against the attempts of advocacy groups based abroad or exiled groups to form relations with foreign governments or try to work at the level of the Security Council, and it's hard for me to to give a predictive account of any of those things, I'm just not involved in any of those discussions to be quite honest, so I can't really say for sure, in any granular detail why they might or might not go, but what I would say with a fair amount of confidence is that the most important factor is in some sense to keep the streets in one way or another i.e to maintain this kind of mass resistance in the country. Because let's say you can secure some form of action at the security council or let's say a handful of governments starts being willing to think about recognising the CRPH as an alternative government, I don't think that works without there being clear mass defiance of military rule on the ground. I mean maybe that kind of recognition could still be extended but what would it mean without this massive insurrectionary force in the country? I think it would fall quite flat and would become all the more risky to do that. And I don't necessarily want to set up an opposition between that sort of thing and what's happening abroad, but I just think that there's no comparison in terms of the importance. For me, what's most important is what happens at the level of material political struggle in the country.
SP: Now, coming to the end, I was just reading a report about you know thousands of workers who have returned to their villages to escape the crackdowns in Yangon and other larger cities and are now unable to support their families and you've also written in the past about growing dispossession of land in rural areas and this kind of steady undermining of rural working class, who either have to move to urban centers in the country or you know leave for Thailand or other countries for employment. What kind of impact do you think the coup will have on that situation and how that might affect the future of politics but also economy in Myanmar,  especially the borderland areas.
GA: Well, in some ways the return of migrants to rural areas is another phenomenon that teaches us maybe about something that was already the case for quite a bit of time, which is that rural areas have been sites of social reproduction, they've been sites that have in some ways underwritten capitalist development in the urban centers. In some ways the kinds of urban industry we've seen have always depended on the ability of largely young women migrants, to depend to an extent on their relations with rural areas. You could go back you know quite far with that. I mean to the core, arguably the core piece of the socialist developmental regime was a grain purchasing regime that was in place where there was a cap on prices for agricultural products, in order to subsidise the urban working classes right, which were supposed to be the engine of industrial modernisation.
So it's an old story in some ways for rural areas to be those sites that are falling back upon in times of crisis, but that question of dispossession and land politics, that's a question of trade and capital investment, and for the moment of course, a lot of that is you know essentially on hold right. So again, I think those kinds of dynamics don't necessarily depend too much on western capital broadly speaking. So I mean if and when this situation quiets down and however it resolves itself whether it's the military going forward or perhaps the the CRPH manages to get itself back in power or maybe with the sort of mass defiance, this mass resistance that we've seen, maybe it even pushes beyond a NLD-centric political vision, who knows.
I haven't seen a lot of critique of structural economic factors, so it seems to me that you would expect that whatever the next phase of this political crisis turns out to be, you would expect, again the core drivers of capital accumulation to more or less remain in place, which also means that the undermining of rural semi-subsistence would also probably continue and you would see people streaming back to the cities in one form or another, whether that's going back to Yangon or other industrial centers or certainly to Thailand. I don't think I've seen a ton of information about people going back from Thailand at this point of course, and there was some of this like with COVID, but with the political crisis of the last couple of months I think Burmese migrants in Thailand have been pretty happy to stay put. But there has been this, again the structural factors that lead people to seek out work in Thailand, seems to me those will remain in place going forward as well.
SP: Well, thank you Geoff for you know a really interesting and informative conversation, and thanks for joining us on Himal podcast today.
GA: Of course, thank you so much for having me, I'm a big fan of Himal and I'm very glad to chat for sure.
More podcasts and interviews by us.
Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian