The Lady and the Generals

Aung San Suu Kyi's electoral victory could bring political reform to Myanmar. Economic justice is another story.

On election night in Myanmar, as results trickled in and it became clear that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had won in a landslide, thousands jubilantly crowded outside the party headquarters in Yangon. The air seemed filled with a sense of catharsis — a feeling of deliverance from long suffering under decades of military rule. As one voter said the night of the November 8, 2015 contest, “This is our chance for freedom.”

Yet outside the majority-ethnic Burman lowlands, scenes of exultation were notably absent. While the NLD performed well in these areas, reports indicated disengagement from the electoral process, low voter turnout, and concerns about the NLD’s ability to govern.

Elsewhere, disaffection with electoral politics was the least of concerns. On Election Day in the northern Shan State, the Myanmar military continued bombing the Shan State Army-North. And in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, Rohingya Muslims spent Election Day confined to camps for the internally displaced — this after anti-Muslim violence swept an area where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been living in abject exclusion.

Formal disenfranchisement in the months leading up to the vote was simply the most recent affront. For the first time since independence in 1948, Myanmar’s new parliament — to be seated later this month — will be without a single Muslim representative. “There’s no future for us here,” said one Rohingya teacher.

What, then, to make of this “landslide”? Who gains what, who loses what, and what kinds of oppositional politics have been opened up or closed down? How should the latest transformation in state governance be understood in the context of longer genealogies of power, politics, and political economy in the country?

Among commentators in Myanmar, the word “landslide” has largely lost its metaphorical power. For over two decades, this descriptor served as the default adjective with which to characterize the NLD’s electoral victory in 1990 — an election the military annulled, leading to a retrenchment of military rule. In the aftermath of November’s election, foreign news outlets reported a “historic win” for the pro-democracy opposition — a definitive rupture with the country’s authoritarian past, “ending decades of military-backed rule,” and the realization of Suu Kyi’s Mandela-like “long walk to freedom.”

Surprisingly, the military has shown no signs of interfering with the election results or scuttling the transfer of power. And Thein Sein, the former military general who has had led the country since 2011, has been praised by some as “Myanmar’s real champion of democracy” and “the real hero of the reform process.”

But why, we might ask, has the military allowed the present transition to proceed when it refused to recognize the 1990 election outcome? What has changed in the present moment, and what remains the same?

The Passive Revolution

Several theories about what’s behind the military’s apparent openness are making the rounds. According to some commentators, in the years leading up to 2010, Myanmar’s military generals became increasingly aware of their country’s undeveloped condition compared to neighbors like Singapore and Thailand. This realization is said to have prompted the post-2010 loosening of political restrictions, which have consequently ushered in a “revolution from above” in which the military has voluntarily given up power for the sake of Myanmar’s overall economic and social development.

The development argument is not totally implausible — surely some military figures sincerely want  better social and economic conditions — but it remains ahistorical. It also risks veiling a series of narrow, entrenched interests behind a discourse of the general good.

Another prominent line of analysis points to the 2008 constitution. Produced through a military-dominated drafting process, the document reserves 25 percent of parliament seats for the military — so any constitutional amendment requires military approval. The new constitution also bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from holding the presidency. (The clause, 59-f, was written with Suu Kyi in mind; her late husband was British, and her two sons hold British citizenship.)

Additionally, the constitution authorizes the military to appoint the heads of three key ministries: Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense, and doesn’t recognize the federalist demands of ethnic minorities — against whom, in some parts of the country, the military continues to prosecute crippling counter-insurgency campaigns.

These facts underpin the constitutional explanation: the transition has been allowed to proceed because the constitution protects and preserves the place of the military in Myanmar’s political domain for the foreseeable future.

If the development argument suffers from a surfeit of generosity toward the generals, the constitutional argument evinces a limited view of politics — as if formal constitutional arrangements and struggles at the top exhaust the space of politics in Myanmar. Moreover, both arguments either ignore or obscure deeper class transformations that have been unfolding for generations in Myanmar and fail to situate the NLD’s recent victory in Myanmar’s post-1988 market liberalization reforms.

For many democracy advocates in Myanmar, the 1988–1990 period was a failed democratic revolution. The NLD emerged out of a popular uprising in 1988 and became the country’s most prominent organized opposition. But the military cracked down on student protesters and the nascent party, nullified the 1990 election results, and reconsolidated its power.

Confronted with broad popular opposition at home and international condemnation abroad, the newly installed military council tried to placate calls for political liberalization by implementing a process of gradual economic liberalization, rolled out over the next two decades. Restrictions on imports and exports were loosened, government distribution of subsidized staple goods was ended, and private foreign investment was actively courted.

A series of effects was legible even in the nineties. Myanmar’s agricultural export growth increased the value of agricultural land, fueling a consolidation of land ownership, the proletarianization of many smallholders, and increased economic disparity in rural Myanmar.

Inflation through much of the decade, in combination with the elimination of government subsidies, led to a rising cost of living for the country’s mostly poor population. (More recently, the intensification of military and corporate land grabs has further consolidated agricultural land.)

Significantly, this first wave of market liberalization coincided with — and indeed, was made possible by — the emergence of what some call Myanmar’s “crony businessmen.” With close ties to the military, major figures like Tay Za (of Htoo Trading Co.) and Zaw Zaw (of the Max Myanmar group) established and developed their businesses beginning in the 1990s.

Some, like Khin Shwe (chairman of Zaykabar Ltd.) and Htay Myint (chairman of the Yuzana group), even became members of parliament (MPs) in the Union Solidarity and Development Party, Myanmar’s previous ruling party, before succumbing to defeat in the recent election. Others who ran as independents — Sakura Htay Aung, Zawtika Khin Hlaing — also were defeated.

Tellingly, however, the mood among the ousted businessmen appears far from grim. Khin Shwe, for one, has said he’s optimistic that he will profit from increased foreign investment under an NLD government.

The rise to prominence of a distinct group of capitalists in the nineties amid a newly market-oriented economy marked a profound shift in Myanmar’s economic history. Even before the military’s 1962 coup, the parliamentary socialist government under U Nu associated private capital with colonialism.

Through state-led industrialization policies — beginning under U Nu and reaching their zenith under the post-1962 Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) — private capital was to be disavowed and overcome through an austere developmental socialism.

Unlike neighboring countries, Myanmar’s class landscape displayed a conspicuous lack of monopoly houses, entrepreneurial capital, or rural landed elites. Instead, there was only a pallid bureaucratic-managerial elite, backed by a militarized state apparatus that continued to control key industrial sectors and public services. While socialist in name, the BSPP’s own ideological architect acknowledged that the arrangement could more accurately be described as “state capitalism.”

Against this backdrop of developmental militarism — on the verge of collapse by the late 1980s — Myanmar’s new capitalists represented a marked departure. In addition to the emergence of figures like Tay Za and Zaw Zaw during the nineties liberalization period, numerous military officials also acquired independent for-profit enterprises and set up two military-controlled holding companies: the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (established in 1990) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (established in 1997).

The post-1988 economic transition, then, was characterized by both a transformation and a reconsolidation of military-capitalist class rule — developments that occurred well before the political shifts of the past five years.

Still, the contrast between the two periods is striking. In 1988, there was no independent capitalist class to speak of. Now there’s a small but growing capitalist class comprised of influential businessmen who came into their own during the nineties, military leaders who moved into directly capitalist enterprises, and a host of smaller-scale actors.

While long-dominant sectors — oil and gas, mining, timber, industry — are still growing, Myanmar’s private sector has become increasingly diversified, with a burgeoning technology sector, service economy, consumer sector, and manufacturing sector.

Crony businessmen like Tay Za, Khin Shwe, and Htay Myint do not together constitute a fully developed capitalist class, nor do they exercise a hegemonic position — in fact, they are routinely vilified throughout Myanmar. Nonetheless, in the 1990s, such individuals brought private capital back into Myanmar, and today, a much bigger, more varied capitalist class does seem to speak from a position of influence.

Look no further, for instance, than the liberal political class and the mass of Western-funded civil society organizations, who are content with the dominant economic vision of the outgoing government. While trumpeting a message of change, the NLD’s economic approach is also one of continuity.

In broad terms, a neoliberal growth consensus reigns across the formal political spectrum and in civil society. And Myanmar’s middle and upper classes are fully under the sway of the capitalist classes’ moral-political leadership. The generals and their cronies can now retreat from formal politics, secure in in the knowledge that the NLD victory will further enrich their position.

Antonio Gramsci’s theory of passive revolution is useful here. For Gramsci, passive revolution was the process through which the Italian state modernized “without passing through the political revolution of the radical Jacobin type.” Much later, Indian scholars drew on Gramsci’s work to understand the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism and shifts in class relations in postcolonial politics.

Central to all uses of the concept is the idea that passive revolution consists, in large part, of the absorption of forces of opposition, not just through domination, but also, in Gramsci’s words, through “moral and intellectual leadership” — in other words, hegemony. No Jacobin spectacle, no clear modern prince, only the “molecular” modification and recombination of shifting class alliances within broader relations of power.

In Myanmar, modernizing reforms have produced a new hegemony of dominant classes while leaving subordinate classes in a condition of subalternity. Under this “revolution without a revolution,” elites have conceded to a limited set of popular demands — but only as means to reconsolidate and maintain existing class rule, co-opt formal political opposition, and subvert demands for more radical political change.

Dyarchy Redux

While radical political change would require the full subordination of military to civilian rule, it is unclear how this could be realized any time soon. As noted above, the 2008 constitution allocates 25 percent of parliamentary seats to unelected military personnel; constitutional amendments require the support of at least 75+1 percent of the parliament; and the military retains full ministerial control over Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense.

The military has been placing officers in civilian posts within the Health, Education, and Energy ministries, as well as the Supreme Court. Hence the NLD, despite winning 78 percent of the country’s electoral districts, will hold only 59 percent of the parliamentary seats, and its political class will still be dwarfed by the heavily militarized bureaucratic-managerial elite.

This constitutionally mandated dual legislative structure — a mix of elected and appointed parliamentary seats — has been likened to the dyarchy system introduced in Myanmar under colonial rule in 1923. During the colonial period, critics immediately recognized the dyarchy system as a ploy to incorporate moderate Burmese politicians into the colonial state apparatus. At the same time, the institutional setup weakened the anti-colonial opposition and sidelined demands for immediate independence by the more radical anti-colonial activists.

Today, “dyarchy” describes not only the ominous admixture of authoritarian and liberal political forms, but also the military’s occupation of the position once held by an overt colonizing force. For ethnic minorities beyond — and in some cases within — Myanmar’s lowlands, the idea of a new colonialism is no merely metaphorical claim.

As one ethnic activist wrote in the lead up to the election, “What we have now is a new brand of colonialism [where the] government continues the tradition of colonial oppression by dominating the people, especially in areas populated by ethnic minorities.”

Amid this dyarchy redux, can we expect the NLD to challenge the country’s emerging status quo from within?

Suu Kyi has made it clear she intends to seek constitutional reform to limit the power of unelected military members of parliament. Narrowly focusing on constitutional reform, however, overlooks the extent to which the shape of the country’s evolving structures of power are being determined by extra-parliamentary actors with influence over the country’s economic policy.

Recent liberalization shows that the NLD is now completely under the spell of the capitalist classes. Following the 2010 election, international sanctions on Myanmar were loosened in an effort to attract investment from Euro-American companies.

At the beginning of 2012, the World Bank began re-engaging with Myanmar, lending funds to government agencies and providing technical advice on “debt management [and] foreign investment law.”

By the end of the year, the Myanmar government had introduced a law allowing foreign companies full ownership of ventures within Myanmar, providing tax breaks to foreign investors, and permitting outside investors to hold long-term land leases. (An updated version of the legislation, which likely further reduces restrictions on foreign investors, has been under consideration for the past year.)

A diversification of capital flows is also afoot. After the post-1988 economic transition, inter-Asian investment in Myanmar grew significantly, but incipient north Atlantic capital was shut out through Euro-American sanctions. While inter-Asian capital movement is still considerable, since 2012 American and European capital has re-embraced the country. Western media have responded with hype and hyperbole, describing opportunities for foreign investment in Myanmar as “a gold rush.”

Those who would look to the NLD to challenge the hegemonic policies of financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF will be sorely disappointed. Its economic platform voices support for numerous worrying policies — immensely expanding the use of “under-utilized” land, promoting investment in agribusiness and agro-forestry, and privatizing property rights and state enterprises.

The party has even cozied up to Myanmar’s new business elites. It accepted financial contributions during the election from Tay Za and Zaw Zaw; Tay Za gifted Suu Kyi a “platinum membership” for his airline Asian Wings, enabling her to fly at no charge “for the rest of her life.”

In short, prospects for change from within the new dyarchy appear bleak. The NLD does not seem interested in fighting the new power structures or contesting key parts of the old structures. The sole exception — the party’s legalistic crusade against the 2008 constitution — arguably has more to do with Suu Kyi’s desire to become president than any substantive commitment to political transformation.

Emerging Contradictions

In the face of a complex, shifting political economy, Myanmar’s military figures have done a great deal to secure their position. Through the post-2010 reforms, Myanmar’s generals tried to broker a class compromise between senior military personnel, private capitalists, and a rising political class —  most prominently, the NLD leadership. The measures, however, have also opened up space for farmers, workers, and radical students to vigorously assert their own claims, challenging this would-be class compromise.

With the removal of sanctions, moves towards export-led growth, and increasing land value, the dispossession of land and natural resources has intensified processes of capital accumulation by military and corporate actors. But simultaneous political liberalization has emboldened the expropriated, who have engaged in open protests, direct actions, and occupations. The police reaction has been to harass, violently persecute, and arrest those involved.

To date, the most acute unrest has been at Monywa, in western Myanmar. Since 2012 dispossessed peasants have organized widely supported protests demanding the return of their land. In 2011, they were forcibly evicted to make way for the Letpadaung copper mine, run by the Chinese company Wanbao and the Myanmar military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited. Myanmar security forces responded to the demonstrating villagers and Buddhist monks by deploying highly toxic and explosive white phosphorus.

Suu Kyi, appointed in 2012 to head the government’s Letpadaung Investigation Commission, visited the site and told the protestors that “they should respect ‘rule of law’ and sacrifice their lands” for the country’s development. The protestors “vehemently rejected” her suggestions.

Worker actions have also proliferated despite efforts to contain such actions in restrictive bureaucratic labor relations. Motivated by a desire to prevent strikes, the government cooperated with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to legalize trade unions, institutionalize collective bargaining, and establish a government labor arbitration body.

But almost as soon as the first piece of labor legislation passed in 2011, the Hlaing Thar Yar, Shwepyithar, and Hmawbi industrial zones around Yangon erupted in a wave of strikes. More than three years later, workers in Myanmar have expressed a lack of confidence in the government’s Labor Arbitration Council, even as the ILO insists the council has been “remarkably successful.”

Students have also sought to claim political ground in Myanmar. In September 2014, the government passed an education bill — with support, notably, from the NLD — that, to the chagrin of students, centralized curriculum development, restricted academic independence, and placed limits on student unions.

Student protests began in Yangon at the end of 2014, followed by demonstrations in Mandalay; the most radical students staged a march from Mandalay to Yangon, only to be assaulted and arrested by police. Many of the students remain in prison today. (Suu Kyi has “cautioned the students against exerting pressure on parliament” to amend the bill.)

This rising tide of extra-parliamentary struggle illustrates the significant contradictions in Myanmar’s post-2010 class landscape. To be sure, the recent elections represent a significant moment in the country’s political transformation. Yet there is no sign that Suu Kyi will be able — if it is even her intention — to address the new conflicts of class and power that have fueled popular struggles in recent years.

Popular Trajectories

In the last century, in Myanmar as elsewhere, a range of broad-based political movements offered transformative visions of political change: anti-colonial mobilization, class-based labor battles, communist insurgencies, ethnic rebellions in Myanmar’s highlands. Movements based on nation, race, and class produced struggles against colonizing forces, entrenched class interests, and the neocolonial Burman lowlands.

Radical politics are hardly absent from Myanmar’s contemporary political landscape, as seen in the unrest by farmers, workers, and students. Yet the abiding tendency is towards a highly situational politics, the proliferation of sectional and differential claims on power and politics that, occasionally, may come together under precarious coalitional banners.

This more tangled brand of politics — contra the class- or nation-based mobilizations of decades past — is in some ways less a politics than a micropolitics, that molecular process of shifting alliances of power and class that Gramsci identified in his account of Italian history.

In many ways, the NLD’s recent electoral victory was a classic populist win: the convergence of a vast set of heterogeneous demands under a banner whose political imprecision, so often criticized, is probably its greatest strength. On one side, the Lady backed by the people. On the other, the generals backed by authoritarianism.

Moreover, those who have greeted the NLD’s electoral victory with outpourings of joy should not be regarded simply as pawns in a demagogic political machinery. Instead, they signify the enduring ability of the NLD, maintained over a quarter-century of heavy-handed political repression, to appeal deeply, if unevenly, across Myanmar’s scarred political landscape.

The rhetoric of that simple opposition — the Lady versus the generals — has generated a divide, on one side of which a panoply of different politics could assemble under the heading of the people. Yet the popular success of the NLD going forward will hinge on its ability to push beyond that reductionist divide to meet diverse demands on the ground.

Questions remain about whom the NLD represents, on whose behalf Suu Kyi can claim to speak, and whether her party will directly engage with the immediate struggles of subordinated groups. The signs are hardly encouraging: in the gathering hegemony of a diversified capitalist class; in the curious resurrection of colonial dyarchy; in the NLD and Suu Kyi’s tone-deafness toward incipient movements of farmers, workers, and students; and most ominously, in the booming silence of the new political class over the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar.

In all of this, one finds not only structural constraints on the NLD’s ability to pursue a progressive program of reform, but also serious doubts about whether the NLD even has the desire to do so. Meanwhile, popular struggles in the fields and the factories have seized new opportunities for mobilization, seeking to bend Myanmar’s political trajectory toward a more radical egalitarian vision.