Myanmar: Stasis In Myanmar


Professor David I. Steinberg

The tragedy of Myanmar is only remembered when crises or the exotic jolt people’s perceptions. The bizarre operations of the rebel 'God's Army', led by two cheroot-smoking pre-teenagers, that took over a Thai hospital made the front pages. Photographs and interviews with the twins, who are believed by their few followers to have magical powers, were widely published. But this type of news, however it stimulates our imaginations, is destructive; it trivializes and detracts attention, masking the real, pervasive issues facing the Burmese state. Myanmar drops off the international radar screen, and is only brought up again by the literally outlandish.

The exterior political stasis that seems to pervade the Burmese scene produces a kind of humanitarian ennui that unfortunately lulls the external world into a trance in which the eyes glaze over, and one supposes that there is no change. Yet no progress means, in fact, deterioration - in the lives of the Burmese peoples, in external relations, and in the intensification of the internal contradictions and fundamental tensions that pervade Burmese society and relations.

The basic tensions need internal and external attention and amelioration, even if solutions are difficult if not impossible. They are integral to the future of that state, and how it will evolve. Such contradictions in any complex society are not resolved by government fiat or by kind words alone, although both might help. They need recognition for what they are, and will become worse if they are not addressed.

The preservation of the unity of the state seems widely accepted by the military, the opposition, the minorities, and foreign powers. But what are the elemental forces that are destructive of socio-political cohesion and this unity? There are at least four major issues that need attention.

First and most important is the issue of majority and minority ethnic nationalism and the resulting problems that have led to civil war for half a century. The publicity attracted by 'God's Army' is counter-productive because it obscures more fundamental minority issues based not on magic and obscurantism, but on the distribution of power and the preservation of cultures. A second cleavage has rent the state into what has become two societies -a military society with its social, educational, health, and economic infrastructure, its perks and power at all levels, and a subordinate civilian sector, in which mobility and well being are controlled by the military establishment. A third tension is between the tendency for centralization of administrative and intellectual power with their resulting orthodoxy; and pluralism in civil society, government, and intellectual life. A fourth is religion, which finds expression in the anti-Muslim activities of the army along the Bangladesh border, and in some minority Christian areas.

These tensions are intertwined so that the exacerbation of one issue affects negatively the others. Concentrating the world's limited attention span on the ephemeral and exotic does the various peoples of Myanmar an injustice that simply helps to perpetuate their plight.

WATCHPOINT: Will recent moves to expand international aid to Myanmar do anything to overcome current tensions?


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