Book Review: Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics and Religion

By Dulyapak Preecharush 6 July 2017

In many deeply divided polities and war-torn societies, conflict is a normal occurrence that challenges state-building, nation-building, and peace-building efforts. The various causes of conflict are influenced by the complexity of majority-minority and center-periphery politics and the long sensitive clashes between strongly antagonistic forces that lead to a culture of violence.

Myanmar in its transitional period stands out as an important case reflecting the long-standing civil wars that often co-exist with peace-making activities. Protracted unrest in Myanmar constitutes one of the most brutal conflicts in the contemporary world. Nevertheless, since the country’s political reform of 2011, Myanmar has demonstrated some impressive progress in conflict management within an ethnically and culturally fragmented environment. This alone makes the oscillation between conflict and peace in Myanmar worth exploring.

Conflict in Myanmar, through presenting several narratives, analyses and evidence-based accounts, provides insights on the specific nature of the conflicts and disputes existing and unfolding. The volume can be considered a genuine attempt to examine the character of conflict transformation in Myanmar and aspects of conflict in country’s democratizing process. The book is an admirable product from the Australian National University (ANU) Myanmar Update Conference in 2015. The theme focused on Myanmar’s conflict dynamics and the conference panel discussions were attended mostly by the rising generation of scholars, analysts, and practitioners.

The book consists of seventeen chapters structured into five parts. Part one is just one chapter by Nicholas Farrelly and provides a lively introduction to the collection that has been categorized into three key topics: war, politics, and religion (p.7). Part two presents five chapters that examine the conflict through the lens of war and order, while part three, with five chapters, connects the conflict to elections and other political and legislative institutions. The five chapters of part four analyze Myanmar’s ethno-religious conflict as well as the internal and international dimensions of communal violence.

Part five is a concluding chapter written by Nick Cheesman that seeks to conceptualize the patterns of conflict in Myanmar. Cheesman evaluates the preceding chapters by systematizing them into three terms: politics, the political, and the non-political (p.355). He suggests the term “politics” signifies a set of practices and institutions through which an order is established. The “political” refers to the essence or the condition of political accommodation via fundamentally nonviolent approaches, whereas the “non-political” creates antagonism through generally violent means (p.354).

Through incorporation of Cheesman’s conceptual categories with Farrelly’s empirical categories, Conflict in Myanmar helps to answer, in part, the two meaningful questions of “what explains the decades-long conflict in Myanmar” and “how can we conceptualize conflict in transitional Myanmar.”

However, the book has some weaknesses. Although the volume provides many in-depth analyses about the dynamics of war, peace, identity, religion, law, institution, development, nationalism, and international politics, it failed to mention the rebel-to-party transformation process, which is significant for Myanmar’s security dynamism. Militias and rebel armies have been part of conflict in Myanmar for more than 60 years. Despite their long-term presence, deep analysis about them is insufficient. In the book’s part two (on war and order), several authors have paid limited attention to this challenging security process. For a former rebel armed group to become a political party, it will first have to demilitarize its organization by demolishing its military command structure and relinquishing its fighting capabilities. In Myanmar, this might be settled by sending former combatants through a process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). Nevertheless, due to the long history of armed conflict and the different political motivations among ethnic armed groups, the reintegration of former rebel fighters into society or their reinsertion into Myanmar’s national armed forces (the Tatmadaw) is rather difficult.  From this trend, a failure to successfully integrate former ethnic armies or transform a military fighter into a civilian politician under an appropriate time frame can destabilize Myanmar’s peace process and this is one of the roots of violent conflict in Myanmar. As such, the inclusion of this issue would have strengthened the volume for a better appreciation of war and order.

For a theoretical merit of the book, conflict is an extremely complex phenomenon composed of a variety of different angles and thus it cannot be easily consolidated into any one broad explanatory framework. Consequently, despite this collection’s valiant efforts, many necessary tasks for other scholars and researchers to theorize conflict in Myanmar remain, tasks that could be helped along by utilizing this edited volume as groundwork.

Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin (1987) discussed the strategies for managing conflict. These strategies include problem solving, contending, yielding, inaction, and withdrawal.  In Conflict in Myanmar, some of the chapter writers have failed to acknowledge important techniques for conflict management in the very complicated peace negotiations. For this reader, the choices of decision-making strategies among political stakeholders, including the Tatmadaw and ethnic minority armed forces, can be conceptualized in a more perfect manner if there is an integration between Pruitt’s and Rubin’s approach and a piecemeal approach that is presented in Su Mon Thazin Aung’s chapter (pp.25-46), focusing only on incremental bargaining technique, being done piece by piece or one stage at a time. Indeed, various conflict strategies have been emerging in Myanmar’s current peace process, for example, a contending strategy, composed of military threats and preemptive actions. However, it is Nehginpao Kipgen’s Myanmar: A Political History (2016) that points to a problem solving strategy through a discussion of underlying interests and concession making as the most likely relevant technique for resolving conflict in Myanmar.

For conflict in political dynamics, Myanmar is a hybrid transitioning state that metamorphosed from an old authoritarian regime to a new democratizing polity. In the chapter about democracy and communal violence, Tamas Wells discovers the different interpretations of democracy between international aid workers and Burmese activists/democratic leaders (pp.245-260). The first group believes that universal human rights is the main component for democracy, whereas the latter assumes that the necessary foundations for Myanmar’s democracy are the unity and the protection of the majority (p.247).

Although Wells’ finding and other intensive details from Michael Lidauer’s chapter (pp.139-161) and Than Tun’s chapter (pp. 177-198), emphasizing a causal interplay between election and conflict in the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious plural society, can capture the essence of conflict in democratizing Myanmar partly, I think Arend Lijphart’s classification of democratic pattern might help in viewing the issue more precisely. Lijphart (1977) explained different elements between majoritarian democracy and consensus/consociational democracy as well as emphasized the latter as a solution for conflict in states where traditional majoritarian democracy might not work due to deep rooted ethnic, linguistic, or religious cleavages. Therefore, in Myanmar or in its subnational polities, particularly Rakhine State, the fluctuation of communal violence can be analyzed through Lijphart’s classical typology or through the conceptual relationships between democracy, consociationalism, and multiculturalism.

After reviewing Conflict in Myanmar, I believe that a harmonious integration between a classification system inside the book and some of the conceptual insights mentioned above would help to facilitate a deeper understanding about Myanmar and the comparative conflicts on a global scale.

The art of typological building can play a crucial role in accomplishing this task. By putting the ‘politics-political-non-political’ classification into Lijphart’s majoritarian-consensus/consociational democracy framework, a systematic comparison can be done via the emerging six types—for example, the combination of politics and majoritarian democracy and the fusion between the political and consensus/consociational democracy. These two types might produce different outcomes for conflict management in Myanmar. While the previous one presents the risk of ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the ‘centralistic majoritarian nationalism,’ the latter might support a more delicate political engineering that is suitable for Myanmar’s pluralistic heterogeneous society.

Last but not least, despite the remaining difficulty in theorizing the essence of conflict thoroughly, Conflict in Myanmar opens a new chapter for inspecting this problem by using Myanmar as a major case. Overall, the book is a timely contribution following the pace of political change and conflict transformation in Myanmar. The volume will be of interest to scholars and readers of Myanmar politics, comparative politics, Asian ethnography, and peace studies. Its unique selling point lies in the fact that it significantly contributes to the complex and labyrinthine ‘Gordian knot’ inside one of the most fascinating Balkanized states in the contemporary world.

Dulyapak Preecharush is an Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Thammasat University.