Book Review—‘Understanding Reform in Myanmar’

By Ashley South 23 March 2016

Since mid-2011, Burma has been going through a profound—albeit contested—transition. Under President Thein Sein’s leadership, the country has experienced widespread—though at times uneven—reforms, including the release of most (but not all) political prisoners, a greatly improved climate for freedom of speech and association, economic and social changes such as the suspension of the Myitsone dam project in October 2011, the resurgence of civil society and the start of an as-yet incomplete peace process between the state government and Burma Army on the one hand, and some two dozen ethnic armed groups on the other.

The roaring victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November’s general election seems set to entrench this change with a new government, led by NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, to take up the mantle of political leadership on April 1. For the first time in more than a half-century, Burma will have a chiefly civilian government. While many challenges lie ahead, the country has made moves down a more democratic path.

“Understanding Reform in Myanmar: People and Society in the Wake of Military Rule,” a new book by Marie Lall, a professor of education and South Asian studies at the University College London’s Institute of Education, seeks to explain this rebirth (full disclosure: Lall is my colleague). Wherever Burma may be heading, it is unlikely to become a Western-style liberal democracy in the near future. As Lall points out, “what is happening in Myanmar cannot be measured by Western standards, but rather judged by local and Southeast Asian views.”

Lall provides such an assessment. Her book gives a detailed account of the past five years, tracing how Burma has gotten as far as it has. She sees the roots of the country’s transition as having grown out of the spaces that emerged following the 2004 purge of ex-intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt. Her underlying thesis is that a group of Burmese civil society actors (so-called “third force” actors), led by the late Nay Win Maung, played a key role in steering a course between the NLD-led opposition and the military government, which, in turn, nudged Burma in the direction of opening and ultimately reform.

Following the 2007 Saffron Revolution and the trauma of Cyclone Nargis the following year, this group of well-connected political and social activists worked within the constraints of the 2008 Constitution to ramp up a capacity for change in the country. For Lall, Nay Win Maung and his colleagues at the Myanmar Egress deserve much of the credit for spurring this change before and after the 2010 elections. According to this reading, the transition in Burma is primarily indigenous, driven by a need for an escape (“egress”) from decades of military (mis)rule and by the passion and vision of a small group of Burmese society activists.

One might question whether the Myanmar Egress guys (and they are mostly men) can really be described as a part of civil society, given their cozy business and government connections. For me, Lall somewhat overplays the role of Myanmar Egress, which later gave birth to the Myanmar Peace Center that opened in late 2012. Both institutions have been hugely influential in the country’s transition. Yet other factors should also be taken into account.

For instance, Lall correctly observes that one of the reformers’ main motivations was to reorient Burma’s international position away from dependence on Chinese patronage and protection (e.g., in the UN Security Council) and toward better relations with the West (particularly with the United States). While she seems to downplay the importance of international sanctions, it would actually appear that external pressure on the military junta was in fact crucial in promoting and encouraging policy shifts among the generals.

Still, Lall’s thesis is compelling, and it is important to recognize the significant hand had by different actors in encouraging change. This book therefore provides a critical window for anyone seeking to look into understanding recent events in Burma It is packed with information from many published and unpublished sources. Particularly valuable is the insight gained from first-hand observation of the dynamics of change in Burma.

Bold and incisive, this book is built around key topics, such as national reconciliation between the government and the NLD, the 2010 and 2015 elections, the peace process, economic and education reform and the rise of Buddhist nationalism. It also dives into some of the challenges awaiting the NLD, including constitutional reform, a fragmented peace process and stemming a rampant drug trade. Such well-researched and even-handed analysis of Burmese politics is quite rare, making this book a welcome contribution to the already sprawling literature on transition in Burma.

Lall ends by saying that “the military will remain an important stakeholder in the political and social process” in the years ahead, regardless of what domestic and international stakeholders desire. Her point is clear: While this is a time of celebration, with the NLD soon to take charge, reform will not come as rapidly as some predict and others hope.

 Ashley South is an analyst and consultant focused on political issues in Southeast Asia and Burma. He was also an advisor to the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI).