Why have the Burmese armed forces withdrawn from direct control of the state? Why have they allowed a “hybrid” regime, with a representatively elected government, to form? What moniker does one use for this new, neither fully authoritarian, nor fully democratic, Myanmar? Indeed, what spurred the recent deepening of political liberalization and widening of democratization across the nation? And why now and not decades earlier?
These are some of the questions which imbue Renaud Egreteau’s excellent Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (Oxford University Press, 2016) with a saliency and urgency for those wishing to apprehend Myanmar today.
In what this reviewer considers to be the most important publication of the decade on the subject of Myanmar’s democratization, Egreteau argues that the “transition has been driven from above, by ruling Burmese elites—especially military ones—in a clear position of strength since the early 2000s.” By initiating a “well-thought-out,” “caretaking,” and “pacted” transition since 2011, “the Tatmadaw leadership merely chose to move down a notch on the scale of political intervention.” This analysis reminds us that there is more here than some naïve romanticizing of “Burma’s Spring.”
The decades of military authoritarianism are over. The sordid “military junta” as a regime type has disbanded. The current government, particularly after the 2015 general election, is the most democratically representative since independence.
But, the Burmese armed forces’ praetorian commitment to political intervention—some of these guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution—demonstrates that the military will continue to have a sizable effect on future developments. Egreteau is keen to remind us that the science of comparative politics is uncertain about the endpoint to this “transition.”
The introduction and initial chapter lay out the focus of the study, one that centers the years from 2010 to 2015 as instrumental. This positions the book as an indispensable resource for comparativists and international affairs scholars in understanding early-stage democratization. Despite the particularity, and peculiarity, of this “sui generis case”, Egreteau frequently utilizes other postcolonial examples to draw out similarities and differences where relevant.
Core to the argument of the “planned withdrawal” of the Burmese military from the highest reigns of governmental power were those machinations of “inter-elite negotiations” which centered upon a “pact” between three specific segments of Myanmar’s polity. This “top-down” approach included soldier-turned-civilian leaders from the ancien régime, well-known and well-liked leaders from the pro-democracy opposition—foremost amongst them, Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi and elites of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party—and leaders of politicized or armed ethnic groups, particularly those who appeared open to cease-fire negotiations.
Egreteau points out that incorporating “the Lady” soon after the beginning of the transition may have been one of the military’s most deft moves. Agreeing with former academic and policy advisor to the Thein Sein government Kyaw Yin Hlaing, Egreteau contends that “Aung Sang Suu Kyi still has enormous—even irrational—influence over a substantial majority of the Burmese people as well as an international community still much in awe with her.”
Political analyst Nay Yan Oo recently argued that this ultimately manifested itself in the 2015 general elections by the populace’s willingness to vote for Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi as an archetypical leader over the NLD party as a vehicle for democratic representation itself. Egreteau smartly returns to these challenges of the “personification of power” in the context of democratization in the sixth chapter as well.
The second chapter reviews the role of political dissent and civil society in the years since March 2011. There has been an expansion of civil society’s role in Myanmar’s transition since the military government’s disbandment. One example of this was the vocal dissent against Chinese-owned copper mines in Letpadaung in 2013, which ultimately led to a parliamentary commission on the issue.
The challenging element to this re-emergence of civil society is that it has also provided a platform for calls from some ethnoreligious groups. A salient example of this is the MaBaTha—the Organization for Protection of Race and Religion—with its demands for expulsion of Muslims from Myanmar.
There is an authoritarian component—that of wishing to control the lives of other individuals—present in these variants of civil society that should dissuade the reader from assuming that civil society always acts as a force for political liberalization. Indeed, as MaBaTha illustrates, being civil to those within one’s group does not necessarily lead to civility to those outside the group. This is a simple point, but one that should not be forgotten in case of Myanmar. Egreteau also expands upon this in the sixth chapter.
Egreteau’s research really shines in the third and fourth chapters. The examination of the restoration of parliamentary democracy in Myanmar is one of the best analyses of events in the literature, whether foreign or Burmese. Egreteau marshals his past extensive reports on the development of the legislature as well as new evidence from key parliamentarians from his numerous in-depth interviews—both those with the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), the NLD, and smaller “ethnic” parties and those with uniformed soldiers currently occupying seats in both chambers of parliament.
In terms of checks and balances of governmental power, the regime in Myanmar incorporates a few non-Montesquieuian elements. This includes an armed force that is ultimately not answerable to any civilian position, either in parliament or to the presidency. This also includes an unusual corporatist commitment within the legislature beyond that of experiments of labor or class or gender in other developing countries.
Rather, the corporatist guarantee for the military within Myanmar legislature is the constitutionally prescribed “not more than” 166 seats in both chambers of the Union Parliament’s total 664 seats. In other words, 25 percent of the main law-making body of the republic is promised to active military members. The investigation of how the military has or has not worked with democratically elected representatives from January 2011 to January 2016 in the Union Parliament is expertly done by Egreteau.
If there is one critique here, it is that one wishes there could have been more scrutiny of the judiciary. This partly stems from the fact that the executive and the legislature have witnessed fundamental changes, whereas the judiciary still seems to be stuck in the milieu, both its mindset and personnel, of the ancien régime. Reading Nick Cheesman’s recent analysis of the court system alongside Egreteau is fruitful for additional contextualization. (That said, this does not take away from the fact that this is simply the most comprehensible dissection of the first five years of those political bodies that has been published.)
The fifth and sixth chapters turn the discussion to that of the sustained importance (challenge?) of ethnic and religious cleavages, as well as the continued challenges of clientelism and geopolitics for the Burmese state. Egreteau weaves together the broader literature on ethnicity and religion in a political context and the extensive previous studies that have been done on ethnoreligious cleavages within the national state of Myanmar.
This emphasizes the unabating and paramount relevance of ethnic and religious issues to any polity that undertakes democratization without first projecting sovereignty over the entirety of the territory. These issues are highlighted again in the concluding chapter on what one might expect to see in the post-2015 era, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party have been allowed to form a new government.
Overall, there is much in Caretaking Democratization that would be of interest for the political analyst of Myanmar and Southeast Asia, the social scientist of politics and democratization, and the general reader who wishes to simply have a better comprehension of why it is that “change” feels so much more palpable in the Myanmar of today compared to any time before 2011.
The text is as comprehensive as it is accessible. Renaud Egreteau’s study is highly recommended and stands out as a gem against a field of both academic works and, all too often, sensationalist publications attempting to interpret Myanmar’s political evolution away from the olive green-garbed autocracy of yesteryear.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.
T. F. Rhoden is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University, Thailand, a Graduate Assistant at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University, and a PhD Candidate in their Department of Political Science.