Guest Column

Politics, Fear, and Myanmar’s Anti-Politics Machines

By Tony Waters 11 December 2019

Politics is about a people coming together to organize power for the benefit of a larger group around shared values. Since the British arrived in Myanmar in 1825, the right to practice politics was monopolized first by the British colonial powers and later by military dictatorship. Politics were illegal and activists arrested, parties banned and villages attacked. People feared politics.

Following the British, politics was later reserved for men in the Burmese military. Rules were handed down from the center of power to the trained technocrats accountable to colonial and military powers who dangled riches and promotions.

Technocratically trained police, lawyers, tax collectors and soldiers squelched the learned art of democratic politics by invoking fear of arrest and the hangman’s noose. Outsiders from Britain and India filled these positions, issuing orders on behalf of the British Raj without the messy democratic business of listening to others, or seeking consensus and compromise. Burma’s military rulers after 1962 replicated this system. Colonialism and later military rule were “anti-politics machines,” ruling through fear without an appeal to compromise, consensus, or local values.

“Transition” is a favorite word Myanmar’s donor community highlights for development planning, particularly since 2015. The transition, presumably, is about the shift from dictatorship to a “more peaceful, stable, democratic and pluralistic society” as the British government asserts on its website.  Or as USAID explains: “USAID supports [only] credible, inclusive, and informed elections and is providing technical assistance in preparation for the 2020 election.

These outsiders are skilled, well trained and well educated, just like the people reporting to the British colonial government were. They are also outsiders seeking promotion and riches in a world focused on hierarchies in New York, Brussels, Tokyo, London, Geneva and Beijing, not Yangon.

The difference of course is that today’s donors don’t threaten dissidents with imprisonment or the hangman’s noose. But these outsiders create an anti-politics machine that is similar to that of colonial Burma. Only now the donors operate it using the lubricant of cash, while insisting on compliance with American definitions of responsibility and accountability.

The modern anti-politics machine of Myanmar’s donors is cloaked in nice words from Schools of Management. “Best practices” that were “discovered” at the universities and think tanks of Europe and North America will provide the key to Myanmar’s “transition” from something bad to something western, rich and democratic.

Myanmar’s new policies and grant formats are designed by donors at embassies, the World Bank, the Joint Peace Fund and elsewhere, and they take advantage of these assumptions. Recipients in Myanmar are typically asked to choose from a pre-approved list of consultancy companies, workshops, curricula, study tours, etc., dealing with equally preselected subjects found in the first sentences of donor mission statements. Popular options are gender equity, inclusivity, disarmament and demobilization, capital markets, inter-religious dialogue and ethnic reconciliation. “Evidence-based policy” is the rule—peace will come out of a technocratic plan developed at the world’s best research institutes which, by the way, are not in Myanmar.

In this context, Yangon, Naypyitaw and even the ethnic armed organizations seek to become proficient in the dispassionate technocratic language of bureaucratic English, rather than Burmese, Karen, Shan or Kachin where the emotional political issues of identity, politics, values, and society are found. Peace is reduced to tropes about donor accountability, measurability, action-research, mission statements, goals, procedures and international standards.

Implicit in this reliance on technocratic solutions is the idea that politics is bad, and politics needs to be taken out of the transition toward peace. Presumably the apolitical best practices of accountants, doctors, engineers, educational administrators and lawyers will triumph.

The bureaucratic machine is thus tuned to the sound of donor funding. The people of Myanmar are asked: “Why don’t you be like Colombia, and buy this successful peace curriculum?” or “Why don’t you adopt our anti-corruption program from the Philippines?” or “Would you like Canadian federalism, or Swiss?”

But it’s still Myanmar’s choice, of course. “Have it your way,” like the Burger King jingle says. Just leave the politics to the outsiders: the hamburger can be with or without pickles or lettuce, just don’t ask for tea salad or Shan noodles at Burger King. So recipients are invited to the well-attended hotel ballrooms of Yangon where professional consultations and facilitations are conducted—in English. Potential recipients stay quiet, afraid of jeopardizing the flow of money. People habituated to the State Peace and Development Council, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the Ne Win government and the British colonial authorities already know how to stay quiet.

Some of the Oddball Questions Raised by Myanmar People: An Unscientific Survey

My colleagues raised in Myanmar/Burma remember chronic civil war, large areas governed by rebel groups and millions of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Despite 5-10 years of rapid economic growth in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities replete with new traffic jams, everyone still remembers the authoritarian state with its arbitrary arrests, midnight attacks on villages and escaping to the forest. Every Burmese person I know has a story of friends and family exiled and imprisoned, sometimes in the present tense, explaining continuing fear.

The issues surrounding Myanmar’s “transition” that they tell me about (or that I read about in The Irrawaddy) are different from those seen on donor websites. Theirs are philosophical questions, seeking an answer to the question of who “we” are and what “we” should do—a few examples include:

  • What is citizenship and belonging and who is “the other?” Embedded in this question are issues of citizenship, statelessness, and the rights of a nation to define for itself who belongs, and who does not. This is the most sensitive question in Myanmar because it implicitly involves a comparison between how the United States and the European Union treat non-citizens at their borders today and how the Rohingya have been treated, in 2017 and before.
  • Who “owns” the wealth in the mountains, rivers and seas? Nation, military, state, division, ethnic group or clan? What does it mean to lease these things to China?
  • What is the difference between a federal state and a unitary state? What about those funny bits of de-facto sovereignty in Myanmar’s peripheries: Wa State, Kawthoolei, Kachin, etc.? How is this related to the right to maintain an army?
  • Which hero gets a statue and which hero doesn’t? Why are “statue controversies” common in Myanmar recently?
  • And finally, the toughest question, what role do militaries and military action play in peacebuilding? What does demobilization and disarmament mean for ethnic armed groups and also the Tatmadaw military? Why can’t Myanmar get by with a “normal army” like other countries?

These are all questions of politics and values, irrespective of technocratic rulings in international courts, or judgments by professional engineers, public health officers or educators. They are political questions usually banned by the anti-politics machines, since at least the time of the British invasion of Burma in 1825.

The Weight of Fear, and the Modern Anti-Politics Machine

At the beginning of this essay, I described the technocratic nature of a political “transition” designed by those from outside Myanmar. This is the product of an anti-politics machine which aid-bearing foreigners bring. The problem is that politics is still ultimately rooted in values and the emotions of belonging—and in the case of Myanmar, the fear of arrest, exile, imprisonment and execution.

There is no democratic politics where there is fear, and an anti-politics machine that uses money as a lubricant doesn’t change this. This is why Daw Aung San Suu Kyi focused on the nature of fear in the early 1990s and why Franklin Roosevelt made it central in his messages to an American audience during the Great Depression and World War II. They were both asking the same thing: how do you emerge from the emotional habits of fear, however they’ve been created? Technocratic solutions do not address this, much less measure it.

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” Roosevelt said at his inaugural address in 1933.

The fact is that technocratic donor-funded projects cannot address the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” that Roosevelt wrote about and that is central to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s thinking as well. Technocrats cannot address this problem of fear and politics in the British colonial period, nor do they today. But by not addressing politics, and instead replacing it with “capacity development,” a machine that equates success with simplistic compliance and accountability bypasses democratic politics.

Technocratic solutions and accountability measures, no matter how well-intentioned, do not address the decades of unreasoning terror that paralyze efforts to, as Roosevelt wrote, “convert retreat into advance.” Politics is the only way to reverse the retreat into unjustified terror that Myanmar experienced for much of the last two centuries.

Reference: James Ferguson (1994). The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.

Tony Waters is a Lecturer in Peace Studies at Payap University in Chiang Mai, and Professor of Sociology from California State University, Chico.  He is the author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), When Killing is a Crime (2007), Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society (2015), Max Weber and the Problem of Modern Discipline (2018) and other books. His email address is [email protected]