Myanmar’s Spring Revolution surprised observers with its early embrace of inclusive, federal democratic political visions. Federal democracy must be understood within Myanmar’s history of civil-military and ethnic relations. Drawing upon social movement theory’s literature on framing sheds light on how and why the shift occurred as it did. Two processes of change in the underlying discursive and political opportunity structures drove movement actors away from more moderate frames, to instead converge around alternative radical visions, writes Michelle Huang
Myanmar’s latest coup d’état began in the early hours of 1 February 2021. The recently re-elected government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), was due to convene that day to inaugurate its second term in office. Acting under dubious claims of electoral fraud, the military announced a year-long state of emergency and installed a junta to replace the civilian government. However, harkening back to prior waves of resistance in 1962 and 1988, they quickly found that democracy would not end with a whimper. Within days, the populace rose in defence of their rights, forming a nationwide anti-coup movement that continues even today – what has been branded Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
In some ways, early images of the Spring Revolution recall the age-old adage that history repeats itself. In a country long riven by ethnic divides, it is unsurprising that popular mobilisation reflected such cleavages. For example, protesters in regions predominantly composed of the ethnic Bamar majority wore red, symbolic of the NLD, and held up portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. In contrast, many protesters in ethnic areas wore black and held representative flags and other cultural symbols. The two camps likewise diverged in their political goals and demands. Many Bamar activists and the NLD-dominated opposition legislature, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), initially favoured a return to the status quo ante. More radical activists – predominantly students, women, and ethnic minorities – disagreed, calling for a totalising rejection of military rule. In its place, they envisioned a more inclusive, federal democratic future for the country, including calls to abolish the 2008 Constitution and end military dictatorship. To observers’ surprise, the Spring Revolution diverged from its predicted trajectory – rather than dissipating in the face of repression or pursuing rapprochement with the military, the movement has sustained and transformed itself in unexpected ways. The radical perspective became the movement’s dominant frame within its first three months, marking a momentous shift in Myanmar’s political history. As Thawnghmung and Noah have observed, “there is no doubt that Myanmar is at a critical juncture, witnessing for the first time in its history the elevation of minority aspirations to the center of the country’s national political agenda”.
Whither Federal Democracy?
Federal democracy is composed of two elements – democracy and federalism. To understand what these two concepts mean for Myanmar, we must first take a step back to examine its socio-political context. First, democratisation was a relatively recent process. Myanmar has spent much of its post-independence history under military rule. Shortly after gaining independence from the British in 1948, the military overthrew the civilian government in 1962, beginning nearly 50 years of continuous domination. It unexpectedly embarked upon a brief period of top-down democratisation in 2011, under its ‘Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy’. Initially governed by the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), it transferred power to an elected civilian government in 2016 following the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2015 general elections. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s experiment with democracy barely lasted for a decade, cut short by the February 2022 coup. The NLD’s tenure in office was also plagued by numerous political roadblocks. Many obstacles were imposed by the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which secured its key prerogatives to intervene in politics. The Constitution effectively forced the elected government to coexist in an uneasy stalemate with the military, which maintained an effective veto in the legislature and control of key ministries, enabling it to block the NLD’s attempts to establish civilian control.
Second, federalism must be contextualised against a backdrop of long-standing conflicts and complicated ethnic relations, which trace back to the British colonial era. Myanmar is characterised by significant ethnoreligious diversity, although ethnic identity has been in many ways constructed and reified within the context of various state- and nation-building projects. It is closely linked to political inclusion and exclusion; prior to the coup, access to social and political rights depended upon individuals’ membership in one of 135 ‘national races’. Of these, the Bamar majority constitute approximately 60 to 70 per cent of the population, are primarily concentrated in the country’s geographic heartland, and are predominantly Buddhist. Contemporary Myanmar society also privileges Bamar identity. The military, which is likewise Bamar-dominated, further institutionalised this privilege through its policies of ‘Burmanisation’, including its production of ethnically exclusive nationalism and ‘forced cultural assimilation’ campaigns.
Since independence, several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) have resisted incorporation into a Bamar state via armed struggle. The military utilised this ethnic resistance to legitimise its rule, staking its popular support upon its claim to represent the ‘three national causes’: “the non-disintegration of the Union, the non-disintegration of national solidarity, and the perpetuation of sovereignty”. Military regimes portrayed EAOs as terrorists and criminals in state-led education and propaganda efforts, reinforcing chauvinistic cultural attitudes that hindered inter-ethnic solidarity. Approximately 18 key EAOs were active at the beginning of the Spring Revolution. They have pursued varying strategies in their relations with the junta, ranging from resistance to rapprochement. They also differ in their approaches to governance and relationships with civil society, which influenced their divergent responses to the coup. Two particularly influential EAOs – the Karen National Union (KNU) and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – emerged as cornerstones of resistance within months.
Given this history, many ethnic actors have long called for federalism – some since independence. To an extent, federalism serves as an ‘empty signifier’, a vague and indeterminate concept which has been co-opted by all political actors, including the military and NLD. Both the military-led peace process and the NLD failed to live up to their promises, consolidating power and pursuing centralisation at the expense of minorities’ interests. While minorities’ visions of federalism tend to be likewise indeterminate, they more often invoke it in reference to self-determination, justice, and territorial autonomy. Finally, all parties have tended to approach it as a top-down process centred around constitutional reform. The Spring Revolution’s collective embrace of radical political visions, aligned with the second understanding of federalism, thus marked a notable break from previous models of civil-military and majority-minority relations.
Shifting Frames: Discursive and Political Opportunities
While much has been made of the Spring Revolution’s turn to federalism and inclusion, very little research has addressed how and why this shift occurred. My research approached the shift through social movement theory’s literature on framing. At its core, frame analysis holds that the contents of movements’ mobilising grievances, interpretations, and goals matter. Rather than naturally arising, such frames emerge as the product of movement actors’ interpretive work, shaped both by contingent interactions among actors and overarching discursive and political opportunity structures. Frame analysis looks at both frames, which are the products of signifying work, and the framing processes that create them. I sought to systematically document both, identifying how and when frames shifted over the first three months and tracing the processes through which this shift unfolded.[i]
I found that movement actors decisively converged around radical frames through March and April 2021. Moderate statements proliferated in February and gradually declined throughout March. Radical frames were present from the very beginning, grew increasingly prominent throughout March, and constituted the bulk of statements by April as movement actors shifted towards greater consensus – reflecting dual processes of frame shift and crystallisation. In the beginning, radical frames were mostly proffered by ethnic minority activists. As time passed, other activists – particularly students and women – and some EAOs increasingly endorsed radical frames. The democratic opposition, coded as the CRPH, was the last to embrace these frames. It began to turn towards radical frames in early March, with the release of its political visions statement. Still, this shift only crystallised through April, with its subsequent release of the Federal Democracy Charter – laying the basis for a new federal constitution – and its formation of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG).
I argue that frame crystallisation, centred around the CRPH’s shift from moderate to radical framing, emerged as the contingent outcome of interactions among movement actors situated within evolving discursive and political opportunity structures. Specifically, I identify two processes of change. On their own, these processes were necessary but insufficient to transform framing; taken in conjunction, they explain how and why frame crystallisation unfolded as it did.
First, the junta’s repression gradually destabilised the pre-existing discursive opportunity structure (DOS), producing an emergent DOS that favoured more radical imaginings of ethnic relations. Some activists exploited this opening by articulating and elaborating radical frames, supporting frame crystallisation. While this process did not deterministically cause the CRPH to shift towards more radical frames, it facilitated the ease and desirability of doing so, culminating in its political vision statement in March. As explained in the second process, this emergent DOS also facilitated the CRPH’s turn to armed resistance by favouring more inclusive framings of EAOs. Both my interviews and secondary data indicated that the coup’s pre-existing mindsets and Transformative experiences of violence challenged the general Bamar population’s long-held beliefs, which had underpinned systems of ethnic relations. As they suffered the brunt of the military’s repression – many of them for the first time – the public grew increasingly sympathetic towards ethnic minorities’ grievances. In this shifting environment, calls for federal democracy and justice grew increasingly resonant, attracting public support that hitherto had remained elusive.
Second, military repression, EAO support, and the absence of international intervention transformed the Spring Revolution’s political opportunity structure. As the space for successful civil resistance shrunk, the CRPH turned to armed resistance as an alternative solution in March. The KNU and KIO had recently resumed clashes against the junta and were sheltering and training pro-democracy protestors, heightening the strategic appeal of a potential alliance. The CRPH began engaging EAOs in hopes of forming a federal army. As such, its decision to adopt radical frames was also partly contingent upon its need to appeal to EAO support. As a result of these interactions, pro-resistance EAOs – particularly the KIO and KNU – participated substantially in drafting Part I of the FDC, further crystallising the movement’s radical turn.
The Spring Revolution continues to evolve even today. Part of the limitations of researching an ongoing event is that we can only analyse a brief moment in time. Numerous developments have occurred since the period I studied – some alliances have proved ephemeral, and the movement has largely shifted towards widespread armed resistance. Nonetheless, my findings show that centre-periphery relations are key to understanding how the Spring Revolution’s initial frames emerged and transformed as they did. They also demonstrate that framing theory offers useful insights even when applied outside of its usual empirical context of stable and developed democracies, allowing us to explain why actors – particularly the CRPH – shifted their framing in the way they did. Framing theory would benefit from paying greater attention to conflict and repression; the transformative impact of violence could help explain how otherwise stable discursive opportunity structures may shift in other cases, particularly within other ethnically divided societies.
Myanmar’s ability to sustain its pro-democracy resistance for so long is a testament to activists’ immense bravery, resilience, and personal sacrifices, but the movement cannot succeed on its own. The international community would do well to intervene in support. As one interviewee noted, “We are facing such massive attacks on human rights, democracy, and civic space in other parts of Southeast Asia, that it’s in our interests to make sure that the revolution in Burma succeeds. Otherwise, we have no place to go.”
[i] My research adopted a mixed-methods approach. I drew upon original data from eight key informant interviews with well-positioned activists and advisers to the opposition government. I complemented my interview data with document analysis, collating 231 framing documents published by movement actors between 1 February and 30 April 2021. To increase the validity of my findings, I collected documents published in both Burmese and English – my final sample contained 93 documents written in Burmese and 138 in English. The SEAC Student Dissertation Fieldwork Grant was invaluable to my research, enabling me to commission professional translation for 25 key Burmese documents. I manually translated the remainder myself using open source translation software. The final corpus produced over 100,000 words of data. To analyse the corpus, I constructed a categorisation dictionary via WordStat, which I used to conduct a dictionary-based content analysis. I also selected a non-random sample of 132 key documents for further thematic analysis; I qualitatively coded for key themes using NVivo, which I drew upon to build my categorisation dictionary. Based on my thematic topics, I then developed a novel typology of moderate and radical frames, categorised according to the ways documents framed key themes.
*Banner photo by Pyae Sone Htun on Unsplash
*This research was supported by the LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre Student Dissertation Fieldwork Grant 2021-2022.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.