Several nations in South and Southeast Asia gained independence from British colonial control in 1947–48. Each has had its own trajectory since independence. In this post, Martin Smith reflects on Myanmar, and how her path was from the very beginning fraught with instability — leading to the current political centrifugality amidst martial ‘democracy’, and what hopes lie ahead.
On 4 January, Myanmar marked 75 years of independence from Great Britain. It was a day for sad reflection. A land rich in natural resource potential, the fledgling ‘Union of Burma’ was predicted to have among the brightest futures of its Asian neighbours. Instead, political and ethnic conflict broke out within months of the departure of the British, heralding a cycle of instability and national breakdown that has characterised every era of government since then. Today the country embodies World Bank definitions of a post-colonial land in a ‘conflict trap’, once again enmeshed in civil war.
Such failure has not been for the want of trying by many actors along the way. The paradigm of ‘weak state, strong societies’ has remained unbroken. Political resistance and determination for better change have endured through five incarnations of military rule. Systems have metamorphosed over the decades from a ‘Military Caretaker’ administration (1958–60) and ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ (1962–88) under General Ne Win to quasi-civilian ‘transition’ (2011–21) and, most recently, the State Administration Council (SAC) which seized power on 1 February 2021. But neither military predominance nor the changing configurations in Opposition politics have brought the country any closer to lasting peace and solutions.
Aspirations for reform, though, have not ended. During a brief period of liberalisations initiated under President Thein Sein (2011–16), there were hopes that new ways to national reconciliation would be achieved. There were two main elements to this: parliamentary elections which saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) enter government in 2016; and a new peace process, centred around a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, that would address the country’s ethnic conflicts. Military operations, however, continued, including the 2017 expulsion of over 725,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, and expectations of meaningful change were all but crushed by the SAC coup.
Today the divisions in national politics are as deep as at any time since independence in 1948. There are, in effect, two governments claiming legitimacy in the country: the military SAC, led by Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing; and the National Unity Government (NUG), headed by the Kachin lawyer Duwa Lashi La, which consists of MPs-elect and representatives of various political, civil society and ethnic armed organisations. The scale of this breakdown echoes earlier times in post-colonial history when such movements as the Communist Party of Burma, U Nu’s Parliamentary Democracy Party and National Coalition Government Union of Burma also established rival administrations in ‘liberated zones’ around the country. For the present, there appears no inclusive roadmap for any kind of negotiated settlement. Rather, antipathies are deepening, with repression and political violence continuing to spread across the country.
The social and humanitarian consequences are profound. In 1991, the regime chairman General Saw Maung estimated that the death toll in conflict since independence ‘would reach as high as millions’. But human sufferings have only continued. A contemporary snapshot makes grim reading. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the NLD, which won the 2020 general election, have been sentenced to long jail terms. Over 3,000 civilians have been killed by the security forces since the coup, and over 16,000 remain in detention. And there are up to three million refugees and internally displaced persons. But, for combatant casualties, there are no reliable figures in what has become the world’s most active conflict-zone, after Ukraine, during the past year. Meanwhile the economy is in free fall, with land-grabbing and natural resource exploitation being rife.
The question, then, is: what has led to such cycles of state failure, and are there ways in which these patterns can be redressed? In simple terms, the answer must be ‘Yes’. It was never pre-ordained that modern-day Myanmar would face such national breakdown after independence. Rather, the solutions have always been in clear sight: all the country’s problems are political at root, and until there is meaningful dialogue and agreement on reforms that are inclusive, equitable and just, there will never be lasting peace and socio-economic progress that reaches to all her peoples.
The primacy of politics is easy to pinpoint. Over the decades, however, three further obstacles have developed which underpin national malaise, and are closely interlinked today. Until and unless these are addressed, political impasse and instability are very likely to continue.
First, in a land already suffering from the devastation of the Second World War, the question of ‘identity’ for the post-colonial state has never been addressed on a key geo-political crossroads in Asia. Peoples in many countries had to overcome the debilitating consequences of colonial rule, but in Myanmar the challenges have proven especially acute. Until the present, there remain very different perceptions about the country’s past as well as visions for the future. But as such academics as Tun Aung Chain and Thant Myint-U have argued, a re-imagining of Myanmar’s identity has long been essential — one that is inclusive and reflective of all peoples, faiths and cultures.
This leads to the second major challenge: the failure to end ethnic conflict. In a country where non-Bamar (Burman) peoples constitute a third of the population of 55 million, ethnic marginalisation and resistance have become a paramount crisis that successive governments have failed to address. Today, there are over 20 ethnic armed organisations controlling territories in different parts of the country. Currently, some have ceasefires with the SAC, some are in conflict with the regime, and some also support the NUG. And yet, there has always been a historic platform upon which solutions can be built: the principles of equality and unity which were agreed at the Panglong Conference in February 1947 (Photo 1) and brought the post-colonial union into being. In recent decades, these have been framed around the goal of federal democracy. But, until the present day, no tangible progress has been made on putting such sentiments into action.
Photo 1: The Panglong Monument, Shan State, with replica of Shwedagon Pagoda in background, 2015 © Author
Finally, the third major impediment to change is that of the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw or Sit Tat. Once promoted as a solution to instability, the Tatmadaw is today widely regarded as the most difficult obstacle in itself. Since the 1950s, it has become the most powerful institution in the country, with vested interests in every aspect of national life. As such, the Tatmadaw is often characterised as a ‘state within a state’. But, as recent events testify, it more often fits the description of Ernst Fraenkel’s ‘dual state’. A hermetic clique, the Tatmadaw leadership represents an ethnic Bamar élite and a narrow nationalist view of the world.
Today the intrusions of military rule stand at the heart of state failure. All too often, international actors have fallen for the illusion of a ‘normative’ state which can be reformed, without recognising that there is also a ‘prerogative’ state, with powers enforced by the Tatmadaw, which continues to dominate central government and claiming unilateral rights of its own. Under the Constitution of 2008, the Tatmadaw is already guaranteed the ‘leading role in national politics’, control of three ministries and reserved seats in the legislatures. But since the coup, the full gamut of prerogative tactics has been on open display: arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, annulment of election results, economic corruption, formation of pro-regime paramilitaries, and promotion of its own political movement (the Union Solidarity and Development Party). General elections in Myanmar, it seems, are only those that the generals can win.
Nor is there currently much expectation that the international community will find constructive ways to help. Since the SAC coup, Western governments have responded with boycotts and sanctions; Russia has become the regime’s closest ally; China has prioritised Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ while keeping the door open to all sides; and Japan, India and other neighbours have supported United Nations efforts for national reconciliation, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) promoted as the main lead. Meanwhile the International Criminal Court and other human rights bodies have continued investigations into systemic patterns of abuse. But, to date, there has been no coherent response. The dilemma of Myanmar remains.
For all these reasons, celebrations for this important anniversary of independence have been muted. Fears remain that the Tatmadaw will continue to employ ad hoc — and ultimately nihilistic — tactics to remain in government control. Instead, if there is any hope from the struggles of the past two years, it is in the energy and determination of young people that they will be the generation to bring real change. As civil war continues in the country, the need for political transformation and an end to conflict have never been clearer. Peace and national reconciliation are required today, not at an indefinite time in the future.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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Banner image © Martin Smith, ‘The Panglong Monument, Shan State, with replica of Shwedagon Pagoda in background’, 2015.
The ‘Myanmar @ 75’ logo is copyrighted by the LSE South Asia Centre, and may not be used by anyone for any purpose. It shows the national flower of Myanmar, Padauk (Pterocarpus macrocarpus), framed in a design adapted from Burmese ikat textile weaves. The logo has been designed by Oroon Das.