It is now more cliché than politically incorrect to quote Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics as “who gets what, when and how?” Still, this serves as a good reminder for those whose political drive is stuck in moral traffic, because it underlines distribution of power as the determining factor in political outcomes. However, the ability to achieve desired outcomes is only one part of the political relevancy of societal resistance. As this author noted before, another factor—legitimacy—plays a crucial role in determining the relevancy of societal resistance in Burma.
A positive outcome will not be achieved on its own no matter how the new regime in Naypyidaw manages to initiate a lengthy and non-linear state-building process. The geographical and functional reach of the Burmese state has been highly constrained by a multitude of societal forces, including democratic opposition groups as well as ethnic insurgencies that have plagued the country for several decades. Despite the fact that Burma is now undergoing a regime-led political transition, societal pressures will play a crucial role in intermediating the outcome. This article will attempt to analyze the role of societal forces in influencing the political transition.
Although the mainstream opposition groups are sidelined in the new political game of the post-2010 regime, the ongoing repressive nature of state-society relations still legitimizes the opposition forces and makes them relevant. However, whether or not the opposition groups are capable of making use of this political capital for the good of the country or even at least for their own survival remains a big question. Let’s start with unpacking the political opportunity structures that are available to the opposition.
There are two key domains emerging out of the post-2010 regime. The first is the parameter set by the 2008 Constitution and its elected government, and the second domain represents what I would call “the principled opposition” or “mainstreamers,” who refuse to play within the political framework set by the regime and yet remain as formidable stakeholders.
In addition to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and direct military representatives in governing bodies, the political parties, including ethnic parties that contested the 2010 election, civil society actors, media, and technocrats, are prime actors in this regime-controlled political parameter. Let’s call them “the insiders,” since they play within the existing game.
Among the mainstreamers, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, clandestine or underground activists, and an assortment of ethnic resistance groups are still major forces to be reckoned with. Observers should analyze what kind of political environment prevails in each of these two domains that provide political opportunity for respective players to advance their goals.
Thanks to the changing structures of state in the post-2010 regime, a relative openness emerges in the first domain, where we see a considerable number of actors from civil society and technocrats, media groups, the legislature and the judiciary attempt to push the limits. The majority of players in this regime-controlled domain appear to recognize that they can’t affect “the exercise of power,” but can play a role in expanding ways of “access to power”. They pursue a process and a strategy that allows them to conduct both embeddedness—being co-opted into the existing political framework—and contestation. Thus far, the domestic media and technocrats are becoming more outspoken in their contestation of the inefficient governance of the post-2010 regime, while elected opposition parties in the legislature rely more on the embeddedness process that focuses on institution-building rather than institutional autonomy, at least in the early years of a new regime. The judiciary remains the most conservative arena in the regime-controlled domain. However, this could be a theater where the opposition could repeatedly test and expose the regime’s claims to “rule of law”.
Meanwhile, actors in all of these arenas—civil society, media, the legislature, and so on—can’t take it for granted that the relative openness in the regime-controlled domain is linear and irreversible. The success depends on their own tactfulness, the result of power rivalries within the new regime, and also the willingness of the principled opposition groups to ally with them or at least refrain from rocking the boat.
The emergence of this new state structures poses a serious challenge to the “mainstreamers” or principled opposition groups, though they still hold sway on public support and Western backing.
However, the political opportunity available to the domain of the principled opposition groups is still scanty. Recently, the new government appeared to offer a three-pronged approach to the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which are (1) recognition of the existing regime, (2) talks between government representative Aung Kyi and Suu Kyi , and (3) the latter’s involvement in government poverty alleviation efforts. This three-level approach is in fact a resumption of what United Nations proposed in the wake of the brutal crackdown on the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” in which the UN special envoy on Burma encouraged the junta and Suu Kyi to cooperate on recognition of the regime’s roadmap, meaningful and time-bound talks and a broad-based poverty alleviation commission. The junta’s supremo, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, then scratched the UN’s proposal after a period of using it to diffuse international criticism of the 2007 crackdown.
Although Thein Sein, the president of the new government, might now intend to reemploy such tools of resolution without the UN or any other third party’s involvement, the concession he could make may be nothing more than allowing Suu Kyi to play within the existing game with the provision of some face-saving tickets for the Lady. Unless Suu Kyi manages to pull off a better alternative, she will have to go along with this supply-side-driven transition package.
However, the scenario regarding the ethnic resistance groups such as the ceasefire armies is more complicated. The new regime finds itself ineffective in crushing defiant groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and even smaller splinter groups like the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, thanks to its own weak military capability, the new regime's lack of legitimacy, and the direct geopolitical constraints imposed by neighboring countries.
However, ethnic groups will also not survive on military defense alone. They may eventually be forced by the regime as well as geopolitical pressures to enter political negotiations within the framework of the 2008 Constitution. Depending on the unity or divisiveness among intra- and inter-ethnic groups, the gains they achieve from the new regime will be uneven.
Generally speaking, the principled opposition groups—ethnic as well as urban forces—in Burma are perhaps by default most likely to make news headlines because they constantly bear the brunt of repression and injustice inflicted by the brutal regime. But they are so far losing control of the political trend-lines because of limited political opportunity available to their domain. At the same time, they haven’t been successful in creating their own political opportunity that would allow them to advance a better alternative.
Our analysis thus far demonstrates that the regime possesses overall control over the political trend, while the opposition—both “the insiders” and “the mainstreamers”—hold significant sway over specific issues and arenas in terms of power distribution. In other words, the regime controls a new parameter of politics and also to a large extent contains the domain of “the mainstreamers,” including the capabilities of Suu Kyi and even of major ceasefire groups such as the ethnic Wa. However, “the insiders” (those who play within the regime-controlled game) manage to affect the ways of “access to power” through their embeddedness and contestation of the available parameter. Though the evidence is not yet conclusive, the relative openness and the boundary-spanning efforts of these players in specific arenas such as media, civil society and even the legislature should not be understated.
At the same time, the “mainstreamers” have significant control over some issues, such as the removal of economic sanctions, in addition to substantive public support and Western backing for their dedicated leaders—especially Suu Kyi. However, the lack of coordination between players of two domains has in fact weakened the strength of the “insiders” as well as the “mainstreamers,” and has perhaps given even more leverage to “hardliners” within the new regime in their pursuit of personal or institutional rivalries.
Of course, the possibility of spontaneous public outrage and explosion can’t be ruled out if there is a disruption of the day-to-day survival of ordinary people or a communal conflict, such as anti-Chinese riots.
In summary, the societal forces—“the insiders,” “the mainstreamers” and even the general masses—play a crucial role in intermediating political outcomes. However, if “the insiders”— those who simultaneously embed in and contest the existing game—and “the mainstreamers” or “principled opposition groups”—those who hold sway over substantive public support and Western backing—fail to coordinate in intermediating the regime-led political transition, the people of Burma will have to bear the endless suffering of Sisyphean struggle.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist living in exile.