Roger Lee Huang joins the podcast to explain the politics and history of Myanmar. He is he author of The Paradox of Myanmar’s Regime Change.
I think this actually reflects why we’ve seen a coup now. Clearly, the coup has really brought serious economic devastation for the entire country and the military itself will also not benefit from this. And that to me is the key, because they’re not primarily motivated just by economic incentives and spoils. As a systematic military institution, it is driven by their own identity. Their own perception of what the Myanmar modern nation state should look like.
Roger Lee Huang
Key Highlights Include
- A brief history of modern Myanmar (Burma)
- Description of the Tatmadaw
- A portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi
- Why is the National League for Democracy (NLD) so popular
- What are the prospects for democracy in Myanmar
On February 1st, 2021 the Burmese military known as the Tatmadaw staged a coup d’état. It caught most of the world off guard, because Myanmar had undergone a process of political liberalization beginning with a new constitution in 2008, elections in 2010, and the release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.
Fast forward to November 8th, 2020. Aung San Suu Kyi leads the National League for Democracy to a second consecutive landslide election victory. But underneath the surface this was never a democracy. The Tatmadaw never fully surrendered power so it’s not a complete surprise they chose to reverse the progress made over the past ten years.
I reached out to Roger Lee Huang to better understand the politics and history of Myanmar. He is the author of The Paradox of Myanmar’s Regime Change. He offers an extensive account of the political situation leading up to the recent coup. This episode offers a deep dive into Myanmar’s modern history, a biographical sketch of Aung San Suu Kyi, and an account of the National League for Democracy.
Roger introduces many important figures, different ethnic groups, and other details so feel free to follow along with the transcript available at democracyparadox.com. You can also leave comments to fill in any gaps we may have missed or mention me on Twitter @DemParadox. You can also email me at email@example.com. But for now… This is my conversation with Roger Lee Huang…
Roger Lee Huang, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Roger Lee Huang
Thanks for having me
Well, Roger, Myanmar, it’s been in the news quite a bit. There’s a lot of topics that I really, really want to discuss with you. And I know that your book came out before the coup, but there’s so much to discuss before it, so much to discuss after. So, the first thing that I want to get out of the way is about the Tatmadaw. I know that it’s the armed forces. It’s effectively the military, but it seems to be so much more than that. For instance, you write, “Given its historical roots as a nationalist force, the Tatmadaw was never simply an instrument of war, but was a political institution invested in the administering of the state.” Can you tell us more? Who are the Tatmadaw?
Roger Lee Huang
Okay. So, the history is that it is basically the founding army that was seen as the anticolonial nationalist heroes. There’s this myth that they were the founding fathers of contemporary modern Myanmar. They’re first anti-colonial. They fought against the British. They’re actually trained by the Japanese and then they rebelled against the Japanese as well. So, there’s all this history with the Tatmadaw as the premier founding institution that was responsible for Myanmar’s independence from colonial powers. But there’s a key figure called Aung San who is considered a founding father of both the Tatmadaw, so the Mynamar military, as well as independent Burma, or as we now know as Myanmar. So, Tatmadaw has always this kind of prestige. At least it’s this historical narrative it’s been involved beyond just what we consider as cohesive and military responsibilities.
When Burma, Myanmar, became independent in 1948. It immediately faced a number of insurgencies. So, it was challenged by a Communist Insurgency. It’s challenged by ethnic minority armed groups such as the Karan National Union. And it was really the military that had to build the state, built the contemporary post-colonial independent Burma. And because in a lot of the areas where there were conflicts, the civilians obviously weren’t there, so it was the military that were presented this independent Burma and took on the roles of what we normally consider a civilian government would do. So, administrating the territory that was fighting over against the insurgents. So, even though Burma from independence, 1948 until 1958, and then again 1962, was some sort of parliamentary democracy, the military has always been kind of front and center in the engagement of political and civilian affairs.
What caught me off guard in your book, about the Tatmadaw, was the way that they allied with the left. Initially they allied with the Socialist Party. I don’t know if allied is really the right word. It’s almost more the political arm of the Tatmadaw between 1962 and 1988. The part that you described where they effectively build the state. I mean to me, that’s not a big surprise. Samuel Huntington wrote about how militaries oftentimes were a force of modernization in a lot of states back in his classic work Political Order in Changing Societies. But it surprised me that they would have an Alliance with the left because a lot of the military states, I think of, especially in Latin America, within Southern Europe in the past, have all been associated with the right. Can you explain why they would be associated with the socialists?
Roger Lee Huang
Yeah. I mean, that’s an interesting question. So, first the BSPP isn’t really an ally. It’s basically created by the military. So, the Tatmadaw created that the BSPP. So, first when they came into direct control of the state in 1962, they formed a revolutionary council. And then they kind of justified them in place because they saw themselves as most competent, again, the most competent institution that can govern and administrate the state. Now at this moment in Burmese history, a large majority of politicians and nationalists of all persuasions in the power centers were all left leaning. So, Ang San was mentioned briefly, was also one of the founders of the Burmese Communist Party in his early years.
Part of this is Burma’s colonial experience under the British colonial rule was particularly exploitative and was considered very unfair to the large majority of the Bamar populace. So, there was this rejection when the independent politicians came in and when the military came in it was really a massive rejection of anything the west had to offer. They felt that they were victims of exploitation. That most of the people who benefit from that colonial economy was a very selective group of people, most obviously Europeans, but also kind of what they consider outsiders that were brought in. So, you have the migrants from what would be British India and, also Chinese kind of middlemen. All these people that were considered by kind of the native quote on quote Bamar population had been exploiting the Burmese economy.
So, when these politicians and these military people came in power, socialism was something that was popular, acceptable. So, it was also an easy way, an easy ideology, an easy system that they could quickly adapt to their needs to justify taking control over the country. You’re right that, especially during this period, most militaries were affiliated with the right-wing. You can look at kind of the CIA backed Suharto when he took over Indonesia and also the successive high military governments. They were all really right-wing pro-market, et cetera.
So, that does make Myanmar here quite unique because the military saw themselves as again, the state builders. They have to challenge their biggest opponents at that stage who were Communist, but instead of presenting something, i.e., kind of more of a right-wing or a kind of a market-oriented economy, they basically tried to hijack and coopt that socialism Idea that was already popular.
So do you feel that the Tatmadaw has governed well? I know that they feel that they have, which is why they think that they deserve to hold onto power right now. And they’ve held onto power effectively since 1962, indirectly for a long time, and directly for the past two, three decades. Have they governed effectively?
Roger Lee Huang
So, let’s start with a very clear statement. In my opinion and I think this is shared widely, of course, the Tatmadaw should be considered like a cancer. The military is basically the source of state terrorism against its own people. But when they first came into power, if you recall. That in its early history that they formed a caretaker government in 1958. So, between 1958 and 1960, Ne Win, so he was kind of the figure that kind of created the modern Myanmar military regime. He actually kind of cleaned house between 1958 and 1960. So, the military at that stage in time from most historical sources suggest that the military was efficient. They were competent and there were relatively popular. The independent Burmese government was facing a number of insurgencies. So, it really wasn’t much of a state.
So, the military was able to come in clean house, establish kind of more control, civilian participant politics was particularly vicious. So, the military came in seeing themselves as the neutral political actor who perceive themselves as being the one that has the country’s interests at heart and not involved in partisan politics. And that’s how I perceived the military has always seen itself. That it is the leading, objective, non-partisan political actor. But the reality is when they came back into direct power with the 1960 coup until 1988, as you’ve pointed out, they formed this revolutionary council. The Burmese Social Program Party kind of government where they had a really extreme form of national economy. And that obviously was a failure. I mean, the country had obviously a lot of resources and was relatively wealthy at least during the British colonial rule.
And then they made the country bankrupt. There was inflation. People were starving. There was a poor medical system. People weren’t getting education. All these problems which led to, of course, the 1988 public uprising and the failure and collapse of that military-backed socialist government. And then when they came back in ‘88 they kind of reincarnated themselves as now more of a pragmatic authoritarian regime. Basically, they removed the facade of needing a socialist civilian party to run the country. They just ran the country as a pure military regime between 1988 and 2008, first, as a State Law and Order Restoration Council, later renamed as State Peace and Development Council.
Now between this period, 1988 to 2008, they really kind of backtrack and move in a completely different direction. And the phrase I used in my book, quoting Mark Thompson, the military was just marching. They were marching, but now they could begin marching in a different direction. So, when it was the socialist program from ‘62 to ‘88, the military was marching towards building this Burmese way to socialism, building this socialist utopia. Clearly that fell in ‘88. So, then they decided that what, they’re now able to move towards a different direction. They were going through introduce a multi-party quote, unquote democratic Myanmar, and also moved toward a market oriented and capitalist economy effectively.
And they did try to do that from ‘88 onwards. They try to open up the economy. They try to attract foreign investors into the country. For a variety of reasons, predominantly Western-led sanctions, the poor capacity of the state to attract and have infrastructure to allow kind of foreign investments to take hold in the country, prevented the country from developing that kind of successful, productive economy. And again, that changed, of course, in 2008 when they finally allowed a constitution to be voted by the public.
Voted is a bit of a strong word. There was a referendum, but in a highly oppressive environment. Nevertheless, this referendum allowed the next incarnation of the military’s kind of idea of how Myanmar should be run, which comes to our current contemporary era, which is what they call a disciplined democracy. So, in the 2008 constitution that is now supposedly a basis of contemporary Burma, it is supposed to be this disciplined democracy.
So, I want to go back to the economy for just a moment, because, I think, in Burma the economics, I think, blends together with the politics because the Tatmadaw has a lot of control over aspects of the economy. I mean, they have their fingerprints all over it. The scholar Zoltan Barany has written in the Journal of Democracy, “Corruption is also much more pervasive in Burma and it permeates political, societal, and commercial exchanges on every level.”
From what I’ve read about the country, it gives me the impression that it’s very, kleptocratic still in a lot of ways. That the liberalization hasn’t necessarily been a true liberalization. It’s been somewhat of a transition from socialism to something closer to kind of a market-based kleptocracy. And does that mean that from a political standpoint, that the military doesn’t want to give up power not so much because they think they do a good job, but because they have economic incentives not to let go.
Roger Lee Huang
Yeah. That’s kind of the key question. Especially if you’re putting it into the contemporary, at the moment, kind of perspective. I think a lot of explanations out there are that the military is primarily motivated by these economic incentives. So you’re right. Myanmar, especially since they ditched the socialist agenda, the military, even during the socialist period, was kind of intimately involved within the economy. But especially after this move towards capitalism or market-oriented economy, they were front and center. So, unlike some other regimes, where there were independent, powerful civilians and capitalists that, , became involved in the regime, in a Myanmar context, it was still the military that had the real control. You had crony capitalists that emerged with nationwide presence almost during this opening up of its economy since the early 1990s. But it was always the military that was involved.
They have these two massive conglomerates that are involved in pretty much every sector of the economy in Myanmar. And to ensure the military remains united and loyal to one another, they are the ones that are the best funded. They have parallel schools and medical systems that the normal civilians do not have access to. And this is all built because of their monopolization over many aspects of the economy.
So, before the recent coup that occurred this past year, Myanmar was in the news because of the genocide against the Rohingya people. That’s pretty much the only story that you would see for a long time. It opens up something that I don’t think that a lot of Westerners recognize, which is when we think of a country like Burma, we assume that all of the people are Burmese, but it’s actually a multi-ethnic country. Can you give us some background on the people themselves? Who are they? How diverse is this country?
Roger Lee Huang
So, according to Myanmar’s kind of official perspective, their own narrative, there are eight major what they call national ethnic races. So, this is actually recognized by the Myanmar government. These eight major national races the Bamar, which is what we think of the kind of quote unquote the Burmese. But there are also the Kachin, Kayin, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and the Shan. So these are the eight officially recognized major ethnic national races. And of all of those eight, then there’s another, again, officially recognized, which the government considers indigenous people of Myanmar, another 135 sub-ethnic groups. And to be honest, most of these identities, really are just socially constructed and perceived and built up because of these narratives and identities.
And a lot of these identities were really more emphasized and became kind of internalized by the post-colonial Bamar thinking because of British colonial rule. The British were obsessed about categorizing and kind of labeling people in different groups. And there are a lot of problems with this idea of this indigenous population and ethnic groups. So, there’s large Chinese populations in Myanmar who actually have citizenships. Where do they go? Do they belong in these official recognized groups? And actually, one of those groups is recognized as a Kokant which is one of the 135 ethnic groups, but really they’re just considered by some of the people in Kokant as well by others as Han Chinese.
You say that that these are officially recognized ethnic groups.
Roger Lee Huang
Why does it matter that it’s officially recognized?
Roger Lee Huang
So, especially, after the military government when they came into power from ‘62 onwards, they start really building these identities. They’re particularly xenophobic. There were purges against Indians and Chinese in the sixties and onwards. But the key here is from the kind of the mainstream perspective, if you’re not considered as one of these official groups, then you’re not a native indigenous population of Myanmar. Therefore, you either don’t deserve or shouldn’t be a Burmese citizen.
Now they actually codify this with the 1982 citizenship law and an idea that considered as native soil, this kind of native indigenous person whether you’re from these eight main major ethnic races or one of the 135 groups. Anyone else who doesn’t belong to these groups then really is seen as an outsider. And this 1982 citizenship law basically excludes even people who might have already lived in Myanmar for a century or more. If you moved to Myanmar in sometime in the 1800s, you’re still not considered as part of this native indigenous population, because you’d be considered as migrants who were brought by the British colonial government.
So, it’s really an extension of their sense of nationalism that you’ve already mentioned before. This seems to be very important in the way that their politics operates. I want to bring up something, a quote that just struck me about the ethnic minority groups. You write, “Several ethnic minority groups, including the majority of the Rohingya populace who had been allowed to vote in the 2010 elections were denied the right to vote. None of the major political parties ran any Muslim candidates either.” So, again, these senses of ethnic identity are playing a role even in the way that they operate politically. It determines who belongs and who gets to decide any of the decisions within the country.
Roger Lee Huang
The main critical issue here is that there has been a systematic kind of state-sponsored institutional, structural, cultural direct violence. Any sorts of violence that you can consider against this Rohingya populace and the main thing is that the popular narrative is that these people, they’re not just not indigenous to the Rakhine state, but they’re actually Bengali. So that was a very popular term that has been used widely by all sorts of people, including people you would normally consider more progressive and liberal that would refer to the Rohingya populace as Bengalis implying that they are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. There’s a lot of issues with this. First of all, the Rohingya population has been in their communities for decades, if not centuries. People forget that these borders are always kind of very flux, they’re porous.
I mean, the contemporary idea of sovereignty is, again that’s something that’s very modern, right? It didn’t really exist. People move back and forth. That shouldn’t even be a subject to discussion. So, when people try to talk about whether Rohingya belongs in Burma and what generation they’re there. For me that’s the wrong question. They are a group, a large group of people, that clearly have their own distinct culture, a distinct identity, that recognize themselves as Rohingya. So, they are Rohingya. There shouldn’t be a debate. If I call myself Rohingya, I am Rohingya. If I call myself, Taiwanese. I am Taiwanese. So, they’ve been there for a long time, but they’ve been portrayed as these neighboring Bengalis who fled to Burma and, like you’ve pointed out, some of the Rohingya had voting rights, had citizenship rights, but they were all deliberately taken away.
So, I’ve briefly mentioned about the 2008 constitution that allowed kind of this transition from kind of pure military government to the disciplined democracy. So, in the first election of that disciplined democracy in 2010, a Rohingya actually represented the ruling party, the pro-military party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. So, that’s an actual Rohingya MP representing USDP. After the 2010 elections, got elected, voted in, and actually sat in parliament in 2011. Now in the 2015 elections, he was suddenly made stateless effectively. He was no longer considered a citizen. He couldn’t run as an MP, even though he had just served as an MP for his country for the last few years.
So, by this stage in time, all the Rohingya effectively lost their right to vote. And even what we had considered kind of the pro democratic party, the National League for Democracy, with this leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But even this kind of supposedly main opposition party kind of went along with it. They basically also revoked membership of Rohingya party members. So, party members that considered themselves NLD, their membership got revoked from the party because the NLD said, well, they’re basically just following the law of the land. So, if the government determined that these Rohingya populace don’t have the right to vote, then, well, they don’t have the right to be in our party.
So, who is Aung San Suu Kyi?
Roger Lee Huang
So, Aung San Suu Kyi really is the defining political personality of Burma for several decades. She really first came into prominence in 1988 after the public uprising against the Burmese Socialist Program Party government. But her real claim to fame is because she is the daughter of Aung San, the founding father of the Tatmadaw, but also of the contemporary Burmese nation state. So, she really got that aura as the daughter of Aung Sang. And then she was in the right place at the right time when the ‘88 protests came out. She actually spent most of her life prior to 1988 living overseas in India and the UK in particular. So, when she came back in 1988 to take care of her sick mother protests broke out. And from then she basically became a key opposition leader protesting against the government.
And during that period, she founded what would be known as now the main political party of Burma, the National League for Democracy, and through her work, as an opposition leader since 1988 up until at least 2010 she was in different bouts of house arrest, which kind of added to that moral authority for her. That she sacrificed everything and was treated very poorly by the military government. And because of that part of her work, in the early 1990s she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Now when the National League for Democracy won the election in 2015, the NLD was able then to use their parliamentary majority to create the position of State Counselor for her. So, she has been the state counselor which is kind of effectively the de facto head of government, kind of like a prime minister.
So again, this role was deliberately created for Aung San Suu Kyi. It was not something that was in the constitution that was drafted by military. But this position was created to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to serve as the head of the government when the NLD won the election in 2015 and came into power in 2016.
So, in 2011 Tatmadaw effectively begin this process of political liberalization. Why did they do it? And many of have called it a process of democratization. You’re very clear in the book that you don’t feel that it was truly democratizing. Is the end goal that they have in mind to actually produce democracy. Are they trying to move towards that direction? Even if they’re not doing it well, is that their own sense that that’s what they’re trying to accomplish?
Roger Lee Huang
So, I’ve consistently kind of referred to the 2008 period up until even today as Myanmar’s way to democratization of disciplined democracy. So, when the military came into power in 1962… Sorry, I have to go back a little bit back to history. They actually referred to what they’re trying to do as the Burmese way to socialism. So, these are the actual words of the military, the revolutionary council and the BSPP government refer to their rule in Burma from 1962 up until it’s collapse in ‘88 that they introduced the Burmese way to socialism. And this is where I see that parallel where the military has effectively said again that marching. They were marching in a different direction, but now we’re marching towards Myanmar’s way to democracy.
And this idea of democracy is the military’s idea of democracy. It isn’t what we consider, perhaps in the more liberal, progressive context of what a democracy should look like. So, it’s actually in the constitution that calls itself a disciplined democracy. That’s in the constitution where it actually gives all these expansive powers for the military to remain actively involved in the administration and in government. The military isn’t simply listening to the orders of the elected government to do things. It’s written in where any electoral results, it doesn’t matter who wins, that there will always be an enforced coalition government.
So, three key cabinet positions are always going to be reserved for active military officers. Again, it’s written in the constitution for the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Borders and Ministry of Defense, their ministers are basically de facto appointed by the commander in chief and they have to be active military officers. And here’s, what’s also interesting. The commander in chief of the military forces, all military forces in Burma, Myanmar, is Min Aung Hlaing, basically, a non-elected military senior general. Again, written in the constitution where the commander in chief is not the president. It’s not someone elected, but an active military officer. The commander in chief as the Supreme commander of all armed forces, including the police as a parallel government where, the military has all these parallel expansive powers that’s denied to the civilian government.
So, my understanding is exactly like you said. It’s a parallel government where they have elections that kind of runs what they consider to be the domain of civilians and then they effectively have a hundred percent complete control over the domain of, maybe the security apparatus is the better way to describe it. And from my understanding even some aspects of the economy and maybe a few other things, but they have a domain for the civilian government. The first election they had a former military officer win the presidency. Did they expect that they would be able to dominate both lanes of the political structure?
Roger Lee Huang
So, that’s an interesting question. And there’s obviously quite a lot of debate about this. I am still convinced that yes, of course, the military is heavily invested and incentivized by the economic spoils of being in control. But that is not the motivation, the main driving force of this Tatmadaw. We already said in the sixties they were the ones pushing for this extreme socialist program. And when they realized that the socialist program was a failure, they went the opposite direction, trying to push for the opening up and different kinds of exploitation of their economy and trying to be engaged in the global political economy. And they are convinced again. This military is convinced they want to create this Myanmar’s way to democracy of what they perceive should be where the military remains actively involved as you point out in kind of national security affairs.
They have consistently said the military and what the Myanmar state should be concerned about is basically unity. They want the perpetration of their national sovereignty. They want to have control over ethnic affairs. And that’s reflected in this kind of holding of the three key ministries I point out: Defense, Border and Home. So, Home looks at basically control of police. So, you control domestic security. Border Affairs is basically relationship with all these ethnic minority groups. And Defense is clear, obviously the control of all armed forces. So, they are really, I think, motivated by their own kind of ideas of what a contemporary modern Myanmar nation state is, which prevent the fragmentation of the state. The economic factor is just that additional incentive, but that’s not what, in my opinion, was primarily driving the actions of the Myanmar military for the last several decades.
And I think this actually reflects why we’ve seen a coup now. Clearly, the coup has really brought serious economic devastation for the entire country and the military itself will also not benefit from this. And that to me is the key, because they’re not primarily motivated just by economic incentives and spoils. Sure. That helps. And I’m sure a lot of people, individuals might. But as a systematic military institution, it is driven by their own identity. Their own perception of what the Myanmar modern nation state should look like which is that the strong political role for the military and that strong dominance over all ethnic and non-military units and also that unity and the prevention of fragmentation of the state.
Now, when you say the military and their sense of identity, I think it’s important to stress that word identity, because it’s not an ideology that’s propelling them. It’s this sense of their own professionalism. The sense of their ability to be the non-partisan institution within the country. You’ve got a great quote where you say, “The military has consistently viewed itself as being the responsible non-partisan guardian and builder of the contemporary Myanmar state.” It’s interesting, because I still don’t know that they’ve done a great job. But that is how they view themselves. And so, when we think of it this way, it’s not about the exact policy per se. It’s the way that they think that they’re above politics.
Roger Lee Huang
No, I think you’re exactly right. I mean, that’s why I’ve tried to say in my book that you can see this trend where they always see themselves as the neutral party. So, even when you see the collapse of the Burmese Socialist Program Party in 1988 and they reincarnate themselves as the National Unity Party, the military did not favor the party that they had basically created. Similarly, we briefly talked about the transition periods of this disciplined democracy in 2011 when President Thein Sein, the former Prime Minister of the military regime, but also was an active military officer prior to the election. He literally retired from the military leading up to the election in 2010. You can even see then between 2011 and 2015, yes, the military was also operating still then independently from the USDP government.
So, even then with Thein Sein, the former Prime Minister, and very recently retired military officer, they were still in my opinion, operating parallel to each other. So, when in the early part of Thein Sein’s administration, the military was fighting the Kachin Independence Army, the President Thein Sein actually ordered them to stop their events against the Kachin Independence Army. And the military ignored the president. They continued their offense. Later after a while, things might have come down a little bit, but it wasn’t that the military immediately stopped their advancement against the KIA. They continued their operations.
So, during the transition periods to disciplined democracy from 2011 to 2015, there’s a few key political leaders that I think we should pull out. You have president Thein Sein and you have Shwe Mann who was again, a leading figure of the military regime. He was called Thura Mann which is basically an honorific, a gift which, you know, brave military person, personality in the Myanmar context. And he was the speaker of the house. And when a number of military officers retired leading up to the 2015 elections and wanted to run as USDP candidates in the upcoming election. Shwe Mann, who was then the chairman of the USDP, basically rejected their candidacy to say we will not select you as our candidates to run in the USDP.
And there was literally a night coup where Shwe Mann and his allies in the party were disposed from their party position. Military personnel went in and basically say, you know, they’re chair of the party. And this was because the USDP was acting against the interest of the military. So, I do see irony here, because I did say that the military sees itself as kind of the neutral arbitrator and wouldn’t be involved in party politics, but the USDP and these channels were used for the, the military, for active military officers to have a second career once they leave the military. So, once they retire from the military, the idea is that that they can run as USDP MPs. So, they have a second career outside military, but the USDP itself has consistently been operating, I think, in many ways in parallel to the military.
So, it wasn’t just simply an extension of a civilian arm of the military. You don’t see particular kind of preference for the USDP in the recent 2020 elections. Initially when the USDP complained about the issues about the 2020 elections and electoral fraud and whatnot, the military didn’t really take sides to the extent that you would assume that if the USDP simply served as an extension of the military and that you do see this kind of consistent trend where the military sees itself as being the most important organization and that the USDP is basically a backchannel where retired people can go and retire. Enjoy their life as civilians and politicians. But once you’re out of the military, you’re out of the military.
And I think that’s important to understand. You see this trend where former strong men in the military once they leave office, they no longer have the same type of command they have over the active military officers. You’ve seen this with Ne Win who was the figure that created the Burmese Socialist Program Party from 62 to 88. After he left the military, most of the officers might respect and whatnot, but he was no longer able to command the government of the day, the military government of the day. Similarly, I’ve briefly mentioned about Thein Sein. When he became president, first civilian president of disciplined democracy, he didn’t have direct control over Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw.
That’s fascinating because I would imagine the Tatmadaw thought that the democratic type parties or the more organic political parties would be completely fractured. So, that with their one quarter of seats within the legislature plus any seats the USDP would win that they would have this commanding majority that would be able to run the country. But the reality is, it sounds like their side is far more fractured than the NLD has been. I’d like to ask you now, about the other side of the political divide and the NLD. Why do they have such widespread support? Because they sat out the first election, which is the only reason why they probably didn’t win other than maybe a rigged election. They dominated in 2015 and the dominated in 2020. Why?
Roger Lee Huang
So, let’s backtrack just a little bit. The NLD emerges as a political force, I should add in some ways actually quite ineffective political force despite wide support, is really, again, going back to 1988. So, Aung San Suu Kyi and retired military officials founded the National League for Democracy. So, in 1990 there was an election that was held by the military regime which the NLD won by a wide margin. So, it was a landslide victory, even in 1990. The military regime basically ignored the electoral results and said we change our mind. The election was actually for delegates to write a constitution, because you couldn’t just hand power over to the NLD because there wasn’t a constitution to establish the rules of the game of what a Myanmar democracy would look like. And that kind of ties up to my talking about this disciplined democracy.
It took a long process of drafting this constitution to allow this transition from socialist to military government to this disciplined democracy. Now why the NLD is so popular I think there are some main reasons. One, it does have quite a wide network that other political parties don’t have. So, they have party branches throughout the parts of the country. And I’ve really mentioned about Aung San Suu Kyi’s particular charisma. So, she is really a very charismatic leader. She does have that aura that really gets people to believe in her and a lot of that is because she is the daughter of general Aung San. So, she has that personal charisma plus that kind of legacy that Aung San was able to afford to her.
And then, like I said, you have that network throughout the country where there’s a party presence and no other party really can compete in that type of presence. And then they have that also credential, that long history. Because they came out in 1988, because they were kind of the party that lasted through all that military regime team to continuously try to challenge the military and also represented that kind of idea of a Bamar nationalist party. A large majority country is still Bamar. I think the figure is usually about 70% of Myanmar consider themselves as Bamars. So, this is the Bamars party of choice, the National League for Democracy, and the only party that really had the ability to win a majority to challenge the military, because it’s very obvious, especially now, that the military and their kind of pro-military parties have no real support.
They do not have the support so the NLD was seen as the only effective party that could form a government, that could bring about real changes. And that was kind of one of the main kind of slogans that allowed the NLD to win in 2015 was that they were the party of change that they were the party that would change Myanmar and fix things.
So, before the coup Aung San Suu Kyi was taking a lot of blame for having authoritarian tendencies. Not just in terms of how she was treating the genocide of the Rohingya people, but also just in terms of other aspects of her style of government. You’ve already mentioned that the USDP and the Tatmadaw. They’re clearly legacies of authoritarianism as well. There was an article in the Journal of Democracy a few years back by Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu that said “The legacy of authoritarianism remains deeply embedded in Burma’s political culture, and the problem is compounded by a lack of understanding of how democracy should function.” Is there a path towards democratization for Myanmar?
Roger Lee Huang
So, things are very depressing in Myanmar at the moment. It’s really a regression. A regression is an understatement, right? This is more than a regression it is a complete reversal of what’s happened in the last several years with the expended pluralism and the social political space. Now everything’s gone backwards. We’re probably looking at something that’s close to what happened between 1988 and 1990. This really kind of repressive authoritarian military regime again where they’re shutting down old spaces. They’re censoring the internet again. They’re attacking the media, et cetera. And then compounded with the fact that you have COVID, an economic crisis that’s going to be a serious issue.
At the same time, I think there is an increasing awareness, especially with the young generation that what the large majority of the Bamar population is facing now in urban centers, whether it’s in Yangon or Mandalay or elsewhere, is what the ethnic minority citizens have faced for decades. Even when we’ve talked about this disciplined democracy between 2008-2010, even under Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, a large majority of the ethnic population didn’t even benefit from that. There’s all this narrative in the West or mainstream media that 2011 was democratization. Things are getting better. For whom? A large majority of ethnic population did not benefit from this transition to the military’s version of Myanmar’s way to democracy.
I mean, leave alone the Rohingya. Where are they now? I mean, there was an active, you know, ethnic cleansing, genocide of about a million people that had to flee the country, but there was also intense fighting against these ethnic minority groups in Kachin and Shanland and elsewhere. So, the big positive here is that I think there is now more awareness with Bamar people saying, ‘We now understand. We now understand what our ethnic brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers have been facing for several decades.’ So, I think there is that new room for, hopefully, a genuine reconciliation.
And you’ve seen kind of this national unity government, this self-declared government in exile right now, trying to build bridges again, trying to reach out to these ethnic minority groups, promising real federalism, kind of real kind of autonomy for these ethnic minority groups which is a positive step. You’ve seen the younger generation using the internet in very creative ways to also reach out to ethnic minority groups. But having said all that, obviously I’m rooting for genuine democracy and the fall of the military regime. I think any real determinant factor for something like that to happen, for genuine democratization of Myanmar first still falls with the military. We need to see a genuine exit of military and at the moment, this seems very unlikely and difficult. How do we encourage the military to voluntarily or involuntarily exit from the political scene?
So, to end with a more positive optimistic note, the military is also facing the biggest crisis it has ever seen really ever since they came into power in 62 and 88. Now 88 is probably more comparable to what they’re facing now. But I think now there’s a more genuine connection and the technology has allowed faster speed of communication, so this anti-military movement now has gained a lot more attention and people are able to communicate with one another within Myanmar, but also outside of Myanmar. You do see a younger generation of people forming regional solidarity movements who are all trying to promote this broader ideal world of democratization in Asia.
So again, there’s this active effort of linking these individual local contexts of anti-authoritarianism whether it’s anti-coup in Myanmar or anti-military politics in Thailand or anti kind of Chinese shrinking of space in Hong Kong. Now it’s being linked to a broader regional solidarity movement. Which hopefully will allow new opening up of spaces to challenge these authoritarian practices.
The most surprising insight that I got from your book was that the inability to establish a strong state capacity within Myanmar actually has opened up much stronger social capital among the people because they’ve had to make do where the state hasn’t been able to provide services. So, hopefully there is a story where democracy can find a way to eventually flourish. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in so many countries, oftentimes it takes a lot of wrong turns. But your book is so well-researched. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Roger Lee Huang
Thanks for having me.
The Paradox of Myanmar’s Regime Change by Roger Lee Huang
Myanmar’s Way to Genocide: The Rohingya Crisis in a Disciplined Democracy – Video Lecture by Roger Lee Huang
“The Generals Strike Back” by Zoltan Barany from Journal of Democracy
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