A VOID IN MYANMAR: CIVIL SOCIETY IN BURMA[1]

 

David I. Steinberg

 

            The term 'civil society' has been prominent in the history of Western intellectual thought for about two hundred years.  Its con­notative vicissitudes, its origins and previous political uses from Hegel and Marx and beyond in a sense reflect a microcosm both of poli­ti­­cal and social science theory.  For a period reflection on civil society was out of style, an anachronistic concept replaced by more fashionable intellectual formulations.  Today, however, the term has once again come back into significance.  Here, however, we are not concerned with its history, but rather with its contemporary use, as defined below, as one means to under­stand the dynamics of Burmese politics and society.

 

Civil Society and the State

 

            Although civil society developed in Europe, scholars worldwide have been restudying the question of civil society and its past influence on and potential relevance to the contemporary political and social scenes in their cultures.  They sometimes look for indigenous roots of civil society within their own cultures and histories even though the concept was unknown, and some­times with some success, although the modern variants may be quite dif­ferent from historical precedents. 

 

            A multitude of contemporary definitions abound; writers adapt the term to their particular predilections.  What is impor­tant is not the search for one absolute definition applicable across all states--the 'one size fits all' syndrome, but that we have a clear and distinct concept of what we mean, and the analytical ends to which we employ the concept.

            Civil society obviously means those institutions and groupings that are outside of government.  There are nuances in different defi­­nitions, but the essential characteristic of what we call civil society lies in its autonomy from government.  It is also obvious that such independence is relative, and as no individual can be isolated, so no institution within a societal framework stands com­pletely alone.  The significance of the term today and its impor­tance as an analytical tool to explore societies lie in the hypothesis that if civil society is strong and if citizens band together for the common good based on a sense of community or programmatic trust and efficacy, then this trust and efficacy somehow translate into overall trust in the political process of democracy or democ­ratization and lead to diffusion of the centralized power of the state.   Civil society is thus an essential element of political pluralism--the diffusion of power that is the hallmark of modern democracies.

 

            In fact, many argue that civil society is a critical element of democracy.  So democracy is not simply free and fair elections, which are a manifestation of part of the process but which in the popular eye are often equated with democracy, but rather democracy is composed of a variety of diverse institutions including a system of a universal adult electorate, an elected legislature, an indepen­dent judiciary, a free press and media, and civil society--the ability of citizens to gather to­gether in groups to express their common concerns.  Parenthetical­ly, then, the May 1990 elections in Burma were important when considering the issue of democracy in that country, but certainly not a reflection of more complex phenomena.

 

            These independent groups under an all-encompassing definition might include opposition political parties, the business sector or for-profit organizations, the non-profit groups, and even those elements bent on the overthrow of the government through non-elective processes.  It is, thus, no wonder that in many soci­eties, such as China, the term civil soci­ety implies anti-govern­ment activity, and thus its use is deemed inappropriate.  This, I would argue, misconstrues the importance and place of civil society in much of the world, and is not helpful to our analysis of Burmese issues.

 

            For purposes of definition in the case of Burma/Myanmar, civil society is best more narrowly defined.  Here it is used as composed of those non-ephemeral organizations of individuals banded together for a common purpose or purposes to pursue those interests through group activities and by peaceful means.  These are generally non-profit organizations, and may be local or national, advocacy or supportive, religious, cultural, social, professional, educational, or even or­gani­zations that, while not for profit, support the business sector, such as chambers of commerce, trade associa­tions, etc.

 

            We are excluding from this definition in the case of Burma/ Myanmar businesses, political parties, and groups that are engaged in insurgent activities.  How­ever important these may be, they deserve consideration under other rubrics.  They are included in more broad definitions, and were especially important in the rise of pluralistic centers of power divorced from the thrones of Europe.  The bourgeoisie played a particularly critical role there.  Political parties and the business community in contem­porary Myanmar are excluded because those political parties that are legal are severely circumscribed by the state and cannot operate independent of government power and considerable control or restrictions, the indigenous business sector is still nascent and developing within the government's formal and informal strictures, and all insurgent groups are ex­cluded because civil society under this definition operates within the legal bounds of state laws and regulations and does not attempt to overthrow state authority.

 

            The importance of civil society is that included groups have the capacity to act or advocate, autonomous of the state, for the common good, however defined and over how large a clientele--na­tional, local, or specialized.  They provide sources of pluralism in the society, thus diluting the possibility of a completely cen­tralized, autocra­tic or authoritarian state.  They are not the only potential source of pluralism--this may come from the division of powers among ele­ments of government, even within the executive branch itself and sometimes between that branch and the government's political party in power.  But they are an important source.

 

            These organizations may span the spectrum of state relation­ships: they may advocate policies that support the government (if they are not its captive), they may call for stricter adherence to laws already enacted, call for new laws or activities, express in­te­­rest in restructuring elements of policy, or simply do what its members regard as good, such as upholding traditional values or protecting the environment.  For example, in Myanmar a village organi­za­tion that was formed independently of the state to make offerings to the monks at a local temple would be part of civil society, but the hierarchy of the sangha, which is registered and is under state control, would not be so considered.  An organiza­tion may have to be registered by the government (in Burma, under the Companies Act, for example), but it could be part of civil society if it were autonomous in its actions, and if its leadership were not subservient to, or chosen by, the state.  It is conceivable that a private organization in part funded by the state might be within the bounds of civil society under this definition if it operated autonomously of the government.  How autonomous must an organization be to qualify?  It will depend on the culture and circumstances--how much space does the state allow between its role in inter­vening into the lives and activities of its citizenry, the extent of the privacy of the individual, and the autonomy of organiza­tions. 

 

            In some societies, such as those evolving from the Confu­cian tradition in which the state is idealistically presented as the benevolent father intervening for the good of his children--the people, that space tends to be quite narrow.  In others, the gap is quite wide.  In post-Confucian societies, not only does the state presumes that intervention is appropriate and even necessary, but the citi­zenry also believes that some extensive degree of intervention is also desirable.  This has important implications for human rights policies that are universally mandated.  Concepts of privacy are culturally determined.

 

            Civil society is often viewed as a threat by autocratic go­vern­­ments or those that do not wish to see their policies or prog­rams undermined or even questioned.  For this reason, and to pre­clude the development and influence of such organizations even if they are al­lowed to be formed, the state will often sponsor mass organi­zations that are designed both to provide a popular or mass base for state policies, or to preempt the formation of other groups that might oppose or threaten such policies.  

 

Civil Society in Burma

 

             I know of no research on civil society, as such, in tradi­tional Burma, although my search of the literature is no doubt incomplete.  There would be those who could argue that such organi­zations existed, or even were prevalent, in the pre-colonial period.  The whole structure of the village headman system, for example, might be construed as an element of civil society designed to ward off interference by the state in village affairs.  It was transformed by the British from the highest level of local organi­zation to the lowest level of central administration, thus changing its functions and roles.[2] 

 

            The quintessential example of civil society ubiquitous through­­­­out Burmese history have been religious organizations at the local level.  Here people willingly and spontaneously gathered together to support local Buddhist activities connected with the seasonal ceremonies come to form an integral part of the social and religious scene.  Since the British did not allow overtly political organizations, religion (a primordial loyalty closely associated with nationalism) became a natural focus for organizational activities both for religious good works and patriotic activities.  The Young Men's Buddhist Associa­tion (modeled after and in competition with the YMCA) was one such group, with both social welfare and advocacy activities, at the national level involved in the independence movement.  Organizations of this type continue to the present, and they have been supplemented by other religious-oriented groups formed, especially beginning with the colonial era, to provide ethnic/reli­gious solidarity among Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities.  Many of these organizations conducted social welfare activities often beyond the confines of their own immediate membership.

 

            There has been a lack of scholarship on many of the aspects of modern, independent Burma/Myanmar because of the nature of the in­sur­gencies that limited physical access virtually since indepen­dence, then because of government policies that prevented field research by both indigenous and foreign scholars.  That problem continues, so our knowledge is fractional at best.  Yet the few studies published indicate that at the village level Burmese generally did not join together for civil society functions except for religious purposes, but that such organizations were exten­sive.

 

            Civil society did develop under republican Burma.  It seems to have been basically an urban phenomenon, except for the religious groups that continued in the villages but were also prevalent in the cities, many of which were socially extended, agglutinated villages.  Pro­fes­sio­nal and other organizations were formed and flourished in an era where considerable space did exist between the state and the society.  That space was somewhat circumscribed because of three factors: the heritage of laws from the colonial period that were used to suppress political dissent and the independence movement, the insurgencies that prompted immediate concerns for state secu­rity, and a tradition in which state intervention was countenanced.  Social space did, however, exist.  There were, of course, close, interpenetrating links bet­ween the civil society groups and the government.  This was to be expected, because with a relatively small elite group and an extended family system, the relationships between the private and public spheres were often close.  In politics as well, there were in the past close familial ties between members of the insurgencies and the government at the highest levels.

 

            In addition to the formation of civil society, however, the government (and the political opposition as well) mobilized the citizenry through the generation of mass organizations linked to the political process.

 

            The Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) was the umbrella organization under which coalitions and factions existed to rule the state since independence.  Formed first against the Japanese at the close of World War II, and then spearheading the independence movement, the AFPFL dominated politics.  The violent left wing went underground in revolt, the Karen were in rebellion, and the alternative to the AFPFL was the legitimate, far left-wing party, the National Unity Front (NUF).

 

            Professional and non-political organizations flourished, but since most employment of the educated population was directly or indirectly linked to government, these organizations, although independent, were in the mainstream of Burmese life.  The AFPFL spawned a wide range of mass organizations designed to mobilize society for ends determined by the AFPFL, and to keep them in power.  The All Burma Peasant's Organization and the All Burma Worker's Organization were just two of many groups with extensive membership that allowed the party to perpetuate itself in power, and to foster the individual roles of its leadership.  One of the avenues of social mobility in Burma at that time (along with free education, the military, and the sangha) was through the leadership of such mass organizations.  These organizations under state control could not be considered part of civil society, but were rather extensions of state power.

 

            As a coalition, the AFPFL was riddled with factional and sepa­rate interests within the leadership.  This led in 1958 to the split between groups known as the 'Clean' and 'Stable' AFPFL that pushed Burma to the verge of civil war, at which point the military virtually forced a constitutional 'coup' that ended by giving the army about eigh­teen months to run and clean up the country. 

 

            The first military intervention (1958-1960) was known as the 'caretaker government.'  The military promised to return the state to civilian control, which it did after fair elections in 1960 that returned U Nu to office, a return that the army did not want and failed to predict (shades of military ignorance of popular feeling in 1990).  Rule at this time was auto­cratic, presaging much of what happened after the coup of 1988.  Squatters were moved out of Rangoon to newly created suburbs, the military intervened into the economy by founding businesses that still continue as well as by attempting to control prices in the bazaar.  The military occupied most critical posts in the state administration, and conducted foreign policy as well, reaching agree­ment with China on a border settlement.  The army stripped the Shan sawbwas of their power, and introduced universal male and female military conscription, which was never enforced because the number of volunteers exceeded need.

 

            At this time the army also engaged in extensive mass mobiliza­tion efforts, such as the National Solidarity Associations, to form groups supportive of its policies.  Extensive anti-communist propaganda campaigns were conducted by the psycholo­gi­cal warfare division of the military.  But, as in the AFPFL period, civil society did exist, and the military made no effort to enforce complete mobilization of the populace.

 

            The election of U Nu and the triumph of his party introduced an ineffectual government that seemed as much mystical as it was developmental.  U Nu ordered 70,000 sand pagodas to be built to ward off disaster to the country, and the prominence of Buddhism as a state religion, which had been a campaign promise much opposed by the military, made some of the minorities restive.  The military perceived that the threats to the unity of the state (based on compromise provisions of the 1947 constitution that unre­alistically allowed the Shan and Kayah states to opt out of the Union of Burma after a ten year hiatus and a plebescite) were so extreme was to prompt the coup of March 2, 1962 that was to per­petuate military rule in that state.  Some claim that the military was in any case bent on power, and this was the convenient excuse to assume control under the guise of the ever-popular slogan of the unity of the state--a slogan that reap­peared with vigor under the SLORC.

 

The Burma Socialist Programme Party (1962-1988)

 

            Civil society died under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP); perhaps, more accurately, it was murdered.  The military ruled by decree until 1974 through a Revolutionary Coun­cil of a few  officers led by General Ne Win, who had been commander of the armed forces since 1949.  The BSPP was formed as a small cadre of mili­tary within four months of the coup.  All other political activity was prohibited as the military slowly built up the BSPP from a coterie of Ne Win supporters to a mass mobiliza­tion system that had its first party congress in 1971.  The constitution of 1974 manda­ted a single party socialist state along an Eastern European model.

            A year after achieving power, the military introduced a rigid socialist system that eliminated the private business sector.  All private organizations, including private schools, came under state control; the only titular private groups allowed to exist were those com­plete­ly under military command.

 

            Burma instituted autarky, and outside contacts, both ingress and egress, were eliminated as far as possible.  No one legally left the country without authorization, visas for foreigners for a period were limited to 24 hours, internal travel was greatly re­stricted, and foreign and domestic news subject to complete control or censorship.  Foreign missionaries who left on leave were not al­lowed to return.  Private foreign assistance organizations were ordered to depart, and ties between internal groups and their foreign counterparts were truncated as far as possible.  Burma had turned from neutral to isolationist, and an official policy of virtual xenophobia was introduced.

 

            The BSPP through its core organization and its various sub­sidiary youth groups dominated all social activity.  The military succeeded for the first time since independence in registering and controlling the sangha, and retail economic activity was concentra­ted on the cooperative sector, which was also government control­led.  Professional groups were either abolished or structured along lines mandated by the center and with leadership dominated by the state and very often composed of military officers, who also con­trol­led central and local governments.  The modest autonomy enjoyed by the constituent states was eliminated at first by fiat, and then under the 1974 constitution that established a unitary state with the fiction of seven states (really provinces) organized along ethnic lines and seven divisions (also provinces) for the Burman majority.

 

                The BSPP, controlled and in large part manned by the military, went to great lengths to mobilize public opinion and people in support of its activities.  Peasants and workers councils were formed as further means to organize the citizenry for state purposes.  Although a 'feedback' mechanism was established to provide the policy makers in the Pyuthu Hluttaw (national assembly or legisla­ture) with the views from the bottom of the power ladder so that the people's concerns might be taken into account, in fact it did not work.  Fear of the hierarchy, which also resulted in the infla­tion of positive accom­plishments that were politically mandated, resulted in an inadver­tent avoidance of unpleasantness.  While civilians feared the mili­tary, the higher officers feared those in command, and even the cabinet feared the mercurial Ne Win, and kept from him news they believed would anger him.  

 

            A few private organizations were allowed to continue--welfare and religiously-oriented societies that kept far from politics or power.  Those that had more than local potential were circum­spect to a degree that vitiated the use of the term civil society in des­cribing their activities.  Advocacy groups were non-existent except for those directly mobilized by the state, or those underground or in revolt in the jungle.  Dissent was publicly eliminated.  Civil society had disappeared.

 

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)

 

            However tragic the failed revolution from below, and however  destructive and bloody the repression following the coup of Septem­ber 18, 1988, the military regime that came to power was simply a cosmetic change from the previous military-mandated BSPP.  Although the regularization of the border trade and the openings to both the indigenous and foreign private sectors in the field of economics, and the decision to allow a multi-party political system are touted as accomplish­ments of the SLORC, and so reported in the internal controlled press and in the foreign popular media, this is not the case.  All these changes in policy, with important and in some cases positive implications for the future, were those that had either been sug­gested by Ne Win at the close of his tenure as Chairman of the BSPP, or had been proposed for implementation by the BSPP, but the chaos of the summer of 1988 and the coup of September intervened.

 

            These changes were without question the most important libe­rali­zation of policies since the earlier coup of 1962.  As such, they were welcomed by many.  These liberalized measures should not obscure the fact that actual power had not shifted, and that it was evident from the very beginning of SLORC rule that they had no in­ten­tion of reducing the ultimate control of the military over the society as a whole.  What had happened was cosmetic, as we have indicated, but it was not even cosmetic surgery, but rather a thin, new patina of powder over a constant power base.

 

            The private sector was let loose where, in national power terms, it did not threaten military rule, but in fact supported the continuation of national power under military auspices.  Events have shown, and history has indicated, that the military, and indeed any con­ceivable civilian government in the near future, will likely be highly dirigiste and not allow the market to control the economic future of the society; rather, the market mechanisms will be used within limits for economic good that will redound to both the political and economic advantage of the state and its rulers.

 

            The center's control over non-governmental groups continued as before.  It was subject to more external criticism not because it was effectively different from the repression of the BSPP era, but because the plight of Myanmar was emphasized in the international media, where there was for the first time a victim (Aung San Suu Kyi--attrac­tive, poignant, and brave) with whom the world could identify, and during which period the times had changed for world opinion.  The turmoil and killings of 1988 were not on the world's television screens live as were those of Tienanmen a year later, but world concern about the latter reinforced the former one­.  The presence of a large overseas Burmese expatriate com­munity, where few had lived overseas in 1962, provided a convenient and dedicated base for protest.  It was effectively used in many coun­tries employing the new communications technology to organize inter­nationally as well.

 

            The concepts of the nature of power and its organization remained constant between the BSPP and SLORC periods.  Even if those wielding it were personally different, institutionally they were the same (the military).  There was no let up in the attempt to prevent the rise of any pluralistic institutions in the society that could offer avenues of public debate or disagreement over state policies and the role of the military--past, present, or future.  Thus, there has been no easing of state control and as yet no indication that an autonomous civil society will be allowed to exist.  There are, however, mecha­nisms in place that could be perceived to allow more distance bet­ween state and society.  The fact that the Yangon (Rangoon) Munici­pa­lity Act could be interpreted to be a 'liberal' measure because under it the municipality could accept foreign assistance without going through the central authorities, something that never existed since Burma became independent, to this writer rather indicates that the military have planned a continuous hold on power at all levels and have confidence that it will continue, and thus local approval is tantamount to central approval and control.

 

            But there have been changes in the way the state has responded to both mass mobilization and civil society.  The focus of the BSPP had been on building mass mobilization organizations around the party mechanism.  It became apparent in the May 1990 elections, which the government roundly lost and the results of which it con­tinues to refuse to recognize, that there were dangers in pursuing mobilization directly through the party process.  The BSPP did not work well, as the military came to realize and as we have indicated above.

 

            To the same end of ensuring that there is a mass base for direct, vocal support for policies that the government (i.e., the military) wishes to pursue, the SLORC has taken a somewhat different route.  Rather than mandating that the military and civilian personnel of the government join a party, which in the BSPP era was the only road to advancement, the SLORC moved to establish an organization called the Union Solidarity and Develop­ment Association (USDA).  The founding of this organization on September 15, 1993, about two weeks after the announcement to hold a national convention to write a new constitution, is likely to be related, with the USDA as a natural and national means to disseminate support for that new law when it is finally announced.

 

            The USDA is registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs, and is not a political party.  It's explicitly mandated role is to support the activities and policies of the military, and the Chairman of the SLORC is the patron.  It receives both direct and indirect support from the government at various levels, although it engages in businesses to provide funds for its activities.  It is not simply an 'apolitical' political organiza­tion, however.  It supports the state but has significant community development and educational components to attract membership.  It tends to concentrate on youth, and is reported to have over five million members or some 12 percent of the population.  The opposi­tion claims that the USDA has been mobilized to protest the National League for Democracy's activities, and Aung San Suu Kyi personally, and there is no question that the activities attributed to it in the controlled press directly support state policies.[3]  That the SLORC in October-November 1997 prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from personally visiting local chapters of the NLD to expand its youth activities may indicate that the SLORC is fearful of youth both as a potentially mobilized disruptive political force and that they wanted no competition with the youth activities of the USDA.

 

            Thus, the SLORC has created its own 'civil society' in the guise of the USDA.  The SLORC would, and has, strongly disagreed with charges that membership is forced, but other say that there are informal, non-punitive but socially desirable incentives for joining.  The potential for the USDA lies in its support for any of the SLORC policies or actions, including potentially the approval of a new constitution at some unspecified date, and the elections for a legislature that will be required.  The SLORC in this case, as in many others, seems to be following the model of Indonesia, which has allowed the military to run the country for over thirty years.  The USDA seems to be Golkar (the functional groups of Indo­nesia) before Golkar was converted from a military-sponsored social organization to a political party.  The role of the military in business in Indonesia is another example of a model emulated by the Burmese military.  Whether Myanmar has the institutional base on which to follow the Indonesian model is a serious question, and there are many who do not believe that Myanmar can take that route as successfully as has the Suharto government, even though General Khin Nyunt did say spe­cifically that he admired Indonesian 'stability.'

            There are private groups in Myanmar, but each of the several national ones, such as the Maternal and Child Welfare Association, are under government influence--General Khin Nyunt's wife heads that organization.  Other groups are cowed by the state and are clearly not independent and are at this stage no forces for pluralism.

 

            Will such SLORC policies of coopting civil society continue?  Probably, but even if the military remains in power through some civilianized regime in the future under a new constitution, it seems evident that pluralism will gradually expand.  The stulti­fica­tion of state control will probably prompt private activities that will lobby for greater autonomy.  The state does not have the administrative capacity to deliver the services that the population will begin to require, and burgeoning urban populations will be more difficult to administer, service, and control.  The private business sector will need more space as the state's capacity to micro-manage an economy that will become more complex will falter.

 

            All this points to a gradual easing of the regime over time, but probably slowly and tentatively.  Those who expect early change are likely to be disappointed.  These changes may come about inad­ver­tently rather than though conscious policy decisions.  There is always the possibility of a counter-military coup, or a popular uprising, but both seem unlikely at this writing.  We are, there­fore, likely to witness the gradual erosion of military ubiquity, but not basic power in areas that it regards as of national impor­tance.  The military's views of security extend far and wide.  It is unlikely to change soon.

 

            We should not place faith that the change on November 15, 1997 from the name of the ruling coalition of military from SLORC to SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) means a change in policy.  This is likely a tactical move to ameliorate a poor international image, for the leadership at the apex of the Council remains the same, and there is still no civilian element in its operation.  Thus the immediate future for civil society remains bleak.

 

David I. Steinberg is concurrently Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and Representative of The Asia Foundation for Korea.  A former President of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs and member of the Senior Foreign Service of USAID, Depart­ment of State, he has written extensively on Burma, Korea, and political economies in Asia.

 

This paper is one of four presented at the conference 'Strengthening Civil Society in Burma. Possibilities and Dilemmas for International NGOs' organised by the Transnational Institute and the Burma Centrum Nederland on December 4 and 5, 1997 in the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam.

 



     [1]. The State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, and has insisted on its use for all periods and in all grammatical forms.  This has become a political issue, as it is not accepted by the opposition, and is thus an indicator of political orientation.  Here the terms are used without political intent: Myanmar for the period under SLORC, Burma for the previous periods, Burmese as an adjective, and Burman to indicate the major ethnic group in the country.

     [2].  See J.S. Furnivall, Colonial Policies and Practice. A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

     [3].  See David I. Steinberg, 'Mobilization and Orthodoxy in Myanmar: The Union Solidarity and Development Association.' Burma Debate, Spring 1997.