Radical uncertainty: Myanmar at a critical juncture

Radical uncertainty: Myanmar at a critical juncture

There are moments in history when time itself seems compressed, when so many shocking and important events crowd together that it becomes almost impossible to keep track of them, writes Jonathan Bogais

The past few weeks in Myanmar have certainly been vertigo-inducing.

The extreme violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), Buddhist nationalist militias and Buddhists generally against the Muslim Rohingya in the state of Rakhine shocked the world. As did the apparent lack of empathy of the leader of the National League for Democracy, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Everything is taking place against a background of sectarian violence that started during World War II with Suu Kyi’s father Major General Aung San, before Burma’s independence from the British in 1947.

In recent weeks, an estimated 1,000 Rohingya men, women and children have been killed and 380,000 displaced. Exact figures cannot be confirmed due to lack of information on-the-ground. The UN has described the violence as ethnic cleansing.

According to Médecins sans Frontières, local Bangladeshi officials and journalists, many were able to cross into Bangladesh and are living in makeshift camps lacking basic facilities. Unwelcome in Bangladesh and with nowhere to go, the future for those Rohingya looks bleak, although not as bleak as for those who remain in Rakhine.

The term ‘terrorist’ here is wrong and inflammatory, ‘resistants’ or “militants” would be more appropriate

The new wave of violence was triggered by a counter-violence insurgency led by a small number of Rohingya militants who staged a coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine state last month. At least 59 of the insurgents and 12 members of the security forces were killed, according to the army and government. The Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi quickly labelled the group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as ‘terrorist’.

Using the term ‘terrorist’ in this case is wrong and inflammatory. ‘Resistants’ or “militants” would be more appropriate to describe the perpetrators of this counter-violence.

There is nothing mysterious about the methods used to expel and kill populations and the empty spaces this creates, but when communities are displaced and persecuted, they fight and resist, opening up new spaces of violence.

This is the case with the Rohingya. There is evidence of a new space of violence, namely resistance, but not terrorism.

A critical juncture in a violent history

Violence in Myanmar is endemic. It is akin to the exercise of a political system. Rather than promote the homogeneity of its citizens, it conserves their natural differences, and the collective and private networks of social and political domination. Government activity is organised by an external logic of development, based on ideals of progress and growth, in which social inclusion does not find a legitimate place.

It is no surprise that persecution creates the counter-violence we are witnessing now.

Myanmar is at a classic critical juncture, at ‘a period of radical uncertainty, potentially leading to revolution and an emerging new socio-ethical epoch’. Understanding the antecedents and the roles of key actors is indispensable as we try to forecast possible outcomes.

The former British colony claimed its independence from Britain following WWII, during which time a significant number of Burmese served in the Bamar/Patriotic Burmese Forces in support of the Japanese. At the same time, other ethnic minorities including the Muslim Rohingya from Western Myanmar and the Chinese populations of Kachin, the Karens of Kayin State and the Kayah State (with a Sino-Tibetan background) remained loyal to the British and were heavily persecuted by the PBF.

In Major General Aung San’s eyes, the Rohingya were the arch enemy

Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, had joined the Japanese before the war, forming the Burma Independence Army and later training in Hainan Island, before returning to Burma to lead the renamed Burma National Army, with the rank of Major General.

Early in 1945, Aung San had met with Lieutenant General Bill Slim (later Governor General of Australia), Commander of the British Fourteenth Army. Slim insisted that the BNA submit to being disarmed by British forces. The BNA was then renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces.

In Aung San’s eyes, the Rohingya had been the arch enemy of the PBF and, to make things worse, they were Muslims.

Returning to the present, Aung San Suu Kyi would be conflicted by the dichotomy between the important impact of her father’s legacy on Myanmar and on her – and her desire to bring Myanmar into a new age whilst facing the same actors and differences her father did 70 years ago. This significant conflict may explain – but not justify – her apparent lack of empathy for the Rohingya.

Expecting rapid transformation in Myanmar’s complex environment marked by decades of structural and political violence was unrealistic

In addition, the transition to democracy in Myanmar, which started and ended as an aphorism, stressed overwhelmingly that there was an urgency and immediacy in the process of change and that Aung San Suu Kyi was the instrument of this change.

The success of the democratic transformation depends on economic conditions, on legal system, civil society, education, historical heritage, and culture. It also depends on whether strong democratic actors can have an impact in the political power game against non-democratic players such as the military, militias and religious fundamentalists and their veto.

Expecting rapid transformation in Myanmar’s complex environment marked by decades of structural and political violence—and more recently, rising ethno-nationalism amid a rapidly changing socioeconomic landscape—was unrealistic. To expect the powerful Tatmadaw to surrender its political influence was equally unrealistic.

Since 1962, the Myanmar military has managed a parallel economy embedded in all aspects of business and social life. This is not a black economy. It is structural and therefore cannot be changed unless a profound transformation occurs at all levels of Myanmar society.

Impediments to democracy

Proponents for democracy in Myanmar have failed to understand its dynamic social networks. They have also failed to understand the connections between the drug/resource/human economy and the local political economy. These connections encompass politics, councils, licensing authorities, judiciary, police, the financial sector, military, schools, local companies, the private sector, and organisations enabling assurance and trusts necessary to promote humanities.

Understanding these complex dynamics would have enabled the re-composition and scaling ecology, so as to reduce or eliminate conflict, improve living conditions and employment, reduce and deter crime, and underpin law and order.

A region in which weak democracies and autocracies are common and where wide-scale military participation in politics and the economy is unexceptional

The linear model of democratisation proposed could not address this complexity. It made installing a Western-style representative democracy an impossible task, especially in a region in which weak democracies and autocracies are common and where wide-scale military participation in politics and the economy is unexceptional.

When Myanmar ‘opened’ to the world in 2012, optimism in Western democracies knew no limits. It was claimed the military junta, the last autocratic regime in Southeast Asia, would soon be overwhelmed by democratisation. Buoyed by their illusions and unbounded euphoria, political observers, democratisation experts, constitutional lawyers and many civil society actors imagined that the democratisation process would take only a few years.

Fresh from years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Western image of courage—not unlike Nelson Mandela—was elevated to the highest order of freedom. She was a symbol for democracy conquering a seemingly totalitarian space. The eyes of the Western democratic world were on her.

Managing complex dynamics

There is a normative balance of power in play within Myanmar. It essentially means that each side is content to maintain the status quo, rather than cede power and control.

Aung San Suu Kyi knows that only a transformation within this ecology and its parallel economies may affect change over time and that she must resist international pressures. Hence her silence on several issues including the Rohingya.

The future of ‘her’ government depends on her ability to manage these complex dynamics.

Myanmar is living through a critical juncture whose impact could reach well beyond its boundaries

It may be too early to tell, yet there is significant indication – given the emergence of alternatives and new values – that a number of young people, especially Rohingyas, are vulnerable to recruitment into alternative parallel existences (such as in terrorist movements) and parallel economies (such as in drugs). This suggests that Myanmar is living through a period of Keynesian ‘radical uncertainty’, if not revolution per se, a critical juncture whose impact could reach well beyond its borders.

Unless Myanmar distances itself from the liberal democratic doxa, resistance movements, militantism, and—perhaps in the future—terrorism, these possibilities will not be addressed. The only way to face growing integrism, the synthesis of these movements into an integrated whole, is to remove the ground upon which it grows. That is, remove liberalism, as it is practised today.

To prevent more tragedies, understanding these changes by being more sophisticated in the approach to conflict and development is essential.

In the meantime, little to nothing will happen to help the Rohingya. The Western democracies are unwilling to be involved beyond the usual rhetoric, Asian countries will not interfere and the UN remains toothless.

Featured image: Photo by Saw Wunna on Unsplash

Jonathan Bogais Dr Jean Jonathan Bogais, is a psycho-sociologist, analyst and negotiator specialising in conflict, violence ethics and complex systems - and in Southeast Asia. He is also an associate professor (adjunct) at the University of Sydney (School of Social and Political Sciences) and a senior fellow at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University, Bangkok. His website is

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