Friday, June 10, 2005

Savvy Salt of the Earth, not Cowed

Quotations of the Day:

"In the eyes of the West, the politics in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) have become an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. "

- From - Savvy salt of the earth, not cowed, The Times Higher Education Supplement, June 10, 2005, p. 29

"Unlike Burma's urban-based opposition, the politics for the farmers are immediate and local, material and concrete. As long as they feel they could resort to various strategies involving local and central authorities, at times playing one off against the other to maximise their local, immediate interests and minimise the state's extractive and authoritarian practices, open confrontation with the state or the Government is not on the farmers' minds."

- From - Savvy salt of the earth, not cowed, The Times Higher Education Supplement, p.29, June 10, 2005


Savvy salt of the earth, not cowed

Published: 10 June 2005, The Times Higher Education Supplement, p.29

Title: Behind the Teak CurtainAuthor: Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung
Reviewer: Zarni
Publisher: Kegan PaulISBN: 0 7103 0941 4
Pages: 263
Price: £85.00
Title: Karaoke FascismAuthor: Monique Skidmore
Reviewer: Zarni
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
ISBN: 0 8122 3811 7 and 1883 3
Pages: 248
Price: £39.00 and £15.00

In the eyes of the West, the politics in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) have become an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

Since the spontaneous popular uprisings swept across the country's urban centres in 1988, the successive "illegitimate" military governments have been at loggerheads with the election-winning National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the Nobel prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi, for political power and the right to represent the majority of the people.

The elected governments in the West - from the White House to Whitehall - have opted to support the NLD by slapping sanctions and other symbolically punitive measures on the authoritarian regime and exceptionalising it as an international pariah struggling to shake off its legacy of the self-imposed isolationism of 26 years. But every Asian government - most significantly Burma's giant neighbours, China and India, - has refused to join the sanctions regime, quietly writing it off as yet another example of Western hypocrisy cloaked in the language of democracy, freedom and human rights.

Meanwhile, cultural conservatives, trade reformers and human rights liberals in the West have become strange bedfellows, adopting the charismatic Oxford-educated NLD leader as their idol and giving her the status of self-made, accomplished politician-revolutionaries such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Martin Luther King. From the perspective of the Burmese generals and their supporters, the West's "adoption" of Suu Kyi has only reinforced the common suspicion that she is a stooge of neocolonialists in big Western nations, hellbent on imposing their will and promoting their interests, ideological or otherwise, in Myanmar.

Needless to say, this has led to the regime's determined attempt to further render her domestically irrelevant through prolonged incarcerations. For better or worse, in my view for worse, the template of the Burma tale has been set in stone. And no protagonists may be expected to shift their views or switch their roles any time soon.

It is this backdrop of Burma's epic struggle, perceived or real, that serves as the context for two field-based studies: Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear and Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma/Myanmar, written respectively by Monique Skidmore, a researcher at the Australian National University, and Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, a Burmese political scientist at the University of Massachusetts.

While Karaoke Fascism is a narrative and "intuited" account of everyday life around Mandalay and Rangoon as experienced by the urban displaced and disadvantaged, including young prostitutes and recovering drug addicts, Behind the Teak Curtain examines the least studied, yet numerically and economically significant segment of Burmese society - farmers - and how they view, experience and deal with the authoritarian state.

Skidmore's book accepts a priori the lack of legitimacy and presence of popular hatred towards the ruling military junta, which she treats as a monolithic entity bent on building a modern "fascist utopia" and supported by the state apparatus of repression and surveillance. In contrast, Thawnghmung's book rejects this conventional, normative view, which the pro-democracy Burmese opposition promotes abroad. Instead, she advances a more historically informed and empirically grounded analysis of the multilayered process of the self-legitimising state and its relations with the most important societal group, its farmers.

Thawnghmung writes that "the same autocratic and repressive military leaders who are perceived by a particular sector of population as 'illegitimate' may at the same time be favourably seen by another segment of the citizens". Her penetrating analysis cuts through the ideological fog of the Orwellian notion of "two legs bad and four legs good". As the farmers in her study informed her, in a historically situated local Burmese context, the authoritarian state is neither wholly bad nor entirely positive. Nor is the Burmese state a singular, monolithic entity that leaves no social or institutional space for any type of economic and political actions for citizens' material betterment, individually or communally.
Because Skidmore views the state in Burma as in essence totalitarian, she is forced to see only sinister motives behind its every move, thus assigning the ruling clique too much power and reading too much into the state's actions and policies. She therefore ends up painting the public as more or less powerless "automata", individuals who "under the weight of fear, anxiety of constant vulnerability and the numbing demands of the state" deliberately present only their "lifeless hollow bodies for the state's use, while their minds reach out into the cosmos to an array of alternate realities".

In much of the post-independence period, both the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma and their nationalist brethren, who led the armed forces, competed fiercely for the support of rural communities, through both coercion and promises of local progress. For it is farmers who are the backbone of Burma's civil society and serve as one of the largest national economic building blocks.

According to Thawnghmung, the provision of agricultural loans and credits, favourable land reform measures, the building of irrigation systems, provision of fertilisers, imported technologies and seeds, as well as various national agricultural policies, have all been part of the state's strategies to boost agricultural production and to keep this vital rural population politically quiescent. Unlike the urbanites, who periodically challenge the authoritarian state, rural resisters are almost unheard of in postcolonial Burma.

Thanks to television and radio, made affordable through various agricultural policies, paddy farmers have also been able to keep themselves informed about domestic and world events. This stands in sharp contrast to the widespread, urban-centred view that farmers are an ignorant lot who need to be lectured on their democratic rights by the Western-educated elite with no roots in or genuine concerns for rural welfare. An average farmer has his or her own view as to what is good for the country, which does not necessarily conform to the abstract political visions prevalent in the pro-democracy opposition of the urban-based Western-educated counter-elites. A Karen farmer in Rangoon Division typifies farmers' views and sums up their locally rooted definition of a desirable polity: "I will still have to farm if there is a democratic government, or a military government, or a communist government... I don't really care what type of government we have, as long as the country remains peaceful and consumer prices are low and stable."

Unlike Burma's urban-based opposition, the politics for the farmers are immediate and local, material and concrete. As long as they feel they could resort to various strategies involving local and central authorities, at times playing one off against the other to maximise their local, immediate interests and minimise the state's extractive and authoritarian practices, open confrontation with the state or the Government is not on the farmers' minds.

A general fear of repression no doubt serves as a major deterrent for any peasant revolt against the country's authoritarian state. But fear alone does not tell the whole story. Since the 1990 elections in Burma, the country's urban opposition led by the Western-educated elite, most notably Suu Kyi, has been arguing its case internationally. It presents itself as the legitimate voice of the people, while its nemesis, the authoritarian regime, contests that claim, citing and mobilising pockets of popular support from other social classes as evidence of its institutional legitimacy.

Meanwhile, although vaguely sympathetic to their urban-educated brethren fighting against "the authoritarian state", the farmers are, nonetheless, sticking with the socioculturally familiar state, the state that in their eyes is functionally and historically legitimate.

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Zarni is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, and founder of the Free Burma Coalition. He was born in Mandalay.