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Four weeks ago, I spent the latter part of an evening with the local commander of an Irrawaddy-delta town chatting with him and other friends. He ultimately asked me – and effectively the group – to define this “open society” that was meant to be coming to Burma, and to explain how the country is supposed to manage it?
He indexed the recent violence as a gaping question mark, providing it as an example of people losing discipline. A rambunctious party fell silent and debate ensued for the next hour.
That these kinds of discussions are occurring is remarkable and positive, and it is important to highlight them as examples of Burmese Buddhists (in this case) struggling with these issues. It also illustrates that people are not merely seeing the “other” as a threat, but are trying to figure out how to navigate – and even embrace – difference.
Indeed, these conversations can be interpreted as nascent attempts to confront scapegoating violence with a positive politics, with citizens articulating inclusive conceptions of community that base inclusion not on the violence of the colonial encounter of all things.
This positive politics must include elaborations of economic justice and inclusive political membership. The first can be achieved through a combination of legislation, advocacy and pedagogy around the importance of directing support to the 70 percent of Burmese citizens who toil in or around the rural agriculture sector.
A team of Harvard professors has highlighted the economic sense in supporting small-holder plots, something that is a far cry from Aung San Suu Kyi telling farmers that they will be fine without their land.
Luckily there are signs that such pro-poor orientation is emerging from the National League for Democracy as well. The NLD’s new in-house research team is focusing on the agricultural sector, working to synthesize research and data from constituents so as to develop policies that allow growth to come from the bottom.
A missing piece is Suu Kyi using her immense social capital to infuse her empty rule of law rhetoric with these kinds of meanings. Indeed, it is not enough to say “rule of law” without telling people how these ideas will actually affect their lives in positive ways.
A “rule of law” that guarantees that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor is one that is not only unjust but which breeds potential conflict, as those who feel excluded – at any level – can find scapegoats to target or victims to violate. A “rule of law” that ensures that some are citizens and some are not puts the lie to the NLD’s plea for universal human rights and justice for which the party has putatively advocated for so long now.
Second, political leaders must articulate policies and political narratives that elaborate a more capacious understanding of political membership. Here, changing the exclusionary 1982 citizenship law and developing a federalist system that devolves power to ethnic states will certainly be necessary.
Moreover, there are positive voices which can be magnified: a collection of inter-faith youth organisations in particular have made courageous statements against racial violence and a group of moderate monks have repudiated the claims made by the bigoted ones.
But neither policies nor rejections will be sufficient because they do not positively articulate why people like the Rohingya, Muslims, ethnic minorities, Christians, etc belong. This will require pedagogy about how all of these peoples have shared collective struggle (living through the military regime), often share bonds of family and culture, and most importantly, share a desire to be part of the nation’s future.
If Burma examines its society, they will see that denizens of all stripes – ethnic minorities, Muslims, even Rohingya – can make and have made those kinds of commitments. Fortunately, there is a model for this – Suu Kyi’s father and namesake Aung San, Burma’s founder.
Anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman has analyzed Aung San’s speeches, and finds Aung San continually searching for a political liberation that applies to all of Burma’s peoples and which is expressed through the idiom of socio-economic justice: “[Aung San] described ‘new democracy’ as ‘although not entirely free of capitalism, is not capitalistic’, is ‘somewhere betwixt and between’ … If the old democracies had succumbed to underhand manipulation by ‘capitalists and big business discreetly assuming power’ the constitution of this ‘new democracy’ would ‘place power in the hands of the masses through their elected representative from top to bottom.’”
Drawing on Aung San, who is still seen as a multi-ethnic unifier, and his historical demands for equality may address the lingering and ever-displaced issues of multi-ethnic belonging in a majority-Burman state.
This can be done by imagining a ‘politics of the daily’ and basing policies and narratives on the struggle of everyday life in a changing Burma. When such a politics is imagined, it must conjure – in the minds of policymakers, activists, and citizens alike – not only the stylised ‘average Burmese’ (who undoubtedly is Burman and lives in central Burma), but rather expand to consider the experiences of the various classes, ethnicities, and religions in Burma.
This takes unique experiences seriously without flattening difference into a narrative about simple socio-economic concerns, and without insisting that all non-Burmans – or Burmans for that matter – have the exact same experiences.
Such a politics can re-orient the futile search for the timeless ‘authentic’ Burma subject. It can help develop a sense of a new authentic subject: anyone who has struggled through the long years of the regime and who is now willing to work for a better collective future.
Elliott Prasse-Freeman is Founding Research Associate Fellow of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. He is also a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Yale University
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.