A VOID IN
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
civil society developed in
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.
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
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.
are excluding from this definition in the case of
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.
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 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.
I know of no research on civil society, as
such, in traditional
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.
society did develop under republican
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
tragic the failed revolution from below, and however destructive and bloody the repression
following the coup of
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.
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
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. 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.
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
are private groups in
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.
should not place faith that the change on
This paper is one of four presented at the
conference 'Strengthening Civil Society in
State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the name of the country from