During the mass urban uprisings [in Myanmar] in 1988, the state pulled the police and military off the streets, sure that chaos would ensue so they could step back in to ‘save the nation’. Instead, communities formed committees that maintained order, while monks directed traffic and controlled food distribution. The state then opened the prisons to flood the cities with criminals, many of whom they paid to create chaos. But the civilian committees arrested troublemakers, and still there was no chaos.
Finally, the army had to proclaim chaos and deployed to mow down thousands of people with machine-guns, arresting and torturing thousands more to end chaos and declare the nation saved. The community networks which had been formed, and the memory of them, did not die – they simply vanished underground. Today, most resistance takes the form of the covert and everyday – evading taxes, misreporting resources, grumbling and joking about junta leaders, spreading subversive news and rumours, leaking information to outside agencies
Kevin Malseed, “Networks of noncompliance: grassroots resistance and sovereignty in militarised Burma”, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Apr ‘09.
This is one of the more remarkable sections of a text I’ve been assigned to read for uni. If you’re interested in Myanmar and the reputed victory of trade sanctions (and that crusading, drone-deploying “force for good in the world” that is the U.S govt) to push the country toward its apparent liberalisation, this article is essential reading. It ought to change the way you see the situation.
He takes a line of argument straight out of James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” (1998) and what must have been an advance copy of “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia” (2009) to argue that the battle between the Myanma state and the Karen (as well as many other Myanma villagers in the 80% rural country) is a battle over territorial sovereignty and state control that is not helped by the state-based liberal concepts of “human rights” that foreign donors and NGOs push.
Ominously, given the developments since 2009, on p. 366 Malseed questions:
[the] relief and development processes in Burma which exploit villagers’ apparent voicelessness by speaking ‘for’ them using foreign frameworks, which can strengthen the military junta’s control over people in the name of helping them. Thus far their reach has been limited by the regime’s paranoia of their independence; but the harm often done to rural people in other countries by foreign development agendas invites speculation on the results should the political landscape change and outside agencies flood into Burma. The signs thus far are worrying. (Emphasis added).
The Myanma military junta’s recent decision to “reform” and re-enter the state-liberal international order is, in the context of the article’s discussions about the struggle to maintain sovereign control over the the population and territory, quite a bit less astonishing and unexpected.
They need have looked no further than across Thailand to Cambodia and the extension of sovereignty and state control that has been undertaken there in the name of building “institutions of good governance” (in the World Bank’s parlance) to see the value to state elites that stands to be reaped from working within the international state system (the original fraternal cooperation society?) (via unrg)
The linked paper is well worth a read.