On the Wrong Side of History: Burma’s Issue of Manpower


Chiang Mai, THAILAND

This is not a book review, and this is not the proper place for a critical analysis of an important, new scholarly work. Suffice it to say that this blog post will gratefully follow in the important steps of James C. Scott’s scholarship, notably by quoting lengthily from his most recent publication, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Scott has staked his career on challenging preheld notions of subsistence agriculture and state power. His groundbreaking new book provides a meaningful lens through which we can view lasting patterns in the economy and politics of Southeast Asian societies such as Burma.

We might learn something about the current policy of Burmanization in Myanmar by looking to the history of expansionist state control in that country. “Burmanization” refers to the consistent and concerted efforts on the part of the current military junta (of Burman ethnicity, which makes up nearly 70% of the population – other ethnicities make up roughly 30%) to dominate all other minority ethnic groups through programs of land relocation, forced intermarriage (and frequent reports of male soldiers raping village women), destruction or confiscation of villagers’ property, as well as murder, torture and extortion. Many of these atrocious human rights abuses are perpetrated in Karen state, in eastern Myanmar, on the border with west Thailand. The world would not even know of this violence were it not for dedicated human rights advocate groups, like the Free Burma Rangers (www.freeburmarangers.org), documenting the military’s crimes, bringing emergency relief supplies, and maintaining a complex network of support from the Thai border with links to NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs) within Myanmar.

Sadly, this appalling trend is nothing new. Long prior to British colonialism, Burmese kings of yore also attempted to establish centralized kingdoms, made possible by the subjugation of a large body of slaves or serfs to maintain the resources of an expansive rice paddy state. Rice was the most efficient form of sustenance, given the time lapse until harvest—now sometimes as fast as 100 days—and the climate of mainland Southeast Asia. Moreover, the state had a keen interest in its ability to tax or appropriate foodstuffs and resources. Rice could be managed very effectively, both because it’s visible and because it can be expected for harvest at a predetermined date.

Due to the vast quantity of rice needed for the upkeep of any given fiefdom, the state relied heavily—almost exclusively—on the constancy of its slave labor and agricultural production (this discussion chooses not to focus on the powers of port cities like Venice or island networks like Indonesia who were able to depend on highly profitable overseas trade). The size of a kingdom’s arable land was secondary in importance. James C. Scott reiterates, “Once again, concentration is the key. It matters little how wealthy a kingdom is if its potential surplus of manpower and grain is dispersed across a landscape that makes its collection difficult and costly.”¹

Scott condenses this logic into a concise formula:

Political and military supremacy requires superior access to concentrated manpower close at hand. Concentrated manpower, in turn, is feasible only in a setting of compact, sedentary agriculture, and such agro-ecological concentrations are possible, before the twentieth century in Southeast Asia, only with irrigated rice (64).

Throughout the volatile history of shifting kingdoms in Burma and the greater region of Southeast Asia, the most successful and enduring states were founded around this principle, and they effectively controlled a subservient mass of agricultural laborers.  “Rather than wealth begetting power, as it might in Lockean systems, where the state’s first duty is to defend citizens’ life and property, in premodern systems only power can guarantee property and wealth” (Scott, 68; italics added).

In so many ways, “modern” Myanmar still fits this mold of “premodern systems” of power. The xenophobic, retrogressive authoritarian regime holds the reins tightly, knuckles whitening, all the time fearing the slightest mobilization of opposition sentiments amongst the people. This obsession with control informs internal state building in their ironic attempt at the “unification” of the various people. Their methods are harsh, to be woefully euphemistic.

Aside from the brutal murders the military perpetrates in minority states near the border, the government has attempted to instill a pervasive sense of inferiority among non-Burman ethnicities. Though the constitution legally provides for the teaching of all ethnic languages in schools, the censorship board and publishing industry often deliberately stall the integration of those languages, in effect negating the possibility for any real preservation of these minority languages aside from household usage. Christina Fink provides a telling example of the concurrent stigma attached to non-Burman cultures, such as the Mon:

Among the indigenous ethnic nationalities, parents also push their children to conform. A young Mon named Nai Panna told me how his parents had their children speak Mon at home but did not encourage involvement in other Mon cultural activities.²

Similarly, though many Burmese cringed at former Prime Minister U Nu’s campaign to establish Buddhism as the state religion, and despite the Burmese Socialist Programme Party’s (1974 – 1988) legacy of a secular state, Buddhism has long represented a banner of cultural conformity. To be Buddhist and Burman places you in the proper, dominant ethnic circle. The antithesis of Burmese Buddhists in contemporary Myanmar would be the Muslim Rohnigya population, living in Arakan State, bordering Bangladesh. This minority group is denied recognition as a separate ethnic identity, thereby stripped of all rights and largely landless.

As the Burmese military continually pushes at the margins and border areas, sowing conflict and appropriating the land and resources of rural inhabitants, the world witnesses the gradual erosion of minority human rights and the painful subjugation of non-Burman citizens. The unending civil war in Karen state is a prime example of this deliberate policy—the willful denial of any autonomy previously promised them. They are second-class citizens in their own country.

Scott adds to our picture again:

The straightforward logic of “self-liquidation” can, for the purposes of illustration, be seen at work in the counterinsurgency policy of the contemporary military tyranny in Burma. Military units are attempting to control more of the insurgent border region while, at the same time, being told by their financially strapped commanders that they must provision themselves locally…They do this, typically, by essentially capturing and concentrating a substantial civilian population around their base, which becomes their available pool of manpower, grain and revenue (94).

This aggression matches our premodern formula of state building in agrarian Southeast Asia. So why does this continue? The military junta is implementing a prolonged campaign of Burmanization in an effort to unify the country under a single ethnic identity. Ironically, the military’s efforts at control are the very reasons for the warfare exhorted by insurgents and dedicated rebel armies, who see themselves as resisting the erasure of their very lifeblood.

Fink comments,

A piecemeal process of Burmanization in the ethnic states is also taking place, as new bases are built, land is confiscated [without recompense], and tatmadaw soldiers resettle their families around the bases. Over the past twenty years, there have been periodic reports of Burman soldiers in the tatmadaw being rewarded with money or a promotion if they marry Chin, Karen or Shan girls in the ethnic states. By mixing the blood of ethnic minority populations, future generations are likely to become Burmanized and adopt Burman-style Buddhism. The impact of these policies is to shift the balance in the composition of local populations and to create the conditions for communal strife in the future (148).

The classical legacy of aggressive kingdom formation, based around a single, dominant ethnic group’s maintenance of a subjected labor force to provide the necessary resources and food, is still very much alive in Myanmar today. The reasons for this lie in the history of state building in mainland Southeast Asia. As Scott stated, “Perennial manpower concerns favored easy assimilation and rapid mobility and, in turn, made for very fluid, permeable ethnic boundaries” (84). But this is no longer the rule of thumb. Since the arrival of modern technology and infrastructure (roads, agricultural development, and telecommunication), the world has not been able to follow in this model of forceful population control. Moreover, increased education, the socio-spacial mobility of the middle class, and international awareness of human rights, have nullified the tyrannical model. And yet Myanmar still clings to its regressive and isolationist policies. One day, and hopefully soon, Senior General Than Shwe must realize his militarized nation is on the wrong side of history.

¹Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009: 65).

² Fink, Christina. Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule, 2nd ed. (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2009: 132).

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3 Responses to On the Wrong Side of History: Burma’s Issue of Manpower

  1. Matt says:

    Great writing

  2. Alex says:

    Good, informative discussion here. I was unawares as to what made Myanmar, Burma, especially in terms of ethnicity. What I’m curious about is the Burmese Buddhist ethnic dominance. Based on what I know of Buddhism, and the little I’d heard about Burma, I always assumed the Burmese Buddhists were non-conformists, peacefully going about their religion in passive defiance of the military junta. It sounds like you are suggesting they are much more a part of the military rule, although perhaps not actively so.

    • Con TRau says:

      Well, the government has been a huge sponsor and donor to the Buddhist sangha in Burma for a long, long time. That’s just tradition for the historical Buddhist kingdom it wants to represent itself as. Some of the monks have drawn a lot of heat (particularly since the 2007 well-publicized “Saffron Revolution”) because of their independent work promoting education and HIV work. When the junta sees their work as getting too influential–politically speaking–they have cracked down. But it is because the monks carry so much weight in Burmese society that the government has to respect and fear their alternative authority. But the military very much seeks to win the approval of the people by promoting Buddhism and donating to the construction of temples. And the monks are hardly passive. When organized, they have delivered a strong message for civic responsibility and Buddhist ethics. Many consider the junta’s power to be a result of past good karma and their lavish support of the sangha to be merit-making, and so it’s a tricky relationship between state and sangha. But Burmans (and Buddhists) represent the majority of the population of Myanmar, and so many other ethnic groups feel slighted by that dominance.

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