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Analysis
Last Updated: 06/04/2008
Doublethink and Dictatorship: The Legitimacy of the State in Burma/Myanmar
Hamish Low

The immesurable tragedy that unfolded in Myanmar last month is a sobering reminder of the extent to which poor governance can multiply human suffering in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The Burmese military government's delay of humanitarian assistance and hostile attitude towards the international community undoubtedly increased the death toll of the cyclone, and stands out as another black mark on the regime's claims to legitimacy.

As Hamish Low describes, even before their deadly mismanagement of the cyclone, the Burmese Junta's illegitimacy was patently clear.

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Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.

If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. - from 1984 by George Orwell


The dystopia envisaged by George Orwell in 1984 where control of information by the State is complete, is not so far from the current situation in Burma - where Orwell had been posted as a civil servant for the British colonial administration in the 1930s. Burma, currently known as the Union of Myanmar,[1] is ruled by a military dictatorship operating a vast domestic surveillance network. In September of 2007, in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), what started as a series of peaceful protest against the increased price of fuel turned into an expression of dissent against the military rulers. One difference with Orwell’s bleak vision is that the information environment in Burma is permeable. In a nation with strict censorship, where the power of the ruling military junta over domestic life is near absolute, images and footage of these protests and the violent means by which they were repressed were captured by individuals, on cellphones and video cameras and smuggled out by internet. This media activism was in turn picked up by the international media and the world watched as violence was meted out on unarmed monks. For a country in which 85% of the population is Buddhist and where religion plays an intrinsic role in national identity, the violence against the monks equates to sacrilege, violence against the very soul of the nation.

This essay will explore legitimacy and the state in Burma/Myanmar. Traditionally the king’s rule was justified by his role as “protector of the Sangha” (the religious establishment) an idea that transcended the transition to independence from Britain in 1947. The protests of 1988, which like the recent protests involved violence against the monks, served as graphic illustrations of how this traditional compact no longer applied. As in Orwell’s 1984 where a branch of government, the Ministry of Truth, is devoted entirely to the propagation of lies, the media in Myanmar and the declarations of the regime attempt to claim a legitimacy for the military regime as a protector of (the process towards) the constitution. The propaganda is used not only to deceive the populace, but also to justify the regime to itself. Orwell describes the internalisation of this kind of inconsistency as “doublethink”. This constitutional stasis is almost analogous to the ‘state of exception’ as articulated by Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben.

Burma has a long and rich history. The first Burmese kingdom was established at Bagram in 849 C.E. In 1057, the King Anuruddha of Burma adopted Theravadan Buddhism a branch of Buddhism from India. The development of the doctrinal elements of Theravadan Buddhism had been overseen by Emperor Asoka of the Maurya dynasty in India. As the ruler of a newly-vast empire the adoption of the principles of dharma by his people constituted for the emperor a guarantee of peace within a rational political and administrative system[2] and the reinterpretation of the original Buddhist texts into the widely-spoken language of Pali provided an opportunity to guide its formulation. In this sense, Theravadan Buddhism was developed as a tool to confer legitimacy to the ruler the protector of the religion - and as a structural model for the organisation of society.

Almost a thousand years later, the religious establishment - the Sangha, remained largely the same. In the 19th century following a succession of wars Burma was colonised by the British. The chaos of the Second World War, for the Burmese peoples, became a war of independence against their colonisers. Those ethnic groups that had benefited from British-rule sided with the British against the Japanese while the majority, led by the charismatic Aung San fought with the Japanese for the first half of the war. Part of the justification for the Japanese vision of an East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was to free Asia from the yoke of colonialism. The nominally-Buddhist Japan[3] created the Pan-Buddhist Movement to create solidarity within the Buddhist countries it would invade. After occupying Burma, Japan instituted a fascist regime under Dr Ba Maw. Ba Maw brought back the regal ceremonies of the Burmese monarchy, declared himself the protector of the Sangha and used the monks for his own political ends, creating a movement which aimed to unite all monks, and subsequently declared a sacred war on the Allied forces.[4] The Burma Independence Army, led by Aung San (who was also Secretary General of the Burmese Communist Party) then switched their allegiance and fought with the British against the Japanese and won the right to independence from Britain. Prior to independence Aung San stated:

What we want is a strong administration as exemplified in Germany and Italy. There shall be only One nation, One state, One party, One leader. There shall be no parliamentary opposition, no nonsense of individualism. Everyone must submit to the state which is supreme, over the individual. This form of state we call Republic.[5]

Even though Aung San was assassinated by political rivals prior to independence, his vision of Burma would prove to be strangely prescient.

In 1948 the Union of Burma was declared an independent democratic republic, with Sao Shwe Thaik elected as the first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. A decade of relatively stable democracy later, U Nu began campaigning for election as president himself. One of his policies was to re-establish Buddhism as the official state religion. In a confluence of nationalism, religion and cold war ideology, U Nu mobilised groups from the religious establishment to fight against communism and to help him gain the presidency.[6] Having won the elections and declaring Buddhism the state religion did not stop 2000 monks from protesting against religious freedom for other faiths. U Nu then declared himself to be a Bodhisattva,[7] one rank below the Buddha. Having the president claim a near- divine spiritually-elevated status within the context of a parliamentary democracy was more than many could handle. Protests followed and in 1962 General Ne Win came to power in a coup d'état.

The non-thestic and pacifistic belief system of Buddhism is no guarantee against its misuse for political objectives. Shortly after the coup two hundred monks demonstrated in favour of the The Burmese Road to Socialism - a synthesis between Burmese Buddhist tradition and western socialism.[8] The Sangha was once again being used for political ends. According to François Houtart:

the intellectual arguments given for similarity between socialism and Buddhism were based on the fact that in the countries of Theravada tradition, private property did not exist, because the whole territory belonged to the king. In this sense there is nothing new in the idea of nationalization of the means of production.[9]

Ne Win nationalised all industry under a socialist-marxist program and transformed Burma into an absolute dictatorship – “a prison without bars.”[10] A United Nations Special Rapporteur described Burma during this era as having “an atmosphere of pervasive fear.”[11] Human rights NGOs have commented extensively of the plight of political prisoners, forced labour camps, the use of torture, ethnic cleansing, the use of child soldiers and a litany of war crimes during what has been a long and brutal civil war against various separatist ethnic insurgents.[12]

It seems that absolute power also creates absolute paranoia. In 1987 General Ne Win, without warning, created a new national currency in denominations that included or added up to 9, which was, according to his chief astrologer, his lucky number. The result, in a country where most people kept their savings in cash, was economic turmoil.[13] The following year, at 8:08am on the 8th day of the 8th month 1988 the people rose up in protest. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero, Aung San, emerged as the spokesperson for the movement. Ne Win resigned and proposed elections. A brief period of media freedom followed with a flourishing independent press.

Religion has always played such a large role in Burmese culture that, even in the 14 years of parliamentary rule, there has always been a blurred line between state and sangha; sacred and secular. Aung San Suu Kyi undermined the regime by arguing that democracy and human rights are compatible both with Buddhism and Burmese traditions[14] and the monks joined the students and civilians in the protests in the streets. 3,000 were killed in a violent military crackdown and the military (the Tatmadaw) declared martial law. Many more, including monks were imprisoned, tortured, their basic human rights suspended.

However two years later the promise to hold elections was upheld. Aung San Suu Kyi was personally banned from running for office but despite this, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82% of the vote. In response the military refused to hand over power as they had promised and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and accused of nurturing public hatred for the army. The monks tried to persuade the military by refusing to perform Buddhist rites for them or their families. The implication of this spiritual banishment is profound to a Buddhist. It eliminates the opportunity to acquire spiritual merit and virtually assures a rebirth in the animal realm, or in hell. SLORC retaliated by attacking all 133 monasteries in Mandalay, where they tortured, killed and forcibly disrobed many monks.[15]

The short-lived freedom of the press also evaporated. What remained were the State Newspapers, Kyaymon (The Mirror), the English-language The New Light of Myanmar and state television and radio. The state newspapers were supplemented in 1999 by the Myanmar Times, an “independent” English-language newspaper established by the then Secretary One of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) General Khin Nyunt.[16] Though prohibited, expatriate and international organisations also broadcast radio and television into the country. The Myanmar State Peace and Development Council National Objectives which appear on every issue of the state newspapers are the explicit statement of the ethical framework by which the regime claims to abide, and from which it claims its legitimacy. By holding the nation together by preventing non-disintegration of the Union and maintaining law and order by promoting community peace and tranquillity the regime carries out the people's desire to crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy and to oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the state and progress of the nation . Another function of the state media is to create Uplift dynamism of patriotic spirit, to safeguard of the national character and to uplift the morale and morality of the entire nation.[17]

These political, economic and social objectives can be seen as the regime's goals, the reasons for the regime's existence and also the lens through which all information must be filtered before being presented to the public. Nothing that contradicts the party line is permitted, anyone holding negative views or relying on external elements for their information are destructionists who will be crushed. Yet such propaganda can only function effectively in its attempt to define the whole truth in a space without contradiction or dissent.

The extent to which the regime has gone in order to make Burma a hermetically-sealed information environment indicates the fear the political order has of what will happen to them if is overturned.[18] Burma is 164th on the Reporters Sans Frontières index of media freedom, one below China.[19] All telephones, computers, modems and fax-machines must be registered[20] and government authorisation is required to create websites even given the limited access the public has to these technologies. (In 2002 there was only one telephone line for every 181 people!)[21] However many Burmese have radios and television. Criticism of the regime from outside sources, the destructionist BBC and VOA, or the expatriate Burmese media like the Norway-based DVB is rejected as being politically motivated. The regime views these groups and the movement for democracy within Burma itself as attempts, directed by the West, to implement a government subservient to the Western political and economic interests.[22]

With elections ignored and some of the Sangha in open opposition to the regime a new articulation of the regime's legitimacy was needed. In SLORC Declaration No. 1/90 of July 27, 1990 the regime implies their legitimacy comes from the recognition as such from other nations:

The [SLORC] (Tatmadaw) is not an organization that observes any constitution; it is an organization that is governing the nation by Martial Law. It is common knowledge that the [SLORC] is governing the nation as a military government and that it is a government that has been accepted as such by the United Nations and the respective nations of the world.[23]

Japan was the first nation to recognise the new regime and other nations soon followed. Outcry in the west concerning human rights abuses led to the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU. Sanctions are a blunt and ineffective instrument for creating political change. In similar situations such as the US economic blockade of Cuba and extensive sanctions on North Korea it can be argued that such measures have merely entrenched the regime. This is evident in Foreign Minister Win Aung's comment on EU attempts to influence the regime during a trip to Singapore in February 1999:

Our mentality is not to give in to any pressure. If there is pressure put upon us, we become more resistant.[24]

The burden of sanctions fall disproportionately on the poorer members of society increasing their suffering from which the ruling junta are isolated by their relative wealth. The sanctions that were put in place have affected the lives of ordinary Burmese, yet as they did not extend to the oil and gas industry, they were essentially meaningless. The regime has received more than two-thirds of its foreign financial backing from these sources.[25] In 2006 alone Burma s military government earned approximately US$2.16 billion in 2006 from sales of natural gas, and is frantically signing exploration agreements for oil.[26] Illicit drugs and gems, both easily smuggled and therefore immune to sanctions are also substantial revenue streams for the regime. Given the involvement of western companies in Myanmar it seems that sanctions are more about placating the concerns of domestic audiences than in creating effective pressure on the regime.

Recognition by external actors alone is a weak claim for legitimacy of rule. In Declaration No. 1/90 the regime also explicitly states that because it is the Tatmadaw who are maintaining order and keeping the state together it is the Tatmadaw who must fulfill these functions.

The [SLORC] (Tatmadaw) has been persistently carrying out the three main tasks--that of preventing disintegration of the Union, preventing disintegration of national solidarity and that of ensuring perpetuity of the sovereignty of the State from the time it has assumed the duties and responsibilities of the State.

Everybody is aware that, on the other hand, it has launched major offensives and crushed all sorts of armed insurgents, sacrificing the lives, blood and sweat of many members of the Tatmadaw. Since the Tatmadaw is not a political organization, it did not hold negotiations with the insurgents by political means. However, it welcomes all those who have renounced the programme of armed struggle and returned to the legal fold and a body formed by it is carrying out resettlement work for them. Since the [SLORC] is not a political government, it has no reason at all to negotiate by political means with any armed insurgent organization.

In addition, it declares that, as the regime is not a political body, they do not need to negotiate, which would necessarily constitute politics. The regime is its own justification. It is the answer, a matter not of logic but of the escape from the question. Within the realm of “fictional” Oceania, George Orwell describes the process as follows:

In Oldspeak it is called, quite frankly, reality control. In Newspeak it is called doublethink, though doublethink comprises much else as well.[27]

Myanmar is controlled by a generation of leaders who (have been)... isolated from the world and subject to intense political indoctrination.[28] Military training submerges and actively discourages critical thinking from this comes the regime's strength, but also ultimately its weakness. This rigidity of thought also explains the fundamental disconnect with the West and the failure to understand some of the fundamentals of democracy. This is exemplified by declarations 20 and 21 of the Regime:

20. Consequently under the present circumstances, the representatives elected by the people are those who have the responsibility to draw up the constitution of the future democratic State.

21. It is hereby declared that the [SLORC] will in no way accept the drawing up of a temporary constitution for forming a government to take over State Power and that it will take effective action if it is done so [...]

The transition to democracy cannot come about until a constitution is drawn up, yet a constitution cannot be drawn up prematurely, such an act is unacceptable. A body has been assembled for the drafting of a constitution, the National Convention, few of whose members were elected in the 1990 election. Only 10 of 93 political parties that contested the elections are still functioning lawfully[29] all other parties having been de-registered. As they have the responsibility to draw up the constitution they become the representatives elected by the people. The meaning of this becomes clearer when examining 'the Seven-Step roadmap to Disciplined Democracy' announced by Gen. Khin Nyunt on 30th of august 2003:

(3) - Drafting of a new constitution in accordance with basic principles and detailed basic principles laid down by the National Convention.

(4) - Adoption of the constitution through national referendum.

Not only must democracy be “disciplined”, but one of the basic principles laid down by the National Convention states that the constitution will ensure permanent military control over law and politics[30] which is the current state of affairs. The regime seems to have missed the point; democracy cannot exist in a vacuum. Yet if the referendum on a constitution ever happens, the regime hopes or will make sure that the people choose a totality, a choice that pre-empts all other choices, an answer which eliminates the possibility of the question.

Giorgio Agamben in State of Exception explains how German political theorist Carl Schmitt justifies a state of exception within a democracy on a constitutional level by the idea that the president acts as the "guardian of the constitution;"[31] and that the state of exception was provided for not simply to safeguard public order and security, but to defend the "liberal-democratic constitution."[32] In the case of Burma/Myanmar, rather than a state of exception which overrides an existing democratic constitution, Declaration 1/90 and the edicts which have since followed constitute a suspension of democracy, an exception which precedes and indefinitely suspends the promised state of freedom. The regime endows itself with the legitimacy of being the guardians of the process toward democracy, while simultaneously ensuring that the transition to democracy, dependent on a constitution that will not be formulated democratically, exists in a future that may never arrive.

In Orwell's 1984, not just all information, but thought itself was controlled by the Party, a totalitarian system that had achieved totality. Fortunately for Burma, there is still hope that the road toward this dystopia can be reversed. If the trickle of information into and out of Burma can be increased to a flood, perhaps the regime can be washed away. The protests of September 2007 were notable for the role in which technology played in capturing and smuggling footage of the protests out to the world. These linked into a grander narrative of the events in Tienanmen Square, the fall of the Berlin wall and a wider fight for freedom and democracy around the world. Just as the regime needs to persuade the citizens of Myanmar that they are the protectors of the democratic process (as inexorably slow as it is), Western governments need to display to their own citizens that they too are the guardians of democracy. Innovative approaches need to be taken to engage the regime over the blunt and ineffective weapon of sanctions. Travel bans on regime members are counter-productive for those who would benefit from a wider perspective and tourism (especially low-end tourism) can result in both increased income in the local economy and an increase in communication and awareness. Satellite phones could be smuggled to activists inside Burma. There is a possibility that the simple act of witnessing, given new reach by cellphones and video cameras, can shame a regime to change, or at the very least, lead to dialogue between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The costs of violent political change are too high. The possibilities for peaceful change rely on engagement, dialogue and a perceptual shift on the part of the regime. There are ways in which a transition to democracy could be managed without the regime losing face even if the bitter injustice of an amnesty is necessary to create these conditions.

There is a crisis in the legitimacy of the regime, which all their doublethink and denial cannot cover. Like the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, which collapsed in the absense of any real legitimacy – the kind of legitimacy that comes with government for and by the people – so too may fall the military regime in Burma. We can only hope that their change will be as swift and peaceful.


[1] In 1990 the ruling junta changed the name of the nation to the more-inclusive title Myanmar. The Burman people are the largest ethnic group in the country. As the new name was imposed by the regime, the difference between the names has taken on political values, with Myanmar being used largely by those dealing with the regime, and Burma by those who oppose it. Within this essay, “Myanmar” and “Burma” will be used interchangeably.

[2] p 212 François Houtart, Theravada Buddhism and Political Power- Construction and Destructuration of its Ideological Function - Social Compass 1977; 24

[3] Though Buddhism has had a huge influence on Japan - the state religion of Japan, (which declares the emperor's dynasty to have descended from the Amaretsu, the sun god) is Shinto.

[4] p 26 Ibid.

[5] As quoted in Kyi Kyi Thin, Burma: the waiting game? Just Change no.9 (2007)

[6] p 33 François Houtart, Theravada Buddhism and Political Power- Construction and Destructuration of its Ideological Function - Social Compass 1977; 24

[7] p 27 Ibid.

[8] p 39 Ibid

[9] p 39 Ibid.

[10] from Amnesty International, Conditions in Prisons and Labour Camps, September 22nd, 1995.

[11] from Amnesty International, Power and Impunity, Human Rights under the New Order', London 1994 quoted in Hidden Agendas by John Pilger, Vintage, UK, 1998.

[12] Ross Marlay, Report on Human Rights in Burma: Background and current status. Journal of Third World Studies (Fall 2001)

[13] John Pilger Hidden Agendas

[14] p12 Ibid.

[15] Ross Marlay, Report on Human Rights in Burma: Background and current status. Journal of Third World Studies (Fall 2001)

[16] pg 371 Human Rights Quarterly

[17] The New Light of Myanmar

[18] ICG Asia - International Crisis Group - MYANMAR: THE MILITARY REGIME S VIEW OF THE WORLD

[19] RSF Media Freedom Index 2006 - http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24025

[20] Financial Times, October 5, 1996, p. 1.  In June 1996, James Nichols, honorary consul for Norway and diplomatic representative for Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland, died in prison, serving a three-year sentence for the "unauthorized use of a fax machine."

[21] Stuart Hamilton, Internet Accessible Information and Censorship, Intellectual Freedom and Libraries- a Global Overview, IFLA Journal 2002; 28; 190.

[22] p 34 - ICG Asia - International Crisis Group - MYANMAR: THE MILITARY REGIME'S VIEW OF THE WORLD

[23] p 19 Ibid.

[24] quoted in The Irrawaddy , March 1999. p 34 - ICG Asia - International Crisis Group -MYANMAR

[25] Southeast Asia Information Network and the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, Burna: Human Lives for Natural Resources, Oil and Natural Gas, Chiangmai University, Thailand, 1994.

[26] Human Rights Watch: Burma: Foreign Oil and Gas Investors Shore Up Junta.

[27] George Orwell, 1984, p 124.  

[28] p 33 - ICG Asia - International Crisis Group - MYANMAR

[29] David Arnott, Burma/Myanmar: How to read the generals' "roadmap" - a brief guide with links to the literature.

[30] Janelle Diller - The National Convention in Burma (Myanmar): An Impediment to the Restoration of Democracy

[31] p 11-12 - Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception - http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/009254.html

[32] Ibid.


Hamish Low is from Aotearoa-New Zealand. He is currently completing a Master of Arts in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at the U.N-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica.
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