Is Burma ‘Going South’?

I recently read Jean and John Comaroff’s article ‘Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa’ in Anthropological Forum (for those of you who either don’t have access to the journal, or would just rather listen instead of read, you can watch a video of John Comaroff delivering a lecture on the main points). When reading it I couldn’t help but consider where the current reforms occurring in Burma/Myanmar might fit within their conceptualization of the trajectory of global capitalism and its cultures. Conversely, I wondered whether the transformations discussed in the article might be useful in understanding the nature of those reforms. These are some of my preliminary thoughts…

In ‘Theory from the South’, as is clear from the subtitle, the Comaroff’s put forward the idea that currently the most fully realized manifestations of global capitalism are not in the apparently ‘developed’ economies of West, but in the global South, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa. The recent fiscal meltdown, reoccurring political scandals, growing ethnic and religious tensions, and the accelerated dismantling of the welfare state all suggest that Euro-America is getting more and more like Africa. This is, of course, an ironic twist on the longstanding assumptions of development: that the West is more modern than the rest, and that thought and practices derived from Euro-America provide the routes to modernity. In making this argument the Comaroff’s are not just replacing one problematic teleological understanding of history with another, or simply reversing global direction of a linear path to modernity. Rather they conceive of notions of a North-South divide as a powerful imaginary for shaping modernity, both as an ideal and as a set of practices. The question they pose is whether the current trends in Euro-America (austerity, privatization, deregulation…etc) are becoming a ‘new normal’ and it is the Global South which is becoming imagined as the future.

Where does Burma/Myanmar fit? Uncomfortably to say the least. In the world of signs that signify the ‘South’, the country has (until recently) held a particular place in the Anglo-American media’s imagination. It has been seen one-dimensionally as the epitome of a despotic Asian regime; characterized as being a nation suffering at the hands of an isolated government indifferent to the plight of the bulk of its population and actively hostile towards minority groups. In line with this (not unwarranted) characterization, the recent reforms have been almost uniformly celebrated in Britain and the US. Words of caution about the depth of the reforms, not to mention the escalating violence in Kachin state, have been less prominent than an apparent eagerness to re-engage with the country economically and politically. Even before some EU sanctions were removed, British Prime Minister David Cameron was visiting with business leaders – although this was portrayed as tourist trip (I suppose everyone needs a break after brokering arms deals in Indonesia). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words of introduction for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this year at the US Institute of Peace, Washington DC, are perhaps indicative of the positive response, stressing the need for the democracy activist to be open to ‘pragmatic compromise and coalition building‘.

The geographic imagining of modernity that Burma/Myanmar’s recent reforms have been understood within is the old Euro-centric narrative so neatly deconstructed by the Comaroffs. See, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s recent claim that the speaker of the lower house and former military figure Thura U Shwe Man was inspired towards democracy by watching episodes of the West WingThis story probably tells us more about the world view of American politicians than anything else, nonetheless the trajectory of the reforms has been rigidly plotted: there will either be a hard won move to greater democracy and economic openness, or a slide back to military rule and isolation. Long standing opponents of the regime have been marginalized from these stories, forced to shout from the sidelines that the reforms don’t go far enough and to stand as the moral conscience of Aung San Suu Kyi as she moves into the ‘democratic’ world of compromise and coalition. Either way, liberal democracy and the free market are posited as the sole path for progress to modernity.

But what if the Comaroff’s are right and Euro-America is already falling from its place as the harbinger of modernity? I think that it might enable us to think about Burma/Myanmar’s reforms in more ambivalent ways. The warm embrace that Euro-American governments and businesses have given the reforms may reflect the growing perception in those countries that no market should remain out of reach. Where Chinese investment is being sidelined, it is deemed necessary that they should step in to remain internationally competitive. Given the inch of democratic reform, the temptation of taking a mile of privatized state enterprises and ‘untapped markets’ was too great to resist. But beyond the motives of Western capital, does ‘Theory from the South’ help us understand the trajectory of Burma/Myanmar’s reforms? I think it might. As the activist-scholar Maung Zarni has argued, the problems are deeper than an oppressive state – as the outpouring of popular racism against the Rohingya demonstrates.

The democratic reforms, whilst welcome, will not prove a panacea for Burma/Myanmar’s social problems. If we attempt to understand them as part of  broader global changes, it can be argued that they are not simply a matter of progress but of a re-ordering of society. Some of the features of the Global South highlighted by the Comaroffs, Burma/Myanmar is already well acquainted with: ethnic identity politics; klepocratic patronage; depressed wages. But others aren’t so familiar, such as: new forms of urbanism (or the megalopolis); wholesale privatization of state functions; and the rapid increase of foreign investment. These interlinked changes have begun in tandem with democratic reform: Yangon’s property prices have been increasing exponentially; state enterprises are being tentatively privatized; and Japanese capital has been moving into the country. The long-term effect of these processes are unclear and are likely to be ambiguous. But if the imagined model for modernity is not Euro-America and is instead places such as India, South Africa and Brazil, then we might expect ethnic conflict, corruption and a rapacious exploitation of labor to remain features of Burma/Myanmar, not despite democratization, but as associated features of a broader change.

I don’t want to appear to be peddling doom and gloom, and I am certainly not suggesting that we should return to using the Global North as a measure of modernity. Rather, following the Comaroff’s argument as I read it, I would stress that Burma/Myanmar is not so much ‘behind’ the rest of the world – North or South – but experiencing transformations occurring in different vernaculars contemporaneously across the world. Instead of just looking to Euro-America for answers, perhaps better political solutions to the problems ahead might be found in South: the nascent forms of, what the Comaroff’s hesitantly call, post neo-liberal redistribution. Perhaps too, the violent nature of ethnic relations in Burma/Myanmar might gradually mutate towards the kinds of ‘ethnoprise’ based on identity economies seen in Africa. If the democratic reforms in Burma/Myanmar are indeed part of the country ‘going South’, then there is scope for both cautious optimism as well as justifiable skepticism, but the inevitable problems and tensions will have their parallels globally.

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