Thursday, March 17, 2011

Experts Help to Rebrand Burma’s Failed Dictatorship

With special mention of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) of course.

Experts Help to Rebrand Burma’s Failed Dictatorship
By Dr Zarni
16 March 2011, Irrawaddy

Every time Burma’s military dictatorship is framed as “new,” it is being rebranded, to use the lingo of corporate advertising. The spoils of the positive public relations are shared as it were between the experts and their organizations that prostitute themselves by spinning for their neo-liberal governmental patrons and corporate “donors” in the West and Burma’s despotic regime, the former’s actual and potential business partner.
Dr Zarni ( is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Economics.
“While the underlying power structures have shifted significantly, dramatic change is highly unlikely in the short term. … Change will be gradual, but will accelerate over time,” reads the latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), titled “Myanmar: Post-Election Landscape” and released on March 7. The report on the whole reads more like a series of astrological calculations—which are all-too-familiar to the Burmese—than an empirically verifiable, serious work of analysis.

This portrayal of the so-called post-election political landscape in my country as “significant” is an insult to the common sense of the ordinary men and women of Burma, if not to the commercial and political elites who have concluded that they have more to gain by collaborating with the dictatorship than by standing against it. The ICG’s rebranded image of “post-election Burma” stands in sharp contrast to the political and institutional realities lived by the Burmese public, including ethnic nationalities in the country’s cease-fire regions or active war zones and the dominant majority living under direct military rule.

The loose network of local and global actors framing what the Burmese public knows first-hand to be the same old dictatorship in new garb as something genuinely new needs to be subject to empirical scrutiny in terms of these framers’ ideologies, interests, and the substance of their arguments or lack thereof.

From high-level policy lobbies such as ICG and the Burma experts of Chatham House (see “Burma Elections: First Step Out of the Impasse”) and Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies (see “The army's new clothes”) to less articulate elements from within Burma’s local political and commercial elites, those who advocate for the normalization of “aid relations” (and in due course resumed and expanded commercial relations) view the opposition’s flagship organization, the National League for Democracy party (NLD) and its influential leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as a key obstacle to business engagement, economic development and even incremental reforms. Accordingly, these advocates are bent on chipping away the NLD’s legitimacy as the most representative voice.

One of their discursive strategies is to help reinforce the regime’s propaganda—a dictatorship under a new management evolving slowing in the right pro-democracy direction—while attacking the NLD’s claim as the last democratically elected party with a moral authority to speak for the Burmese public at large.

Two individuals stand out: Burmese writer Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the late UN Secretary General U Thant (and himself a second-generation former UN official), of Singapore’s quasi-autonomous Institute of South East Asia Studies; and Marie Lall, a senior lecturer with the University of London’s Institute of Education and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House.

In a recent New Yorker article by Joshua Hammer (“Letter from Burma: A Free Woman,” Jan. 24, 2011) Myint-U made assertions about Burma’s flagship opposition that are important but manifestly and verifiably false.