Understanding Burma to Understand Your Leaders
Time is a flat circle, and while colonialism may have ended, its effects persist, and until this is confronted, and tyranny understood, imperialist policy will exploit the people for its purposes.
In the Cold War-era, the Truman State Department’s policy of containment essentially was focused on the idea that states aligning themselves with communist powers like the Soviet Union, and later China, would essentially find themselves starved out, using client states that had been developed to resist communism as a buffer for US allies following the Second World War like neutral-India, and, of relevance to us today, Burma. These states, functionally, as we’ve seen in the more than half century since, are shaped from the outside to suit geopolitical outcomes favorable to western power, with their people and their governments left holding the bag for these outcomes’ consequences, which cyclically, are then weaponized to justify further intervention.
The 1962 military coup in Burma, ousting the democratically elected post-Aung San revolutionary/independence party that held power since the end of the British occupation, was allowed to stand, and was recognized by the United States, at the time heavily involved in the affairs of neighboring Laos and Thailand operating on this policy of containment, and would remain in the region for more than another decade. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daugher of Aung San and the elected Counsellor of Myanmar, currently, once again, being detained by military leadership, reflected upon the western response to the original coup (following decades of political instability following the colonial withdrawal) and characterized it as the United States, and indeed its allies, as recognizing an armed insurgency rather than a legitimate political party. And this is true, for the political expendiency of a Cold War agenda— something that, in later years, would likely have been a major point of contention for opponents of containment like Barry Goldwater, and as a pretext for potentially turning this into another excursion like Korea and Vietnam.
The primary reason the coup was so effective was two-pronged: first, the military was highly centralized in a way the civilian government was not, and, secondly, in a better position to reconsolidate states attempting to secede (as was their right under the 1947 constitution) into a single national entity. The history of such divisions in what is now Myanmar begins with its colonization, where the British would select historically marginalized political, religious, or ethnic minorities and become their advocates, in manufacturing a controlled opposition inside the government, intervening on issues of social concernm along with their own colonial governance justified by such apparent oppression of these groups they’re now “liberating”. In Burma, they “liberated” the Karen ethnic minority, and produced historiography to support this notion. However, modern historians have dissected this writing, and others of its time to come to the conclusion that not only were the Karens becoming much more organically integrated into the prevailing political structure of the pre-colonial state, “there is little doubt that it was the British invasion of the region that defined Karen identity in the modern national sense and gave it coherence.” as historian Clive Christie would put it.
This would begin, after decades of colonial rule, a division within the region that would, upon colonial withdrawal, conflict that persists, very directly, into the present day. Much like the arbitrary partitioning of India and Pakistan by the British, they beat a similarly hasty retreat out of Burma; commentators like George Orwell lamenting the open hostility towards the lapsed tyranny of the British Empire:
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
They had set a trap for themselves in expecting to be taken seriously as a political force in the region after the humiliation of losing massive amounts of territory and resources after the Second World War, and the only recourse left to the withdrawing Empire was a vindictive passivity. In India, upon accomodating independence, Muslim leaders, themselves having their political power upheld by British safeguards for their own interests, found their methods of organizing incompatible with that of the Indian nationalist majority in Congress, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s theories on the matter concluded that two states were necessary, but their relations needed to be carefully crafted to avoid…well, basically everything that has happened since, up to and including conflict in Kashmir as recently as 2019. However, with the British disengaged, and uninterested in creating anything other than a partition that would effectively ensure instability in Pakistan, and nothing but shaky relations between Muslim and Indian populations as mass relocation commenced, the Muslim League and, indeed, Nehru’s government in India, both, found themsleves in a position all considered not ideal.
The relevance to Myanmar is, likewise, following such a pattern: the protectorate groups of the British in Burma found themselves with their loyalist tendencies failing to give them much of a voice in the forming of the new independent government, and more secessionist groups began to form between various states within Burma. This would only escalate and fragment over the next decade, concluding with the military taking control, rather than acting on behalf of the democratic federal government, and then several decades of conflict between the civilian and military leaders, civil war, and now, ultimately, an open coup on the day the democratically-elected parliament was set to begin session.
With US interest at an all-time high in seemingly doing everything possible to antagonize China and Russia, the latter of which the US has a history of intervention (including intervention on Boris Yeltsin’s behalf in the 1991 coup) in, amidst impeding conflict of some sort (likely economic), there’s been a lot of talk in support of the democratically-elected government, after a history of recognizing the military government; the political expediency of this seemingly speaks to the history of Myanmar’s utility to global imperialist tendencies, not a commitment to safeguarding democracy.
In the present, the National League for Democracy, still the original prevailing party since independence, has fought over the decades, as I said, through multiple civil wars, and until 2011, did not accomplish a civilian government, the first since the 1960s. Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest confinement, along with others representing the party leadership, is familiar in the narrative of modern Myanmar: The military takeover of the state was functionally the end of Aung San’s vision of a free and independent democracy, and the divisions in Myanmar that led to this takeover, preceded by the assassination of Aung San, have their roots directly in the sort of political destabilization encouraged by the end of colonial rule—as we also saw in the example of the end of India’s colonial history- and the future of self-determination for former colonies.
I think it’s an important lens on how the events of the last several weeks, and the escalating violence its contained, are a direct reflection of discord and destabilization caused by the colonial-era, and should be the first thing we consider when hearing political leaders in the west use this conflict for the ends of demonizing political opponents, at the expense of the people this concern is purportedly for. At levels unprecedented—even for post-Cold War, post-Iraq War discourse- we’re seeing open incongruity between the facts, the material reality, and the stated intentions and reasoning of the state in preparation for numerous conflicts of varying nature— Syria, Iran, China, Russia, OAS officials involved in previous Latin American coups backed by the US turning up in Bolivia’s local elections- so it truly sheds some dramatic light on how, and why, the US becomes involved and “interested” in these places to understand the colonial and imperial histories of these places which, as you can see, is not set apart from American imperialist synthesis.
This remains the single largest factor in the destablization of South Asia and the other regions in which the US maintains a vested interest in its fight against, not communism or anything equally nebulous, its billionaires having to compete in foreign markets, from Elon Musk in Bolivia to Jeff Bezos in China (where Amazon has failed to compete entirely), making threats of military action (as the Biden administration has towards North Korea as recently as this week) after framing a failure to be competitive against foreign interests in their own countries as political repression of the masses. The cost of waging this battle is often weaponizing instability in other countries that, like Myanmar, seemingly find their fortunes change depending upon which side of their political equation benefits desireable western imperialist outcomes.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: