Pathways that Changed Myanmar

T. F. Rhoden

Why has the regime of Myanmar (Burma) only recently moved away from military authoritarianism toward a civil government with democratic processes? Political scholars of Myanmar, and comparative democratization more generally, have sought to answer this question to varying degrees of success. Some works in this vein include Marco Bünte (2013), Nick Cheesman, Nicolas Farrelly, and Trevor Wilson (2014), Lee Jones (2014), Nehginpao Kipgen (2016), and David Steinberg (2014) – with Renaud Egreteau’s (2016) argument of the ‘caretaking’ and ‘pacted’ nature of the military’s ‘top-down’ approach to reform being one of the more notable dissections to date.

Pathways that Changed Myanmar by Matthew Mullen is an interesting addition to this landscape of recent works on Myanmar’s transition. In many ways, this publication is able to explore and provide invaluable data on dimensions of regime transition that these other accounts have generally glossed over in their analyses. In other ways, however, Mullen’s explanation for change seems to tackle more than is necessary and is, in general, not a very focused work – one that is theoretically a mess of ideas without any stable or coherent direction.

Mullen posits the main question of the book in the following fashion: ‘What brought about change during that critical window from 2009 to the November 2015 elections in Myanmar’. To answer this Mullen argues utilizes ‘diverse stories of oppression, resistance and overcomings that over five hundred informants throughout Myanmar shared from 2009 to 2015’.

The focus and source of data collection in this argument are from the ground up. These are stories from the people themselves. In this sense, the book is an incredibly valuable source of descriptive material from the field. In particular, the often amorphous ‘Third Force’ of activists, nongovernmental organizations, disparate individuals both inside and outside of government, and nationals abroad who worked toward political reform is documented here well for posterity. This is a richly detailed work.

Theoretically, however, this text is a mishmash of ideation from other scholars without any coherent sense of why they are thrown together. Almost to the point of scholarly cliché, bits of random Michel Foucault (1980) are tossed together with some recycled Jim Scott and Ben Kerkvliet (1986), along with some additional misunderstood René Girard (1986). From these scholars, Mullen theorizes that ‘the three pathways that changed Myanmar were contention, subversion and creation’. Importantly for Mullen, the political society in Myanmar has changed because of everyday people’s willingness to contend, subvert, and create a new Myanmar.

It is obvious that Mullen wants to side with the downtrodden of Myanmar. He wants to project in his work that he is a friend of all those victims who have been on the wrong side of Myanmar’s military regime for the last half of a century. This is, of course, a common viewpoint to take in left-leaning academia and in some ways may be the nobler position to hold. However, Mullen makes the mistake of then setting out to prove that, since the poor sodden souls had to suffer so much for so long, they should therefore be identified as the source of political change in Myanmar. ‘Contention, subversion and creation’ of the powerless is argued to be the real wellspring of political regime change in Myanmar.

The main problem with this analysis is that it reeks of confirmation bias. Mullen seems to have gone out into the field with social theories that argue for the agency of victims of political persecution. And lo and behold, Mullen discovers that the most pathetic of us are somehow actually the ones who carried forth political liberalization and democratization. In this sense, the entire study is less of an example of social science and more an example of wishful thinking.

Myanmar has, indeed, changed much over the last decade. Pathways that Changed Myanmar, however, tends to focus too much on the power of the powerless. Though richly descriptive, the replicability of this study is low at best. The book is highly recommended as an example for how not to be objective in the study of sociopolitical movements in the developing world.

Bünte, Marco (2013) Burma’s transition to quasi-military rule: From rulers to guardians? Armed Forces & Society 40(4): 742–64.
Cheesman, Nick, Farrelly, Nicolas, and Wilson, Trevor (eds) (2014) Debating Democratization in Myanmar. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Egreteau, Renaud (2016) Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Foucault, Michel (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writing. Ed. Gordon, Colin. New York: Pantheon.
Girard, René (1982) Le Bouc émissaire (The scapegoat). Paris: Grasset.
Jones, Lee (2014) The political economy of Myanmar’s transition. Journal of Contemporary Asia 44(1): 144–70.
Kipgen, Nehginpao (2016) Democratisation of Myanmar. Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge.
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