- Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar by Ian Holliday
After Cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwaddy Delta in May 2008, there was much debate concerning how the international community should respond to Myanmar’s biggest natural disaster. Then French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested implementing the United Nations’ (UN) Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to deliver aid as the then ruling junta failed to meet human security obligations and also limited foreign humanitarian aid and disaster relief assistance. While a tripartite arrangement involving the Myanmar government, ASEAN and the UN was eventually inked that enabled a coordinated relief operation, Cyclone Nargis presented a key case in the debate of intervention concerning Myanmar dating back to the 1988 coup: how, and to what extent, should external entities be involved in Myanmar?
Focusing on the theme of global justice and the debate on intervention, Ian Holliday’s book examines the key issues pertaining to external intervention and applies the analysis to Myanmar. The first book-length study on Myanmar to be completed since the contentious 2010 general elections, it affirms the importance of foreign intercession in Myanmar through grassroots engagement efforts encompassing foreign states, aid agencies and corporations.
The first four chapters course through Myanmar’s colonial and post-colonial history, and provide succinct contextualization. Holliday meticulously describes how Myanmar came to its current state of affairs: the “liberal imperialism” enterprise under the British which was unrivalled in terms of colonial economic mobilization; the birth of Burman nationalism; the post independence turmoil and the military’s rise to domination; the plight of the country under General Ne Win’s ostensibly socialist rule; and the reassertion of military dominance after the September 1988 coup. These chapters allow the reader to contextualize the reforms currently underway in Myanmar and the formidable challenges facing the country’s democratization process.
The subsequent chapters are theory oriented, as the author examines the gamut of academic work concerning justice and the approaches and roles of foreign involvement. Chapter Five covers global attention towards Myanmar over the years, and [End Page 442] examines the aspects and failures of both engagement and isolation strategies practised by Myanmar’s neighbours and Western countries respectively. The debate between cosmopolitan and communitarian approaches to duties of global justice, the specific historical injustices perpetrated against the Burmese by their colonial and wartime occupiers and the general universal justice owed to them are elaborated in the sixth chapter. Chapter Seven surveys the different types of intervention and their justifications, the internal and external deliberations of such interventions, and the notion of “interactive intervention” where insiders are given the leading role in identifying injustices and determining interventions while outsiders assume a “following role”. The final chapter deals with the different possibilities of intervention, capacity-building inter-cession to bring about socio-political change in Myanmar, and the potential political impact of principled and sustainable investment to promote reforms. Holliday concludes by surveying the prospects of “unmaking Myanmar” through the injection of democratic principles and re-evaluation of ethnic relations, the “remaking of Burma” by reinvigorating civil society, the possibilities for external involvement based on global justice, and the prospects for outsiders to join locals in opening up opportunities for action within Myanmar.
The author believes that interactive intervention is the best approach to re-energize and reconfigure Myanmar’s return to the international community. He argues that interactive intervention would be able to deliver the demands of global justice in Myanmar’s case (p. 159). Holliday forwards the notion of consensual engagement through intercession and investment by aid agencies and responsible global corporations to empower local people to implement political change (pp. 193–94). He also argues for discursive intervention, where development action seeks to “reshape the society from bottom up” (p. 164), arguing that since assertive strategies are not favoured domestically and are shown to have vague prospects, meaningful social change supported by external intercession is a key condition for sustainable political reform.