- Burma/Myanmar: Where Now? ed. by Mikael Gravers, Flemming Ytzen
Five years ago, a repressive junta controlled Myanmar with an iron grip. All observers considered the Southeast Asian country an unlikely case for political reforms. Much to the surprise of analysts, however, things changed in 2011, and since then the country has entered a period of dramatic reform. In Burma/Myanmar: Where Now?, Mikael Gravers and Flemming Ytzen attempt to guide readers into understanding Myanmar’s rapidly changing transition.
The editors offer six good reasons for readers to browse the book: learn facts about the country, its history and diversity, its ongoing transition, its primary actors, and understand the discrepancy between optimistic expectations and stumbling blocks on the ground, and where and how to learn more.
Though the editors do not posit any unifying theme for their volume, many chapters emphasize the role of fear as one of the most influential factors in shaping modern Myanmar politics and the ongoing transition in particular. When it comes to the junta’s decision to begin the transition, the editors and some contributors highlight the critical role of their fear of revenge from democratic forces (pp. 33–37, 150) and concern for China’s influence in the country (pp. 100–3). The volume argues that the military leaders’ fear of potential instability springing from the continued reforms means that “the military is not yet ready to give up the constitutional prerogatives” (p. 418). There are provisions included in the Constitution for the purposes of ensuring the military’s continued role in determining the pace of reforms. They include the reservation of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for military appointees, the military’s control of key ministries and even the military’s right to seize power again. The military’s fear of state disintegration and the ethnic minorities’ fear for their cultures are also cited as a major factor in an endless cycle of ethnic insurrection and state repression (p. 150). Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung observes that Myanmar “shares the concern of illegal immigration, anti-Islamic sentiments and fear of radical Islam movements with other countries in the region” (p. 337) through the influx of “illegal immigration” into western Myanmar needs to be taken account of in order to address one of the most heated identity issues in Myanmar’s transition: the status of Rohingya Muslims (pp. 329, 337). Marie Ditlevsen claims [End Page 311] that the current government and some foreign actors, such as the United States, express concerns that a few business players, such as the military and its cronies, will end up dominating the economy (pp. 126, 363)
The volume is divided into four parts: political transition; identity conflicts and peace-building; the economy; and prospects for future change. Twenty-one authors — ranging from journalists to consultants, to human rights campaigners and academics — contribute more than two dozen predominately short chapters. After a very brief introductory chapter, the volume begins with a photo essay that provides visually stunning images which explore themes of cultural practices, spirituality, the tragedy of war, poverty, disease, the daily struggle to survive and ongoing peace efforts.
Some chapters provide useful overviews of crucial issues. For example, the chapters examining the formal structure of state power (pp. 72–85) and the fundamentals and challenges to Myanmar’s economy (pp. 341–61) provide what the volume promises its readers: facts about the country and its complexity. In his article “Ethnic Diversity, Multiple Conflicts”, for instance, Mikael Gravers deconstructs successive regimes’ designation of 135 national races as registered indigenous (or original) groups of Myanmar. Ethnic categorizations are social-political constructions and often umbrella terms covering a broad array of sub-groups. The name ethnic “Chin”, for instance, encompasses about sixty sub-groups/clans. According to Gravers, some groups reject “Chin” ethnic category because it derives from Burmese, preferring instead “Zo” (p. 149). The historical presence of other ethnic groups (notably the Rohingya) also problematizes successive regimes’ criteria of identity designation.
Ashley South’s update on the peace process (pp. 250–55) is another...