The relationship between Burma and Norway has transformed in recent years; one of the most devout supporters of Burma’s democratic opposition movement has warmed considerably to the quasi-civilian government that assumed power in 2011, largely made up of members of a former military regime. The friendship has proven to be mutually beneficial, as Norway has enjoyed a number of coveted licenses in once-closed, largely unexplored, resource-rich Burma.
On the event of the first state visit by Norwegian King Harald V and his wife, Queen Sonja, we opened up The Irrawaddy Archives for a reflection on the changing relationship between the two governments. This opinion piece was originally published on June 17, 2009, under the headline “The Myth of the Democratizing Middle Class.”
In an article published in The Irrawaddy on April 28, 2009 (“Why Boycott Just Makes Things Worse”), Norway’s development minister, Erik Solheim, calls for a review of Norwegian Burma policy with more emphasis given to economic engagement and less to isolation. Sanctions in particular seem to be a thorn in the eye of the development minister. Solheim’s recipe is based on a strong faith that economic growth and the emergence of a middle class will eventually bring about democracy in Burma.
There is little doubt that most Burmese would be better served by greater and more equally shared economic growth. Burma is rich in resources. The country was once considered one of the most promising in Asia. Instead, poor management of Burma’s riches has brought the country to its knees.
At best, Solheim’s description of the democratizing role of the middle class is an oversimplification of the truth. But at worst, it represents a capitulation to Burma’s generals.
Economic growth and democracy tend to correlate, but correlation is not synonymous with simple causal effect. The belief that capitalists will necessarily demand democracy is a myth, not a law of social science. Freezing the bank accounts of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his henchmen has no impact on Burma’s larger economy.
There is nothing new about the assumption that the middle class has played a key role in the emergence of democracy in Asia. The middle class theory originally grew out of a fascination with Asia’s new rich and their political potential. The new rich were credited with bringing about the democratic popular uprisings that changed South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s.
However, this period was also noted for the debate about so-called “Asian values” and the superiority of the Asian development model as opposed to the Western emphasis on the individual, democracy and human rights. Representatives of an Asian middle class could be found on either side of the divide. Asia’s many middle classes were not one entity at the time and did not act as one.
In other words, Solheim’s approach has already failed the test of history. His selection of these very same countries as proof that economic growth will eventually bring about democracy in Burma this time around is therefore a paradox.
Solheim’s use of the term middle class is confusing. Asia’s middle classes span across a diverse group with different backgrounds, preferences and interests. To expect this class to gather around one common political platform and one common set of political goals is to play tricks with oneself.
Asia’s economic middle class—identifiable by its income and its lifestyle—comprises farmers, entrepreneurs, white-collar workers, military personnel, bureaucrats and others. In several countries in the region, such as China, Singapore and Malaysia, such a middle class has emerged without bringing about democratic regime change so far.
Such an economic middle class also exists in Burma. But in this country, economic life is closely associated with the military power-holders. Many typical middle-class professions are to be found in the public sector. To succeed requires good relations with those in power. To engage with the opposition is to live with the constant risk of losing one’s daily bread. There is little reason to expect that this middle class will take a lead in the struggle for a democratic Burma.
There is also an intellectual middle class in Asia, identifiable by its qualifications rather than its economic status. Professionals such as academics, teachers, students, artists, writers, and journalists have long traditions of challenging those in power in Asia, including Burma. Together with the monks, who are the keepers of the country’s cultural heritage, the students in particular have frequently opposed military power and been among the strongest supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi. They have shown their ability to challenge the military’s position.
As a result, the military controls the Buddhist monkhood with an iron fist, while the education sector is neglected and censored. Burma’s universities and monasteries are no longer hotbeds of the struggle for democracy. As long as freedom of expression and academic and artistic freedoms are gagged, this middle class also remains unable to mobilize for rebellion. This is where Solheim ought to focus his attention.
The experience from several of Burma’s neighboring countries is that the middle classes have rarely taken the lead when mass movements have developed. When popular movements have radically altered politics in countries in Southeast Asia, this has come about as a result of the mobilization of broad sections of the population.
Burma is no exception, as the demonstrations in 2007 indicate.
Solheim’s analysis of the processes of democratization in Asia is superficial and does not provide a basis for drawing conclusions for Burma. The situation in Burma ought to be understood on its own terms.
On two occasions during the past 20 years—in 1988 and in 2007—increasing poverty and bad economic policies by the government have triggered large scale popular uprisings followed by a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators that has tarnished the image of Burma’s Tatmadaw.
Today, corruption is widespread. Respect for the most basic principles of the rule of law is lacking. Unlike Indonesia, where former President Suharto provided space for technocrats in shaping economic policy, Burma’s military power-holders have a poor record when it comes to listening to civilians offering input on policies.
Under these conditions, and with the junta’s record in economic policy-making, there is no assurance that economic growth will benefit the population or that it will lead to the emergence of an independent civil society.
Burma’s military junta may desire economic growth for the country, but only insofar as it does not challenge their grip on power. Unfortunately, it is not in Solheim’s power to be certain that Norway’s contribution to economic growth in Burma will result in democracy.
This is not to say that a future economic middle class in Burma will not have political weight or that such a middle class will not make demands that will change Burmese politics. However, Solheim’s expectation that such a middle class is in some way predestined to take a lead in the struggle for democracy is not grounded in reality.
Democratization is a slow process. A transition to democracy takes place as a combination of many factors, where structural conditions, the relationship between political players and coincidences all play a part.
Burma’s democracy movement has already identified what is needed in order to begin a development toward democracy: the release of political prisoners, respect for fundamental human rights, notably civil and political rights, and space for broader political participation.
The people of Burma have paid a high price for decades of military misrule. They deserve better than a Norwegian development minister who seems to be outsourcing their struggle for basic rights to an uncertain future. Instead, Solheim and the government he represents ought to take a lead in developing a policy in support of Burma’s struggle for human rights.
Norway’s development minister is a strong proponent of dialogue. Is he prepared to enter a dialogue with Burma’s military junta on issues that could actually make a difference?
Camilla Buzzi is the former project coordinator for PD Burma, an international network of parliamentarians promoting human rights and democracy in Burma.