Basing his analysis on Burma’s history, as well as his own experience travelling through the country, Cockett found some cause for optimism at this critical juncture in the country’s trajectory.
Cockett cautioned that the recent triumph of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) should be seen as a new phase in Burma’s transition, rather than the end of a long road towards democracy. Indeed, Cockett argued that the new government faced a greater task than some observers realised; it was not trying to “restore” Myanmar to a pre-military utopia, but rather was trying to create a new country.
Cockett delved into the findings of his new book to put this task in perspective. The book opens with a description of colonial-era Rangoon (now Yangon), which was so cosmopolitan that British colonial administrator, JS Furnivall, coined the term “plural society” to describe it.
Yes, when the military took control in 1962, it had two primary goals; to rid the country of colonialists and to eradicate this ‘plural society’. The resulting ‘Burmanisation’ has been the root of both the economic collapse, as foreign investors left the country in the wake of mass nationalisations, and of the civil wars which have characterised Burma.
The NLD faces an uphill struggle to rebuild the economy and to bridge the chasm between the centralisation of power in the Burmese centre and the ethnic minorities on the periphery. Cockett argued that the NLD needs to work towards capturing more wealth from exports and tax for the central government. Then with a better-funded and more transparent central state, mechanisms to include ethnic minorities in the state could be implemented.
However, the NLD is likely to come up against a still-relevant military and a prevailing view of ethnic Burmese importance inside the party. The Burmanisation of the military era still holds relevance today as demonstrated in the fact that Aung Sang Suu Kyi does not mention the Rohingya–the Muslim minority population in Rakhine state–by name.
Despite these challenges, Cockett returned to the concept of the plural society with cautious optimism. Originally understood as a society divided between ethnicities, Cockett’s conversations with market-goers has suggested that, in cosmopolitan centres at least, a ‘nirvana of tolerance’ exists, largely gained through extensive inter-marriage, and a common identity based in the markets. With some political will, it seems that the ethnic tensions which have dominated the country could be ended. This at least could be a first step in Burma’s exciting journey.
The discussion was moderated by Alanna Putze, Senior Programme Director at the Legatum Institute.
The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.