Caretaking Democratization

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Renaud Egreteau’s Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar

Why have the Burmese armed forces withdrawn from direct control of the state? Why have they allowed a “hybrid” regime, with a representatively elected government, to form? What moniker does one use for this new, neither fully authoritarian, nor fully democratic, Myanmar? Indeed, what spurred the recent deepening of political liberalization and widening of democratization across the nation. And why now and not decades earlier?

These are some of the questions which imbue Renaud Egreteau’s excellent Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (Oxford University Press, 2016) with a saliency and urgency for those wishing to apprehend Myanmar today.

In what this reviewer considers to be the most important publication of the decade on the subject of Myanmar’s democratization, Egreteau argues that the “transition has been driven from above, by ruling Burmese elites—especially military ones—in a clear position of strength since the early 2000s.” By initiating a “well-thought-out”, “caretaking”, and “pacted” transition since 2011, “the Tatmadaw leadership merely chose to move down a notch on the scale of political intervention.” This analysis reminds us that there is more here than some naïve romanticizing of “Burma’s Spring.”

The decades of military authoritarianism are over. The sordid “military junta” as a regime type has disbanded. The current government, particularly after the 2015 general election, is the most democratically representative since independence. But, the Burmese armed forces’ praetorian commitment to political intervention—some of these guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution—demonstrates that the military will continue to have a sizable effect on future developments. Egreteau is keen to remind us that the science of comparative politics is uncertain about the endpoint to this “transition.”

The introduction and initial chapter lay out the focus of the study, one that centers the years from 2010 to 2015 as instrumental. This positions the book as an indispensable resource for comparativists and international affairs scholars in understanding early-stage democratization. Despite the particularity, and peculiarity, of this “sui generis case”, Egreteau frequently utilizes other postcolonial examples to draw out similarities and differences where relevant. Core to the argument of the “planned withdrawal” of the Burmese military from the highest reigns of governmental power were those machinations of “inter-elite negotiations” which centered upon a “pact” between three specific segments of Myanmar’s polity. This “top-down” approach included soldier-turned-civilian leaders from the ancien régime, well-known and well-liked leaders from the pro-democracy opposition—foremost amongst them, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and elites of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party—and leaders of politicized or armed ethnic groups, particularly those who appeared open to cease-fire negotiations.

Egreteau points out that incorporating… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Tea Circle Oxford by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for the top of this re-post goes to awesome Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Burmese Buddhist Political Thought

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Matthew J. Walton’s Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought.

Our cultural upbringing, our mores and customs, our manners and practices, and, in particular, our religion (or lack thereof) constitute that pathology that we often call one’s moral worldview. If, as social scientists or humanities scholars, we accept this much, we may also concede that such a moral worldview might have further consequences on how we think and act in various situations: socially, politically, economically, or otherwise.

Take the case of a religion like Buddhism—or more specifically, “Burmese Buddhism”—as Matthew J. Walton does in his dissertation Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought. Does being brought up (indoctrinated?) into something like a contemporary Burmese Buddhist “moral universe” have consequences on how one goes about her politics and politicking? The essential argument of this dissertation is that this “Theravāda view of the universe as governed by moral causal laws has been the primary lens through which Buddhists in Myanmar have thought about and engaged with the political realm”. This moral worldview is not simply how one “thinks” about politics but also how one “engages” with politics.

In short, one’s religious coloring of morality has consequences on the political stage… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Dissertation Reviews by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for this re-post via Political Blindspot. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Oligarchy in Thailand?

Abstract

A modern conception of oligarchy, which can be housed under an authoritarian regime as easily as it can under a liberal democratic one, can affect our understanding of the potential national political repercussions of extreme inequalities of wealth. This article has two goals: (1) to conceptually analyse the meaning of oligarchy; and (2) to make a
descriptive case for its use in the Thai context. The test case of contemporary Thailand shows what exactly an oligarch or oligarchy means under a military regime and the potential effects for national politics of an oligarchy based on material wealth. Utilizing Jeffrey A. Winters’ Aristotelian-grounded conception of oligarchy for the contemporary world, this article argues that some political outcomes in Thailand are inexplicable without recourse to a modern variant of oligarchic theory and analysis.

Keywords: Thailand, oligarchy, monarchy, military regime, Thai oligarchy.

Introduction

This article argues that Winters’ concept of oligarchy can be extended to politics at the national level in Thailand. The coup d’état on 22 May 2014 by military forces led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander of the Thai Royal Army, may offer evidence against the argument that Thailand has an oligarchy. A year earlier, the representative democracy in Thailand – despite it being “low” on liberalism – may have also opposed such a classification. Thailand with its unique form of constitutional monarchy, sometimes termed a “network monarchy”, also appears to argue against oligarchy. Additionally, a review of Riggs’ now-classic concept of “bureaucratic polity” or Chai-anan’s concept of “three-dimensional Thai state” also seems to chal-lenge any notion of national-level oligarchy.

The present paper argues that while Thailand is not an oligarchy, it does very much
have an oligarchy. This is not a play on words. To understand why the above claim is empirically true, one must revisit the concept of oligarchy and allow for misconceptions to change. Three specific elements need to change. Firstly, the theory of oligarchy, as originally understood by Aristotle, is not a regime, but a very powerful, hard-to-eradicate, and not always coherent element of almost every state and society since Aristotle posited his mixed regime, including contemporary Thailand. Secondly, the theory of oligarchy is a materialist theory of power. Thirdly, the theory of oligarchy can be applied to Thailand and, by doing so, researchers of social science gain a new perspective of recent turmoil in Thai national politics.

Every theory, method or approach provides insight. For some students of Thai politics and society, recognising that Thailand has an oligarchy may induce something of a modest epiphany. For others, this recognition will be more like an intellectual homecoming. There are many ways to describe Thailand’s national politics, including the concept of oligarchy, regardless if one likes or dislikes the word. This article is about theory and classification and how it applies to one national state in Southeast Asia. I agree that a causal argument may be more powerful than a descriptive  argument in the social sciences. However, because there is still so much confusion over the term oligarchy and its applicability outside of Hellenistic Greece, I make a simpler argument of reviewed classification and exampled application. Oligarchy as diction can be more than a facile epithet. Oligarchy is, in fact, a vital force in Thailand’s political society… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Reuters via International Business Times. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Myanmar’s Military Still Hold the Purse Strings

The release of the official list of Myanmar’s 1,000 top taxpayers for 2013-2014 shows the wealthiest are still overwhelmingly tied to the old guard of military cronyism and elite government corruption. Many are on the US government’s blacklist.

The list, released by the Internal Revenue Department (IRD) of the Ministry of Finance in December, is an indication of how much – or how little –progress the Burmese political economy has made in terms of the separation between civilian versus military investment in Myanmar’s highest grossing companies. The reporting process remains frustratingly opaque to investors.

Despite the move away from military authoritarianism toward more democratic institutions in government in the political sphere, a similar move away from military-tied businesses which either have ties to or a part of the military toward completely independent trade, investment, and entrepreneurship in the economic sphere has yet to really begin.

The three public companies along with top taxpayers on the Internal Revenue Department lists serve to highlight the continued challenge of transparency and continued involvement of investments tied to military families.

For example, AGD Bank is part of the Htoo Group of companies, which has included at various times numerous other subsidiaries like Air Bagan, Htoo Wood Products, Elite Tech IT Services, Htoo Trading, and many others. The chairman of this conglomerate is U Tay Za, well known for his ties to the military elite, particularly Than Shwe, the former general who headed the junta from 1992 to 2011.

Both U Tay Za as an individual and his portfolio of companies are blacklisted by the United States government. For better or worse, this designation ends up trickling down to Htoo Group’s 30,000- odd employees and illustrates how cronyism at the highest levels becomes a system-wide problem affecting the middle and lower classes.

In fact, a comparison of the… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Asia Sentinel by T. F. Rhoden; photo credits for image used in post appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Thailand’s Oligarchs Are Fighting

I want to believe that those who have taken to the street recently in Bangkok really do wish at heart to simply have a political system that is free from the influence of money. Or maybe we should say extreme amounts of wealth, like an ultra-extreme amount of wealth available only to the—not the top 1 percent—but the top .01 percent, top .001 percent, and, empirically speaking, really the top .0001 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people.

The influence of extreme inequalities of material wealth on national politics is a very good reason for those who work in salaried, white-collar professions in Bangkok to protest en masse. Honestly, the influence of extreme wealth on politics is a good reason for anyone to protest. And so, we should acknowledge that those on the street right now are acting of their own volition, correct? All of us have friends and colleagues who, whether we agree with them or not, are part of this protest, people whom we respect. We can acknowledge their passion. If this is a passion stirred by the direct consequences of extreme material wealth—the most salient example of this in Thai national politics being former PM Thaksin Shinawatra—then it is a legitimate passion, and more importantly, a legitimate reason to protest.

When political equality is hampered by economic inequality, can Thailand still have a liberal democracy? I wonder if this is at the heart of the problem. Does Thailand have something like a national oligarchy that is affecting, whether negatively or positively, some political outcomes? Does it make sense to ask if, casually speaking, the presence of a robust Thai oligarchy after Thaksin’s emergence on the national stage has conditioned, constrained, shaped, or some other way constituted the various events leading up to the 2006 coup, the crackdown of red-shirted protesters in 2010, the national elections in 2011, and the current round of protests in a way that if there were no Thai oligarchy would quite simply have not have occurred? Does Jeffery A. Winters’ thesis in his 2011 book Oligarchy apply to national case of Thailand as well?

PM Yingluck has made a public statement saying that… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; all other written and photo credits appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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A Teacher’s Letters from the Thai-Burma Border

Thomas Rhoden has published a book of letters called Burmese Refugees: Letters from the Thai-Burma Border.

The American teacher spent a year in refugee camps in the Mae Sot area in one of ten camps dotted along the border. Thomas decided to give his students an assignment one afternoon but he was not prepared for what came back.

The result is a collection of stories that captures the lives of the refugees living on that border, where some 150,000 Burmese asylum seekers are waiting for a new home. Thomas says refugees there are closely monitoring news about Australia’s government’s refugee policies.

Presenter: Adelaine Ng

Speaker: Thomas Rhoden, editor of Burmese Refugees: Letters from the Thai-Burma Border.

*Original talk can be found on Radio Australia; photo credit via Virgina W. Mason, Maruesrite B. Hunsiker, and Maggie Smith at National Geographic Magazine. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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