Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State.
The nearly seven decades since Burma achieved independence in 1948 have been years of increasing misery. Instead of marching forward to new heights of freedom and prosperity, Burma has instead embarked on a hellish descent into recession and economic ruin. The first fourteen years of independence held some promise of democratic government and a stable economy, but a 1962 military coup precipitated a fifty-year crisis that transformed a once-vibrant people and economy into one of the most impoverished and depressed nations on earth.
The military's rule led to the total repression of free speech. The brutal combination of continued economic decline and political repression led to occasional resistance against the government by students and workers, but their demonstrations were ruthlessly crushed. Torture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were all too common. It was not until 2010 that the ruling military announced democratic reforms and abandoned some of the more repressive practices of the previous fifty years.
Burma's Tatmadaw (military) began relaxing some aspects of its harsh rule in 2010, releasing many political prisoners, granting greater freedom to its citizenry, and opening Burma to the outside world, but even now the military retains the reins of power. The military has retreated into the background and has succeeded in avoiding scrutiny by foreign analysts and experts who focus on the nation's supposed transition to democratic rule, but even in the background it retains much of its traditional power.
The overwhelming presence of the military in Burmese life today is carefully documented by two old "Burma hands," Renaud Egreteau, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, and Larry Jagan, a journalist and political analyst based in Bangkok They have produced a very worthwhile study, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma, an analysis of the military's control of Burma and its huge influence on the direction of the country's foreign policy.
The authors use the term "praetorian state" to describe the political structure of Burma and the military's dominant governmental role. In its original Roman context, the term "Praetorian Guard" describes an "elitist military unit" that dominates all aspects of life in a given society. They affirm that the best way to describe the role of the military in Burmese society is to label it "a political configuration in which the armed forces--mainly embodied by their high-ranking and senior military officer corps--tend to intervene in the day-to-day politics and enter the broader civilian policy world, to the point of being potentially able to dominate the whole political system" (21). The praetorians regard themselves as the true guardians of the state and the only group capable of maintaining the independence and integrity of the nation.
The authors argue that even though Burma has begun to emerge from isolation and to allow greater freedoms, the country still fits the praetorian model. Although disguised in civilian clothing, Burma's "praetorian guard" still maintains control. Specifically, it retains the three most important government ministries (Home, Defense/Security, and Foreign Affairs) and a quarter of the seats in the national legislature. It also dominates the bureaucracy through ex-military officers. The result is that the military establishment is still the dominant force in making foreign policy and directing the conduct of foreign relations, while opposition groups like the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, while increasingly free to operate, have only token representation in the national parliament. The defense budget has always been much larger than other sectors and continues to grow today under "civilian" rule. The authors contend that the military will remain ascendant "in the post-junta landscape--at least as long as the 2008 Constitution remains the country's supreme law" and that the "military sphere, the active armed forces hierarchy and the networks of ex-military leaders who now throng the post-junta political stage, still want to lead the way" (474-75).
The military's key foreign policy goal since the 1960s has been to maintain the nation's independence despite being increasingly hemmed in by two growing powers, India and China. The authors spend much of the book looking at the history of Burma's foreign relations, especially its relations with its giant neighbors. They argue that the Burmese military still has the necessary tools to retain its traditional praetorian influence over the nation's foreign policy in the near and distant future. They suggest that the threat posed by India and China forces Burma to perform a kind of balancing act that obliges it to cater to the needs of its neighbors while at the same time maintaining control over its independence and prized natural resources. The result is occasional fits of xenophobia as well as a natural inclination towards neutrality in foreign affairs. Burma is a small fish in an ocean of fish-eating giants and Burma has developed a distinct sense of self-preservation and a tough outer hide.
Former Prime Minister U Nu's (1907-95) formula for the 1950s--"We are hemmed in like a tender gourd among the cactus. We cannot move an inch"--remains a key to Burmese foreign policy formulation today. The convention wisdom, according to the authors, "would say that a tactful neutralism and an equidistant policy between its two giant neighbors, India and China, as well as the other regional and global powers was and will be Burma's best-suited diplomatic stance in the future. The images of greedy neighbors and ambitious foreign powers yearning to exploit Burma's natural resources have for years molded the outlook of several generations of Burmese leaders, diplomats, and even the common people. They will continue to do so ..." (476). They add: "As far as Burma's long-term foreign policy thinking is concerned, the challenge for ... Burmese leaders [today] will be to integrate and fuse unfamiliar liberal ideas--to allow more cooperation with the outside world and benefit from foreign expertise, trade and investment, and technical assistance--and, the most critical, security and geostrategic concerns of the still-dominant Burmese armed forces. On the part of the rest of the world, any revamped foreign policy approach that would not take into account Burma's years of autarkical, xenophobic praetorian and anti-capitalistic state policies is likely to fail" (478). The authors worry that the general theory that more openness to the outside world and greater foreign assistance fosters "democratization" may not hold true in the case of Burma, given the remaining power of the military throughout Burmese society.
Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma is a well-researched and objective analysis of the critical role that the military has played and continues to play both in the government and in foreign affairs. It should be required reading for any scholar researching Burma or any foreign service officer with duties pertaining Burma, China, India, or Southeast Asia. The analysis of the praetorian role of the military in Burma is especially illuminating. The writing is a bit dense at times and major themes are often hidden by a wall of scattered factual material and references to other scholars and their work, but a careful reading of this monograph presents a clear picture of Burmese politics today. This book rivals Christina Fink's 2001 Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule as the best scholarly study of contemporary Burma.
DANIEL A. METRAUX
Mary Baldwin College
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|Author:||Metraux, Daniel A.|
|Publication:||Southeast Review of Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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