A Few Thoughts about Social Engineering in Burma

When you first arrive in Naypyidaw, as I did last week, you can't help but experience a peculiar sensation of equal parts awe and fear. In just a few years, the then-ruling military junta carved a new Burmese capital out of pure jungle. It came at a cost of billions of dollars to a country where most people live in poverty. "Only an autocrat would come up with a grandiose project like this" I mused, "at the expense of all other important things, of course." 

During his reign from 1992 to 2011 as Burma's top strongman, General Than Shwe made the decision to build Naypyidaw hundreds of miles inland from the traditional coastal capital of Rangoon. He and his comrades hyped it as one of the world's ten fastest growing cities. Today you can drive down spotless four-lane roads (almost entirely bereft of traffic) past impressive vistas of apartment blocks, ministries, and hotels. The roads are lined by rows of replanted palm trees. The gigantic buildings, roomy gardens, and neon lights glowing 24 hours a day dazzle visitors who are arriving from parts of the country where frequent power shortages and darkness are the norm. 

But dictators don't only have a fondness for hypertrophic building projects. They also have an irrepressible tendency to redesign society to their own peculiar specifications. It's an urge that also manifests itself in small, everyday things -- as I'm frequently being reminded now that I've returned to my home country again after 16 years of life overseas. 

That's the thought that occurred to me whenever I came back from my rounds in the capital and stepped into the lobby of my hotel, where the staff invariably welcomed me with the greeting mingala-ba. In practice it means "may you be blessed" (though it literally translates to "auspiciousness to you").

This greeting always amuses me. When I was a student in Burma 25 years ago, no one greeted one another with such formal affectation. The only exception was in our school classroom, where students would greet their teachers while standing at attention with folded arms. This salutation was originally adopted in nationalist schools in the 1930s when the country was under colonial rule. It was supposed to serve as an authentic Burmese replacement for the English-language greeting. "Good morning, teacher" (or "good afternoon"). 

Actually, though, the typical greetings among Burmese usually take the form of rhetorical questions: 

"How are you doing?"

"Are you well?"

"Where are you going?"

"Have you eaten your meal?" 

The greeting that tends to startle my Western friends (especially women) is one that the Burmese say when they haven't seen each other for a while: "You've put on/lost weight" or "You look exactly the same." 

It turns out, though, that greeting habits have changed under the decades of military rule. Apparently mingala-ba is the new thing. When I looked at the "Greetings" section of a recent edition of Lonely Planet's Burma edition, it advises travelers to "greet someone by saying mingala-ba." It also recommends that you should accompany the words by pressing your palms together in a prayer-like fashion -- a custom, known as the wai that actually comes from Thailand. There's nothing especially Burmese about this at all. 

In the 1990s, the junta enforced this newly fashioned mingala-ba greeting in civilian-military interactions as a Burmese norm. The sights of people (ironically teachers of public schools in most cases) putting their palms together and paying prayer-like respect to the generals were commonplace in Burmese media. A state-owned paper then claimed (in a state of delusion) that the common sight of people paying respect to generals prove how much people admire the military even though the military leaders are not dynastic kings. 

Physical entities such as Naypyidaw and social practices such as mingala-ba have been put in place through direct coercion. The effects of Junta-imposed socialization shape people's interpretation of their world and define appropriate behaviors. Ultimately, imposed fashioning of norms and knowledge influences political action. 

Another striking example of this principle at work involves the census. Many people here in Burma, including many opposition activists, rather blithely accept the official government census figures, including its numbers on the ethnic groups in the country. Yet the Burmese military has long insisted on using the term "race" rather than "ethnic group." The junta deemed the number of such "races" in Burma to be 135. This is actually a figure from the colonial era that was based on a survey of linguistic diversity, including a variety of dialects, and certainly not in any traditional understanding of the term. 

Some observers point out just how sloppy the junta was when it came to conducting the census. The military, which had attempted to deny the importance of ethnicity for several decades, suddenly changed course in 1988, when it began aggressively promoting this colonial breakdown of "races." The junta claimed that these 135 races had to be consulted in the formation of any new constitution and regime. Some scholars believe that this was intended to complicate Burma's political landscape and create the impression that the pro?democracy opposition (despite winning a landslide election in 1990) was incapable of representing "country with 135 national races." Yet quite a few activists and journalists I've met here maintain that there are indeed 135 races, and they express their concerns about ethnic cleavages in the country based on this count. 

What this shows is that statistics about ethnicity have become a completely artificial construct. The world view implied by this approach has entrenched itself, making it much harder for people to imagine other ways of thinking about their country's ethnic diversity. So this is a good, if somewhat depressing example, of how the old ruling elite's way of shaping reality has survived the transition to a more liberal form of rule. 

I would argue that all autocrats tend to suffer from a kind of compulsive-obsessive disorder. As a rule, they don't like to leave things to chance -- no matter how trivial some of those things might seem to be. The old junta fit this pattern quite well. Over the past 25 years they have made extensive efforts to condition people to think and feel in ways that serve the dominant ideology. 

Burma's society is changing and whether or not I agree, there is little that one man can do about it. But let me make one caveat: If constructed practices are to be the new norm, let there at least be a little sense about it. Please don't greet a bereaved person with the mingala-ba greeting, because death is not an auspicious occasion. 

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here



Chile Throws Venezuela's Capriles Under the Bus

The leader of Venezuela´s opposition, Henrique Capriles, visited Chile last week. His goal was to meet politicians of all stripes and to call their attention to Venezuela's unresolved political crisis. But while many politicians and the media warmly received Capriles, he was given the cold shoulder by the two people that matter most: the country's current president Sebastián Piñera, and former-President Michelle Bachelet.

Capriles refused to concede defeat in Venezuela's elections in April 2013, after losing by a little over 200,000 votes. Citing numerous irregularities, he demanded a full audit of the vote. Capriles claims that opposition witnesses were removed at gunpoint or through other forms of intimidation in hundreds of voting centers. He says it was precisely in these centers that phantom votes were added to the voting machines without matching signatures being added to the registry. Venezuelans are required to sign their names in a voter notebook before proceeding to the voting booth; thus, evidence of such foul play could be discovered in the voter notebooks. Capriles' contender, current President Nicolás Maduro, agreed to the audit initially, but he retracted his offer a few hours later.

Sensing a growing political crisis, the presidents of other South American countries demanded a full audit of the vote through a resolution by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR); Venezuela acquiesced. A few days later, though, Venezuela's electoral body instead conducted a partial audit that did not include examining the voter notebooks.

Capriles insists the UNASUR resolution binds Venezuela to a full audit, and he wants action. He first took his case to Colombia, where he met with President Juan Manuel Santos and caused a diplomatic firestorm in Caracas. The Maduro government issued a harshly worded note of protest. After a month and a half of dramatically cooled relations, Maduro and Santos met this week in order to patch things up.

Following his initial foray into diplomacy, Capriles' next stop was Santiago. In theory, Chile -- with its center-right president and its long tradition of levelheaded foreign policy -- would be an ideal place for Capriles to make his case. However, it did not play out that way.

Fearing an outpouring of rage from Caracas similar to the one hurled at Colombia, President Piñera refused to say if he would meet Capriles until a few days before the opposition leader's arrival. By then, the pressure from forces close to chavismo had reached fever pitch -- they were incensed Piñera would even consider meeting Capriles because they deem him as a "coupster," and even a "murderer."

Piñera decided  to meet Capriles, but only at a private dinner  held in the home of a senator -- which is tantamount to a snub of Capriles. By refusing to meet him in the presidential palace, Piñera signaled that he was not taking him (or Venezuela's opposition) seriously. But the low-key nature of their meeting did little to appease Caracas. The Chilean airline LAN (which once belonged to Piñera) has been stripped of its gate assignment at Caracas' international airport, allegedly as punishment for flying Capriles to Santiago as a passenger.

There really was no reason not to host Capriles inside the palace. Capriles was touring on business, and many politicians -- government and opposition -- have met the president in his office. Even American actress Melanie Griffith was once given the presidential palace treatment -- and nothing Capriles has ever done is as harmful to society as the movie version of "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

At least Piñera met Capriles and posed for a picture. The behavior of the upcoming presidential favorite  -- former- President and head of U.N. Women -- Michelle Bachelet, however, was downright disgraceful.

Since returning to Chile to run for president, Bachelet has veered hard to the left. She has surrounded herself with a clique full of die-hard chavista apologists, and for the first time has received the endorsement of Chile's Communist Party, which has extensive and controversial ties to Cuba and North Korea.

Prior to Capriles' arrival, Bachelet said she would not meet him because of a "problem with her schedule." However, the night Capriles met with Venezuelan expatriates, Bachelet was in the same building for a book party. Outside of the event, hundreds of Chilean communist activists physically and verbally assaulted Venezuelan expatriates coming to hear Capriles, using the very insults uttered by prominent members of Bachelet's inner circle. "Coupster," "fascist," and "murderer." Bachelet has so far refused to condemn the aggressions.

Bachelet's refusal even to listen to Venezuela's opposition signals that, when it comes to foreign policy, the radical left wing of her coalition is in command. This is in line with most of her campaign proposals, which include promising free university education for all, pledging a massive tax hike, and calling for a significant change in the country's constitution, including the possibility of a Constitutional Assembly -- all proposals championed by the left-wing governments of South America.

Chile and Venezuela have long, deep, historical ties. Andrés Bello, a former teacher of Venezuela's Simón Bolívar, settled in Chile and is considered one of the founding intellectuals of the young republic. Thousands of Chileans also found refuge in Venezuela during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Overall, Capriles found a welcoming audience in Chile's politicians. His visit was met with intense curiosity by the general public, and was heavily covered by Chilean media. However, he does not seem to have succeeded in convincing the two main politicians that his cause is just. Judging by the actions of Chile's current leaders, whether through fear of chavista reprisals or plain ideological convergence, it seems that the current and future ties with Venezuela ... are with chavismo only.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.