What is the Burmese junta doing?

Burma has been a cauldron of surprising news in the past two years or so. The generals have taken a series of actions in a number of areas: brutal repression of the monks’ demonstrations in 2007, prosecution and conviction of Aung Sun Suu Kyi (ASSK) in a bizarre show trial, a major rainy season assault on the Karen militias and villages, increasing pressure on the Kachin Independence Organization, brutal assault on the Kokang cease-fire group on the Chinese border. And don’t forget the mystery tunnel construction (link) and the phantom North Korean ship (link) a few months ago. (Here is a list of recent news items concerning events in Burma and the rest of southeast Asia, and here is a map displaying some of those items. Follow the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed for updates.) Is there an underlying logic to these actions? What is the junta’s strategy? What are they trying to accomplish, and how do these actions fit into any sort of rational plan? (See an earlier post on the Burmese dictatorship.)

Here’s a sketchy analysis about the junta’s goals: to maintain the decisive military and political power of the Burmese army; to gain full control of national territory, including particularly the states with independence movements and armed militias; to retain the ability to crush any possible opposition movement; to keep the wealth-production machine going for the benefit of the generals and the military system; and to preserve diplomatic support from China. And one important date is looming: the junta’s promise to conduct elections in 2010. The elections are plainly designed to leave decisive control in the hands of the army and to present a thin semblance of “democracy”. And the junta is determined to manage this process so as to lead to an outcome that leaves their power unchallenged.

So what do they need in order to accomplish these goals? They need arms; they need trading partners; they need on-the-ground control of the population; and they need to retain control of Burma’s resources and economy. How do recent actions conform to these goals? Is the junta merely reactive, or is it following a longterm strategy?

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi fits into this set of goals fairly obviously. ASSK is the most charismatic leader that Burmese society possesses. She leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), the most persistent opposition group in Burma today and the overwhelming winner of the elections of 1990 (link). And her name is one of the most celebrated in Burma’s post-colonial history. Her father Aung San was the hero of Burmese independence and his assassination in 1947 was a turning point in Burma’s modern history. ASSK has the potential to mobilize a powerful pro-democracy movement, and the generals fear her. Moreover, there seems to be a streak of emotion in the generals’ attitudes toward her; there seems to be a powerful hatred of ASSK that goes beyond rational fear. But the evident determination of the junta to keep ASSK under house arrest and out of politics through the 2010 elections makes a cruel kind of sense.

The recent military campaigns against the Karen and Kokang groups and the increasing pressure on Kachin and Shan movements also fit fairly clearly into the goals mentioned here. The generals appear to have come to the conclusion that they have a realistic opportunity to change the balance of forces between the army and the ethnic organizations. They appear to have undertaken a determined effort to do so, beginning with the Karen. This seems to be motivated by both the long-standing effort to control the non-Burmese populations and the goal of managing the 2010 elections.

The international trade strategies of the junta also appear to be directly linked to the commercial interests of the regime. Gas contracts, timber and jade sales, and exploitation of Burma’s other economic assets show an aggressive but strategic effort at increasing Burma’s foreign exchange revenues. The relationship with North Korea appears to represent a source of military technology not otherwise available to Burma (the mystery ship?). And western economic sanctions don’t seem to dampen Burma’s trade opportunities significantly. In other words, the junta appears to have created an alternative world trading system that leaves it fairly immune to western criticism and sanctions.

Burma’s foreign relations also seem fairly successful in the realpolitik sense. Burma has managed to avoid much pressure from ASEAN nations; it has preserved the diplomatic support of China in the United Nations; and it maintains acceptable relations with India and Bangladesh. Its assault on the Karen areas has ruffled relations with Thailand because of the influx of refugees across the Thai border their military campaign created. And the assault on the Kokang group had strained relations with China because of the large number of refugees into Yunnan province and the mistreatment of Han people in Shan State. But so far the Chinese haven’t offered much pressure to the Burmese junta either.

So it seems that there is actually a fairly coherent underlying set of goals and strategies that appear to be driving the junta’s actions. The common view in the western media of the junta as mysterious, secretive, reactive, paranoid, and ineffective doesn’t seem to be accurate. The junta seems to be a more dangerous enemy to the people of Burma than this description would suggest. The generals have developed bureaucracies and plans that allow them to pursue their aims fairly effectively. And this is bad news for a democratic Burma. The junta has entrenched a brutal, violent, and exploitative regime that is fundamentally unconcerned about the welfare of the people of Burma; and their military government seems pretty effective in preserving its power and pursuing its political goals.

It is interesting to note how many areas of the social sciences need to be consulted in order to deal with this question: political science (how can we explain the regime’s behavior?), organizational behavior (how do the bureaucratic agencies of the Burmese state function?), military sociology (how is the army recruited and managed?), and social movements theory (how do the various oppositional groups in Burma seek to mobilize?). So Burma represents something of a laboratory for social science research and theory formation.

Poverty, growth, and sustainability

The extent and depth of poverty in the world today is a crushing and immediate problem. The economies of most countries in the world continue to reproduce life circumstances for the extremely poor that make it all but impossible for them to participate in normal, productive lives. The Millenium development goals that were endorsed by the United Nations and other national and international organizations are still far from realization (link). At least a billion people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America live in extreme poverty (defined by the United Nations as per capita income less than a dollar a day), and a larger number are subject to hunger and malnutrition. This is an accumulation of misery and despair that cannot be tolerated. (Here’s an earlier post on food security and hunger.)

So poverty alleviation must be a crucial and high priority. Nations and regions need to give their strongest efforts to enacting economic and social reforms that consistently work in the direction of reducing the scope of poverty and increasing the degree of human fulfillment that is feasible in the world. Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time), Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), and Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It) have all made good contributions on the pressing urgency of this issue and some ideas about strategies that can work.

Poverty alleviation can be understood to mean a variety of things: ensuring that families have higher disposable income, ensuring that families have access to the goods necessary to satisfy their basic needs; or creating social safety nets that help to provide the means of health, nutrition, and education that are fundamental to improving the productivity of the poor. And all of this implies two important consequences: the world economy needs to grow consistently for a very long time, and the purchasing power of the poorest 40% of the world’s population needs to increase more rapidly than the growth rate. Overall inequalities need to decline as economic growth proceeds. Getting out of poverty means, among other things, having access to more of society’s resources for the sake of consumption: better diet, healthcare, education, transportation, housing, clothing, and other goods. And this is critically important, because as Amartya Sen has argued throughout his career, poverty obliterates human potential and opportunity. It destroys the individual’s “capabilities and functionings” for life.

Now consider the environmental side of the coin. Sustainability means designing a social and economic system that is eventually … sustainable. It means using non-renewable resources in a way that permits future generations to have the ability to achieve the things they will need to do; it means using renewable resources in ways that permit replacement; it means managing water and air quality in such a way that we’re not locked into a downward spiral of worsening quality in these essential resources; and, of course, it means managing human activity in ways that permit control of global climate change. People like James Gustave Speth (The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability) have argued that these goals can only be met by damping down the consumption patterns of the world’s affluent billion (post). But how will that work for the world’s poorest billion?

Here is the hard point, however: the goals of poverty alleviation and sustainability appear on their face to be inconsistent. If we want global poverty alleviation, then it is hard to see how we can have a sustainable economy in the next fifty years; and if we insist on sustainability, then it is hard to see how we can achieve enduring and improving poverty alleviation. It appears inescapable that if we succeed in doubling the real income of the poorest 40% of the world’s population, this means even greater increases in the consumption of energy and other resources. And the production of energy is the primary cause of failures of sustainability. If part of alleviating poverty in China or India means making it feasible for three times as many poor families to own a motorbike or automobile — this implies a significant increase in the consumption of fossil fuels and the production of greenhouse gases. And yet improving mobility is an important cause and benefit of alleviating poverty. And this is true for a wide range of categories of products: being less poor means having the ability to consume more of these products.

Here is a hypothetical effort to think through the consequences of alleviating poverty for aggregate consumption of various resources from my The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development.

This isn’t a rigorously developed model; it simply makes some basic assumptions about current and future consumption levels for the world’s population and then aggregates them for the full population. It is generally recognized, for example, that there is something like a “nutrition transition” that occurs as income rises for poor people, as they have the ability to substitute more meat and fish for grains and vegetables in their diet. But this implies a disproportionate increase in the amount of farmland dedicated to livestock. And globally, this implies a reduction in forests and grasslands — processes already underway in Central and South America — which has major consequences for CO2 increases and species extinction. Likewise, this impressionistic projection implies a tripling of the consumption of metals and grain; more than tripling of meat consumption; and 2.4 times the level of energy consumption. So it seems that poverty alleviation all but guarantees that the demand for environment-stressing commodities will increase significantly more rapidly than population increase.

So here is the key question: are there pathways for increasing the quality of life of the world’s poorest 40% that are also compatible with reaching a sustainable global environment? The forthcoming World Bank 2010 World Development Report focuses on climate change, and there should be some important new ideas there about how to combine poverty alleviation and sustainability. These are the hardest problems we face today, and we need some fresh ideas.

What is a diasporic community?

There are many diaspora populations in the world: the African diaspora, with populations in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe; the Chinese diaspora, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cuba and the United States and Canada; the Jewish diaspora, from eastern Europe and Spain across all of Europe, to South Africa and North America with historical enclaves in India and China; and so on for numerous national and cultural groups. In some instances these groups maintain a strong sense of collective identity in spite of the physical and social distances that separate various sub-populations, and in some instances the strands of identity have attenuated significantly.

The fact of diaspora is a deeply interesting one, in that it provides a kind of “natural experiment” on the subject of the persistence and plasticity of culture. It is possible to observe the variations and modifications of culture as they occur over time and geography in diasporic populations.

The question I’d like to raise here is whether a diasporic population, an archipelago of separated groups of common national or cultural origin, can be said to constitute a community. Or does a population require a greater intimacy, a deeper social reality of face-to-face contact, in order to constitute a community? And is it possible that the unavoidable distancing and separation created by diaspora inevitably leads to the fragmentation of community?

I’m led to this question by a current reading of Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, a major new contribution to southeast Asian studies edited by Andrew Walker. The authors and contributors are working with an innovative concept of “modern community”, deliberately challenging the idea of traditional communities organized around stable peasant villages. And they consider a specific version of this question: do the groups scattered across nations in Southeast Asia that are bound together by a Tai language and a set of overlapping practices and values, constitute a modern community? The book warrants a careful reading, and I will return to it more specifically in a later post. But here let’s look at the broader question: can a physically separated set of populations constitute a genuine community?

It won’t do to attempt to reduce this question to pure semantics — “it depends on what we mean by community”. Instead, we need to understand the question in a way that makes substantive sense of the ways in which human groups are constituted over time and space. But to make it a substantive and theoretically interesting question we have to specify a few characteristics that we think communities must possess. And this requires some conceptual work that goes beyond ordinary language analysis and stretches into the realm of theory construction. So consider these features of social groups that might be considered crucial for community: a degree of shared collective identity; a degree of shared values, histories, and meanings; an orientation by members towards others as belonging to a valued social group; a degree of communication and interaction among members of the group; and a preparedness to engage in some degree of collective action in support of the group’s interests. We can think of examples of social groups that possess some of these characteristics but not others, and in some cases we’re inclined to deny that these groups are “communities.” So what about diasporic populations?

It is clear that a separated population may certainly possess some of the qualities that paradigm cases of communities exhibit. Separated populations may maintain traditions, beliefs, and practices that extend backward in time to their origin. They may possess memories and myths that serve as a foundation for identifying them as a specific group. They may retain a strong sense of cultural identity with the group, both in the home location and throughout the world.

Moreover, in the context of modern forms of communication and the internet, it is possible for separated populations to maintain significant interaction with members of other sub-populations throughout the world. Indian sub-populations in Michigan, Germany, and Argentina can have significant real-time contact with each other through web pages, Facebook, or Twitter, and these mechanisms can create real interpersonal relationships across space. This is a significant difference in the situation of diaspora in the twenty-first century relative to the nineteenth century: we might hypothesize that there is the possibility of greater cultural unity across a diasporic group today than was the case a century ago.

It is also possible that a diasporic population will display “creolization” — the incorporation of new cultural elements into the mix of its practices, values, and meanings. This is suggested in the photo above; one imagines that Caribo-Chinese culture is a mix that would seem foreign in Canton. And this raises the possibility of a significant degree of cultural “drift” — with the result that isolated sub-populations no longer speak the same cultural language. This would seem to cut against the idea of community.

Finally, we can ask whether the motivational ideas mentioned above can persist in a diasporic community. Will members of the Chinese communities in Cuba or Canada retain a high degree of solidarity with their counterparts in China? Will they be willing to support the struggles that are presented to various of the Chinese groups across the world — repression of Buddhism in China during certain periods, racism against Chinese workers in other countries, ethnic violence against Chinese businessmen in yet other settings? Accepting the point that there are substantial elements of Chinese culture and history that persist in the various Chinese communities around the world — is this a sufficient basis to generate the willingness to mobilize that core communities possess? To what extent do diasporic populations support the kinds of integrative mechanisms that are needed in order to sustain solidarity across a dispersed group? And what can we say about those mechanisms of solidarity in the circumstances of diaspora?

These questions require careful theoretical and ethnographic work. But I’m inclined to agree with the perspective that Andrew Walker, Nicholas Farrelly, and other contributers to Tai Lands and Thailand put forward: the intertwining mechanisms of popular culture, personal mobility, communications technology, and a reservoir of values and histories that many modern identity groups retain, give a positive basis for thinking that diasporic community is possible in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century.

Opaque Burma

It is striking how ignorant we are about the most basic facts about Burma. I don’t mean simply that the western public is poorly informed; I mean that a lot of the basic facts about contemporary Burma are simply unknown, to scholars, journalists, and other expert observers. The experts don’t know what is going on in Burma, in quite a few important areas of life.

Take the junta itself. How does it work as a government? how does information get collected, how do goals get set, how are policies arrived at, and how are policies implemented over the expanse of control that the Burmese army exercises? It seems that there is very little factual knowledge about these very basic questions. The general impression that the media present of the Burmese military is that it is reclusive, corrupt, and irrational. The first two features are probably true; but “irrational” is a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that the army has successfully preserved its rule for decades. And there appear to be relatively clear strategies in place for controlling the armed ethnic populations and for securing economic development relationships with China and other non-western states. (This is where the corruption comes in; the army appears to use its control of Burma’s natural resources for its own benefit and the benefit of its allies in the ethnic organizations.) We hear a lot about the junta’s war with Aung San Suu Kyi, but very little about other aspects of its organization and behavior.

Or take everyday life in villages and towns in peripheral states. What is ordinary life like in the countryside? How visible is the central government and the Burmese army? What state or municipal entities provide services and collect taxes? How do people earn their livings? What is the state of public health in rural areas? What organizations and community-based groups are active?

Or consider the realities of the ethnic armies; how do the Kachin or the Karen armies preserve their organization and mobilization over time? What is the infrastructure that provides supplies, weapons, and money? How are young people recruited into these movements? What are the strategies and motives that guide decisions — whether to continue the cease-fire or return to active armed conflict?

Or consider, finally, the circumstances of the monks’ rebellion of 2007. Where are the detailed studies of this uprising in terms of motivations of participants, organization, mobilization strategies, and repression?

I suppose the explanation for this level of ignorance is fairly obvious: Burma is essentially closed to outside scholars and journalists, so it is difficult to impossible to do social-science fieldwork in Burma today. The observers who are able to gain a snapshot of insight are mainly occasional travelers and writers who manage to make their way to remote and often dangerous places. And organized social-science research is difficult or impossible to carry out under these circumstances. And there is very little by way of independent journalism within Burma — we are dependent on emigree services that do their best to provide some of the news from the periphery. (It would appear that the situation of research in Burma is orders of magnitude more limited than in Thailand or Malaysia.)

News from Kachin State, Burma

Map: Kachin State, northern Burma

In an earlier post I initiated a geo-twitter experiment to see how much it is possible to learn from twitter about a complicated issue. My twitter feed serves as a sort of selective (and non-expert) news feed for Southeast Asia. It selectively aggregates tweets that show up through searches of Twitter on Burma, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia (as well as related items — Kachin, Karen Burma, …). I also add tweets based on news stories I come across in newspapers and web news sources from the region. The idea is to select a number of the news items that reference these parts of Southeast Asia in the twitter fire hose and see whether they begin to add up to an intelligible picture. Southeast Asia doesn’t get extensive coverage in the western press, and using twitter appears to be a way to get a more detailed understanding of what is going on.

Part of this experiment is a Google map that locates as many of these items as possible on a master map. The idea was that a spatial display of the news feed would help to give some shape to some of the main social, cultural, and military events going on in the region. When you look at the map, you’ll see that the news items fall into a handful of large clusters. (The map has had a surprising number of visitors — over 6,000 visits in three weeks.)

In Burma there are basically three clusters on the map right now: news on the ethnic armies in the Kachin/Shan provinces in the north; news on the Burmese army offensive against Karen independence forces on the Burma-Thai border (and the refugees and displaced persons who have been created); and news of the government’s corruption and brutality as well as the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Here I’m going to focus on one cluster — the Kachin region in north Burma — and simply reproduce the items that have come through in the past month. Here are the posts that are tagged on the map of north Burma above. Does this begin to give a somewhat coherent view of what is happening in this part of Burma?

  1. Burmese Army conduct in Kachin | (5/7/09) There is a culture prevalent in Nong Mong (Naw Mung in Kachin) city in Putao district in Kachin State, northern Burma where high ranking Burmese military officers marry native Kachin woman and later abandon them and their children, a source said.” link
  2. Ethnic Groups in Myanmar Hope for Peace, but Gird for Fight |(18/06/09) New York Times LAIZA, Myanmar — The Kachin tribesmen who inhabit the hills along Myanmar’s border with China have a reputation as stealthy jungle warriors, famous for repelling Japanese attacks in the Second World War with booby traps and instilling terror by slicing off ears to tally their kills. Now, as they have many times in their war-scarred history, the Kachin are hoping for peace but are prepared for battle with Myanmar’s central government. “Whether or not there will be war again, we have to be ready,” Maj. Zauja Nhkri, the head of an officer’s training school that is part of the Kachin Independence Army, which has around 4,000 men under arms.“If our army is strong, we can maintain the peace.” As Myanmar’s military government prepares to adopt a new and disputed Constitution next year, a fragile patchwork of cease-fire agreements between the central government and more than a dozen armed ethnic groups is fraying. link
  3. Edmund Leach, Ethnography of Kachin | Edmund Leach — Political Systems of Highland Burma — A Study of Kachin Social Structure (1954) link
  4. Junta to resettle 200,000 Burmans in Hukawng Valley | (17/06/09) KachinNews The Burmese military junta plans to resettle 200,000 Burman people in ethnic Kachin’s Hukawng Valley (also called Hugawng in Kachin) in the country’s northern Kachin State before 2010, said regime insiders. The new Burman settlers, who make up the majority of the country’s population, will be mainly settled in areas close to three Kachin villages known as Nawng Mi, Sahtu Zup and Wara Zup on the Ledo or Stilwell Road also called Burma Road during WW II, added insiders. In the guise of Rangoon-based Yuzana Company’s crop plantation in the Valley, only Burman people from different areas of lower Burma have been resettled in the Valley since late 2006, said native Kachins from the Valley. link
  5. Getting news out of Burma’s more remote corners | (11/06/09) New Mandala: Rejecting and accepting headlines up at Laiza — “Getting news out of Burma’s more remote corners — such as the Kachin Independence Army/Organisation headquarters at Laiza — can be a difficult job at the best of times. When there is inherent, and perhaps even deliberate, ambiguity thrown into the mix it is almost impossible.” link
  6. Inside the Kachin Independence Army | (22/01/09) PulitzerCenter: Inside the Kachin Independence Army (youtube video) link
  7. KIO in preparation mode, refurbishing armed wing | (17/06/09) New Delhi (Mizzima) The ethnic Kachin resistance group – Kachin Independence Organisation is refurbishing its military in what appears to be preparation for an impending war with the Burmese Army. Sources on the Sino-Burma border area said, the KIO off late has been re-grouping the members of its armed wing – the Kachin Independence Army and is recruiting new members. Awng Wa, Chairman of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) working in Kachin state told Mizzima that he has witnessed KIA cadres retreating into their forest camps and beefing up security around their areas of control. He said, the KIA is also calling back its old members and recruiting new cadres and is vigorously providing trainings to younger batches. link
  8. KIO campaigns against Burma junta over ‘known-result’ | (25/06/09) The ‘Known-Result’ — where the people of Kachin State have rejected the Burmese junta’s proposal of transforming the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed-ring of KIO into a battalion of ‘Border Guard Force’ is being widely spread in a campaign by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of largest ethnic ceasefire groups in the country. The special campaign has been launched by the KIO to explain the pressure by the junta on the KIA to transform at both the organizational level and among the Kachin public in Kachin State and Northeast Shan State since early this month, said KIO leaders. link
  9. KIO wants KIA to be “State Security Force” | (25/06/09) The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of strongest ethnic ceasefire groups in military-ruled Burma would rather transform its armed-wing to a “State Security Force” rather than a “Border Guard Force” it has told the junta, said KIO sources. The KIO has officially informed the junta of its willingness to transform the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to a “State Security Force” (SSF) instead of the junta’s proposal that it be changed to a battalion of a “Border Guard Force” when the two sides met at Mali Hka Center in the junta’s Northern Command headquarters in Kachin State’s capital Myitkyina on June 21 (Sunday), said KIO leaders. link
  10. A land the world forgot: A photojournalist sneaks into Myanmar to report on the Kachin freedom movement | (18/06/09) NewsReview.com The car came to an abrupt stop. “Get out,” the driver said. My friend and partner in journalism Tim Patterson and I stumbled in the moonless night through an uneven, bulldozed field toward the sound of a river. When we reached the river, we crossed a creaky bamboo footbridge and scrambled up a loose-dirt hill to an older SUV with its lights off. “Welcome to Free Kachin,” our contact said, smiling broadly. link
  11. Burmese junta allows felling of 100,000 tons of timber | (8/06/09) Burmese junta allows felling of 100,000 tons of timber per company per year link link
  12. Kachin Schoolchildren Beaten And Hospitalised By Burmese Army | (17/06/09) Burma Campaign Around 15 schoolchildren and young men have been beaten, and some hospitalised, after Burmese Army soldiers went on a rampage through Mayan village in Kachin State, Burma. According to Burma Campaign UK sources, the attacks happened after youths in the village prevented soldiers from gang-raping a 17 year old girl. On the morning of 31st May a young man in the village, Lasaw Naw, was brutally beaten by a group of army soldiers in an unprovoked attack. link
  13. Kachin youths assaulted and detained for preventing rape by Burmese soldiers | (10/06/09) [Kachin News] Kachin youths assaulted and detained for preventing rape by Burmese soldiers: Many… link
  14. Kachin Recruiting Drive Launched as Tension Mounts | (17/06/09) The military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is recruiting former soldiers as tension builds over the Burmese regime’s instruction to ceasefire groups to reassign their troops as border guards. A Kachin military source said the recruitment drive by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was to heighten the force’s preparedness. “We are alert and ready to open fire if our leaders order it,” he said. link
  15. Burmese army bases in Kachin |(23/2/07) New Mandala: “Over at Hugawng Kachin, there is a useful little post with comparative maps of the Burmese army battalions based in the Kachin State in 2006 and 1994 (when the Kachin Independence Organization ceasefire was signed). In 1994 there were 26 battalions located mainly near Myitkyina and along the north-south trunk route through the southern part of the State. Now there are 41 battalions based in the State with a proliferation of smaller outposts at strategic points from Hpakant to Sadung. Anybody who has recently driven on the road between Myitkyina and Bhamo will have seen the number of relatively new bases north of Bhamo. These are all clearly marked on the 2006 map.” link
  16. Three Kachin peace groups give into junta | (29/06/09) Three Kachin ceasefire groups in northern Burma last week, gave into the demands of the Burmese military junta of transforming their armed-wings into the kind of forces that the regime wants, said sources close to the groups. The New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), the Lasang Awng Wa Peace Group in Kachin State and the Kachin Defense Army (KDA) in northeast Shan State agreed to transform their armed-forces to a Border Guard Force or local militia, said sources in the three outfits. link
  17. Burmese military Junta allots large tracts of virgin land to senior KIO leaders | (10/6/09) The Burmese military junta allots large tracts of virgin land to senior KIO leaders: The Burmese military junta has allotted thousands of acres of vacant-virgin land this year to senior leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of largest ethnic ceasefire groups in the country, said local sources link
  18. KIO accepts junta’s idea of transformation of armed-wing | (9/06/09) [KachinNews ] KIO accepts junta’s idea of transformation of armed-wing link
  19. Forest ranger assaulted by soldiers over sharing bribe | (13/6/09) [Kachin] Forest ranger assaulted by soldiers over sharing bribe: (corruption, logging) text
  20. KIA lance-corporal disappears on way home | (28/06/09) Lance-corporal So Ba Du of the Special Gorkha Squandron of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) disappeared while returning home from the squandron base in Laiza headquarters to Myitkyina in Burma’s northern Kachin State on June 7, said KIA sources. The incident comes at a time of mounting military tension between Burma’s ruling junta and the KIA after the latter was pressurized to transform to a battalion of the Border Guard Force (BGF) by the regime. link
  21. Junta rakes in 1,000 million Kyat from auction of seized cars | (25/06/09) The Burmese military junta has earned a whopping net profit of over 1,000 million Kyat (an estimated over US $909,091) from its biggest auction ever of seized cars in Myitkyina, the capital of the country’s northern Kachin State. The revenue was raked in, in a matter of days, local sources said. Hundreds of car dealers, brokers, businessmen and the rich, mainly from Rangoon and Mandalay dropped in at the car auction venues in the Kachin State Football Stadium and the Burmese Army compound of the No. 37 Infantry Battalion in Myitkyina in the 2nd week of this June, said local residents. link
  22. Iron ore mine could destroy 7000 in Shan state of Myanmar | (2/07/09) Burma Newscasts reported that Russian and Italian engineering companies are reported to be involved in the development of a huge iron ore mine in Burma’s eastern Shan state that campaigners say could displace more than 7,000 homes. The already volatile Shan state is home to Burma’s second largest iron ore deposit, on the site of Mount Pinpet. Excavation of the site began in 2004, and work includes the conversion of around 11,000 acres of surrounding land for construction of a cement factory and iron processing plant. The Pa-O Youth Organization in a report released said that more than 25 villages’ home to around 7000 mainly ethnic Pa-O people could be destroyed by the Pinpet Mining Project. link
  23. Surprise addition in KIO delegation negotiating with junta |(6/07/09) In a surprise addition to its seven-member delegation, negotiating with the Burmese ruling junta, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has included its Western Regional Commander. The inclusion comes at a time when there is gradual escalation of tension between the KIO and the military regime, KIO sources said. A KIO delegation was constituted last month to negotiate with the junta on the proposal regarding the transformation of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed-wing of KIO. Col. Lahpai Zau Raw, 4th Brigade Commander (B.C) and the KIO’s Chairman of the Western Regional Committee based in Northeast Shan State was included in the KIO delegation on June 27. Now there will be eight delegates, said sources close to the KIO headquarters in Laiza on the Sino-Burma border in Kachin State. link
  24. Junta deploys fresh troops secretly in Kachin State | (25/06/09) The Burmese military junta is secretly deploying more combat troops in Kachin State at a time when negotiations are on with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) over the transformation of its armed-wing into a battalion of a “Border Guard Force”, said local sources. As of the second week of June, able soldiers have been selected from different battalions and secretly infused into local Burmese Army battalions and military bases in the frontlines in different regions of Kachin State by the instruction of Lt-Gen Ye Myint of Chief of Military Affairs Security of the junta. They include two unidentified Light Infantry Divisions, said a source close to Burmese troops. link
  25. Junta bans construction of ‘Manau Poles’ in Bhamo | (2/07/09) In a fresh ban, the Burmese military junta has prohibited the construction of ‘Manau Poles’ – a mark of ethnic Kachin culture in Bhamo in the country’s northern Kachin State, said local sources. Kachin residents in Bhamo told KNG, that Kachin ‘Manau Poles’ were banned from being constructed in June on the orders of the junta’s Northern Regional (or Kachin State) Commander Brig-Gen Soe Win. link
These two dozen items raise several related story lines: the persistence of ethnic identities and independence movements in several parts of Burma; the persistence and military significance of the Kachin Independence Army / Kachin Independence Organization; the brutal behavior of the Burmese army around its bases in Kachin and Shan states; the corrupt exploitation of resources by the junta; and the ongoing negotiation between the Burmese junta and leaders of the KIO over the Burmese demand that KIA transform itself into a border control unit under control of the Burmese army.

So it seems as though the experiment is at least somewhat successful: there is enough content in the twitter feed to provide a basis for beginning to see some of the lineaments of the current social and military situation in Kachin State. It’s a different kind of exposure from what commentators have discussed so widely about twitter in Tehran — almost none of these items come from local participants. Instead, they are postings by interested observers who are reading expatriate web sites, blogs like New Mandala that attract academic experts on Southeast Asia, news sources like Kachin News and The Irrawaddy that specialize in the region, and twitter contributors such as kambodscha, jonfernquest, and andrewspooner who have long experience and knowledge of Cambodia and Thailand. But when you mash it all together, you get a remarkably nuanced picture of the current social reality. And there are surprises as well — for example, after two weeks of dozens of items on the Burmese army’s assault on Karen camps on the Thai border, that issue has gone silent.

(If you absolutely insist on more traditional sources of knowledge, here are two books separated by about sixty years that shed light on Kachin society and politics: Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure and David Steinberg, Burma: The State of Myanmar.)

Understanding Southeast Asia

Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in UnderstandingSociety. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma — I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a preliminary but factual understanding of these developments are now readily available on the web — blogs, international newspapers, twitter, and google provide a truly unprecedented ability for any of us to gain insight into distant social processes. (A recent widget on the iPhone and iPod Touch is a case in point: the World Newspapers application gives the user easy access to almost 4,000 newspapers in 100 countries.)

One blog that I’ve come to appreciate quite a bit on subjects having to do with Southeast Asia is the New Mandala, based at Australian National University. Andrew Walker is one of its founders and frequent contributors, and he and several other New Mandala contributors have recently published what promises to be a very interesting book. The book is titled Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, and its focus can best be described in the contributors’ own words. Here are the opening paragraphs of a chapter on the orientation the contributors have taken on studying “Thai” identity:

This book provides a new approach to the study of community in the Tai world of mainland Southeast Asia.

Much of the current ethnographic work in the Tai world is constrained by a conceptual framework that associates community with tradition, locality and subsistence economy. This traditional community is commonly portrayed as being undermined by the modern forces of state incorporation, market penetration, globalisation and population mobility.

In this volume, we take a very different view. We challenge the widely held view that community is a traditional social form that is undermined by modernity. Using case studies from Thailand, Laos, Burma and China, we explore the active creation of ‘modern community’ in contexts of economic and political transformation. Our aim is to liberate community from its stereotypical association with traditional village solidarity and to demonstrate that communal sentiments of belonging retain their salience in the modern world of occupational mobility, globalised consumerism and national development.

Our focus is on the Tai world, made up of the various peoples who speak Tai languages. The largest groups are the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Burma and the Dai of southern China. Of course, each of these categories is problematic; they are all the modern products of historical circumstance rather than being natural or self-evident ethnic groups. There are certainly linguistic and cultural similarities that justify the shared label ‘Tai’ but this must be treated as a preliminary delineation of a field of interest without rushing to assumptions about a common identity or a sense of shared history. Indeed, our primary goal is to critically examine contemporary notions of belonging in this Tai world.

This is a highly engaging and innovative approach to the intellectual challenge of understanding the culture, history, and current trajectory of a large part of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The contributors capture some of the best current thinking about the fluidity and plasticity of cultural identities and the complicated ways in which cultures and modern social forces interact. Particularly pressing for historians and area specialists is the challenge of taking adequate account of language, culture, local community, extended networks, and varied political and economic interests when we try to make sense of a large population dispersed over a macro-region.

Take “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These are two constituencies in contemporary Thailand. In the past two years there have been massive popular movements corresponding to each of them, leading to major demonstrations and challenges to the government. They are often characterized in terms of differences in social class and economic sector: rural, poor, disempowered, versus urban, affluent, and privileged. This characterization is one that political scientists and economists would be comfortable with; it locates the two groups in terms of their interests and their location within the relations of wealth and power that exist in contemporary Thailand. But it’s at least worth posing the question: does this “interest”-based definition of contemporary politics in Thailand leave out something crucial, in the general zone of culture and identity? And are there possible cultural differences between the groups that are potentially relevant to political behavior and mobilization? Is there an ethnography of the red shirt movement and its followers yet?

Or take the issue of refugees, displaced persons, and migrant workers. There are flows of people across the borders of Burma and Thailand; Burma and Bangladesh; Thailand and Malaysia; and even from Burma to Cambodia. (For that matter, there is a significant population of Thai “guest workers” in Tel Aviv and other parts of the Middle East and Gulf.) How do differences in culture and identity play into the situation of these displaced people when they find themselves in the foreign country?

So research along the lines of Tai Lands and Thailand is highly valuable. It is likely to give us some new conceptual tropes in terms of which to understand these large social realities — modern community, provisional identities, and a multi-threaded understanding of the social worlds of Southeast Asia. And I think it demonstrates another important truth as well: there is always room for fresh thinking when it comes to trying to make sense of the social world.

(See an earlier posting introducing a spatial representation of the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed on Southeast Asia. Here is a direct link to the google map for this effort.)

A spatial twitter feed for Southeast Asia

Quite a few of the items included in the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed currently refer to events and conditions in Southeast Asia — especially Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand. This posting introduces a dynamic map that I’ll try to update with new feed items as they occur when it is possible to identify a specific location. It is possible to change the frame and scale of the Google map, and if you click on the pointers you’ll find a link to the associated news item. Here is a direct link to the map, and it will remain accessible in the sidebar as well.

I have also provided static maps that indicate the provinces and cities of Burma and Thailand.

The integrative power of Google Maps is pretty striking in this example. If you go to the “larger map” through the link above, it is possible to turn on several other layers of the map, including photos, videos, wikipedia articles, and webcams. These are photos and videos that users have posted with geo-tags, so that they are associated with their locations on the Google map. This resource will become vastly deeper over time, as more and more users tag their photos and videos spatially. There are currently very dramatic photos available on the web of Karen refugees passing across the Burma-Thai border near the village of Noh Bo. These photos aren’t geotagged at present, but one would expect that it won’t be long before the user could expand the map around this key area of conflict; zoom in to find the geo-tagged photos and videos that are associated; and gain a much more vivid understanding of the current reality in the region.

This effort at linking a selected stream of news stories about Southeast Asia with their locations across the region contributes to the overall goal of UnderstandingSociety in a fairly basic way: it’s an experiment in trying to organize and synthesize the hundreds of news items and events that can be observed through the twitter stream, into something that is a more structured presentation of part of the social reality of a country or region.

Several important issues are in the twitter feed at present:

  • Burma — the Junta’s trial of Aung San Suu Kyi; the army’s assault on Karen areas; the plight of Karen refugees fleeing into Thailand; the conduct of army units in Kachen; massive corruption and theft of resources by the army.
  • Thailand — aftermath of the Red Shirt demonstrations of March and April; political activities of the emerging parties; the southern insurgency and government efforts to control the southern states.
  • Malaysia — protests against discrimination directed at ethnic minorities (Indian, Chinese, Christian); jockeying among political parties.

Is this a good way of making spatial sense of the news items about what is happening in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand?

The world food system

Here is one very concrete way in which we live in a global world: the most basic need that we have — food — is satisfied on the basis of a system with global reach and global price and production interconnections. The planet’s 6+ billion people need a daily diet of grains, oils, and protein, and the most important of these foods are produced within the context of a global trading system. Current estimates of malnutrition indicate that a significant percentage of the world’s population live in hunger (Facts about Hunger, PRB). And, after a decade or so of relative stability in this system, changes in the world market are threatening major disruptions of food supplies. (See an earlier posting on the recent sharp rise in rice and wheat prices.)

Consider grain production and consumption. Here are a few websites with useful information about the world grain trade in the past decade: USDA, providing a lot of data on grain production and consumption; UC-Davis, a simple introduction to the global and US rice markets; UNCTAD, a thumbnail of the basics of the global rice trade over the past two decades; FAO, a compendium of data on food production; and IRRI, a compendium of data about rice production. One thing that becomes clear in reviewing some of this data is that the current crisis in grain prices should not have been a surprise. The forecast provided in the USDA report is based on 2006-07 data — and it gives a clear indication of the supply and price crisis that the world is facing today.

This system is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it provides a nice example of a complex and causally interlinked social system that invites careful analysis. And it is a system that has the potential for stimulating explosive social upheaval — given the political volatility that food prices and hunger have had historically.

We ought to ask a whole series of questions about how the food system works:

  • Technology — how extensive and widespread are the forms of technology innovation that are changing the food system? Is there a Green Revolution 2.0 underway?
  • Productivity — what are the trends in productivity in agriculture? Output per hectare, output per unit of input, output per labor-day
  • International trading institutions — corporations, commodity and futures markets, flow of incomes to stakeholders. What effect have free-trade agreements had on grain production and prices — WTO, NAFTA?
  • Social institutions of farming. What are the various institutions through which grain is produced — peasant farming, family farming, large-scale corporate farming
  • Social effects of agrarian change — how do rural conditions and quality of life change as a result of technology change in agriculture?
  • Macro-stability — does growth in food supply match growth in population?

If we want to know how the global world works as a system, then we need to understand agriculture and agricultural trade better than we currently realize.

(Here is another New York Times story on the subject, highlighting the tension between food production and greenhouse gas emission reduction. See my earlier post on sustainable agriculture as well.)

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?

The world’s food system depends largely on a farming system with post-green-revolution techniques: new seed varieties, substantial use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large-scale irrigation, machine-based cultivation, production for large markets, and separation of production from consumption by long distances. This system shows the highest productivity the world has ever seen, whether measured in terms of labor, land, or cost. And the system does a fairly good job of producing enough food for the world’s 6 billion people.

But is this system sustainable?

Several large issues arise. First, the system is energy-intensive, so it poses significant demands on the petroleum economy. The use of petroleum and energy pervades the process: fuel for cultivation and transport, energy and inputs into the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, energy consumed in irrigation. So a part of the sustainability question has to do with the energy challenge the globe faces.

Second, industrial agriculture has massive environmental effects. Fertilizer and animal waste runoffs lead to groundwater and river pollution (extending into the Gulf of Mexico). Degradation and loss of topsoil is another large and longterm environmental effect with serious consequences for future agricultural productivity. And methane produced by large-scale cattle- and swine-rearing represents a measurable component of global warming. So the environmental effects of industrial agriculture are very large–once again raising the question of global sustainability.

Finally, industrial agriculture, and the integrated global commodity markets from which this system is inseparable, have large and destructive consequences for traditional agriculture and the communities built around traditional farming. The effect of NAFTA and the export of US corn to Mexico has been massive in its disruption of maize-based culture and communities in Mexico.

Three questions are central. First, is this system sustainable in the narrow sense, or will it collapse of its own burden of soil, water, and air pollution in the next 50 years? Second, is it a potential part of a larger sustainable global system of production and consumption from an environmental point of view? Or does global sustainability require radical change in agriculture? And finally, are there feasible alternative systems that would be less environmentally harmful, more sustainable, and less disruptive of agrarian communities? Are these alternatives scaleable to the needs of mass societies, large cities, and a global population of 6-8 billion? Can alternative systems achieve the productivity needed to feed the world’s population?

Environmentalists, global justice activists, and food activists have argued that there are alternatives. The Fair Trade movement is trying to get first-world consumers to favor fair-trade-certified products in their consumption–giving greater security and income to third-world farmers. Organic farming advocates argue that a system of smaller farms, organic fertilizers, innovative pest control, and farming techniques more suited to the local environment would have a smaller environmental footprint. “Local food” activists support the idea of shifting consumption towards products that can be grown locally–thus reducing transport and refrigeration and giving more of a market for small farmers.

So there are alternatives in technique and policy that could result in different farm characteristics that are more favorable from the points of view of justice, sustainability, and community. The hard question is whether these alternatives could be scaled to the volume needed to feed a mass population. And this is a question that demands careful scientific analysis.

(An excellent current critique of industrial agriculture is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.)