Review of Taylor

Taylor cover

Robert H. Taylor, The State in Myanmar. London, Hurst & Company, 2009. xxv+555.

This book is a new edition of The State in Burma, originally published in 1987 and thought by many to be the most comprehensive account of Burma in the quarter century after Ne Win seized power in 1962. Taylor is a political scientist with strong historical interests who speaks and reads Burmese and has devoted his professional life to studying the country. He travels regularly to Myanmar and in recent years has held classes there. A native of Ohio in the American mid-west, he has migrated through several citizenships – American, Australian, British – and now resides in London. He has been a consultant on Myanmar affairs to Premier Oil, a fact that he freely acknowledges in the book and discusses in his November 2007 interview with New Mandala. In a field fraught with controversy, his association with Premier Oil comes up often in conversation about Taylor’s writings, views, and objectivity. His critics and detractors see him as too close to the Myanmar regime.

During his undergraduate education at Ohio University Robert Taylor took courses with John F. Cady, who wrote A History of Modern Burma, first published in 1956 and for many years the definitive history of modern Burma. Still inspired by Cady’s teaching, Taylor refers approvingly to Cady’s wry views on foreign meddling in Burma’s domestic politics during the Cold War. Burmese governments have had good reason to be wary of the West, and Taylor has principled objections to American policies that go back to the early 1950s. In 1960, on the eve of the establishment of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), Cady published a revised edition of his history with a thirty-four page supplement.

Taylor has approached the task of revising his own book in a similar manner by writing a supplement, rather than a completely new book, to cover the tumultuous events that occurred in Myanmar since the original edition appeared. Apart from some changes in verb tense and the confirmation of a rumour about Ne Win’s heir-apparent in 1983, the final pages of the original edition are reproduced virtually unchanged. The fit between the old and new editions is seamless, except that the name of the country changes inexplicably from Burma to Myanmar. Taylor’s favoured framework of the state, which served to explain modern Burma after World War II until 1987, is intact and continues to explain what happened between 1988 and 2008.

The new chapter six is a small tome in itself. ‘The State Redux, 1988-2008’ covers the end of the party-state, the return of army rule, political parties, the revival of student politics, the ceasefire agreements, exile political groups, state-society relations, courts and the law, external relations, and politics within the ruling councils of state, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). To squeeze two decades into one hundred pages requires Taylor to give less than a full account of the 1988 uprising and the violence that suppressed it. The protests led by monks in September 2007 are also given short shrift. His narrative frequently loops back to 1988 to illustrate continuities and breaks with the previous period. The BSPP had pursued a strategy of autarky, or economic self-reliance, similar to juche, the ideology of economic and political self-reliance developed by the late North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung. With the army putsch of 1988, autarky under ‘the state’s ageing managers’ was abandoned as the new leadership sought to meet the challenges of globalization and integrate the economy into the international order.

Taylor gives extensive coverage to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), to the 1990 elections and the NLD’s win of 392 out of 485 seats, to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political philosophy and desire to transform the ‘Burmese mentality’, and to her detention under house arrest. He reiterates the SLORC position on the election results, namely, that power would not be transferred until the elected representatives drew up a new constitution. This position, contested by the NLD which believed it had won the election and was entitled to form a government, became the stumbling block which led to the present stalemate. Burmese politics quickly became internationalized. In an appendix Taylor discusses the 2008 constitution that may or may not break the deadlock.

As a non-specialist in Burmese studies, I learned a lot from Taylor’s account of exile politics, with its bewildering array of alpha-names designating the groupings overseas. Taylor’s explanation for fragmentation in the exile community is that newly arrived activists in the Burmese diaspora have little faith in existing expatriate organizations which trace their lineage back into Burma. His contentious conclusion is that exile politics has had more impact outside the country than inside.

Taylor also gives extensive coverage to the ceasefire agreements and their impact. There are detailed tables on the major agreements, ethnic political parties, and estimates of armed groups contesting for state power. Although the process is not yet completed, many of the ethnic armies seem to have been converted into police forces and local militia, and most of the groups, officially recognized as semi-autonomous entities, are allowed to establish legitimate businesses in the national economy. The Burmese government has effectively subcontracted its sovereignty to these groups.

Here and there may be found unflattering comments about the regime: ‘scabrous cartoons and articles’ about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi published in the government-controlled press; torture and beatings still being used in 2002 in lieu of proper interrogation methods; inept explanations to the outside world of the government’s policies. While Taylor points out that the ethnically-designated armies were deeply involved in smuggling opium, timber, cattle and gemstones, his handling of collusion by the generals leaves something to be desired. Bertil Lintner, among others, has reported on this collusion, and it cannot be ignored.

I was disappointed in Taylor’s handling of source material, not because he relied on official documents or statistics, but because of materials not cited. He cautions on the use of government sources, and he hedges many assessments with ‘seems to’ and ‘appears to be’. In any case, much can be learned from so-called propaganda if it is used intelligently. Perhaps for reasons of space – the length of chapter six must already have been testing the publisher’s patience – some important work is not reported, such as the extensive analyses by the Macquarie University economist Sean Turnell who has written on banking, microfinance, chettiars, migrant workers, sustainable development, and sanctions. Another example is Taylor’s discussion of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass organisation whose membership is compulsory for civil servants and those who do business with the state, and which has a branch in nearly every township, ward and village tract. An informative ninety-page report that might have illuminated the discussion, produced in May 2006 by the Network for Democracy and Development, is not cited.

‘State’ in the book often seems little more than a synonym for government, so we have ‘state managers’ rather than ‘government officials’. Regime, which seems to suit the circumstances, is used infrequently, and junta, favoured by some observers, is never used. More to the point, Taylor does not believe the army has become the state, which it was in danger of doing in the years immediately after 1988. ‘Had that happened, and the distinction between the state and the army been completely lost, the prospects of significant political change in Myanmar, short of war, could have dissipated’ (402). But the army controls the state and in many ways functions as a state. It also claims to be the saviour of the nation and strives to give life to that claim through USDA ceremonies and mega-events.

What explains Taylor’s particular vantage point? In his New Mandala interview Taylor tells us that because of visa restrictions for American citizens at the time, he was one of the very few individuals to receive his PhD degree from Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program without having visited his country of study. He scrambled to overcome this disadvantage with extended visits inside Burma and advanced Burmese language study long after he had completed his doctorate in 1974. One of Taylor’s classmates at Cornell was Thak Chaloemtiarana, who wrote a widely respected thesis, published as The Politics of Despotic Paternalism (1979, 2007), on Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s military dictator from 1957-1963. Thak’s picture of this military dictator does not exactly flatter Sarit, but it is also not harshly critical of him. In fact, it is not critical at all. Thak simply wanted to understand the sources of Sarit’s power and how Sarit’s regime had shaped Thailand’s political life at the height of the Cold War. Taylor’s approach to the Burmese army’s domination of Burmese politics since 1962 is quite similar.

As comparative political scientists with discipline and language training in area studies, both Thak and Taylor have tried to see things from the inside out. In Taylor’s case, he has asked himself why the regime behaves the way it does, why it seems incapable of engaging with the outside world in a more constructive manner, why its economic policies have not worked, and why, having abandoned autarky after 1988, it still has not managed to connect with the global economy and participate in the growth that other authoritarian regimes in the region such as Vietnam have managed to achieve. Taylor wants to understand what makes the Burmese army-state tick, not how to get rid of it. He would doubtless agree with the military scholar, Mary Callahan, who has written that the current political deadlock cannot be reduced simply to an unequal contest between a victimized population and an invincible gang of ‘trouser-wearing’ military officers.

Writing after army leadership brought an end to civil strife in October 1958, John F. Cady declared:

The nonpolitical cabinet of General Ne Win, freed from the incubus of partisan feuding and wielding genuine authority, accomplished notable improvements within a short time. Order was established and corruption curbed. But the very measure of its successes discredited the principle of representative government, which alone could provide an eventual escape from army dictatorship. (1960, p. 683)

The historical circumstances then and now are very different. At the end of chapter six, Taylor concedes that crisis management in Burma has become routine, and once again the state is run by ageing managers. Yet I wonder if Robert Taylor would agree with his teacher’s judgment in this last sentence if it were applied at any point to the army-state that came to power Burma in 1988. The price of order has indeed been high.

Reviewed by Craig J. Reynolds

Published originally on New Mandala, 29 August 2009