For the first time in my academic career I am seeing a sustained re-alignment of the understandings that prevail about contemporary Burma. Something similar happened for Thailand in the days, weeks and months immediately after the September 2006 coup. I recall watching — occasionally with astonishment – as the assumptions, arguments and analysis of the Thaksin era were unceremoniously upended. Check out New Mandala from September 2006 to revisit those busy days.
Short, sharp shocks have a tendency to obliterate old analysis and replace it with something new.
But the situation in Burma is different. We have not seen a revolution on the streets. Nor a coup. Nor have we observed any one event that catalyses abrupt transformation. Instead there is a process of incremental political change, galvanised by tentative economic reforms and a healthy serving of web- and media-driven hype.
Burma is becoming hot. It is generating buzz in all sorts of previously unlikely quarters. The entire situation is now poised, we tend to believe, for an even greater transition, especially once Aung San Suu Kyi wins the 1 April 2012 by-election. Perhaps this is the time when the country leaves behind its dictatorial legacies, and its status as a global pariah, once-and-for-all.
But building up our Burma analysis requires more than just an appreciation that further positive changes are in prospect. There are all manner of risks, and not just the obvious ones emanating from aggrieved and disenfranchised ethnic minorities. Burma has so little experience of this type of transition that it is hard to predict how key institutions and sectors will respond.
We also know that in any major political recalibration the sequencing of changes can be crucial. It is not merely a matter of how much, and how soon, but also of in what order, and particularly what should come first. If the process is managed effectively then Burma may avoid the revolution that many have secretly hoped is (still) in the stars.
For now, there is much debate to be had about the new systems, norms, rules and politics that will replace the old ones. It promises to be a challenging time ahead and one that will do nothing less than set a revised framework for analysis of Burmese society and politics.