The latest one-year extension to the house arrest of Burma’s democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has brought with it the usual speculation about the country’s future and the thinking of its military rulers. What will be their next steps? Are they going to abandon any pretence at reform? Will there be a renewed clampdown on opponents? What’s happening to the constitution drafting convention?
Conjecture on these and other questions, such as those about Burma’s strategic position and its presumed nuclear aspirations, serves little purpose because no one actually has any answers. For years, presumed experts, diplomats and exiled political leaders have excelled at making wrong forecasts about Burma.
As far back as the mid-1980s one prominent scholar anticipated that the socialist state would remain durable for years to come; it collapsed shortly thereafter. He has since repeatedly got it wrong — for instance, in 2005 insisting that there would be a new constitution within a year — yet his pronouncements continue to be treated with respect rather than ridicule. A fellow expert declared that a parliament would be set up in the same period. Both are supposed to have good contacts inside the government; neither gave any sign that they knew of the plan to pack up the country’s entire bureaucracy and move it to mosquito-infested farmlands hundreds of miles inland.
While academics and policymakers abroad pass off their stabs in the dark as analysis, exiled political activists and their sympathizers have bounced from one failed hopeful prediction to the next. In the late 1980s and early ’90s they pooh-poohed the generals, cracking jokes about their lack of education and supposedly limited intellectual abilities, expecting the regime to collapse from sheer incompetence. Later, the demise of former dictator General Ne Win was supposed to provoke an equally fatal power struggle among the army elite, but his relatives and supporters were accused of conspiring against the state and bundled up before he died. Similarly, growing excitement about rivalry between a couple of senior officers dissipated when one was suddenly arrested for alleged corruption, and his network dismantled.
Anyone wanting to gain insight about Burma’s future might as well spin a bottle as ask an expert. But why is it so difficult to get right? The reason is not just that the regime and its institutions are relatively inaccessible to outsiders; it is that they are completely haphazard. What is true one day is not true the next. What goes on one occasion does not go on another. Although the current leadership does not openly change monetary policy or traffic rules on the whims of astrologers, as Ne Win did, the behavior of the government and its agencies owes much more to habits ingrained during his decades in power than to any policy or directive since. Arbitrariness is not just a feature of administration in Burma; it is its defining characteristic.
Persons imputing some form of rational behavior to statecraft find this difficult to understand. Conventional political theories struggle where there is no discernible pattern to authoritarian behavior, apart from the imperative to remain in charge. It is relatively easy for people from established democracies to think of dictatorship as highly-organized; Orwellian, totalitarian. It is much harder to think of it as being as confused as it is controlled, as it is in Burma today.
There is no way of knowing what’s going to happen next in Burma, because there are no reasonable grounds upon which to sort facts from fiction and anticipate the future with any degree of certainty. Instead of engaging in pointless guesswork about what might be, persons concerned about the country would do much better to confine themselves to what is: the appalling conditions in which millions of ordinary people are forced to subsist from day to day; broken-down schools and hospitals; a system of policing and local administration that operates with complete impunity; courts that have long since ceased to function as anything other than an arm of the executive. Useful contributions about Burma should be distinguished and acknowledged for persistent detailed study of the obvious, rather than meaningless speculation about the unknowable.