The imminent fall of Myanmar’s brutal and kleptocratic military dictatorship has been proclaimed on numerous occasions over the past twenty years. The mass protests of 1988, which saw the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the figurehead of the pro-reform forces, came just two years after the success of ‘people power’ in ousting the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and seemed at first destined for similar success; but within twelve months the movement had succumbed to splits and repression. Suu Kyi’s arrest in July 1989 came on the eve of the Hungarian border opening, prelude to the velvet revolutions of the ex-Soviet bloc; but ‘third wave’ democracy swept by, leaving Myanmar untouched. In 1996–98 when, after sustained lobbying by human-rights groups, the eu and us imposed formal economic sanctions on General Than Shwe’s regime, the move was hailed as another turning point: it was hoped that sustained international pressure might succeed where popular mobilization had failed, with South Africa considered a template for forcing reform in Myanmar. But by then, the junta was reaping massive profits from teak, jade and ruby deals with its neighbours, and shrugged the sanctions off. Well-funded attempts by George Soros, the National Endowment for Democracy and others to build an opposition movement among Burmese exiles produced scant internal effects. The dictatorship survived one well-documented human-rights report after another, as well as denunciations by world leaders, Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities.footnote1

In September 2007 the exhilaration of the ‘march of the monks’ and the mass protests once again seemed to herald the beginning of the end. Now it was the power of the new media that was hailed, as bloggers, students and relatives of the Burmese diaspora flooded the internet with cellphone images and optimistic predictions, amplified by the foreign press corps. Within a week, however, the government crackdown had dispersed the protests, while cellphone democracy fell prey to network jamming. Eight months later, on 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta killing as many as 200,000 people, most of whom were very poor farmers, fishermen and labourers living in thatch or bamboo huts that provided no protection. Once again there were activist and media pronouncements that the junta would never survive the blow. With two supply-laden us warships patrolling its coast and 24/7 international media coverage of the desperate plight of the cyclone victims, there were high hopes that Myanmar’s military could no longer refuse entry to Western relief workers, whose presence was now judged essential if the regime were ever to change. un Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon travelled to Myanmar on May 22 and won visas for dozens of foreign relief experts in exchange for millions of dollars of emergency aid.footnote2 The catastrophe did permit some of the international ngos to scale up their operations, although government checkpoints continued to act as chokepoints for aid, and the junta continued undaunted.

For the international media and many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters in the West, the reason for the Burmese regime’s staying power is quite simple: repression. Thus the September 2007 crackdown on the ‘march of the monks’ was portrayed as turning Myanmar’s major cities into ‘vast killing fields’.footnote3 In fact, most of the brutality was centred on Rangoon and the death toll was around 30 or 40, as compared to media estimates of hundreds, or even thousands. That is not to suggest that the repression was insignificant: some of the leading activists were sentenced to 65 years in prison, although it is hoped they will not serve that long; and the government’s Swan Arr Shin militia—the name means ‘masters of strength’—are well-trained thugs, who operate with impunity alongside uniformed riot-control army and police units. But repression alone cannot explain the regime’s persistence. Far more murderous dictatorships—Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines—have been overthrown, as well as far better-policed ones, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, the gdr. The Myanmar government has little to compare with the coercive apparatuses of these, yet it has outlived them all. A more satisfactory explanation of its resilience may be gained by examining the origins of the regime, in the anti-colonial movement against British rule and Japan’s war-time occupation of Southeast Asia, and its relation to Burma’s multi-ethnic, mainly Buddhist society. This in turn requires an examination of the pre-colonial social structures on which British rule was definitively imposed in 1886, and of the peculiarities of British Burma’s treatment within the Empire. For it was during the colonial period that the foundations were laid for the centralized yet highly differentiated spatial logic of power, in equal parts repressive and divisive, that continues to define the Burmese polity today.

Any analysis of Myanmar’s political history must reckon with the overwhelming facts of its physical geography. The country covers over a quarter of a million square miles—around the size of Texas and significantly larger than, say, Afghanistan. It is riven by three north–south mountain ranges: one on each flank, and a third running up the centre; each presenting formidable obstacles to east–west travel, trade and interaction. Three major rivers also run north–south: the Salween in the east, the Irrawaddy in the centre, and the Chindwin in the northwest; for centuries these provided the only reliable means of transport. In pre-colonial times, ecology—hence, mode of agriculture—was the most significant determinant of social organization in this densely forested region. The principal distinction was between hill peoples and valley civilizations; the former—among them Kachins and Karens in the north and east, Arakanese and Chins in the west—practised taung-ya agriculture, involving crop-rotation and slash-and-burn, still in use today. Population was sparser in the hills, spirituality more animist, languages more diverse.footnote4 In the more densely settled valleys and on the eastern plateau, Mons, Burmans and Shan practised irrigated paddy cultivation and developed more complex social and political systems, building cities notable for their luxurious palaces and temples in this land of villages.

Various kingdoms co-existed at different times in the region during the pre-colonial period, among them that of the Mons of southeastern Burma, entry point for Indian Buddhism from the 3rd century bc, the Arakanese on the Gulf of Bengal and the Burmans of the central Irrawaddy. From their capital Ava, near Mandalay, Burman kings established the first ‘empire’ over the multitude of different linguistic and cultural groups in the territory between the 11th and 13th centuries.footnote5 The basis of Burman rule lay in control over foreign trade and appropriation of rice surpluses from the central Irrawaddy valley; the war booty—slaves—was used to build irrigation works, temples and palaces. Political power was highly personalistic, defined by relationships of obligation to rulers and overlords rather than jurisdictional control over territory; indeed remote villages and towns were often subject to claims for labour and taxes from multiple suzerains. Burman kings were also the chief patrons of the Buddhist orders and monasteries, supporting monastic schools and constructing pagodas to improve their karma. Favoured hpongyis, or monks, were often key advisors at court.footnote6 In addition to the state–sangha nexus, the local myothugyis, or hereditary village leaders, played a vital social and administrative role in raising revenues, recruiting troops and supplying labour.