A Struggle for Authority
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Struggle for Authority

By Gustaaf Houtman Thursday, November 1, 2007


Full Text of the Interview with  in The Irrawaddy, November, 2007

Anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman's research into the origins of the Burmese military reveals that the generals' claim to legitimacy is based on false documents. Aung San, the father of the nation, saw the Sangha as having a key role in guiding the nation. The current struggle between the Sangha and the military is a fight the junta is likely to lose. Some of his publications are available at http://ghoutman.googlepages.com, His email is [email protected].

Question: You say the military rulers have no legitimate title to govern Burma—why?

Answer: Every government, to rule effectively, needs a minimum of goodwill and cooperation from the population it aspires to rule. The various military regimes of Burma over the last half a century have squandered any goodwill they earned by persisting in attempting to legitimize themselves—not by means of elections—but by sheer force and by projecting the "desire of the people" framed within a hollow account of the role of the army as central to Burma’s history.

The army is caught up in a network of lies of their own making. They tolerate no dissent and have silenced intellectual life. Instead of holding them to account, it is disappointing to see how inaccuracies are being perpetuated as history, sometimes even by reputable, well-meaning academics.

Q: Why is Aung San so important to the Burmese people?

A: Aung San is a hero-martyr widely revered in Burma as particularly astute and effective in wrestling national independence from the British and from the Japanese. The nation celebrates episodes in his life through national holidays and his image used to be on every banknote. Even today, six decades after his assassination, we see Aung San’s image carried by protestors. Because his personality is of such mythical proportions, the army turned him into a myth of their own in order to justify military rule.

Q: In your book Mental Culture you say Aung San's legacy was manipulated by the army and challenged by his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi.

A: Yes, I argued that Aung San’s popular legacy was a unifying factor for successive political parties and governments right from immediately before national independence in 1948 until 1990, when the rumour spread that Aung San’s image on a new banknote had been doctored to look like Aung San Suu Kyi’s. Because his personality is of such mythical proportions, the army turned him into a myth of their own in order to justify military rule.

Once Aung San Suu Kyi challenged the military over their interpretation of her father, however, the search was on for a substitute unifying symbol, preferably impersonal and so easier to control.

The army replaced Aung San with a hastily cobbled together idea of national culture: we have seen a large-scale program of Myanmafication, including an invented state-sponsored idea of Myanmar culture (yes, in the singular) under the post-88 military regimes.

Aung San’s image on the banknotes was substituted with impersonal objects: notes brought into circulation after 1990 have Aung San replaced by the chinthe, the mythical lion guardian at the foot of pagodas, which is also used as the symbol of the dreaded Union Solidarity Association (USDA) and army units. Anyone who does not support the army wholeheartedly risks molestation by the USDA.

To justify this state of affairs, falsification of history has taken place on a grand scale. Whole populations are being displaced and Pagan and other historical sites have now been irretrievably destroyed.

Q: In a chapter entitled "Aung San’s Way: The Blue Print and the Japanese Occupation of Burma" you say his popular image was subverted by the military to serve its own interest. What is your evidence for this?

A: The army that is in control of Burma today traces itself back to Aung San’s first visit to Japan between January and February 1940, where the army was founded. This period is of considerable historical significance.

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