Deconstructing Law and Politics in Burma
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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Deconstructing Law and Politics in Burma

By ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Aung San Suu Kyi has reiterated that the now-disbanded NLD should sue the junta over its election laws, a strategy that she first invoked last May. The strategy is curious, given that she has spoken continually over the past two decades about the absence of the rule of law in Burma.

If there is no rule of law, why attempt to utilize legal channels to effect change? Is this a flailing attempt at relevance and voice, a way to fight the increasing marginalization of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) now that it has refused to re-register as a political party? Or is it a highly sophisticated strategy, highlighting the gap between the law’s ostensible claims and its actions, and therefore creating a break in the legitimacy of the junta’s order, thereby compelling some political action that would lead to (gradual) change? 

We must start by assessing the concept of law in Burma. Suu Kyi’s long-standing claim is that there is no rule of law and she is correct. Instead of a set of impersonal rules, law in Burma operates as a tool of power.

The state “illegalizes” a staggering number of actions in the political and social sphere (little association, no sententious utterances; even punitive punishments against breaking traffic rules), and thus those who would challenge the state are always operating from a position of relative instability. Law is a way of providing military-state leverage over everything, especially political threat.

While this has not been lost on Suu Kyi and the NLD in the past, in this act of suing the junta they appear to appeal to the law as if it is not a political tool, as if it has sovereignty unto itself, power that would bind the junta as well. There is a contradiction: either there is no rule of law, or the law operates autonomously, such that one could sue a ruling dictatorship.

Logically this fails, but politics operates on a separate logical plane. We must ask: what is the political worth of suing the junta over the electoral process? To whom then are they appealing? If it is to external audiences (to try to ensure the “international community” does not “recognize” these elections) then it is more of the same, as this supposed “community” of international actors lacks the will, the tools, and more importantly the legitimacy to alter the trajectory of politics inside Burma. The last two decades stand as proof.

If, on the other hand, Suu Kyi is directing this symbolic political act at her putative constituents (the Burmese people), the situation becomes more interesting. By holding the junta's “law” at its word, and saying, essentially, “We know this is all a sham, but to highlight how much of a sham it is, we will pretend that it's real, and force the junta to follow its own logic,” is this a powerful form of resistance? Do we see here an example of “using the master's tools against him?” More importantly, will the people respond?

Not likely. Sadly, there appears to be no mechanism through which suing the junta would lead to political change. First, it is likely people are under no illusions that the law is an independent device rather than an enforcer of the existing order. Second, it is likely that the energy of the dissent will get “captured” by legal processes: by risking participation in a “legal” process, the act of resistance risks getting co-opted and thereby neutered. Third, even if the people did see the act of suing the junta as transgressive, there is no attendant political message from the NLD to impel these citizens to risk participation in political action. And how should they get involved in politics? There is no answer. Read this way, the politics of suing the junta is a dead end.

But perhaps a mobilizing political maneuver is not what Suu Kyi intends from the legal suit. Indeed, I have assumed that by suing the junta Suu Kyi actually believes she can effect political change. But perhaps Suu Kyi simply wants to save face, and by doing so, maintain the NLD’s symbolic power. Such an organizational survival tactic is a savvy move.

However, the enduring question remains: won’t the NLD continue to fade from relevance without constructing resonant alternative political messages?

Opportunities do exist. The regime is powerful but also out-of-touch. It has established a sophisticated patronage scheme wherein it is the only conduit toward social mobility, but it has also been unwilling to deliver services to the people. It has crushed political opposition, but has been incapable of indoctrinating the population with its propaganda.

This system creates significant fissures between despotic state and grassroots society, allowing civil society groups to emerge and deliver social services. Therefore, opportunity may exist around (if not within) the upcoming elections.

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