The Myth of the Democratizing Middle Class
By CAMILLA BUZZI Wednesday, June 17, 2009


In an article published in The Irrawaddy on April 28, 2009 [“Why Boycott Just Makes Things Worse”], Norway’s development minister, Erik Solheim, calls for a review of Norwegian Burma policy with more emphasis given to economic engagement and less to isolation. Sanctions in particular seem to be a thorn in the eye of the development minister. Solheims’ recipe is based on a strong faith that economic growth and the emergence of a middle class will eventually bring about democracy in Burma.

There is little doubt that most Burmese would be better served by greater and more equally shared economic growth. Burma is rich in resources. The country was once considered one of the most promising in Asia. Instead, poor management of Burma’s riches has brought the country to its knees.

At best, Solheim’s description of the democratizing role of the middle class is an oversimplification of the truth. But at worse, it represents a capitulation to Burma’s generals.

Economic growth and democracy tend to correlate, but correlation is not synonymous with simple causal effect. The belief that capitalists will necessarily demand democracy is a myth, not a law of social science. Freezing the bank accounts of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his henchmen has no impact on Burma’s larger economy.

There is nothing new about the assumption that the middle class has played a key role in the emergence of democracy in Asia. The middle class theory originally grew out of a fascination with Asia’s new rich and their political potential. The new rich were credited with bringing about the democratic popular uprisings that changed South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, this period was also noted for the debate about so-called “Asian values” and the superiority of the Asian development model as opposed to the Western emphasis on the individual, democracy and human rights. Representatives of an Asian middle class could be found on either side of the divide. Asia’s many middle classes were not one entity at the time and did not act as one.

In other words, Solheim’s approach has already failed the test of history. His selection of these very same countries as proof that economic growth will eventually bring about democracy in Burma this time around is therefore a paradox.

Solheim’s use of the term middle class is confusing. Asia’s middle classes span across a diverse group with different backgrounds, preferences and interests. To expect this class to gather around one common political platform and one common set of political goals is to play tricks with oneself.

Asia’s economic middle class—identifiable by its income and its lifestyle—comprises farmers, entrepreneurs, white-collar workers, military personnel, bureaucrats and others. In several countries in the region, such as China, Singapore and Malaysia, such a middle class has emerged without bringing about democratic regime change so far.

Such an economic middle class also exists in Burma. But in this country, economic life is closely associated with the military power-holders. Many typical middle-class professions are to be found in the public sector. To succeed requires good relations with those in power. To engage with the opposition is to live with the constant risk of losing one’s daily bread. There is little reason to expect that this middle class will take a lead in the struggle for a democratic Burma.

There is also an intellectual middle class in Asia, identifiable by its qualifications rather than its economic status. Professionals such as academics, teachers, students, artists, writers, and journalists have long traditions of challenging those in power in Asia, including Burma. Together with the monks, who are the keepers of the country’s cultural heritage, the students in particular have frequently opposed military power and been among the strongest supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi. They have shown their ability to challenge the military’s position.

As a result, the military controls the Buddhist monkhood with an iron fist, while the education sector is neglected and censored. Burma’s universities and monasteries are no longer hotbeds of the struggle for democracy. As long as freedom of expression and academic and artistic freedoms are gagged, this middle class also remains unable to mobilize for rebellion. This is where Solheim ought to focus his attention.

The experience from several of Burma’s neighboring countries is that the middle classes have rarely taken the lead when mass movements have developed. When popular movements have radically altered politics in countries in Southeast Asia, this has come about as a result of the mobilization of broad sections of the population.

1  |  2 

plan B Wrote:
"Isn't that a load of bovine excreta?"
Burmese manners? Attitude of a 3S advocator?
Res ipsa loquitor!
"Just try and keep up, will ya?"
a little too much credit for yourself considering your advocacy and your attitude towards other.

Moe Aung Wrote:
"Res ipsa loquitor...Let's keep it simple/clear and I won't accuse you of 'empty Blowing'"

Isn't that a load of bovine excreta? Just try and keep up, will ya?

planB Wrote:
Democracy = more choices = economic empowerment.
Economic empowerment = more choices
Res ipsa loquitor
"This notion of 'economic determinism' is now so center right the irony of its being a 'Marxist tenet' is lost on most."
Let's keep it simple/clear and I won't accuse you of "empty Blowing"
"Sorry,you got it the wrong way round as usual."
You don't have to apologize for disagreeing.

planB Wrote:
" I do not expect these citizens to contribute much to the liberation of the country."
Be careful wehn looking at others through your own B&W convictions.
Reading the papers and watching Western medias will make you see things like that.
Visit the country and you will see things in shades of gray other than B&W.

Moe Aung Wrote:

"Surprisingly, some overseas Burmese co-operate with the Junta by attending Junta-led gatherings and anniversaries. I do not expect these citizens to contribute much to the liberation of the country."

If recognition of the junta as the legitimate government by the UN and the world at large doesn't surprise you, this shouldn't either. Among the expats, you see asylum seekers protesting in front of the embassy (they have no hope of going home any time soon), and others attending embassy functions so it's easier to get mandatory official papers that allow them to visit family back home. It doesn't necessarily mean they are junta supporters or that they are unlikely to contribute to the struggle. Reality is more complicated than meets the eye.

planB Wrote:
"As a result, the military controls the Buddhist monkhood with an iron fist, while the education sector is neglected and censored. Burma’s universities and monasteries are no longer hotbeds of the struggle for democracy. As long as freedom of expression and academic and artistic freedoms are gagged."
So Camilla, tell us how you are going to have this reversed?

"this middle class also remains unable to mobilize for rebellion. This is where Solheim ought to focus his attention."

Camilla, your slip's showing, "rebellion"! In the comfort of your air conditioned room you can indeed be callous/cavalier, especially when your stake in the well-being of Burma is no more than academic. So why are you so hard on Solheim?

Moe Aung Wrote:

"Economic empowerment = more choices, which is the essence of democracy."

Sorry,you got it the wrong way round as usual.This notion of 'economic determinism' is now so center right the irony of its being a 'Marxist tenet' is lost on most.

Democracy = more choices = economic empowerment.

SPDC = no democracy = no choices = no economic empowerment.

Sanctions merely confuse the picture and compound the problem. It's certainly the regime's choice whether to keep even the current resources, opportunities and benefits therefrom all to itself and a handful of cronies, or to share them among the people.The West might as well not exist.

It's easy to forget mass protests and social upheavals were mainly instrumental in bringing about democratization in South Korea and Indonesia, even the Philippines where Marcos was supposed to rule a democracy.The emergent middle class was either mistakenly or deliberately given the credit, but they certainly were the main beneficiaries from change.

simon Wrote:
Great debate, we need innovative debates and discussion on Burma as neither Asean accommodation nor Western isolation and sanctions have helped so far. (Does that mean we must be united in one approach, or that both of the approaches don't work and we need a 'third way'?)

Look at China. Reviled by its people and the world in 1989, it has concentrated solely on economic development ever since. Human rights abuses are still widespread, but China seems to have 'got away with it'. I'm not advocating that this approach to development should be lauded and enshrined, but perhaps it is the Asian approach to development Salai Bawi articulates and that apparently worked in Korea and Indonesia, and less so in Thailand.

Let's not forget though that Daw Suu no less advocates for continued economic sanctions against the junta.

Burma will change but we don't know when or how. Let's keep strategizing.

KK Wrote:
The solution is to remove military control in Myanmar.

greg Wrote:
The sanctions have helped the government stay in power longer and should be removed. The only people to suffer from them are the Burmese. Sanctions target governments but they end up hurting the people as collateral damage. Economic growth increasing the people's ability to make money and work would force the junta to change by sheer power of the economy. Removing the sanctions will benefit the people who are the ones we care for. It cannot hurt them. It is a reward for the people.

planB Wrote:
Buzzi does not have any relatives and friends in Burma to know what it is like to have no economic potential due to sanctions.
Economic empowerment = more choices, which is the essence of democracy.

It might be more convincing if you lived in Burma for a few weeks.
As it is your article is counter to general principles of attaining democracy as Westerners define "democracy".
You and Turnell under the guise of bringing the SPDC down at any cost will have to answer for more wretchedness/suffering that the Burmese citizenry has to endure.

Your "pen" is as ruthless and indiscriminate as SPDC bullets in bringing continuing suffering the masses.

metanu Wrote:
Only movement can generate a change; any way is worth trying to break the stalemate. Altought democratization must grow step by step, we cannot be sure which step will be the first one.

Kyi May Kaung Wrote:
I agree with you Camilla.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Unlike in Ne Win's time, the junta has managed to broaden its social base by nurturing a crony business class assisted by their timely jump on the market economy/globalization bandwagon. This emergent elite has no interest in changing the status quo, quite on the contrary. Witness the preparations to contest in the elections, and the forming of premier league football teams at the behest of their benefactors. It's the higher echelons of USDA in practice.

Lifting the sanctions will not change these kinds of class relations but only strengthen them. Chevron and Total did nothing to ease the plight of the locals and the wider populace, quite the opposite.

Granted tourism and manufacturing does have a positive impact on the local economies. Western businesses are itching to get a piece of the action, to tap one of the last remaining markets/cheap labor/vast natural resources in the world. So,short of covert or overt intervention, targeted sanctions need to remain in place, but not add fuel to the fire.

timothy Wrote:
It is a very interesting and thought provoking discussion. I also think that middle class-led democratic changes are very difficult to achieve in Burma. The Junta has annihilated true intellectuals from society. A few affluent business people are those who are close to the ruling Junta. They benefit from the establishment and do not want to disrupt the status qou. Surprisingly, some overseas Burmese co-operate with the Junta by attending Junta-led gatherings and anniversaries. I do not expect these citizens to contribute much to the liberation of the country.

Burma under the ruthless generals is very abnormal. We need a lot of soul searching, healing and moral regeneration in our abnormal society for the democracy we yearn for to last long. But first we need to be released from prison.

Salai Hmung Wrote:
If Buzzi argues that Solheim's approach to Burma will not work and does not reflect Burma's real situation, the same is true for his own approach.

Though we can't disregard some of his points, Buzzi didn't offer us anything new. What he proposed has been already tried for nearly two decades. It didn't work, as Buzzi knows.

When Buzzi said, "the situation in Burma ought to be understood in its own terms", it sounded like a careful analysis.

But when it comes to economic growth, it seems that Buzzi also failed to understand Burma in its own terms. She seems to forget the fact that the current sanctions didn't work in Burma and has only prolonged the military hold in power and worsened the already deteriorated situation of the ordinaryBurmese

Why not welcome Solheim's approach? It seems a more pragmatic approach than Buzzi's, which is already failed.

We can't wait two more decades.

Kyaw Wrote:
I disagree with the writer from an NGO, using Burma as a cause to benefit, undermining the Norwegian minister Solheim's open-minded and sophisticated diplomacy to reach out to the poor citizenry of Burma, suffering due to British colonialism (1800-1948), Japanese fascism & dictatorships.

The writer fails to mention the role of NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the future Burmese Parliament! Burma is not a
discourse to look down upon; rather, poor Burmese peoples need the international trade, business & open-minded engagement of international leaders who can rise above the limitations of government, bickering and power struggle.

As a member of the Burmese upper-middle class (university lecturer), educated by Burmese professor-parents in the US, I cannot appreciate the superficial understanding or 2-page summarizing of Burma, the Land of Pagodas--her complex history, pain & East-West ideological conflicts that tarnish the reputation, hope and active international-development of Burmese civilization. Viva l'Birmanie.

George Than Setkyar Heine Wrote:
At best, Solheim’s recipe - middle class to play a role in the democratic process of Burma - is nothing less than capitulating to Than Shwe and his thugs.

He is ignorant of the fact that Than Shwe is establishing a ruling class of his own and his cronies' while the ordinary citizenry remains subservient to his rule or else.

The monk killer has been pushing this agenda since his debut until today.

The seven-step road map is his vehicle carrying him on his way to military supremacy of Burma.

Today, Daw Suu is in the dock facing a five year stint in prison and Burma's bleak future under eternal military rule is almost certain.

And Solheim's Norway could do nothing about it other than handing the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to Daw Suu, like all the others heaping awards and citations on her.

Guns for guns, sword for sword, is the only language people of Than Shwe's ilk and caliber know. Burma will be still in woes and throes for failing to deal accordingly with a foe like Than Shwe and his crows.

Moe Aung Wrote:
"The belief that capitalists will necessarily demand democracy is a myth,not a law of social science."

Very happy with Hitler,Mussolini,Pinochet etc.

"To succeed requires good relations with those in power."

Used to be known as 'Socialist contacts'.

"Burma’s military power-holders have a poor record when it comes to listening to civilians offering input on policies."

They know best.

"As long as freedom of expression and academic and artistic freedoms are gagged,this middle class also remains unable to mobilize for rebellion...When popular movements have radically altered politics in countries in Southeast Asia,this has come about as a result of the mobilization of broad sections of the population...there is no assurance that economic growth will benefit the population or that it will lead to the emergence of an independent civil society...Burma’s military junta may desire economic growth for the country,but only as far as it does not challenge their grip on power."

Hear, hear!

Salai Bawi Wrote:
Camilla Buzzi has some good points, but somehow reflecting the stance of PD Burma. Here, I argue back that "economic growth" will lead to democracy in Burma.

Buzzi does not seem to be informed about how "Asian values" are being recycled in authoritarian SE Asian countries, where Asian values were considered to have failed after the Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998.

But times have changed! The Western ideology [fundamental human rights, civil & political rights] are against the Asian way, which favors social and economic rights over civil and political rights. You have evidence even during the drafting process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The West gave priority to civil and political rights as against proposals from Asia.

But I agree economic growth will benefit only the generals (as long as sanctions are still in place!). Solheim seemed to understand this factor. Isolating Burma (as Buzzi explicitly suggests) so the Western ideology can prevail only brings crisis!

Tay Za Wrote:
Where has this guy, Norway's Development Minister, been for the last 19 years? Has he not learned from Asean's failed policy of "constructive engagement" back in the 90's?

Myint Thein Wrote:
This article seems to twist and turn to ignore a basic fact: several countries in the region have made a successful transition to democracy in the past couple of decades (Korea, Indonesia, etc). None of those countries were under Western sanctions; each one had a large and growing middle class, and each had a military elite that was exposed to Western democracies through constant travel, etc.

Yes, we don't know what will work in Burma. But why ignore what's worked in other countries?

The writer says that targeting Than Shwe's bank accounts will not effect economic growth, as if that's the main economic sanction on the table. The main sanctions are not targeted sanctions, they are incredibly broad sanctions - cutting off nearly ALL development cooperation, and practically ALL trade and investment from the West, turning Burma into a Chinese colony, with a tiny middle class, and now, not much hope.

Eric Solheim's call for fresh thinking should be welcomed.

hkun nawng Wrote:
A very good article. I totally agree with you.

More Articles in This Section

bullet Making Sure Burma Doesn't Go Dutch

bullet Corruption Scandal in Burma: The Canadian Connection

bullet Helping Education to Keep Pace with Reform

bullet Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Burma—Ceasefires to Sustainable Peace

bullet How the Game Was Lost

bullet Karens at the Crossroads

bullet Building Country Ownership in Burma

bullet Donors Rush Where Angels Feared to Tread

bullet Myanmar: On Claiming Success

bullet Ceasefires Won't Bring Peace

Thailand Hotels
Bangkok Hotels
China Hotels
India Hotels


Home |News |Regional |Business |Opinion |Multimedia |Special Feature |Interview |Magazine |Burmese Elections 2010 |Archives |Research
Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved.