Below is an excerpt from “Burma’s Struggle for Democracy: A Critical Appraisal” by Maung Zarni with Trisha Taneja, the third chapter of the new WPF book, Advocacy In Conflict: Critical perspectives on transnational activism, by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Teisha Taneja, and Keren Yohanne (London: Zed Books, 2015). The editorial team emerged out if the World Peace Foundation student seminar competition in 2013.

It is a truism that anti-authoritarian movements and organizations tend to mirror their opponents in thinking, modes of operation and political practices, and especially to become intolerant of any view that differs from that of the leadership. And indeed, in Burma’s case, the choice to elevate Aung San Suu Kyi to the status of icon for democracy has had important and potentially fatal limitations, for both the domestic and international components of the democracy campaign.

The Burmese democratic movement, drawing its support from a highly diverse set of constituents, does not possess a coherent set of views and prescriptions, and there is much to be said for uniting around a single leader. But having Suu Kyi as an undisputed leader has major drawbacks. Because she has been elevated to a position in which she can do no wrong, other approaches to political change that are not in conformity with her publicly expressed views are generally interpreted by her supporters as a direct challenge to her leadership. During her years of opposition, anyone who dared criticize Suu Kyi was denounced as an apologist for the regime, and regarded as committing an act of heresy resulting in social ostracism, condemnation, personal slander and threats. In their attempts to ensure that Burmese democrats unite under Suu Kyi’s leadership, the opposition has stunted its own growth by limiting its communication with international actors to one channel and one message, even while internal and geopolitical changes demand a shift in strategies.

Analysts have criticized the Burmese democratic movement for inflexibility and failure to appreciate the need for a changing paradigm (Hlaing 2007) and for internal rivalries and factionalism (Taylor 2009). But neither of these faults, typical of exile and opposition movements, fully explains why the opposition movement continued to fight in the way that it did, and found itself at the mercy of a geopolitical shift that assumed the garb of democracy and human rights, respected neither, and co-opted the symbols of democratic resistance to a new political order, possessing fundamental continuities with its military predecessor.

The transnational advocacy movement for Burma has displayed important strengths, and in some respects is an important exemplar of the general framework advocated in this volume, able to create positive change while remaining grounded in complex national realities. Transnational activists for Burma served as a resource, supporting a national social or political movement as the primary actor. The widespread international deference to Suu Kyi’s leadership undoubtedly helped focus international policy on the domestic prerequisites and processes for democratic reform, and ultimately legitimized Suu Kyi’s long-standing insistence on dialogue with the regime. However, by transforming Suu Kyi into an international celebrity and promoting her National League for Democracy (NLD) as the principal agent of change, transnational activist groups became inflexible and unable to respond to changing realities. Their unconditional support for Aung San Suu Kyi allowed Western (primarily American) actors to selectively amplify a singular Burmese narrative, thus isolating other aspects of a complex Burmese political struggle. When political change did finally come, in a much-changed international context, the singular narrative impeded effective response to the challenges of peace, democracy and human rights in the country.

The campaign for Burmese democracy therefore illustrates the shift in transnational advocacy movements, exemplifying – despite its show of public solidarity with a national icon – a transfer of the power to set the agenda from national to Western actors, and has in fact further contributed to the ongoing political crisis, armed conflict and mass atrocity in the country. This chapter will critically examine the history of Burmese activism and resistance to successive military governments, and will discuss the events that led to the evolution of a Western-policy-centric model of transnational advocacy, and the implications of this model for Burmese political struggles.


Throughout the twenty-five years of the international campaign for Burma, the strengths and weaknesses of transnational activism have been symbolized by the person of Aung San Suu Kyi. As we appraise this history of activism, it becomes clear that ‘The Lady’ was manufactured as an icon of democracy and human rights by both Western and Burmese activists, and that this manufacture is one of the greatest political tragedies that the country has experienced, resulting in wasted potential and lost opportunities. Meanwhile, Western engagement with Burma has closely entwined policy with advocacy, and has served the changing interests of the national elites and the international economic order instead of helping to realize the rights of all Burmese, including members of already marginalized communities. Both the undemocratic culture and the strategically indifferent leadership of a pro-democracy opposition internationalized as the singular voice of Burma help explain why a movement that has so many dedicated grassroots dissidents and constituencies has failed so miserably – at great cost to the society. Tragically, the society remains sandwiched between strategically incompetent and strategically ignorant opposition leadership and the ruling clique of sinister generals and ex-generals.

[End excerpt]

The book is available here.


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