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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgments to the Seventh Edition


1 Introduction

Map of Southeast Asia
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

2 Thailand

Map of Thailand
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

3 Myanmar (Burma)

Map of Myanmar (Burma)
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

4 Vietnam

Map of Vietnam
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

5 Cambodia

Map of Cambodia
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

6 Laos

Map of Laos
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

7 The Philippines

Map of the Philippines
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

8 Indonesia

Map of Indonesia
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

9 Timor-Leste

Map of Timor-Leste
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

10 Malaysia

Map of Malaysia
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

11 Singapore

Map of Singapore
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations

12 Brunei

Map of Brunei
Institutions and Social Groups
State-Society Relations and Democracy
Economy and Development
Foreign Relations


Regionalism and the “ASEAN Way”
ASEAN Enlargement ASEAN’s
Record of Action (and Inaction)
ASEAN-led Multilateral Institutions
ASEAN at Fifty



Preface and Acknowledgments to the Seventh Edition

When Professor Clark Neher first invited me to take over Southeast Asia in the New International Era, I accepted without hesitation. My deep sense of gratitude to him alone would not allow me to decline. As his student and research assistant at Northern Illinois University, where I completed doctoral work in the 1990s, I was the recipient of his superior academic guidance and his fatherly interest in the well-being of my young family. Professor Neher is the consummate scholar and gentleman. For many of his former students, he was a model professor. Accepting the challenge to extend the life of this text beyond his retirement is a small token of my personal appreciation for his years of mentorship.

The final edition of Southeast Asia in the New International Era authored solely by Clark Neher was the fourth edition, which went to press shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. Since that time, I have been solely responsible for revising subsequent editions. Although much content has remained the same, there have been substantial changes to the text beyond updated material since the fourth edition. These changes include an entirely revised Chapter 1, the addition of comparison figures and country maps, the rearrangement of chapters according to standard mainland and insular divisions of Southeast Asia, a section titled “State-Society Relations and Democracy” for each country chapter, and the addition of new chapters on Timor-Leste and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The chapters of the book can be read in any order, and their arrangement in no way infers the relative importance of Southeast Asia’s countries or their regional significance.

In addition to a new chapter on ASEAN, the seventh edition includes fully updated material for each country chapter through, roughly, the end of 2015. To make space for updates, some existing material has been revised, truncated, or removed. With hindsight always expanding, modest revision to existing text is necessary with each edition but core themes and essential content remain intact. Necessary length restrictions may understandably leave some area experts troubled by relevant material not included in the book. As best as possible, the book’s information and analysis is pitched for readers new to the region—it is most effectively used as a tool for students, professors, and professionals orienting themselves to Southeast Asia. It is not intended to be a comprehensive survey. In my own undergraduate classes at The College of Idaho, I supplement this text with other books and articles to ensure greater depth and breadth than a single text or perspective allows.

With respect to general acknowledgments, past teaching opportunities at Davidson College, St. Lawrence University, Oglethorpe University, China Agricultural University, and Payap University allowed me to exchange intellectually with wonderfully curious colleagues and students. The Asian Studies programs at Weber State University, the University of Oregon, and Northern Illinois University similarly deserve acknowledgment for supporting my area studies training as a student. My students at The College of Idaho are a constant source of inspiration to me.

I wish to thank The College of Idaho, Northern Illinois University, Payap University, the National Institute of Development Administration (Thailand), the Fulbright Program, ASIANetwork, the Freeman Foundation, the Mellon Foundations, and National Endowment for the Humanities (United States) for supporting my research and exploratory endeavors in Asia, where I have lived, taught, and researched for more than four years. This new edition benefited in particular from new research and field experiences in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Singapore. I wish to thank the many scholars, professionals, government officials, experts, and other informants who gave me their time for briefings, interviews, and ongoing conversations. For their repeated hospitality and generous support in facilitating opportunities for me as well as many of my students, I wish to particularly thank Dr. Attachak Sattayanurak (Chiang Mai University), Dr. Siti Siyamsiyatun (Islamic State University–Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies), Bunsak Thongdi (Upland Holistic Development Program–Thailand), Bonnie Brereton (Chiang Mai), and the community leaders at Huay Mak Liam (Thailand), Wat KhlongSila (Thailand), and Sre Prey village (Cambodia).

For useful feedback on this and previous editions I extend special thanks to John Brandon (Asia Foundation), Zhiqun Zhu (Bucknell University), Selma Sonntag (Humboldt State University), William E. Carroll (Sam Houston State University), Trevor Morris (Texas Wesleyan University), Maria Ortuoste (California State University, East Bay), Thomas J. Bellows (University of Texas at San Antonio), Ming Xia (City University of New York–College of Staten Island), Steven G. Jug (Baylor University), Pek Koon Heng (American University), James DeShaw Rae (California State University, Sacramento), LaiYee Leong (Southern Methodist University), and multiple anonymous reviewers. Thanks are extended to my colleagues at The College of Idaho in the Department of Political Economy as well as to Lucinda Wong and Dr. Jeff Snyder-Reinke. For this edition, my students Courtney Indart, Ben Sutton, and Gabe Osterhout made contributions in researching current figures and events. Carolyn Sobczak, Katharine Moore, Grace Fujimoto, Sierra Machado, Kelli Fillingim, and Brooke Maddaford of Westview Press have provided excellent advice and support for the seventh edition. I appreciate their unwavering professionalism. Most importantly,I recognize the love of my life, Carrie, and our three children, Mara, Molly, and Eliot, for sharing with me a love of Southeast Asia.

Robert Dayley




Learning about contemporary Southeast Asia can be a challenge because the region is no longer a primary focus of international attention. Weeks go by without any major news stories about countries that used to dominate the discussions of government officials and ordinary citizens. Because of the end of the Cold War, as well as events put in motion on September 11, 2001, international observers now focus their attention on other parts of the world. Moreover, the lingering trauma, disillusionment, and cynicism associated with the Vietnam War have also kept many journalists, political scientists, and policymakers from focusing on Southeast Asia.

International news coverage of Southeast Asia today remains dominated by the superficial and sensational. Images of sunny beaches, soccer-playing elephants, and “exotic” cuisine are standard fare for both viral videos and reporters of the globalization era. When serious stories from the region manage to enter the global news cycle, the images are typically of tragedy, violence, and ­exploitation—of cyclone victims, bandanna-clad kidnappers, or underage workers in sweatshops. In-depth commentaries about Southeast Asia might center on the region’s transformation “from a battleground to a marketplace” or on problems of environmental degradation but, generally speaking, Southeast Asia’s story is persistently overshadowed by conflict in the Middle East, the movements of US troops, and the rise of China.[1]

Southeast Asia’s recent story is more complex than sensational headlines and stereotypical images suggest. In fact, as the world turns its attention elsewhere, the 600 million people who live in the region are experiencing unprecedented socioeconomic change. New forms of wealth and poverty are emerging across the region. Wrenching conflicts over rights, identity, social justice, and power have become the everyday experience of many Southeast Asians. Although it no longer draws the international attention it once did, perhaps no region in the world is more dynamic.

50110_01_Southeast Asia

© Westview Press

A new era in international relations has arisen in the past several decades with lasting repercussions for Southeast Asia. Political, economic, and social forces of unprecedented scope are currently transforming the entire region. Southeast Asia in the New International Era analyzes contemporary politics in the context of these new international and domestic realities from both the Southeast Asian and the international perspective. This chapter introduces the region, describes changes accompanying the new international era, and explains how standard regime labels fall short in characterizing the richness and complexity of Southeast Asian politics. Eleven country chapters follow that evaluate each country in terms of basic political history, major institutions and social groups, state-society relations and democracy, economy and development, and foreign relations. A new chapter on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) critically assesses regional integration and its future prospects.

Influences and Experiences

Southeast Asia, a region of remarkable diversity, consists of eleven countries with differing histories, cultural traditions, resource bases, and political­economic systems.[2] Except for geographic proximity and a somewhat similar tropical environment and ecology, few characteristics link all these nations into a coherent whole. Nevertheless, before the international era arrived, a broad shape to a Southeast Asian political economy had developed from a few generalized influences, experiences, and social patterns described in this chapter. These influences and experiences include religious penetration by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity; colonialism and introduction of political ideas from the West; the rise of nationalism associated with the struggle for independence; Japanese occupation; Cold War trauma; and regional economic transition. Shared social patterns, also outlined below, include a strong sense of the village as the primary unit of traditional identity; agricultural economies overtaken by urban-based manufacturing and service economies; and patron-­client systems that influence sociopolitical interaction.

An important force shaping Southeast Asia from ancient to modern times has been the arrival and expansion of nonnative religions across the region. By supplanting local belief systems—or more often blending with them—­exogenous religious influences evolved into today’s seemingly endogenous value systems, which contribute to the region’s diverse cultural milieu. Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, arriving from South Asian sources, brought to the region Brahmanical notions of deva-raja (god-king); classical literature, such as the Ramayana and the Jataka tales; and karmic notions of rightful authority. Throughout the region, these cultural imports profoundly shaped the concept of power and the royal structures that wielded it. Mahayana Buddhism, brought from India via China, also influenced political ideals in the region, particularly in Vietnam. There social order was believed to stem from hierarchal (Confucian) relations, Buddhist cosmology, and (Taoist) naturalism. Centuries of overseas Chinese migration also spread the influence of Chinese religion and folk beliefs throughout the region, especially in urban areas where migrant communities established themselves.

Subsequent to Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam arrived from merchants and traders from South Asia. Islam did not enjoy a wide presence in Southeast Asia until the fifteenth century, about the time Europeans first began to arrive with Christian traditions. Islam spread throughout insular Southeast Asia from island to island and then from coastal ports to interior settlements. Christianity did not spread deep roots in the region, except for in the predominantly Catholic Philippines and East Timor, as well as among some enduring communities in Vietnam and Indonesia. Over the centuries of religious interaction, the eclectic, religio-royal traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have sometimes clashed with the universalist, law-based religions of Islam and Christianity. However, tolerance and syncretism rather than conflict characterizes most of Southeast Asia’s history of religious practice. Taken together, the diverse practices and beliefs of these religions, and their interactions, generate an array of cultural claims on how to organize societies politically and economically across the region.

Adding yet more complexity to this milieu of beliefs and practices was the gradual penetration of Western ideas of modernity, including “civilization,” nationalism, capitalism, republicanism, democracy, and communism. Most of these foreign notions and ideologies emerged in the region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that is, during the latest phase of nearly five centuries of European influence in the region. Many of the problems of political and economic development facing Southeast Asian leaders today can be traced to colonialism.[3] The grand strategic games of imperial competition and colonial rule brought the formation of internationally recognized boundaries. These new “states” replaced the region’s nonintegrated dynastic principalities that only loosely governed rural populations and upland minority groups. Foreign attempts to integrate these disparate populations often proved difficult. The imperialists eventually guaranteed new boundaries and imposed a Western sense of geographic and political order on the region.[4]

By the late nineteenth century, national boundaries had been demarcated and the entire area of Southeast Asia was in European hands except Thailand, which ceded much territory to remain independent. Over time, a money economy was introduced and resource extraction created large-scale industries that required skilled and unskilled laborers. Because the rural populations of Southeast Asia found industrial labor antithetical to traditional values, the colonialists imported Chinese and Indians to work in factories, tin mines, and rubber plantations. The Chinese and Indian communities were often employed as a buffer between Europeans and local populations. In many cases, laws prevented the immigrants from owning land and pushed them into the commercial sector. Urban life in colonial Southeast Asia was, in many respects, more Chinese and Indian than local or European. A discernible immigrant communalism evolved in tandem with urbanization. Hindu, Confucian, and European influences ­affected trade, urban architecture, art, as well as societal tastes and norms. From the nineteenth century forward, overseas communities (the Chinese in par­ticular) enjoyed economic power in Southeast Asia disproportionate to their numbers.

Among other changes, European colonists were responsible for the growth of the region’s first economic infrastructure of modern ports, railways, and roads. Although they staffed their bureaucracies with local elites, offering education to the most gifted, the colonists failed to develop institutions of accountable governance. Serving European rather than local interests, imperial administrators exploited natural resources for export and introduced new industries and economies related to mercantilist trade in tin, rubber, tapioca, opium, spices, tea, and other valued commodities. As they extracted from mines and expanded plantations, European governors wholly neglected local socioeconomic development. Over time the cruelty, exploitation, and injustice of colonial rule bred popular resentment and put into motion a new force in the region: nationalism.

The rise of anti-imperial nationalism was the most consequential product of colonialism in Southeast Asia. Although deliberate movements against European control punctuated the entire colonial history of Southeast Asia, it was the ideological battles of the twentieth century that fed the transformative nationalism that came to define the region’s future.

A traumatic experience under Japanese occupation during World War II further fueled aspirations for self-rule and independence across the region. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945 to Allied forces, Europe’s postwar leaders disregarded attempts by Southeast Asian leaders to declare formal independence. Eager for resources to rebuild their own war-torn economies, the colonists audaciously returned to extend control over their previously held territories: the British in Burma and Malaya; the French in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos); the Dutch in Indonesia; and the Portuguese in East Timor. To legitimize their ambitions, European administrators received international recognition for their actions through postwar treaties that excluded Southeast Asians from negotiations. In 1946, the Philippines, vacated by its American occupiers of forty-seven years, joined Thailand as one of the two independent Southeast Asian countries in the early postwar period.

Resolve for independence hardened. In Burma, Indonesia, and Vietnam, nationalism became an especially potent and unifying force that led to fierce struggles for self-determination. In Malaysia and Singapore, the struggle for merdeka (independence) was less violent but every bit as formative in cultivating a new sense of nationalist purpose. Across the region, experiences with colonialism differed but the nationalist rhetoric for genuine self-governance emerged as a political lingua franca among anticolonial revolutionaries. Thailand, having escaped direct colonial rule, attempted to construct its own sense of nationhood. Hoping to bind the various peoples within the borders of its constitutional monarchy, modernizing Thai elites suppressed local identities and cultivated a nationalist creed, “Nation, Religion, King.”

Relentless anti-imperial political activity and painfully violent episodes of conflict with colonial forces gradually produced two significant consequences for the region: the overdue withdrawal of the Europeans and the rise of a handful of charismatic, larger-than-life independence leaders, including Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Sukarno in Indonesia, Aung San in Burma, Tungku Abdul Rahman in Malaysia, and Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia. But even as decolonization and courageous independence leaders offered fresh hopes under sovereign statehood, a new dimension of geopolitical struggle, the Cold War, enveloped the region.

For Southeast Asians, the ironically named Cold War thoroughly destabilized the region with occupation, warfare, and even genocide. From 1945 to 1989, the effects of superpower politics led to the deaths of more than 10 million soldiers and civilians. Countless bombs and bullets from conventional warfare and unimaginable atrocities caused by zealous ideologues and murderous despots, not to mention the appalling use of chemical defoliants by US forces, produced long-term tragedy for many Southeast Asians. The political and economic chaos of the Cold War not only delayed the independence of Southeast Asian states but retarded their early development by politically dividing societies, peoples, and communities.

The Cold War was fought in Southeast Asia along three interrelated dimensions: internal ideological struggle, superpower rivalry, and interstate conflict. Leftist movements embracing communist visions for state control existed in every major Southeast Asian country during this period. In theory, competing ideological visions pit communism against democratic capitalism. But because the latter scarcely existed in the region, the primary foes of communist movements were right-leaning militaries, traditional monarchists, and neo-imperial foreign forces. US-USSR superpower rivalry, expressed most clearly in the Vietnam War, was also affected by the 1960 Sino-Soviet split over global communist supremacy. Ever in search of international patrons, Southeast Asian communists exploited this split to suit their largely nationalist purposes.

The meddling of three external Cold War powers in the region exacerbated existing conflicts and created new tensions. The most tragic conflict resulted in the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, who, before the illegal US bombing of Cambodia, had demonstrated insufficient capacity to seize Cambodian state power. China, which had supported Vietnamese revolutionaries against both the French and the Americans, turned on its former communist ally in the mid-1970s. In an attempt to outmaneuver the Soviets, who maintained support for Vietnam, the Chinese backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. China’s communist leaders count among the very few diplomatic supporters of Cambodia’s Pol Pot clique, which is responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians during its three-year reign of terror.

Superpower rivalry insidiously politicized ethnic relations throughout Southeast Asia as well. During the Cold War, both communist and noncommunist governments engaged in shocking anti-Chinese violence and brutality over suspicions that ethnic Chinese harbored political loyalties to Beijing. Other ethnic minorities became the mercenaries and puppets of external powers and local opportunists, especially in the mountainous upland areas of Vietnam and Laos. In Southeast Asia’s so-called Golden Triangle—the lawless tri-border region where Burma, Thailand, and Laos meet the Mekong River and its tributaries—powerless upland minorities were recruited and coerced to do the bidding of warlords, revolutionaries, arms dealers, opium traffickers, superpower governments, and CIA operatives. Treated as pawns in the strategic calculations of more powerful actors, their true allegiances ever questioned, Southeast Asia’s minorities suffered greatly during the Cold War.

The Cold War also produced new alliances and interstate conflicts between Southeast Asian states. Nonalignment, attempted by some, became an impossible position to maintain over time. Thailand and the Philippines, both noncommunist states, joined the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) under the tutelage of the United States. In the 1960s and ’70s, both countries provided troops and territory to the United States for staging military action in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, and the reduction of US commitments to the region, noncommunist states turned to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an organization originally created in 1967 as a bulwark against growing communism in the region.

Indonesia, led initially by the charismatic Sukarno, originally claimed Cold War neutrality only to invite an internal battle between left and right forces within the country. Sukarno’s failed balancing act led to the rise of the anticommunist Suharto regime, which took power after a murky 1965 coup and countercoup. Ten years later, General Suharto’s Indonesian troops forcibly occupied East Timor in a bloody campaign without US objection. The invasion occurred only nine days after a left-leaning organization had declared East Timor independent from Portugal. Formerly neutral and nonaligned, Indonesia under ­Suharto contributed to American objectives in the region.

Cambodia, which once claimed Cold War neutrality under King Sihanouk, found itself under the influence of all three major powers during the Cold War. In the wake of its secret bombing campaign, the United States supported Lon Nol’s coup over Sihanouk in 1971 only to provoke the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and fuel their rise to power in 1975. Later, in January 1979, Soviet­backed Vietnam forcibly occupied Cambodia, putting it under Moscow’s ultimate control. Six weeks after Vietnamese troops took control of Phnom Penh and pushed Pol Pot and his followers to jungle redoubts near the Thai border, China launched a brutal attack against Vietnam. Disastrously, both sides lost thousands of troops in the month-long conflict, in which Vietnam’s battle-tested military stripped Chinese troops of seized territory. China’s leaders claimed victory, but Vietnamese troops stayed in Cambodia throughout the 1980s until the United Nations brokered their withdrawal.

During the 1980s, the final decade of the Cold War, the US military presence in Southeast Asia included only a few bases in the Philippines. Focused on new reform efforts at home, China and the Soviet Union also began to disengage from the region. As the soldiers, operatives, and advisors of the superpowers departed, a rather unexpected but transformative force became established in the region: Japanese businessmen. Despite the fact that Japan had attacked and occupied all of Southeast Asia in World War II, and that lingering resentment and fear persisted, Japan’s meteoric postwar economic success brought Southeast Asia into its economic orbit. Singapore was among the first to benefit. As Japan’s export-oriented economy grew, so too did its need for raw materials, petroleum, and other imports. Tiny Singapore did not produce many of these resources but it benefited from increasing oceangoing traffic to and from Japan because of the geographical positions of its port facilities. Singapore joined South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as models of third-world economic success, known collectively as the “Asian economic dragons.”[5]

In the mid-1980s, Japan’s growing investments in Southeast Asia expanded rapidly as a result of the appreciating value of the Japanese yen. Escaping the high yen, Japanese industrialists moved production to a number of Southeast Asian countries where cheap labor and favorable currency exchange rates made the region a prime export platform. All of this was timed with policy shifts in many Southeast Asian countries designed to emulate the successful export-oriented industrialization strategies of the Asian dragons and their move away from import substitution industrialization. Southeast Asian governments aggressively courted ties with Japan, causing trade volume to expand. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and to a lesser extent the Philippines each moved toward a development model of activist state guidance of private sector–driven export growth. Malaysia’s prime minister appropriately dubbed the new development approach the “Look East Policy.”

As economies grew and middle classes began to coalesce, new interest in democracy and political reform began to surface across the region. In 1986, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, a US Cold War ally who had suspended democracy and manipulated law to extend his own rule, was ousted in a massive popular movement known as “People Power.” Thailand also moved closer to democracy by electing its first civilian prime minister since a failed period of democracy in the mid-1970s. Even economically autarkic Burma faced new pro-democracy forces. In 1988, demonstrators forced the country’s ruling military junta to schedule elections for a representative parliament. In 1990, after officially changing the country’s name in English to Myanmar a year earlier, elections were held but the losing generals did not honor the results. However, with the democratic genie now out of the bottle, popular aspirations for representative government in Burma persisted, often provoking brutal suppression.

Elsewhere in the region, authoritarian leaders repressed growing aspirations for democracy even as the Cold War showed signs of thawing in Europe. On the communist left, Vietnamese leaders opened the country’s economy but not its political system. On the nationalistic right, long-standing governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore viewed greater democracy as a threat to budding economic success. Following the Cold War, public pressure for political reform emerged as a new force that Southeast Asian governments would constantly face.

Shared Social Patterns

In addition to the religious influences, colonial history, nationalist movements, and Cold War experiences that have shaped this otherwise diverse region, some observable social patterns also add definition to a Southeast Asian political economy. These generalized patterns are not universal, but they are widely shared across the region and contain elements of both “continuity and change”—a phrase commonly used among Southeast Asian specialists who are forever attempting to characterize the enduring and dynamic patterns of socioeconomic behavior in the region.

Southeast Asian nations are characterized by an agricultural base that traditionally has been the heart of everyday life. Historically, the agricultural village served as the major unit of identity for the rural population, acting as its cultural, religious, political, economic, and social center. Although urban growth expanded as trade increased over time—accompanied by Indian, Chinese, Arab, and European influences on the royal and colonial centers of power—the basic economic unit for most Southeast Asians, until recent decades, has been the peasant-style family-operated farm. Generally, the family farm was part of a village economy characterized by subsistence production, with most of the farm products being consumed by the family or within the village. Experiences differed, but feudal-type arrangements across the region fed the development of landed elites, aristocrats, and royals who exploited the labor of rural populations for imperial projects—a pattern repeated later by European colonists (absent any local cultural foundations that historically ameliorated popular resentment of royal power).

Some areas of Southeast Asia today remain characterized by traditional village arrangements and subsistence agriculture, but the socioeconomic picture has grown increasingly complex. The arrival of green revolution technologies, commercial agribusiness, and rising expectations of educational opportunity and material gain defines agrarian change today. “Farmers” are replacing “peasants” and life inside most villages is now fully interdependent with life outside the village due to a host of transformative factors: rural-to-urban migration, expanding nonfarm work, globalized labor markets, remittance economies, new communication technologies, and rising consumerism. Over the past fifty years, the agricultural sector’s economic importance has continued to decline relative to industry and services, although employment in the sector remains considerable.

In spite of these changes, the hierarchical structure traditional to the village still finds expression in the region’s political life. Southeast Asian societies, generally speaking, remain fundamentally organized into networks of superior-subordinate (patron-client) ties. These networks form the basis of political structures and affect the allocation of resources and values.

In their positive expressions, patron-client relations form “moral economies” where uneven but reciprocal relations bring mutual benefit to participants in a context of cultural appropriateness and meaning. Where there are marked inequalities in wealth, status, and control, and where resources are insufficient, those with limited access can seek alliances with individuals at a higher socioeconomic level or with better access to state resources. The relationship is reciprocal in the sense that the patron expects support, protection, labor, or some other service in return for dispensing benefits to the subordinate.[6] In their pejorative interpretation, patron-client systems prop up authoritarian forms of government with vast networks designed for patrimony. The strongest networks are capable of manipulating rivals or depoliticizing opponents through co-optation and participation.[7] Such relational asymmetry fosters exploitation and risks producing endless power struggles between elites who vie for each other’s client networks.

Representative forms of democratic government in Southeast Asia both benefit and suffer from these patron-client systems. Such networks can potentially link those who wield state power with ordinary citizens and voting constituencies with public-spirited elected officials. Unchecked, however, patron-client partiality can threaten the legitimacy of democracy through favoritism, nepotism, corruption, and abuse of official power. Throughout Southeast Asia, rising demands by individuals and groups for increased governmental accountability, transparency, and recognition of civil and political rights clash with the deep-seated impulses of power elites to defend traditional forms of patronage. Citing cultural appropriateness, Southeast Asian elites often fashion regimes that are, in the name of social order, structurally designed to institutionalize state patronage.

Socioeconomically, a common pattern throughout Southeast Asia is the presence of an influential overseas Chinese business community. In most Southeast Asian urban centers a deeply rooted overseas Chinese community discernibly, and disproportionately, influences commercial life. The experiences of such communities differ from country to country, and degrees of assimilation, hybridization, and communalization differ markedly. During the Cold War, tensions between China and Taiwan, and communists and Kuomintang nationalists, often reproduced themselves in cities such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok. Communist movements in the region often had a real or perceived Chinese tilt to them—a reality often proving fatal to overseas Chinese when anticommunist nationalists turned violent, as they did in Indonesia in 1965.

Having established themselves economically over time, Southeast Asia’s Chinese communities were well positioned when trade and business expanded in the 1980s as a result of export-oriented policies across the region and market openness in the People’s Republic of China. Overseas Chinese networks also linked Southeast Asian countries to the flourishing economies of Hong Kong and Taiwan. By the time the new international era dawned in the 1990s, many Southeast Asian Chinese were now visibly expressing their Chinese roots and identities—what was once considered a social liability emerged as a new personal economic asset.

The influences, experiences, and social patterns common to Southeast Asia described above compose only a partial set of factors able to explain the various events and trends associated with politics in the region. The country chapters that follow illustrate this fact by employing much greater sensitivity to the particular conditions, events, individuals, groups, and institutions that make up political life. Moreover, in addition to historical influences and shared social patterns, profound changes to the international system following the end of the Cold War now influence political economy across the region in new and unprecedented ways.

The New International Era

An extraordinary sweep of international change occurred as a result of the end of the Cold War. The extent of these changes, which occurred rapidly, stunned the world and irrevocably recast international relations. The major catalyst responsible for causing a break with the past was Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies in the 1980s put in motion the end of the bipolar conflict that had structured world relations since World War II. In addition to economic and political reforms at home, Gorbachev pursued a foreign policy of reconciliation and imperial disengagement. Even before the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, dramatic changes in geopolitics reverberated across the globe.

In Asia, Gorbachev’s policies meant the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan, demilitarizing the Sino-Russian border, and cutting ties with leftist insurgencies in the region. It also meant ceasing aid to Vietnam and abandoning military bases at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. Responding to Gorbachev’s changes, Vietnam moved to restructure its own economy. Pursing a new strategy called doi moi (renovation), Vietnam’s communist leadership began to permit free-market activity and foreign investment. These moves were in line with changes already sweeping communist China under Deng Xiaoping. Since 1978, Deng had encouraged international trade and foreign investment in China by establishing ties with Western multinationals, East Asian businessmen, and overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. By the 1990s, the People’s Republic of China, a once-feared Cold War power in Southeast Asia, enjoyed a new economic role as a regional economic partner and a formidable export competitor.

In the new international era, the bipolar world of communists and noncommunists rapidly transformed itself into a more multipolar world where states, regions, international organizations, and nonstate actors exhibited new forms of power and influence. Although the United States stood alone as the dominant global power, it soon learned that relative power is far from absolute power. Asia’s own rising economic influence and Europe’s deepening integration with the former communist states of the old Soviet bloc created new poles of economic and political power in a globalizing world.

The new era also became defined by increasingly assertive international bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. These organizations established and enforced the rules of economic globalization and Southeast Asian countries sought their involvement and perceived benefits. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also proliferated across the world in the 1990s, promoting humanitarianism, development, and human rights. As for the United Nations, its increasingly visible blue-helmeted peacekeepers became symbols of a new activist (but often impotent) international community. Added to all of these new forces were powerful stateless actors tied to nefarious networks of international terrorists, drug lords, and human traffickers that operated even as Southeast Asian economies benefited from the post–Cold War peace dividend.

The region’s boom economy from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s resulted in large part from increased trade and investment between East and Southeast Asia and domestic entrepreneurship. Joint ventures and foreign-financed enterprises expanded quickly and deliberately into textiles, footwear, electronics, automobile parts, cosmetics, agribusiness, petroleum refining, and other diverse industries and manufactures. Local entrepreneurs cut deals with each other and with investors arriving daily from Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. Double-digit economic growth and trade balance surpluses soon characterized the Southeast Asian “tiger economies,” as they came to be known. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia drew the greatest attention and fueled the region’s rapid economic growth. The passing of Cold War tensions unleashed a phase of rapid economic liberalization and forward-looking optimism.

Encouraged by Western governments, the IMF, and globalization advocates, Southeast Asian governments also liberalized their financial markets, putting an end to many restrictions (and safeguards) that formerly regulated the flow of capital into and out of their countries. As a result, portfolio investment from Europe and America quickly found its way to the region’s fast and furious “emerging markets.” Hot money from New York, London, and Tokyo poured into the region.

The phenomenal economic growth rates the tigers experienced in the new international era—as high as 10 percent per year during this period—fundamentally changed the Southeast Asian landscape. The most obvious change was the increase in per capita gross national product (GNP). Per capita GNP in Thailand in 1977, for example, was $300; by 1997 it had climbed to $2,970. Similar growth in per capita GNP occurred in the other countries over the same period: Malaysia, $660 to $3,531; Indonesia, $150 to $692; the Philippines, $310 to $1,049. Singapore’s per capita GNP rose most dramatically, from $2,120 to $24,664, hence its “dragon” status. Corresponding figures for reforming but populous Vietnam and for economically stagnant Burma, Cambodia, and Laos indicated less improvement, by contrast. By 1997, per capita GNP in these countries had improved but still averaged less than $500.

By the mid-1990s, so confident were Southeast Asians in their path to success that regional leaders began to engage the world in a debate that pitted “Asian values” against “Western values.” The chief spokesmen in this debate were politicians from Singapore and Malaysia. Their contention was that because Asian culture valued social order over political freedom, it allowed economic markets to thrive even as societies remained orderly. Centuries of pent-up resentment against Western superiority unleashed itself in trans-­Pacific rhetorical punches. The West’s high crime rates, divorce rates, declining educational standards, and sedentary lifestyles were cited repeatedly as evidence of American inferiority. “You Americans have this mantra about your high standard of living,” argued a senior Asian diplomat, “but if standard of living means not being afraid to go outside after dark, or not worrying about what filth your children will see on all those TV channels, then our Asian societies have the higher standard.”[8] The message was unambiguous: The world would be a better place if countries began to learn from Asia rather than the West. Journalists writing from New York and London countered by listing human rights injustices and corruption tied to Asian governments.

The Asian values debate symbolized the sweeping changes that had come to the region in the new international era. Political ideology, interstate war, and superpower meddling were no longer central concerns for the modern states of Southeast Asia. Instead, the key issues became economics, development, integrated markets, and stable political development. Southeast Asian societies also became more concerned with the negative effects of rapid growth, such as deforestation, pollution, traffic, corruption, and (contrary to the rhetoric of some Asian politicians) increased drug use, criminal activity, and alienation among Southeast Asian youth. Still, in the bigger picture, Southeast Asian governments and their societies benefited by no longer building walls around their countries and isolating their economies.

The exception was Burma, which, after reneging on promised political reform and refusing to recognize the 1990 election results, persisted in its strategy of socialist economic autarky. Burma’s dreadful standard of living only reinforced the dominant view in the region that interaction, not isolation, was necessary for a country to flourish. Indeed, every Southeast Asian country that tested the open market proposition experienced unprecedented economic dynamism. The results of openness included a phenomenal rise in average standard of living, but success was accompanied by widening gaps between the rich and poor, not to mention unprecedented policy challenges in infrastructure, public health, and education.

The new international era also saw Southeast Asian societies transformed by new forms of communication. Television, mobile phones, Internet cafés, satellite communications, and the entire digital revolution changed the way information was spread from person to person in this new era. No longer could governments fully control information flow among the populace. In the new era, the challenge for governments became balancing the effects of technological change, foreign investment, and international trade against political demands for greater openness and governmental transparency. Another challenge that emerged was, alas, the threat and reality of financial crisis—something that would affect all the booming countries of Southeast Asia.

A classic lesson of international political economy is that economic interdependence creates greater sensitivity and vulnerability to global markets.[9] The globalization of Southeast Asian economies had made the region’s countries increasingly sensitive and vulnerable to external forces and the volatility of international markets. The vulnerabilities proved to be all too real when the region suffered financial disaster in 1997.

In the early 1990s, China’s government, already advantaged by the country’s seemingly endless supply of cheap labor, devalued its currency, making its exports even more competitive than those coming from Southeast Asia. With their currencies pegged to the US dollar, many Southeast Asian countries’ exports became more expensive than China’s in international markets. Subsequently, China also began to attract foreign investment more rapidly than Southeast Asia. Export revenue in the tiger economies began to level off after a decade of breakneck expansion.

By the mid-1990s, the current account surpluses enjoyed by Southeast Asian tiger economies turned into current account deficits. With more buying power for imports, foreign products and luxury goods entered local markets, causing imbalances to grow. Many remained unworried by the imbalances and moved investment into new sectors. With export opportunities slowing, Southeast Asians increasingly engaged in real estate speculation and invested in lavish projects (such as five-star hotels and condominiums). Local stock markets continued their climb.

Capital inflows and easy credit also expanded in the mid-1990s, made possible by the earlier deregulation of financial and capital markets. Because local currencies were pegged to the US dollar, local borrowers often denominated their loans in US dollars to take advantage of lower interest rates. Over a few short years, debt obligations mounted across the Southeast Asian business community. Slowing revenues from declining exports and an oversupply of new housing and high-rise office space caused the real estate bubble to burst. Debtors then began to default. Stress on financial institutions grew and the financial mismanagement of banks and investment firms began to make headlines. Corruption in both the public and private sectors drew greater attention, and government scandals invited fierce public criticism, especially in Thailand and the Philippines, where democratization had expanded a free media. In Indonesia, Suharto’s thirty-year regime, built on performance legitimization, faced unprecedented signs of weakness.

By June 1997, international investor confidence in Southeast Asia’s tigers began to slip. Global currency traders, recognizing the shakiness of the region’s economies, bet against the Southeast Asian currencies, undermining their worth even more. Government efforts to support the currency pegs proved futile. The result was a cascade of overnight currency devaluations from country to country. In herd-like fashion, investors instigated a massive outflow of capital from all the tiger economies. The sudden devaluation of local currencies, combined with rapid economic contraction, left local Southeast Asian investors saddled with massive loads of debt. Many local investors faced the impossible task of meeting inflated repayment obligations in the face of declining revenues. Banks became insolvent. Southeast Asia found itself in a full-fledged financial crisis.

Leaders in Southeast Asia responded ineffectively to the crisis, allowing the downturn to spread throughout all of Asia and eventually across the globe. Southeast Asia’s politicians seemed incapable of making the difficult decisions necessary to resolve the crisis. Instead, they hunkered down, blamed Westerners, and continued to protect cronies while undermining public-spirited technocrats. The public, more educated and savvy than ever, knew better and realized that whatever the sins of international investors, their own government and business leaders also shared the blame. The region’s shell-shocked leaders eventually turned to the IMF, the world’s lender of last resort, to help them finance their way out of the crisis. Seeing itself as the economic doctor of the new international era, the IMF announced its readiness to administer the treatments countries needed for financial recovery. It offered multibillion-dollar loans on the strict conditions that recipient governments would raise interest rates, increase tax rates, adopt strict budget austerity, and completely restructure their ailing financial sectors. It was the wrong medicine. The IMF’s ill-conceived rescue packages proved damaging to already suffering economies. The cash liquidity the IMF provided to the stressed tiger economies largely went to pay off foreign creditors and financial institutions; it did little to spur economic growth. Government budget austerity measures exacerbated existing economic contraction, and local investment plummeted. Higher interest rates and tax burdens further inhibited local investment at a time when Keynesian stimulus was most desperately needed. Rather than stimulate their economies with greater public spending, governments were bound by IMF conditionality only to starve their economies further.

Social and political disruption followed. Rampant unemployment, rapid inflation, and economic hardship turned into antigovernment protests and disorder. The once-famed emerging markets and their proud political leaders collapsed in succession. All but a few governments changed in the wake of the crisis and effects of the IMF rescue packages.

The 1997 Asian economic crisis shook Southeast Asia’s confidence. Asian leaders stopped talking about Asian values. In fact, the crisis set Southeast Asian countries on disparate courses that continue to the present day. Recovery patterns have differed markedly from one case to the next. Indonesia, which suffered the most severe setback, sunk into deep political crisis, ending thirty years of rule under General Suharto. The collapse of his regime led not only to greater democracy in Indonesia but also to the birth of East Timor, which had been under Indonesian occupation since 1975. Thailand, after cycling through rotations of parliamentary coalitions, eventually elected a new party (the Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, Party) whose billionaire leader turned to populist policies which ignited a new political crisis and two military coups. Philippine voters turned to an action-movie hero to manage their recovery only to throw him out of office for corruption a few years later. Vietnam slowed its pace of reform and increased surveillance of the regime’s political opponents.

Then, in the wake of the Asian economic crisis and the political changes it spawned, the new international era grew even more complex as a result of terrorist attacks half a world away.

Southeast Asia’s newly installed leaders faced a new, more complicated foreign policy matrix following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Already worried about their sluggish economies, Southeast Asian officials now had to concern themselves with US president George W. Bush’s declarations of an international “axis of evil” that tied rogue states to stateless terrorist groups. His announcement that the countries of the world were either “with us or against us” put unwanted pressure on the region’s new governments. Predictions by the Bush administration that Southeast Asia would become the “second front in the War on Terror” caused even wider reverberations of concern and anxiety in the region.[10]

Aside from the Philippines, which had long battled Muslim separatists in the country’s south, none of the ASEAN governments enthusiastically embraced Bush’s view of a post–9/11 world. Thailand proved to be a reluctant partner and Singapore turned to the United States only pragmatically, especially after Islamist groups bombed hotels and embassies in neighboring Indonesia. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned many of Southeast Asia’s large Muslim populations against the United States. Over time, events (or more precisely nonevents) proved American predictions that Southeast Asia would be “the second front” of international terrorism erroneous. Internationally sponsored terrorism in the region was sporadic at most. Since 9/11, five internationally­linked bombings, all in Indonesia, have led to over two hundred deaths and hundreds of injuries. While no doubt a matter for local and international concern, the frequency and intensity of terrorism in the region is on par with that experienced by Europe. Compared to terrorist violence hotspots in the Middle East and South Asia, Southeast Asia has remained relatively calm.

As government officials adjusted to a post-9/11 world and pursued policy packages with hopes of returning to the high growth rates of the previous decade, another global concern caught their attention: rising China. Southeast Asian countries continued to be outperformed economically by China throughout the first decade of the 2000s. In a matter of two decades, China had become Asia’s new economic power. Because of its strict currency regime and regulated foreign capital markets, China’s economic competitiveness was less affected by the Asian economic crisis. China’s direct and indirect influence in Southeast Asia came through new free trade deals, tariff reductions, business connections, and even increased cultural influence. By the time Southeast Asians watched Beijing’s impressive pageantry and execution of the 2008 Olympiad, ASEAN’s combined economies ranked as China’s fourth-largest trading partner. By 2015, ASEAN’s combined economies had surpassed both Japan and South Korea in terms of total trade volume with China.

Since recovering from the 1997 economic crisis, only modest economic growth has returned to the tiger economies. Although incomes have recovered and general progress in overall development is visible, aggregate comparisons of basic indicators now illustrate the vast economic disparities that characterize the region. In terms of economic power, performance, and poverty, Southeast Asia’s economic dynamism has created a region of remarkable disparity. Tables 1.1 and 1.2 highlight select economic and development indicators for the region.

When adjusted for purchasing power parity, microstates Singapore ($82,763) and Brunei ($75,700) lead the region in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (2014 figures). Malaysia ($24,715) follows at a distant third, with Thailand ($14,600) and Indonesia ($10,585) further behind. The Philippines ($6,916), Vietnam ($5,629), and Laos ($5,162) come next followed by those in the lowest tier in terms of per capita production: Myanmar ($4,800), Cambodia ($3,242), and Timor-Leste ($2,277). Even with the most optimistic forecasts, it will take many decades for Southeast Asia’s poorest to reach the average living standards that the region’s richest countries enjoy today.

Dayley Table1.1

By combining 2015 World Bank income classifications with broader development indicators that consider poverty rates, education, health, access to water, and levels of corruption, the countries of Southeast Asia can be divided into four general groups:

High income/high development Brunei, Singapore
Upper-middle income/medium development Malaysia, Thailand
Low-middle income/medium development Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam
Low income/low development Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Timor-Leste

In total, the dynamic economic forces of the new international era have bolstered and expanded the economic power of Southeast Asia and its tremendous economic diversity. ASEAN’s combined 2014 GDP of $2.4 trillion is already larger than India’s and is predicted to overtake Japan’s by 2028.[11] Yet, generalizing the region’s progress in economic production and human development as a whole is increasingly challenging (and increasingly meaningless). In spite of the integration of the region’s disparate economies through the ASEAN Free Trade Area, the development trajectories of Southeast Asian countries seem to grow more disparate with each passing year. A similar trend of divergent paths characterizes the political regimes of the region.

Dayley Table1.2

Comparing Political Regimes

Because of the great diversity among Southeast Asian states, as well as the many influences and changes they experience over time, categorizing Southeast Asian political regimes is an imprecise process and must be complemented by analyzing the unique attributes of each country’s experience. The country chapters which follow are written precisely because the analysis in the remainder of this chapter is demonstrably inadequate—an exercise captive to the discursive and analytical limits of overgeneralization and categorization. Therefore, the following discussion should be read with these limitations in mind.

If one is primarily interested in identifying the regime types of Southeast Asia’s countries, a standard approach would be to use accepted regime classifications and to analyze which countries fit those definitions. By employing Larry Diamond’s sixfold typology and the widely used Freedom House ratings (free, partly free, and not free), such a general analysis is possible and fairly straightforward.[12] Diamond’s typology distinguishes two types of democratic regimes (liberal and electoral); three types of authoritarian regimes (competitive, hegemonic electoral, and politically closed); and ambiguous regimes, a residual category for systems too difficult to classify due to changing conditions or ongoing instability.

With respect to countries that label their own systems “democratic,” Diamond encourages a useful distinction between regimes in transition that aspire to liberal democracy from those that are pseudodemocracies; that is, systems where elections exist but institutional arrangements are deliberately designed to inhibit party competition, pluralism, or civil liberties.

From the perspective of Diamond’s typology, only Indonesia and the Philippines currently fall within the general category of democracy. Each of these systems, however, is an electoral democracy and falls short of meeting the criteria to be classified as an established liberal democracy (where political and civil liberties exist and endure, and where changing sets of elected leaders are chosen by and accountable to an electorate through fair elections that are repeatedly held).[13]

Indonesia, one of two Southeast Asian electoral democracies, was rated free by Freedom House as recently as 2012. It has since slid and is once again rated partly free due to newly imposed restrictions on civil society which require organizations to pledge allegiance to a state ideology that itself inhibits freedom. Indonesia’s young democratic system, developed only after Suharto’s departure in 1998, also remains deficient in some aspects of electoral fairness and durability.

The Philippines, accurately classified as partly free by Freedom House in 2012, is also closer to an electoral democracy than a liberal democracy. This fact is discouraging given Filipino aspirations for liberal democratic rule and the country’s long experience with democratic constitutions, dating to the 1940s. Democratic institutions in the Philippines are in fact semidysfunctional in that they often serve as a veneer for oligarchic rule. Corruption, lawlessness, intimidation, and violence permeate politics and competitive elections for public office. The Philippines’ electoral democracy serves elite interests over those of the broader public.

Only a few years ago, Thailand had a pluralistic system that was approaching the definition of liberal democracy. In fact, Thailand was classified by Freedom House as free for seven consecutive years (1998–2005). Once a democratic beacon in the region, Thailand has since suffered from multiple electoral-driven political crises, two military coups, constitutional instability, politicized judicial interventions, and episodic clashes between civilian demonstrators and government security forces. In flux from one year to the next, Thailand saw its freedom rating swing over four consecutive years (2005–2008) from free to partly free to not free, and then back to partly free. Since the May 2014 military coup and subsequent dictatorial control, Thailand’s classification has depressingly returned to not free. Classified as free and electoral democracy as recently as 2008, Thailand tragically ranks among Southeast Asia’s least democratic systems as a politically-closed regime.

Under Diamond’s typology, Malaysia is best classified as a competitive authoritarian regime, where a significant parliamentary opposition exists but a dominant party coalition has been able to retain governmental power for decades at a time. The country is often cited as an example of an illiberal democracy. Recent developments indicate that the authoritarian features of the country’s system are weakening and party dominance is under stress. The Malaysian political regime—under the weight of more intense parliamentary contestation and changing public attitudes favoring liberal democracy—may eventually improve its current regime label.

In contrast is Singapore, where the ruling People’s Action Party has perpetually inhibited the development of a significant parliamentary opposition by restricting oppositional speech, harassing government opponents, and manipulating a politicized judiciary. Singapore is a pseudodemocracy or, more precisely using Diamond’s terms, a hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime.

Somewhat similarly, the Cambodian People’s Party, under the tight grip of strongman Hun Sen, has used extra-electoral mechanisms to intimidate opposition parties, politicians, and activists to ensure ongoing rule. Rated not free in 2014 by Freedom House, Cambodia is also classified as a hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime.

Due to the lack of competitive elections and serious restrictions of political and civil liberties, Vietnam and Laos share classification as politically closed authoritarian regimes. Each is governed as a communist party-state and has annually maintained not free ratings by Freedom House throughout the new international era. Tiny Brunei, a rigid absolute monarchy, also meets the criteria of these same general classifications.

Myanmar, until recently an oppressive military regime, underwent dramatic political reforms between 2010 and 2015. At the time of writing, the country is the most difficult political regime to classify in the region. In late 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, defeated the country’s primary military-backed party in the country’s first free general election in decades. The NLD assumed control of Parliament in early 2016. Because of these events, Myanmar’s history will forever be divided between the era before and the era after 2016. Myanmar has been a politically closed authoritarian regime for the previous five decades; now, its partially elected Parliament will enjoy the majority powers held by the NLD but will be checked by constitutional limits and, ominously, by the military, which retains a formal political role. It is too early to predict how this situation may develop. Myanmar’s future may be brighter than it once was, but it is anything but certain. Thus, Myanmar, for the time being, is best classified as an ambiguous regime.

Timor-Leste, an infant state still dependent on international support, is also best classified as an ambiguous regime. Although the practice of parliamentary politics evolves and it may aspire to liberal democracy, the country’s most pressing problems remain political uncertainty and weak state capacity. Democracy enjoys general legitimacy among Timorese but electoral instability, political violence, and growing regionalism on the island undermine state development and the rule of law. With more time and experience, Timor-Leste may evolve into an electoral democracy, but it is not one at the moment.

Taken together, one observes that political freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia barely exist. It is distressing to note that in 2015, Southeast Asia remains less democratic than Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, South Asia, and East Asia, not to mention Europe and North America. By 2015, no countries enjoyed a rating of free from Freedom House. In fact, more countries in Southeast Asia rate as not free than partially free. At a regional level, only the autocratic regimes of the Middle East and North Africa surpass Southeast Asia in their suppression of political freedoms and civil liberties. A joint study by Harvard and the University of Sydney examining recent elections in 107 countries across multiple regions revealed that Southeast Asia ranks dead last among all other regions in electoral integrity.[14] After decades of struggle, effort, and reform to develop it, democracy in Southeast Asia seems as elusive as ever.

Such broad generalizations are useful to a point. But, again, it is critical to emphasize that regime classification is useful only because it is a general comparison. As an analytical tool, regime classification does not adequately portray Southeast Asian nations and their complexities over time. Without supplementary analysis, regime labels are simply insensitive to the particular political structures, events, and behaviors that animate the political life of particular countries. Countries may share classifications but political life and individual opportunities may in fact be quite disparate. Singapore and Cambodia share the same general classification but are worlds apart in every other way. Dynamic polities such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia, as well as young Timor-Leste, virtually defy the rigid criteria demanded by categorization.

Because of the difficulties and limitations of regime analysis and classification, only case-by-case examinations sensitive to the unique experiences and attributes of individual countries are capable of generating for readers a nuanced understanding of political and economic life in Southeast Asia. The chapters that follow are structured in an effort to meet this objective.

The country chapters begin with Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—the countries of Peninsular Southeast Asia (sometimes referred to as “Mainland Southeast Asia”). The book then completes the regional survey with chapters on the Philippines, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei—the countries of Insular Southeast Asia (sometimes referred to as “Maritime Southeast Asia”).[15]


[1] The phrase to describe Southeast Asia’s transformation “from a battlefield to a marketplace” was famously coined by Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan at a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, DC, June 16, 1990.
[2] The conventional forms of country names are generally used throughout this book. On June 18, 1989, Burma’s military rulers announced that the country’s official name (in English) would be, henceforth, Myanmar. From 1989 until around 2010 this name change was not recognized by those who rejected the legitimacy of Burma’s military rulers. The name Myanmar was officially used in the United Nations and some official international circles but was significantly rejected by opposition politician and longtime political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. Earlier editions of this book used the name Burma exclusively. In 2010, a new set of leaders in the country launched a process toward greater democratization and released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Following Suu Kyi’s subsequent practice of using both Myanmar and Burma interchangeably, revised editions of this book adopted the use of both names. Since 2010, many governments have also reestablished relations and adopted the use of “Myanmar” without hesitation. This book also uses East Timor and Timor-Leste interchangeably.
[3] Because this book focuses on contemporary politics it unfortunately devotes little attention to precolonial and colonial history. Readers will need to search elsewhere for a better understanding of historical trends and cultural foundations of the region and particular countries. A common place to begin such a study is with the classic text edited by David Joel Steinberg, In Search of Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987); D. R. Sardesai’s Southeast Asia: Past and Present (Boulder: Westview Press, 2009); and The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), edited by Norman G. Owen.
[4] See Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994); James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
[5] Also called “Asian economic tigers.”
[6] James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976).
[7] David G. Timberman, A Changeless Land: Continuity and Change in Philippine Politics (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1991).
[8] Quoted by Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean scholar and diplomat, from T. R. Reid, Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West (New York: Random House, 1999), 62.
[9] See Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence, 4th ed. (Boston: Longman, 2012).
[10] George W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union Address,” January 29, 2002; John Gershman, “Is Southeast Asia the Second Front?” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 4 (July/August 2002): 60–74.
[11] This prediction was made by the reputable economic forecasting firm HIS Global Insight in 2012. See Michael Richardson, “Region Could Drive Global Economic Revival,” Japan Times Online, August 22, 2012, /eo20120822mr.html.
[12] Larry Diamond is the founder and editor of the Journal of Democracy and is a noted regime classification expert. The typology here is taken from his article “Thinking about Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 21–35. Freedom House bases its ratings on a system that assigns values to indicators of “political freedoms” and “civil liberties.” Visit
[13] Fair elections are defined as being administered in a transparent manner by neutral authorities and characterized by ballot secrecy, the impartial treatment of candidates and parties, impartial procedures for resolving complaints and disputes, and minimal political violence.
[14] Max Gromping, “Southeast Asian Elections Worst in the World,” New Mandala, February 19, 2015, -elections-worst-in-the-world.
[15] Although part of Malaysia is located on the Thai-Malay peninsula, and is geographically connected to mainland Southeast Asia, the Federation of Malaysia (which includes both peninsular and insular territories) is conventionally grouped with the countries of Insular Southeast Asia due to generally-accepted historical and cultural similarities.

Chapter 3


Myanmar (Burma)

On June 18, 1989, the martial law government of Burma declared that the country’s official name (in English) would henceforth be Myanmar. Officially, the move attempted to separate the country from its colonial past and to internationalize a locally used name ostensibly more inclusive of the country’s non-Burmese minorities. Critics viewed the name change as little more than a ploy by the military junta to legitimize its repressive rule. Respecting the wishes of persecuted opposition groups within the country, many foreign governments, news organizations, and international scholars rejected the name change and continued to refer to the country as Burma. Many international organizations and non-Western governments adopted the country’s new name, but the usage of either carried with it political overtones.[1]

Burma’s two names—and all that they imply domestically and ­internationally—symbolize the country’s challenge of ethnic diversity as well as Burma’s story of promise, disappointment, tragedy, and potential. One of its greatest political tragedies occurred in 1990, when ruling generals refused to recognize election results that would have ousted them from power. In the aftermath, Burma found itself an international pariah. Dictatorial, repressive, and economically isolated, the country with two names persisted along an autarkic path for over two decades, inviting unwanted (and sometimes overdrawn) comparisons with North Korea.

Around 2010, however, Burma’s ruling generals surprisingly began to reform the state’s governing institutions and opened political space for opposition parties to once again participate in the country’s politics. The military partially stepped aside a year later by appointing a civilian government to run the country. A commensurate relaxation of long-standing economic sanctions by Western governments followed. Optimism filled the air. On November 8, 2015, the freest general elections in twenty-five years resulted in a landslide victory for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the same party denied its rightful victory in 1990. Military leaders agreed to honor the election results.


© Westview Press

At the time of writing, the country’s new parliamentary majority is scheduled to assume legislative seats and organize a government in February 2016.[2] Its de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, still openly refers to her country as Burma, although she interchangeably uses Myanmar in public speeches. Whichever name is used, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, as it is formally titled, is no longer viewed as an international pariah. It remains far from fully democratic but few would deny the future holds promise and potential. The extent to which democratic change fully institutionalizes in a country with long-standing ethnic, social, and political challenges, however, remains an open question.

Burma, like other Southeast Asian countries, is diverse, but uniquely so. About a dozen major ethnic groups and scores of smaller minorities make up more than one-third of the total population of 56 million. For the Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Wa, Rohingya, and other minority groups, there has long been ethnic sensitivity to the dominant position of Burmans, or Bamar, the country’s largest ethnic group at 65 percent. Moreover, although 89 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, indigenous belief systems, as well as Christianity and Islam, are widespread among ethnic minorities. Geographically, most ethnic minority groups live in the frontier terrains along the country’s mountainous perimeter, and most Bamar populate the country’s grain-producing center, which is fed by the massive Irrawaddy River. More than any other feature, Burma’s geodemography—its large core majority group surrounded by a mosaic of divergent minority groups—influences and shapes the country’s politics.

In January 1948, the Burmese won their independence after several years of demonstrations and often violent opposition to over sixty years of British rule. The independence struggle was led by the Thakin movement, a Burman group of anti-British nationalists headed by Aung San, the father of modern Burma and a fiery nationalist who received his training in Japan during World War II after the Japanese had occupied Burma. Subsequently, the movement turned against the Japanese as their occupation became increasingly repressive. Aung San, who was expected to be Burma’s first head of state, was assassinated in 1947 and thus became the nation’s martyred hero.

The Thakin movement became the core of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), a united front group opposed to the Japanese. AFPFL forces cooperated with the British to oust the Japanese and then turned against the British in the struggle for independence. The AFPFL negotiated independence and formed the country’s first parliamentary government in 1948 under the leadership of forty-one-year-old U Nu.

A devoted Buddhist, U Nu’s goal for Burma was to achieve pyidawtha—the ideal peaceful, pleasant, and prosperous society. He commissioned the drafting of a state plan with ambitious goals in agriculture and industry alongside the immediate delivery of welfare state–quality social services. In spite of the country’s rich resource base, U Nu’s elaborate plan failed miserably. One problem revolved around ethnic-based antigovernment sentiment. The period from 1948 to 1958 became known as the “Time of Troubles.” Well-organized minority ethnic groups actively opposed the government’s move toward a national state and instead supported establishing autonomous states for each group. The Shans, Karens, and other groups rose against the central authorities, precipitating a struggle that evolved into multiple ongoing civil wars.

The second major postindependence problem concerned the poorly trained civil service, which was not able to carry out government programs effectively. U Nu’s socialist policies required a high degree of centralized administration, but the Burmese bureaucracy floundered, causing severe political and economic disturbances. U Thant, one of U Nu’s closest advisors, was unavailable to fully assist in postindependence rebuilding, being tied up in New York as the third UN secretary-general. Absent independence martyr Aung San and the pragmatic U Thant, the charismatic U Nu struggled to guide Burma’s Parliament and bureaucracy. Poor governance added fuel to ethnic resentments and a fledgling communist movement.

By 1958, Burma’s political condition was so chaotic that U Nu turned the functioning of the government over to the Tatmadaw (the military), led by General Ne Win, who was also a leader of the Thakin independence movement and a compatriot of Aung San. Following this “constitutional coup,” Ne Win reorganized the bureaucracy to make it more efficient and restored a semblance of law and order. Corruption within the bureaucracy was also uncovered, and violent crime and gangsterism were rooted out in the countryside.

Despite the success of the Tatmadaw’s caretaker government in a number of areas, in 1960 the electorate chose to return to U Nu for leadership. Again, however, he was not able to control the economy. U Nu’s leadership was based on his charismatic religious qualities and reputation for impeccable honesty, but he was a poor day-to-day administrator. The nation was reeling from multiple rebellions among minority groups, and therefore a large share of the central budget was allocated to internal security, but U Nu concentrated on establishing Buddhism as the state religion. U Nu believed Buddhism was the best defense against rising sympathy for communism within Burma. His efforts to conceptualize an idealistic vision of a Burmese welfare state based on Buddha’s teachings were not matched by a parallel plan for implementation and administration.

The military, which perceived that the civilian government was weak and dependent upon Western-style political institutions that were incompatible with Burmese culture, carried out a coup on March 2, 1962, led by Ne Win. This seizure of power, which was rapid, nonviolent, and without major challenge, began an era of military rule that continued for fifty years. Ne Win disbanded the Western-style Parliament, banned political parties, and restricted civil liberties. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians living in Burma, a legacy of British rule, were forced back to India and East Pakistan. He then devised a program of radical economic and political policies called the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which included nationalizing major industries, schools, rice mills, small and large businesses, and financial institutions. Although Ne Win was not communist, his economic approach resembled Marxism, with an emphasis on cultivating nationalism, neutralism, and economic autarky.

To mobilize support for the socialist program, Ne Win established the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), organized to reach down to the village level along hierarchical lines but with all power remaining firmly at the party’s military-dominated top echelon. The party’s main function was to legitimize army rule. To keep Western “bourgeois decadent” ideas from infiltrating Burma, Ne Win arrested those who opposed his policies, restricted travel to Burma by foreigners, and ended academic freedom at the universities. His move toward a neutralist foreign policy took the form of isolationism.

In January 1974, Burma became the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma after the electorate had passed the new socialist constitution. Although Ne Win discarded his military uniform in 1971 and became the “civilian” president of the new government, the military continued to be the dominant political force. Ne Win nominally stepped down as president in 1981 but retained his more powerful position as head of the BSPP. In that position, he was able to continue his dominance over political and economic policymaking. Influencing Ne Win’s decisions were his beliefs in astrology and numerology. The policies emanating from the military junta became increasingly erratic.

In the summer of 1988, hundreds of thousands of farmers, urban workers, students, monks, and civil servants took to the streets of Burma’s major cities to demonstrate against their government leaders. This revolt was the culmination of years of frustration and disgust at the failures of the military government to bring development to Burma. Although rich in natural resources, Burma had been humiliated by the UN decision in 1987 to declare it one of the world’s least-developed nations. The revolt was also a response to the pervasive suppression of the people’s political rights since 1962, when the military had assumed all political power.

A more immediate cause of the revolt was the 1987 decision of Ne Win’s administration to declare valueless some 80 percent of the Burmese money in circulation. Any kyat note over $1.60 in value became instantly worthless. As part of the policy, the junta unexpectedly ordered that old notes be removed from circulation to be replaced by ones denominated on a base ninety—because nine was Ne Win’s lucky number. To the public’s astonishment, new notes of fifteen, forty-five, and ninety were issued by the government. Sudden demonetization, justified as a measure to undermine black-marketeers and control inflation, adversely affected the entire population, rich and poor. The bulk of the working economy was sustained by the black market (the government’s socialistic economy having collapsed), so the demise of this unofficial market was seen as a catastrophe. Moreover, no recompense was given to holders of kyat notes above the maximum allowed; in effect, then, the savings of the entire population were wiped out. The price of food skyrocketed, and even government supporters began to grow uncomfortable with the country’s direction.

The incident that sparked the 1988 revolt occurred in a tea shop when students and other patrons squabbled over the choice of music tapes being played. When the police arrived, a student was killed. Thousands of his schoolmates later returned to avenge their colleague’s death, but they were met by weapons and security police. In a particularly dreadful incident, forty-one students were herded into a police van, where they suffocated in the intense heat. More demonstrations and security clashes occurred during the ensuing weeks. Unofficial estimates of student deaths from beatings, bayonet stabbings, and suffocation were in the hundreds, but the government blandly announced a total of only two student deaths.[3]

In the midst of the unrest, General Ne Win gathered with leaders in a special session of the BSPP Central Committee. In an alarming speech, he took responsibility for the student deaths and resigned his post as party chairman in favor of General Sein Lwin. Most astonishingly, Ne Win called for a popular referendum and a return to multiparty democracy. He also warned, ominously, that future mob disturbances would invite the use of military force. The party rejected the idea of the referendum but agreed to accept his resignation and the appointment of Sein Lwin, known as the “the Butcher” for his 1974 decision to violently quell demonstrations by grief-stricken students honoring U Thant’s death.

Ne Win’s moves sparked more demonstrations and more killings by security police. Students, distrustful that Sein Lwin could ever lead reform, began to mobilize, joined by dockworkers, laborers, and members of the general population. Sporadic protests erupted in Rangoon and other major cities. Then, on August 8, 1988 (i.e., 8/8/88), the army followed through on Ne Win’s warning. Sein Lwin ordered the use of lethal force against the demonstrators. Dozens were killed on the initial night of the crackdown, but the violence hardened the protesters’ resolve. Mass demonstrations continued for five consecutive days, as did the lethal violence. In yet another shameful incident, government soldiers shot and killed a group of exhausted doctors and nurses in front of Rangoon General Hospital.[4]

International outcry followed the junta’s crackdown on the “8888 Uprising,” as it became known. The US government was one of the first to issue a protest and became a visible symbol of democratic government; thus, the grounds of the US embassy in Rangoon became an important site for antigovernment demonstrations. Other governments condemned the crackdown as well. Demonstrations in Rangoon and in Mandalay grew to more than a million people.

Facing mounting protests, Sein Lwin abruptly resigned, and the army began to withdraw from Rangoon five days after its slaughter had begun. Maung Maung, a civilian academic and Ne Win’s personal biographer, was appointed president. For a brief time, a sense of victory swept the population and suggested that regime change was possible. Opposition politicians emerged after years of suppression and began to discuss plans for action. Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, visiting Burma from her home in London, began to offer public speeches encouraging reform. Top diplomats signed an open letter calling for an end to Burma’s isolationism.

Then, just as systemic change seemed within reach, a series of cascading events redirected Burma’s historical course. The civil administration collapsed, and the police went on strike. Prisoners were released, and a sense of insecurity developed among the public. Revolutionary-style protests grew in size and audacity, and a number of government offices were stormed by unruly crowds. An attitude of recrimination surfaced. In a few cases, “suspected government agents were gruesomely beheaded or hacked to death in front of cheering crowds.”[5] Burma faced the prospect of a bloody social revolution.

With the knowledge that the military’s dominance was in jeopardy, army commander in chief General Saw Maung, ostensibly on orders from Ne Win, crushed the revolt and restored the military to power on September 18, 1988. The military’s coup was not against an opposition government, as none existed, but was against the civilian facade government under Maung Maung that the army itself created. The violent coup was followed by the arrest of demonstrators, the censorship of all forms of communication, and the flight of tens of thousands of students to the nation’s borders to escape the military and organize for a future rebellion. Altogether, some 3,000 Burmese lost their lives in their attempt to end military rule.

Saw Maung, taking his orders from Ne Win, established the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to endure “until anarchy and demonstrations could be brought under control.” SLORC, consisting of generals who were loyal to Ne Win, was given responsibility for administering the state. Ruling by martial law, SLORC brutally suppressed regime opponents even as it announced plans for a new election to be held in May 1990. SLORC argued, incredibly, that its harsh policies were necessary because of an alleged collusion between the Burmese Communist Party and the US Central Intelligence Agency, which was the cause of demonstrations and antigovernment dissidence. Aung San Suu Kyi, who formed the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the days following the uprising, was placed under house arrest for having been “manipulated” by communists and foreign intelligence agencies. SLORC also argued that a highly centralized, military-oriented administration was necessary to ensure the country’s continued unity in the face of potential rebellion by minority ethnic groups. None of these explanations were accepted by the vast majority of Burmese, who were extremely angry that their people’s revolt had been crushed. The Tatmadaw, once a symbol of stability in Burma, became a hated organization.

Following the crackdown, SLORC ramped up its methods of oppression by silencing writers, banning assemblies, and forcefully moving some half a million people from their homes with the aim of breaking up pro-democracy neighborhoods and areas favorable to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The relocation of urban residents in late 1989 from cities to satellite towns was particularly egregious; it was justified by SLORC as a “beautification measure.”

Despite these human rights violations, SLORC organized the May 27, 1990, election to choose legislators in the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives), which was the sole organ of legislative authority. Under the election law, each constituency was to elect one representative. Some 492 constituencies, determined by population size, were to choose representatives; seven constituencies of ethnic minorities, however, were not allowed to vote because of “security” threats in their regions. SLORC believed the election could be controlled to ensure that pro-government forces would prevail. In fact, the government was given the power to censor the speeches and publications of parties and candidates. Television time was limited to one ten-minute period per party during the entire campaign, and statements had to be submitted for approval seven days in advance. Candidates who gave speeches that had not been scrutinized and approved by the authorities were imprisoned.

Popular opposition leaders were harassed and kept from participating in the election. Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, was disqualified, as were former prime minister U Nu and another prominent opposition leader, former general U Tin Oo. All of these leaders were placed under house arrest. Pro-government candidates who joined the successor party of the BSPP, the National Unity Party (NUP), received government funds for campaigning, but funds were not available to opposition leaders. The authorities banned outdoor assemblies and relocated citizens from their voting constituencies to ensure a pro-government vote.

Despite these measures, and in an extraordinary display of independence, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won more than 80 percent of the seats (396 of 485) in the Pyithu Hluttaw. The NUP won only 10 seats, losing even in areas dominated by the army. Such a sharp rebuke of the martial law government was unexpected by junta leaders. The military then refused to turn the government over to the newly elected legislators, even though the latter were ready to install a new constitution based largely on the country’s last democratic constitution of 1947. Although the Burmese had expressed their anger toward the military government and their support for democratic rule through their vote, the regime in power was unwilling to act in compliance with the people’s will.

Although world reaction to SLORC’s oppression was strongly critical, the military continued to jail opposition leaders, dominate every facet of society, and isolate the regime from global currents. When in December 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi received, in absentia, the Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to the military junta, many believed that SLORC could not withstand the negative worldwide publicity. However, despite global condemnation and economic sanctions, SLORC dug in even deeper, claiming that freeing the Nobel laureate would threaten the nation’s peace and tranquility.

In 1992, General Saw Maung stepped down as chairman of SLORC and was replaced by General Than Shwe, who was the nation’s military commander and minister of defense. The new leader released some five hundred political prisoners, although the principal NLD leaders were not freed. Colleges and universities were reopened, and a constitutional convention was called. The latter was viewed as a sham by both the Burmese people and foreign observers, who pointed out that the convention was dominated by the military and that opposition leaders were still in jail. The convention met in January 1993 but did nothing to undermine military rule. Indeed, the conference specifically approved a leading political role for the army in the country’s future governance.

During the postelection period, Than Shwe persisted in denying elected parliamentarians their rightful seats. In response, 250 would-be delegates formed a “parallel government” outside of the country in December 1990: the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. It called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, the transfer of power to those properly elected, and a halt to the civil war. But the military rulers ignored their requests.

Sometime in 1994 the generals realized that SLORC’s policy of isolation had brought devastation to Burma. They allowed small openings in the economy, but the lack of capital, the country’s poor infrastructure, and general disdain for the regime by much of the world made change difficult. Nevertheless, in the mid-1990s Burma’s economic growth rate improved, ending the total stagnation of previous decades. Asian entrepreneurs began setting up investments and a “Visit Myanmar Year” promotional campaign was launched. New hotel projects soon changed the face of Rangoon. The opening did almost nothing to improve the standard of living of the people, among the world’s poorest, most of whom lived at a subsistence level. Corruption, an inflated bureaucracy, political mismanagement, and the continued imprisonment of the democracy leaders were all reasons for the ongoing economic problems.

In July 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi was “released” from house arrest. In reality, she was guarded closely to ensure that she and her followers would not jeopardize SLORC’s control over the nation. The government felt compelled to release her because of growing foreign pressure and Myanmar’s desire to join ASEAN.

Although thousands of Burmese citizens came to hear her speak following her release, Aung San Suu Kyi was effectively silenced. Her talks were not allowed to be broadcasted or printed in the government-controlled press. Indeed, the official press attacked her daily. In 1997, when her British husband, Michael Aris, was near death from prostate cancer in Great Britain, Burma analysts believed the junta would show compassion by allowing him to spend his last days with his wife. However, he was denied a visa, and she was reluctant to leave Burma, fearing she would not be allowed to return. Aris died in Britain in 1999 after Aung San Suu Kyi had been returned to full house arrest.

Throughout the 1990s, SLORC continued to rule in a despotic manner. Political opponents were jailed or executed. Military officers replaced civilians at all levels of the bureaucracy. Opposition political parties remained banned. E-mail and Internet communication were permitted in the country but only under tight control by censors. The military junta fashioned a few cease-fire agreements with a number of long-standing ethnic rebel groups, but for those still engaged in civil war, such as the Karens, the military stepped up its suppression, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to Thailand, where they languished as refugees in terrible living conditions.

In an attempt to improve its international image, SLORC officials renamed the ruling council the “State Peace and Development Council” (SPDC) in 1997. Subsequently, SPDC policies remained virtually the same as those of SLORC. Although the SPDC liberalized trade and investment further, most new foreign investment permitted into Burma explicitly benefited state officials who doubled as businessmen.

In 2000, a special UN envoy attempted to bring about talks between the government and the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest for the second time. Talks broke down but about a year later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and allowed to travel within Burma. In 2003, while she was touring Depayin, a provincial town in upper Burma, a violent clash erupted between NLD sympathizers and the government. Opposition leaders claimed the confrontation led to seventy deaths, whereas the government reported only four. Pro-democracy groups accused the government of orchestrating the Depayin massacre. Soon afterward, NLD leaders were arrested and Aung San Suu Kyi’s third detention began.[6]

Intrigue within the military has also punctuated Burmese politics. Following an alleged coup attempt by Ne Win’s son-in-law in March 2002, Ne Win was placed under house arrest by Than Shwe. Months later, at age ninety-one, Ne Win died at his home on Inya Lake. The military junta refused to recognize Ne Win’s passing with a state funeral or official salute of honor.

Around this time, the newly appointed prime minister Khin Nyunt, a former head of the military’s intelligence service and Ne Win protégé, outlined a seven-point roadmap for a transition to multiparty democracy. Reviving the moribund National Convention, the new leader aimed to redraft the constitution. The move drew some interest and Khin Nyunt began to broker discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi. Burmese diplomats paraded the reforms at the United Nations. Still, very few inside or outside Burma viewed the process as legitimate. A year later, Senior General Than Shwe forcibly removed Khin Nyunt from office, placed him under detention, and purged officials tied to him from their posts.

In 2006, the SPDC announced a surprise relocation of the country’s capital to an undeveloped rural area four hundred kilometers north of Rangoon. The decision is believed to have derived from consultations with the junta’s favored astrologists. Naypyidaw, the new capital, required a massive construction effort and the relocation of government offices and residences. By literally distancing ministers and administrators from the population, the paranoid Tatmadaw resurrected the age-old court practice of isolating officials.

If intended to decrease the likelihood of antigovernment activism in Rangoon, relocating the capital to Naypyidaw failed. In August 2007, the government imposed a drastic 500 percent hike in fuel prices. Protests followed, led by saffron-robed Buddhist monks and veteran leaders from the 8888 Uprising. The government reacted violently, using plainclothes goons at first and then uniformed soldiers later. Protesters, including monks, were brutally beaten and arrested. The Buddhist clergy demanded an apology from the government, which never came. What followed became Burma’s most significant mass protests since 1988, similarly drawing global attention.

On September 28, 2007, throughout the country thousands of monks went to the streets under the banner of the All Burma Monks Alliance, a hitherto­unknown group. As ordinary Burmese joined the monks, demonstrations grew massive in many parts of the country. In Rangoon, some protesters headed for the famous Shwedagon Pagoda; others flocked to Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence near Inya Lake. Still under house arrest, the Nobel laureate appeared at her gate, engaging with monks and others. The blessing of the movement by Burma’s leading dissident served as yet another catalyst. Within a few days, over 100,000 monks and their followers paralyzed the country’s major cities. Predictably, the Tatmadaw stepped up its brutality in return. At least thirty-one protesters were killed and many others were wounded. Pictures and video sent from digital cameras and cell phones flooded newswires worldwide; images of unarmed, shaven-headed monks and students lying dead and bloodied on Rangoon streets produced shock and dismay. Despite an international outcry from Western governments, human rights groups, and sympathetic international celebrities, the thuggish junta retained the upper hand.

By October, the “Saffron Revolution” had been fully suppressed. Buddhist temples were raided by security forces and many monks were detained; others simply disappeared never to be found. To reduce tensions, a UN envoy arrived in an attempt to meet with junta leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi. The protests affirmed widespread discontent among Burma’s population, but they also exposed the weakened state of Burma’s opposition to effect political change.

Undeterred by unrest, the SPDC announced plans for a May 2008 referendum on a new constitution, a document drafted exclusively by regime insiders to ensure the military’s continued dominance. In opposition to the draft constitution, National League for Democracy leaders organized a massive “No!” campaign that distributed leaflets throughout the country.

On May 2, 2008, eight days before the scheduled referendum, Cyclone Nargis hit Burma’s densely populated delta region with devastating consequences; it was the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. With massive force, Nargis caused over 138,000 deaths and left 2.4 million survivors stranded and desperate, according to UN figures. Most disturbing was Than Shwe’s initial reluctance to allow foreign aid and disaster relief to the cyclone’s victims. Injured, homeless, and hungry, millions of Burmese suffered unnecessarily in the days and weeks that followed. Foreign journalists, restricted by the regime, produced underground reports offering the world a glimpse of the disaster’s massive scale.[7]

While Myanmar’s leaders allowed millions to suffer by denying visas to aid workers and entry to supply ships, the SPDC audaciously went forward with its constitutional referendum, postponing voting in affected areas. State-­controlled media announced weeks later that voters had approved the new charter with a 92.4 percent vote. International condemnation for mishandling the disaster and staging a farcical referendum on constitutional reform was nearly universal.

Then, ten days after Nargis, a new event in Asia gripped the world’s attention: a 7.9 earthquake in southwest China that killed 90,000 people and left 5 million homeless. For their quick action, Chinese officials won praise from their own public and from UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. China welcomed international aid from any source. As the world watched the contrasting relief efforts in China and Burma, the true incompetence and paranoia of Myanmar’s military junta was laid bare. Than Shwe became the object of anger and bewilderment from inside and outside Burma. French diplomats even called for the military junta to be charged with crimes against humanity and raised the prospect of the UN Security Council authorizing humanitarian intervention under the emerging principle of “R2P,” or Responsibility to Protect. Only following a face-to-face meeting with the UN secretary-general did Than Shwe relax entry restrictions on aid workers, although United States Aid for International Development (USAID) workers were never allowed in. Burma’s worst natural disaster was thus exacerbated by a tragic man-made catastrophe.

In 2008, ASEAN leaders took the opportunity to chide Myanmar’s leaders, a rare event due to the regional body’s commitment to noninterference. In a report at its ministerial meeting, it was announced that $1 billion would be needed for reconstruction. The cyclone had destroyed 450,000 homes, damaged 350,000 others, flooded 600,000 hectares of farmland, and severely damaged or destroyed 75 percent of hospitals and clinics in the region. For their part, Myanmar’s leaders played down the document’s conclusions. They also claimed that critical reports by survivors had been faked and falsely portrayed government aid efforts. Gradually, the junta allowed more and more aid to trickle in to the worst-hit areas.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, government repression of political opponents continued. In late 2008, sixty-five-year prison sentences were handed down to fourteen pro-democracy activists, including veterans of the 8888 Uprising. Months later Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest was extended after the Tatmadaw discovered she had briefly sheltered a fifty-three-year-old American civilian who, in a bizarre nighttime rescue attempt, surreptitiously swam to her home on Inya Lake, believing he could miraculously free her single-handedly. John Yettaw, the Vietnam War veteran and PTSD sufferer at the center of the incident, was later deported after intervention by US senator Jim Webb, a fellow veteran and longtime critic of the effectiveness of Western sanctions.

As 2009 closed, Burma remained in political and economic misery, seemingly stuck on an endless path of repression, poverty, and failed governance. Because of its trajectory, few observers predicted that 2010 would inaugurate a new era of political reform at the behest of the regime itself. The reform program—deliberate, democracy-oriented, and very incomplete—has since transformed the regime in an arguably irreversible fashion. Following decades of tragic and failed military rule, the promise of democracy has emerged once again in Burma. Remarkably, its instigation did not come through a revolutionary change of regime, but from reformist change within the regime.

Under the authority of the new 2008 constitution, Myanmar’s leaders began a series of surprising reforms that pivoted around scheduled elections in November 2010. At the beginning of that year, regime leaders released a number of political prisoners, including prominent NLD leader U Tin Oo. Tatmadaw representatives then started formal conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi, who remained under house arrest. In preparation for the elections, Prime Minister Thein Sein and a group of moderate SPDC leaders resigned from their military posts and formed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) out of an existing pro-government social organization, similarly called the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Most analysts saw the USDP as a proxy party for the military.

Then, in another unexpected move weeks before the elections, military leaders unilaterally announced changes to the country’s flag, its national anthem, and its official name (from the Union of Myanmar to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar). Skeptical critics, understandably, viewed all of these preelection changes as cosmetic; in hindsight, the SPDC’s moves demonstrated its in­tention to recreate Myanmar’s governing institutions after the election was complete.

The 2010 election, boycotted by the NLD because Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, was predictably won by the USDP and internationally condemned for being fraudulent. Another reason the NLD boycotted the election was that its participation would have meant an end to its long-standing claims to rightful power stemming from the overturned 1990 elections. Shortly after the election, the SPDC announced the formation of a civilian government and the end of military rule. In an event formalizing this action, strongman Than Shwe officially dissolved the SPDC and announced his retirement. The USDP’s Thein Sein, the majority party leader in Parliament, was installed as president of Myanmar as a civilian. Myanmar’s generals, ostensibly, had just handed the reins of power to a civilian government. What followed was even more astonishing.

President Thein Sein, under the concept of “discipline-flourishing democracy,” furthered reforms. He reorganized the government’s cabinet, installed pro-reform ministers, and retired hard-liners. He also began to release political prisoners by the hundreds. From 2010 on, Thein Sein removed hundreds of blacklisted names from Tatmadaw records and invited exiled Burmese to return with amnesty. In 2011, the government shockingly ended all prepublication censorship and allowed formerly verboten images of Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in public. Thein Sein also announced that unions could freely organize. He then sought new deals with restive minorities and allowed for constitutionally mandated elections of local assemblies.

In the economic sphere, Thein Sein sold off over 300 state-owned enterprises (without public auction), reformed the country’s exchange rate regime, liberalized foreign investment rules, and imprudently announced a goal of tripling Myanmar’s GDP per capita by 2016 (a feat the Asian Development Bank forecasted as possible by 2030 at the earliest).[8] He also pushed through Parliament a law establishing central bank autonomy. In the social realm, the new government relaxed cultural controls as well, symbolized by permitting movie theaters to screen once-forbidden Western films. In August 2012, Titanic 3D became the first Hollywood film to be legally viewed by Burmese audiences in a generation.

Diplomatically, Thein Sein was also active. He eagerly held meetings with ambassadors and foreign guests to tout his reform program, including high­profile face-to-face meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Engaging regional leaders, he sought to secure Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN, scheduled for 2014—which was once a controversial prospect. At each event, President Thein Sein appeared in public donning civilian clothing rather than the military garb that defined the Myanmar led by his predecessors. In a matter of months, Thein Sein adeptly changed the international image of Myanmar’s government. A sense that the country was finally embracing the new international era permeated the global community. Western governments, which once isolated Myanmar as a pariah state, began to ease sanctions. Beijing, however, proved less enthusiastic about Burma’s new tack, especially after Thein Sein suspended construction of a Chinese-funded dam in Kachin State after fierce local protest.

Most dramatically, one week after the 2010 election, Aung San Suu Kyi was suddenly released from house arrest. She soon held direct meetings with Thein Sein and made public statements extending confidence that his government’s reform program was genuine. After she was freed, the NLD reregistered as a political party and named Aung San Suu Kyi as a candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s lower house.

In by-elections held in April 2012, the NLD won all but one of the forty-four seats it contested. Daw (Aunt) Aung San Suu Kyi—whose party was denied power in 1990 after winning 81 percent of the national vote; the international human rights icon and Nobel Laureate; the daughter of the country’s slain independence hero; the admiring subject of countless news articles, books, documentaries, films, and a critically acclaimed rock anthem; the graceful woman known as “The Lady” who keeps flowers in her hair and who suffered fifteen total years under house arrest as a prisoner of conscience—finally, at last, took her rightful seat in Burma’s Parliament on May 2, 2012.

In her new parliamentary role, the intrepid Aung San Suu Kyi remained cautiously cooperative in her dealings with the regime. Agreeing to stay within constitutional bounds, she pushed Thein Sein’s government for greater reform but avoided overt attempts to delegitimize his authority. Western governments followed her lead. In July 2012, only months before Aung San Suu Kyi visited Washington, DC, where she was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Myanmar to the full­ambassadorial level. An exchange of visits then followed over the next two years between Thein Sein and Barack Obama—the first US president to publicly refer to the country by its official name, Myanmar. In spite of some setbacks, confidence in Myanmar’s reforms continued to grow inside and outside the country.

Undermining confidence in Myanmar’s reforms, however, was Thein Sein’s xenophobic response to horrific sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists—a festering conflict that erupted in 2012 and fully metastasized in 2015. Initially, in Rakhine State, where both groups live, vigilante gangs of Buddhist nationalists began to roam the streets and torch homes and mosques. These attacks led desperate Rohingya to seek refuge and flee by sea on fishing boats, first to neighboring Bangladesh and then later to Malaysia and Indonesia. Upwards of 100,000 Rohingya “boat people” eventually became the subject of international humanitarian focus. Over the duration, Thein Sein’s government fueled the conflict with implicit (and explicit) support of fascist Buddhist monks and Burmese nationalists who publicly encouraged the pogrom.

Having become a regional crisis, neighboring governments, following the ASEAN Way of non-interference, were slow to condemn Myanmar or assist the refugees, at least until Muslim groups in Malaysia and Indonesia pressured their own governments to act. Internationally, human rights groups, organizations, and foreign governments stepped in to partially fill the gap, although most Rohingya remain displaced in Myanmar as of this writing. The NLD, oddly quiet over the matter, seemed worried about the bigger electoral picture, fearing overt support for the Muslim Rohingya might alienate them from majority Buddhist voters. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, having now assumed her new role as a calculating pragmatist, failed to speak out strongly on the issue.

The Rohingya crisis aside, cautious optimism emerged about the prospects of the November 2015 general elections. In the run-up to the elections, Thein Sein, with the backing of Tatmadaw generals, pledged to honor the election outcomes, whatever the results. For its part, the USDP ran a straightforward campaign even as rifts between it and its military allies surfaced. The NLD pursued an aggressive strategy, including a door-knocking campaign and rallies that paraded NLD party founder, former general U Tin Oo (then ninety years old), as one who could build bridges between the NLD and military. One troubling reality for the NLD was the fact that new constitutional rules mandated 25 percent of all legislative seats be reserved for Tatmadaw appointees. Another concern was a carefully crafted rule that disqualified anyone with foreign family ties from officially assuming the presidency.

Myanmar’s fifty-year dictatorial period of military-backed leadership effectively ended on November 8, 2015. On that day, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 53 percent of the national vote and secured nearly 80 percent of contested seats. Serving principally as a “referendum on authoritarian rule,” the historic election was open, lively, and widely engaged by everyday Burmese.[9] Although the Tatmadaw retains a constitutionally mandated legislative role, including the power to block proposed constitutional amendments and control key security ministries, the new NLD-dominated parliament can form a government, select a president, and oversee lawmaking for at least the next five years. As the most powerful figure in the country, Aung San Suu Kyi will begin to lead Burma as its de facto president on February 1, 2016.

Institutions and Social Groups

The Military

Since independence, the Burmese military has played the central role in governmental affairs. No other institutions or social classes have even been allowed to legitimately compete with the military. This reality is highlighted even today by the fact that the military wrote the country’s current constitution, a charter that ensures the military’s control over all security-related ministries, one­quarter of all legislative seats, and the power to block any attempt by elected leaders to amend the constitution.

Initially, the Tatmadaw, a popular pro-independence force under Aung San, was the only credibly unified force in the country during its early years of self-governance. This fact is a major reason why U Nu asked the army to step in and restore political order in 1958. Such a view also underpinned Ne Win’s 1962 full takeover as guardian of state power from elected political parties. In 1988, facing a social revolution, the military reasserted itself again by shuffling top leaders and engaging in a brutal crackdown on protesters. Another major episode of military suppression occurred in 2007 that targeted monks, students, and ordinary citizens engaged in antigovernment protests. Throughout these events, very little was known about how decisions were made among the ruling generals. Whether controlled by Ne Win, SLORC generals, or Than Shwe’s SPDC, meetings remained subject to secrecy among the dozen-plus generals who comprised the junta.

The Tatmadaw grew rapidly from a force of 190,000 in the early 1990s to an estimated 375,000 by 2011, a military second in size only to Vietnam’s in Southeast Asia. The joint US-UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq confirmed the junta’s belief that outside powers can and will team up to invade weak countries. Forever obsessed with security concerns, Than Shwe subsequently expanded the country’s armed forces, doubled the size of its naval fleet, and sought new arms purchases in deals with countries such as China, India, and Israel.

Arms trade with North Korea during Than Shwe’s tenure even raised concerns over the possible exchange of nuclear technology and of a nuclearized Myanmar. In 2012, reformist president Thein Sein publicly vowed to end all arms trade with North Korea and to limit any dealings with Kim Jong Un’s regime within the framework of Security Council resolutions. In the process, comparisons of Myanmar’s generals with the martial state xenophobes who rule North Korea began to disappear.

Going forward, the extent to which the Tatmadaw remains a praetorian king-maker or develops a new role as a professionalized military remains an open question. Constitutional arrangements assure it a role in politics, and unresolved ethnic unrest throughout the country ensures an ongoing role in domestic security and nation building.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Known affectionately by supporters as “Daw Suu” (Aunt Suu) or “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi remains unparalleled as a popular political figure in modern Burma. With a Mandela-esque aura, she remains wildly beloved at home and abroad, a figure of immense significance in the history of Southeast Asia.

Aung San Suu Kyi was schooled in Burma, where she spent her first fifteen years. A member of a prominent family, she was then sent to India, where her mother was ambassador, and then to England to study politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University. She later published books on Burmese history and literature. Prior to 1988, she had no direct political experience and was known primarily as the daughter of Aung San.

Shortly before the 8888 Uprising, she returned to Burma from England to care for her ailing mother. She joined the opposition and, because of her name and superb oratorical ability, began to draw large crowds to her speeches. Burmese women imitated her hair and clothing style. She was cheered for her straightforward attacks against the government and against Ne Win. Her military adversaries, frightened by her mounting popularity, suggested that she was manipulated by communists. On July 20, 1989, the military placed her under house arrest and cut off all communications between her followers and the outside world.

While still under arrest, she was awarded (in absentia) the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1991 for her courageous struggle against the military dictatorship.[10] As a political prisoner, she suffered three detentions for a total of fifteen years following her return to her homeland. Her last detention followed the 2003 clash at Depayin, where she and her supporters were brutally attacked by over 1,000 plainclothes thugs, who held ties with the USDA. Her 2010 release came shortly after Myanmar’s first legislative elections in over twenty years. In 2012 by-elections, in which she was permitted to run, she won 55,902 votes of 65,471 votes cast in her Rangoon township, or 85 percent of the vote. Constitutionally barred from the presidency because she married a foreigner, Aung San Suu Kyi leads the NLD from her constituency seat, which gives her standing in the legislature.


Prior to 2010, Burma’s legislature experienced only two periods of extended life: as a multiparty bicameral body during the contentious U Nu era (1951–1962), and as a rubber-stamp unicameral body during the Ne Win–controlled BSPP era (1974–1988). After the 1990 elections were overturned, military leaders under SLORC and the SPDC removed all vestiges of legislative power and ruled as a military dictatorship. Constitutional reform revived the legislature in 2010.

As a means to outmaneuver the NLD, and annul any claims to the electoral results of the 1990 election, the SPDC began to engage in constitutional reform in 2003. The new charter, approved by voters during the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, established a new bicameral Parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union). Currently, the lower house, the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives), seats 440 representatives: 330 elected from constituencies and 110 appointed military delegates. The upper chamber, the Amytha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities), seats 224 representatives: 168 elected and equally divided between Myanmar’s regions and states, and 56 appointed military delegates. Thus, by constitutional mandate, 25 percent of both houses are designated for the Tatmadaw, a convenient number since any constitutional amendment requires over 75 percent approval in both houses.

After reforms permitted the inclusion of genuine opposition parties since the 2012 by-elections, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw began to develop the feel of a more authentic legislature. Aung San Suu Kyi and opposition colleagues filled a needed role speaking out on issues without recrimination. With majority control following the 2015 elections, the NLD legislative leadership will be put to the test. It remains to be seen how the military bloc will respond to this leadership. Beginning in February 2016, the opportunity for Burma’s reformed Parliament to become a truly legitimate, democratic, law-making institution begins.

Political Parties

The most important party in Myanmar is the National League for Democracy. The party was founded in the wake of the 8888 Uprising by Aung Gyi, U Thura, U Tin Oo, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Both Aung Gyi and U Tin Oo were dissident generals forcibly removed from the Tatmadaw for turning on the regime. Aung Gyi later turned on the NLD itself, resigning after accusing it of being infiltrated by communists. U Tin Oo, after a falling out with Ne Win in 1976, spent years in prison and endured long stints under house arrest, much like Aung San Suu Kyi. After a decade of continuous detention, he was released in 2009 and remains party chairman of the NLD at the spry age of ninety.

That the NLD has survived in spite of being denied power in 1990 by military fiat and suffering subsequent persecution from anti-democracy SLORC and SPDC governments stands as a remarkable testament to its strength and durability. Its victorious reemergence in the 2012 by-elections (winning 43 of 44 contested seats) and its landslide victory in 2015 (winning nearly 80 percent of all contested seats) indicates its current popularity. The extent to which it can maintain this level of support is perhaps doubtful, given that it has never governed. It currently controls 369, or 55 percent, of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw’s total 664 seats (of which 166 are designated for the military and only 498 are contestable).

The party of former president Thein Sein, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), grew out of a 1993 organization founded by Than Shwe, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Set up as a “social welfare organization,” the USDA served as an arm of the SPDC but was not a political party. With branches in major cities and towns throughout Burma, its grassroots presence rose rapidly. Due to privileged access to state resources, it fronted the regime’s cooperative efforts with nascent civil society groups. Its followers appeared in public wearing white long-sleeved shirts and dark green sarongs. Pro-democracy advocates accused the USDA of deploying paramilitary thugs at the Depayin massacre and the crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Prior to the 2010 elections, the USDA formalized itself as a political party and called itself the Union and Solidarity Development Party (USDP). Echoing the strategies of Golkar, which was Suharto’s pro–New Order quasi-party that forcibly co-opted Indonesian bureaucrats and interest groups for three decades, the USDP once stood as the largest pro-junta organization in the country.[11] The USDP’s potential to serve as a public counterweight to the NLD proved negligible in the 2015 elections. Where it once held 259 seats in the lower house, it now holds only 28, a staggering net loss of 231 seats resulting from free elections.

Myanmar’s party system is characterized by two types of parties: national parties and ethnic minority parties. National parties, which run candidates across districts throughout the country, include the NLD and the USDP. Ethnic minority parties coalesce around the regional aspirations of larger minority groups such as the Rakhine (formerly known as Arkanese), Chin, Shan, Mon, and Wa. Some ethnic groups have yet to embrace party politics or are too small to organize their own. In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 elections, some ethnic parties grew anxious that NLD promises to include ethnic parties in a government would not mean any appointed positions. Before the NLD had officially taken its seats in Parliament, it was already feeling the pressure of Myanmar’s complicated ethnic politics.


Burma’s 400,000 Buddhist monks number the same as today’s military. Monks are highly respected as teachers and religious leaders, and in the past their predecessors have toppled kings. Burma’s Buddhist sangha, or monastic order, has been more politically active than the sangha in neighboring Thailand. Keeping the monks from rebellion was a key goal of SPDC policy. The SPDC even tried to infiltrate the monkhood with its own agents, who reported to the junta any dissident activity.[12]

The power of the monks to put political pressure on the junta was demonstrated in 2007. Led by the All Burma Monks Alliance and other groups, the monks brought a moral legitimacy to the demonstrations greater than that of Aung San Suu Kyi. At her gate, monks blessed Suu Kyi. In 2007, they also engaged in the rare practice of thabeik hmauk, or overturning of the offering bowls, by denying opportunity to immoral leaders to make spiritual merit. When Than Shwe and the military refused to apologize for mistreatment at protests, leading monks led several hundred monks on marches around Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda with offering bowls turned symbolically upside-down, a nonviolent affront to regime leaders.

Buddhist monks also are not immune to sectarian politics. In 2012, many marched in support of Thein Sein’s proposal to deport the country’s 800,000 Muslim Rohingya minorities to other countries. In 2012, an ultranationalist Buddhist group dubbed the “969 Movement,” led violent attacks against Rohingya communities at the behest of its chief agitator, monk U Wirathu. 969 was later superseded by an organization titled the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, known as Ma Ba Tha in Burmese. This association rapidly organized in a matter of months, developing branches throughout Myanmar using broadcast and social media. It defines itself as a pro-nationalist, pro-Buddhist movement but critics labeled it fascist, citing as evidence its harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric and push for new restrictions on Muslims under the guise of population control laws.

Ethnic Minority Groups

During the postindependence period, Burma’s ethnic minority groups have continued to view themselves primarily in terms of ethnic nationalism. The Karens, Karenni, Shans, Kachins, and other groups that fought for state autonomy do not trust the government. In their struggle for minority rights, these groups joined the National Democratic Front (NDF) in revolt. The NDF assumed that the peoples of Burma were members of ethnic-linguistic communities who voluntarily came together in 1947 to form the Union of Burma.[13] In this union, equality of communities was to be reflected in their organization as political units, each having power to govern itself, claim to a reasonable share of the nation’s resources, an equal right to develop its land and society, and equal representation in the national government.[14] The states were to be strong and the central government weak. In reality, however, and despite promises to state leaders at the time of independence, the central government became strong and the separate states became weak.

To achieve their goals, the minority ethnic groups organized armed insurgencies to protect their territories and pressure the central government to accept a federated Burma, with ethnic states having autonomy under a federal umbrella government. The most infamous such ethnic warlord was the opium-trading Khun Sa, a Shan figure of Golden Triangle lore who eluded Burmese troops, Thai rangers, and US drug enforcement authorities for over two decades.

Opium itself has a long history in Burma and Southeast Asia. The British, of course, profited from the opium trade and introduced opium poppies for production in upland minority areas. Later, ethnic insurgents such as Khun Sa, as well as the Burmese Communist Party, relied on opium profits to finance their guerrilla activities. At its height, Khun Sa’s Shan United Army commanded 20,000 men. The United States set a $2 million bounty for his capture and estimated that he was responsible for 45 percent of the global heroin trade and sourced 80 percent of heroin trafficked on New York City streets. Ethnic Chinese brokers and Thai traffickers also became players in a drug-dependent civil war. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Burma’s generals got into the action through cease-fire deals where, in exchange for loyalty, they granted rebels autonomy and basic freedom to pursue narcotics. After US agents thoroughly disrupted his network, Khun Sa finally surrendered to Burmese authorities in exchange for immunity from extradition to the United States. After idling away in Rangoon with four wives and making sundry ruby deals, he died in 2007.[15]

Deals between ethnic groups and Myanmar’s government, combined with rising Thai demand for methamphetamines, put Burma’s legendary opium production in decline and into the hands of smaller criminal elements. To service Thailand’s insatiable sex industry, criminal syndicates also engage in human trafficking of Burmese women, many of whom are poor minorities. Ever vulnerable to power, guns, and the mechanisms of exploitation, many of Burma’s ethnic minorities, with long-held goals of state autonomy in a federalized system, await a full conclusion to the world’s longest ongoing civil wars.

In 2001, the NDF and the United Nationalities League for Democracy­Liberated Areas (UNLD-LA) cofounded the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC). Moving the fight from armed insurgency to political diplomacy, the ENC’s mandate has been to engage in a “tripartite dialogue” between Burma’s ethnic minorities, the SPDC, and the NLD. Under Thein Sein, armed conflict gave way to negotiation, with some exceptions. New firefights between Burmese soldiers and the Kachin Independence Army erupted in 2011, in spite of a long-standing truce, and have continued ever since. Various Shan and Wa groups also remain outside any negotiated settlements.

Months prior to the November 2015 elections, the country’s senior general, Min Aung Hlaing, pledged that the military would continue to oversee political life in Myanmar “until ceasefires and peace deals have been concluded with all of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed groups.”[16] The elections themselves were marred by the effective disenfranchisement of many ethnic minorities and the disqualification of ethnic candidates, especially in Muslim areas. It remains to be seen if Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will change course or continue the past approach of insisting that minorities accept central government definitions of “unity” over any federalized arrangement of ethnic autonomy. Only eight of the country’s fifteen armed groups were willing to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement before elections that the NLD was sure to win, which suggests that many ethnic minority groups are taking a wait and see approach.

State-Society Relations and Democracy

For most of its modern history, the Burmese state has been dominated by a small number of rulers and institutions. Absolute monarchs, British administrators, and Burmese military generals have, in turn, borne responsibility for the authoritative decisions affecting Burma’s citizenry. From Ne Win’s 1962 coup until political reforms began in 2010, Burma functioned essentially as a dictatorial state where sovereign authority was concentrated in the hands of a despotic military elite.

As reforms gradually opened political space, and opposition parties began to share power in Parliament, Burma’s state began to transform. The 2015 election marked the definitive end to Burma’s long-standing dictatorial state. The authority of Myanmar’s rulers is now legitimate—the moral right to rule derives from direct popular election. Nevertheless, given current constitutional constraints that ensure a formal military role in politics and governance, it remains unclear how changes to Burma’s state may evolve under the bounded authority of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

Because of its long history of dictatorship, Burma has poorly developed state institutions outside the military. With the possible exception of the Buddhist sangha (monastic order), Burma’s dictatorial state has been autonomous—­independent of societal organizations. External institutions such as Parliament, independent political parties, interest groups, and a free press were forcefully kept at bay, exerting no real influence on state policy. Despite attempts, the Tatmadaw failed to institutionalize pro-regime support through subsidiary social and political organizations such as the BSPP, NUP, USDA, and USDP.

As the Cold War faded in favor of a new international era, Burma’s dictatorial state demonstrated little desire or capacity to adjust to a world of globalization, open markets, and greater democratization. As punctuated by the 1988 protests and the aborted election victory of the NLD in 1990, this failure to adapt undermined the popular legitimacy the Tatmadaw had enjoyed during independence. By the time genuine reform began in 2010, the Burmese people had grown suspicious, skeptical, and cynical about the military, state elites, and an erratic reform process. Society came to view military leaders as crass opportunists rather than as the respected unifiers of the nation. Burma’s dictatorial state had evolved into a patronage operation with low capacity and legitimacy levels. Even under Thein Sein’s civilian leadership, the state retained close management of economic reforms for self-serving ends. New policies and measures promoted oligopolistic control by a select few rather than encouraging societal innovation or entrepreneurship.

During Burma’s dictatorial period, Tatmadaw generals forever justified centralized authority on the grounds of national unity (threatened by ethnic separatism) and national sovereignty (threatened by foreign meddling and intervention). Civil society groups were viewed with suspicion. Travel outside the country was tightly controlled. Myanmar’s rulers were also reluctant to invite technocrats, politicians, intellectuals, or socioeconomic elites to participate in state affairs. The few outsiders brought into the polity had no autonomous political base or constituency.

Burma’s only historical experience with democracy was a brief period under the 1947 constitution after independence, when U Nu supported representative institutions, free elections, and civil liberties. The ineffectiveness of U Nu’s rule was used to rationalize the military takeover of the government in both 1958 and 1962. The military leaders viewed democratic institutions and behavior as foreign to the traditions of the Burmese and a rejected legacy of Western imperialism. In dictatorial Myanmar, democracy was embraced only when qualified. Than Shwe’s roadmap to democracy bore the much-touted and oxymoronic label “discipline-flourishing democracy,” a term the reformist Thein Sein used until he lost power in the 2015 election.

It is difficult to determine if Myanmar is experiencing a genuine democratic transition or trending toward something else. Although profound changes in state-society relations are observable, and progress toward electoral democracy is evident, many questions remain about the country’s institutional development and democratic path. The unleashing of pent up societal forces, combined with unresolved ethnic conflict, high expectations from an emboldened electorate, and the policy inexperience of the country’s new decision-makers suggest the road ahead may range from bumpy to treacherous. As has been observed globally, the introduction of democracy is too often a risky venture that mercilessly exposes the health of a society rather than serving as its elixir.[17]

Economy and Development

The historical similarities between Burma and Thailand are striking. Both nations have had histories of absolute monarchy; both have citizens who have practiced Theravada Buddhism; and both have comparable natural resources and fertile soils for agriculture. In the 1950s, Burma and Thailand also shared a similar size of GNP. In view of these similarities, why has Thailand achieved greater economic success while Burma has failed?

One answer stems from the most obvious difference between the two nations: The Burmese were colonized by the British, whereas the Thais have been independent throughout their history. More so than the Thais, the Burmese have consciously eschewed Western ways, including the materialism and commercialism of Western culture, which the Burmese generals believe have ruined Thai society.

Another answer is that the postindependence governments of Burma chose to isolate their nation from the global economic system, relying instead on government-controlled socialistic economics and autarky. Thailand, on the other hand, opened its economy through a policy of greater market freedom and export­driven growth. The results are dramatic: Thailand’s per capita GDP rose from $100 in the 1950s to almost $5,192 in 2011, whereas in the same period Burma’s rose from $100 to less than $900. Even after Thein Sein’s reforms, when calculated in terms of purchasing power parity, Burma’s per capita income in 2014 was a nearly $10,000 less than Thailand’s ($4,800 and $14,660, respectively).

“The Burmese Way to Socialism,” a nationalist ideology that sought the marriage of Marxism and Buddhism, proved to be an economic failure; it led to neither socialism nor development. In addition to weaknesses inherent to state-controlled production, policies associated with the ideology repressed the Chinese and Indian minorities who served as the core of business and entrepreneurship in other Southeast Asian countries. It also led to a dual economy with a large unofficial black market. Black market prices in Burma were regularly higher than official prices, creating participation incentives for those with access to state resources or imported goods. On the other hand, sellers in the black market ironically benefitted by increasing their incomes and expanding supply, thus reducing consumer frustration. Combined with weak educational and rural development programs, isolation kept Burma poor.

Burma’s economy reached its economic nadir in 1987 when the United Nations granted the once prosperous nation the ignoble status of least-developed country, placing Burma in the same category as Chad, Ethiopia, and Haiti. Whereas Burma once controlled 28 percent of the world’s rice trade, it then controlled only 2 percent.[18] Moreover, the brutal suppression of demonstrators in 1988 ended the few ongoing Western development projects, reducing the external capital that had previously been available to the government.

To counter this cessation of aid, Than Shwe opened border trade in the 1990s with Thailand and China and promulgated more liberal foreign investment laws. Foreign investors were permitted to form either wholly owned enterprises or joint ventures in which the foreign partner was required to hold a minimum 35 percent stake. However, little investment was induced by the government’s policy because of the country’s political instability. What did arrive left quickly. Multinational firms such as PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss & Co., Tommy Hilfiger, and Liz Claiborne all pulled out after short stints. Unfavorable business conditions, pressure from human rights activists, and a 1998 US government ban on new American investment in Burma further inhibited Western investment. In 2004, even more restrictive US laws targeted Burmese imports and prohibited any payments into the country. China, Japan, and ASEAN governments, however, increased economic dealings with junta leaders through policies of “constructive engagement.” Burma joined ASEAN in 1997 and then gradually integrated with the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA).

Unable to compete with Southeast Asia’s newly industrialized countries and China in textiles, manufacturing, and foreign direct investment, Burma’s leaders in the 1990s shifted attention to natural resources. Extractive industries and the energy sector, they realized, were in high demand, and sector revenues often went directly to the state. Burma began to export natural gas and has sold offshore exploration rights to Asian and Western partners. China, for its part, became Burma’s most interdependent trading partner under the SPDC. Seeking to change the route of its Middle East oil shipments to bypass the Malacca Strait, China financed a 1500-mile pipeline from Burma’s western coast to Yunnan, in China’s southwest. Burmese leaders also expanded biodiesel production, coercing some farmers to plant biofuel-friendly physic nut trees. One program, with a goal to convert 8 million acres of farmland to physic nut production, resulted in forced land allocation and production quotas nationwide.[19]

It is difficult to be precise about economic growth in Burma because government figures are unreliable. Even so, confidence in the overall picture is possible. In the early 1990s, Burma’s annual economic growth rate hovered around 1 percent to 2 percent, and the overall standard of living, especially among rural people dependent on agriculture, had fallen. Only the presence of a black market made the economy tolerable. In the mid-1990s, economic growth rates improved to the 4 percent to 6 percent level, as foreign firms flirted with in-country investments. Following its shift in focus to the energy sector and natural gas exports, state revenues rose and civil servants received large pay raises. The country’s trade surplus also grew. Since 2000, Burmese government officials commonly report double-digit growth rates, though many analysts estimate actual rates in the 5 percent to 6 percent range. Growth rates dropped below 4 percent during the 2008 global financial crisis, recovering to 8 percent by 2014.

Whatever claims state officials make regarding growth, Burma’s overall socioeconomic picture remains bleak. Ordinary citizens struggle mightily through a chaotic maze of dual prices, inflation, shortages, bribery, and uncertainty. ­Periods of high inflation, caused in part by sundry salary increases for state employees, have plagued the economy. To finance its chronic budget deficit, the dictatorial regime often resorted to printing money to cover imports of military matériel and luxury goods. At the street level, Burma’s informal sector continues to rival its formal economy in size, and black markets persist in certain controlled areas of the economy, such as banking and currency. The country’s basic infrastructure is poor or nonexistent, especially in the countryside. Wasteful construction projects, such as rebuilding the country’s administrative capital, imposed unnecessary opportunity costs on public funds. Corruption at all levels has been rampant. In its 2014 rankings of 175 countries, Transparency International ranked Myanmar 156. In all of East and Southeast Asia, only North Korea ranks worse.

Years of economic autarky and isolation have left Burma’s people worse off than almost all of their Southeast Asian neighbors. The 2014 Human Development Index, which measures income, life expectancy, and education, now ranks Burma the lowest of all countries in Southeast Asia. Even the neophyte nation­state of Timor-Leste ranks higher. If economic growth picks up in Myanmar as a result of extended NLD leadership, it may still take decades before the country develops the required administrative experience to manage market-­based growth on par with Southeast Asia’s economic tigers.

Foreign Relations

There are many good reasons why the Burmese have emphasized the importance of national security. Their colonial heritage and the Japanese occupation are reminders that Burma has been a victim of both imperialism and aggression. Burma is sFurrounded by nations with far greater populations and military strength, sharing an 800-mile border with India and greater than 1,000-mile borders with China and Thailand. At times, Burma’s ethnic minorities have been supported by outsiders, linked with the drug trade, and associated with elements of the Burmese Communist Party. Moreover, the nation’s Indian and Chinese minorities have an influence in the Burmese economy disproportionate to their numbers. Finally, military governments have viewed westernization as a threat to Burmese traditional culture.

The government’s response to this insecurity has been a policy of nonalignment. Earlier, Burma attempted to maintain an isolationist foreign policy by refusing to participate in the Indochina conflict, eschewing aid from various nations, and, until the late 1990s, forgoing membership in ASEAN. However, isolationism did not foster economic growth and, under the SPDC, Burma moved to a policy of modified isolationism. Under Thein Sein, modified isolation gave way to a new strategy to open the country. For the first time since 1962, Burmese leaders have begun to prioritize economic imperatives over security concerns and paranoia.

Relations with Thailand have often been tense because of the history of conflict between the two nations. However, relations improved following the 8888 Uprising when Burma, after renaming itself Myanmar, desperately agreed to Thai requests to exploit its teak forests in exchange for needed foreign capital. Burmese concessions to Thai companies, which were prohibited from logging in Thailand due to new environmental laws, permitted the extraction of 1.2 million tons of logs annually.[20] Thai politicians and military leaders later visited Myanmar to coordinate trade, drug eradication, and offshore oil exploration. Unsurprisingly, Thailand was the first country Burmese generals permitted (belatedly) to offer relief aid for cyclone victims in 2008. After her 2010 release, Aung San Suu Kyi’s first visit was to Thailand and to Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border. In 2012, President Thein Sein and Prime Minister Yingluck signed a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly establish Myanmar’s first economic zone: the Dawei Deep Seaport and Special Economic Zone.

As a result of economic reform, relations with Myanmar’s other major neighbors, India and China, warmed up as well. After the 8888 Uprising, the Indian government expressed support for the Burmese people’s resolve to achieve democracy. The two countries now trade in arms and share interests in Myanmar’s offshore gas and oil. China, even more aggressively than India, cultivated relations with Myanmar during the SPDC period of modified isolationism. Border trade, energy interests, the prospect of a trans-Burma oil pipeline to Yunnan, and common interpretations of state sovereignty brought the two countries closer together; however, concern over ongoing minority unrest along the China-Myanmar border, and Kachin refugees fleeing into China, did not. Moreover, leery of President Barack Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia, China has been less sanguine about improved US-Myanmar relations. China’s fears were assuaged somewhat as a result of a week-long party-to-party visit to China by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi months prior to the 2015 general election.

In 1990, the United States downgraded its representation in Burma from an ambassador to a chargé d’affaires but did not fully sever relations following antigovernment protests. To the extent that any cooperation between the two governments followed, it was primarily to address narcotics trafficking in the region. Otherwise, after abrogating 1990 election results, Burma faced one tough US sanction measure followed by another. The Clinton and Bush administrations repeatedly condemned Burma’s oppressive system, imposed various trade restrictions, and limited the international financial activity of regime leaders. In a rare foreign policy venture, First Lady Laura Bush publicly chided junta leaders following Cyclone Nargis in a speech to an international audience.

On her first trip to Asia as President Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton announced that the US policy on Burma was under review in hopes of encouraging “more effective” political and economic reform to “help the Burmese people.” In November 2011, Thein Sein’s reform program received official American endorsement when Secretary Clinton paid a visit to Naypyidaw, as well as to the Rangoon home of the recently released Aung San Suu Kyi. A year later Thein Sein was granted a visa to the United States, something that was unthinkable for junta leaders just a few years earlier. While in the United States, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York and pledged that he would not backtrack on reforms, drawing comparisons to Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. A full restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries occurred in 2012.

ASEAN, a body committed to noninterference, struggled with the junta’s ongoing repression since it admitted Burma into the organization. In the body’s history, no single member has put ASEAN’s aversion to political interference to the test as much as has Myanmar. Following the violent events of 2007, one caucus of ASEAN state parliamentarians even proposed Myanmar’s expulsion from the body. In general, however, ASEAN leaders had long argued that international sanctions only deepened Myanmar’s isolation and instead pursued constructive engagement, which they believed was more likely to produce democratic reform.[21] By 2015, Myanmar’s trajectory toward political democracy, ironically, appeared as robust or more robust than most of its ASEAN partners, many of whom were rapidly backsliding into illiberalism and authoritarianism.

Nonetheless, no sooner had Western countries restored ties, eased sanctions, and begun to claim policy success with respect to Myanmar’s democratic progress than the Rohingya crisis erupted and dampened international optimism. Widely broadcasted images and headline stories of desperate Rohingya families fleeing Myanmar’s sectarian violence gripped the international community for much of 2015. Thein Sein’s initial indifference to the matter was eventually called out by observers as tacit complicity with Burma’s ultranationalist Buddhists. Due to his failures, as well as ASEAN’s reluctance to lead, the United Nations ultimately stepped in to organize an international response that helped ameliorate the crisis.

As world leaders welcomed the 2015 elections and sent formal congratulations to NLD leaders, few were able to do so publicly without also referencing the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. Given the decades of principled support for her human rights cause, many in the international community struggled to simply dismiss Aung San Suu Kyi’s noticeable silence on the Rohingya matter as excusable pre-election posturing. It was a reminder to foreign governments that, going forward, Myanmar’s foreign policy is likely to be driven by domestic pressures, regardless of who may be in power. Like elsewhere, it is possible that Myanmar’s new NLD government will respond to foreign pressure, defer to international law, and conduct its foreign policy on democratic principles when it is most politically expedient to do so.


However condemned by the NLD and international critics, the 2008 post–­Cyclone Nargis constitutional referendum was, to Myanmar’s ruling generals, the beginning of a new era of political and economic reform. Starting in 2010, through a series of unexpected but welcome moves, Myanmar’s ruling generals began to irreversibly transform their own regime.

The political changes underway in Myanmar today are the most promising political developments the Burmese have experienced in decades. Cautious optimism that they will be successful is shared by Aung San Suu Kyi and the international community as well as the United Kingdom (Burma’s former colonizer) and the United States (the major force behind long-standing sanctions against its leaders). Arguably, Burmese society is now poised to enjoy some of the political, economic, and social opportunities common elsewhere in the region. If current trends persist, overall human development in Myanmar, currently the lowest in Southeast Asia, is likely to improve going forward.

Because the consequences of democratic reversal at this point would be so severe politically and economically, it is difficult to imagine yet another 1990-style about-face by the Tatmadaw. Undeniably, the country has experienced political disappointment and tragedy before, such as with the 1947 assassination of Aung San and the 1990 nullification of election results by the military. In these cases, the promise of visionary leadership was unexpectedly ripped from the Burmese people. One must not rule out the possibility that the Tatmadaw leadership, or some faction within it, may engineer yet another political reversal, but that scenario seems increasingly unlikely.

Only hours after the 2015 poll, Daw Suu, “The Lady,” revealed her party’s plans that she alone would stand “above the president”; “I’ll make all the decisions,” she declared to the world.[22] However justified in victory she was to make such a pronouncement, it is fair to wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi may one day regret those words. Given the country’s long-standing ethnic and developmental challenges, taking responsibility for “all of the decisions” that will affect 56 million people who have yet to coalesce into a stable nation stands as a daunting task.

The track record of democratic development elsewhere in Southeast Asia suggests a rocky road lies ahead for Myanmar. The country’s fundamental ethnic tensions persist, and questions over regional autonomy and federalism remain unresolved. Indeed, the biggest challenge for any Burmese ­government—whether liberal, illiberal, or authoritarian—lies in crafting the yet-to-be-­discovered formula of federalism that keeps ethnic tensions at bay while allowing for the equitable allocation of both the powers of the state and the benefits of the market across Burma’s disparate populations. Myanmar’s restless borderlands, its pervasive poverty, and rising sectarian tensions between Buddhists and Muslims ominously remind both Burmese and outsiders alike that the twin ideals of republicanism and union—which now share a place alongside “Myanmar” in the country’s official name—currently remain more aspirational than real.


[1] The r in Burma is not pronounced but serves to lengthen the “ah” sound. The word is pronounced approximately as “Bamar” with the “b” and “m” sounds fairly indistinct. This chapter uses the names Burma and Myanmar interchangeably, with some preference for using Burma for historical, cultural, and social contexts and for continuity with previous editions. Written prior to recent political reforms, the first five editions of this book used only Burma. Most governments, scholars, and media outlets have now adopted the use of Myanmar, although Burma is still widely acceptable.
[2] December 2015.
[3] Burma Watcher, “Burma in 1988,” Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (February 1989): 174.
[4] Thant Myint U, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 32–34.
[5] Ibid., 35.
[6] Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Myanmar in 2003: Frustration or Despair?” Asian Survey 44, no. 1 (January/February 2004): 88.
[7] For an excellent account of Cyclone Nargis, see Emma Larkin, No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma (New York: Penguin, 2010).
[8] David Steinberg, “Myanmar in 2010: The Elections Year and Beyond,” in Southeast Asian Affairs 2011, ed. Daljit Singh (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011), 173–189; Michael Schuman, “Will Burma Become Asia’s Next Economic Tiger?” Time, August 22, 2012,
[9] Chaw Chaw Sein and Nicholas Farrelly, “The Meaning of Myanmar’s 2015 Election: Summary Paper,” 2016, ANU Myanmar Research Center.
[10] Aung San Suu Kyi later accepted her award in person in a second ceremony in 2012.
[11] See chapter 8 of this book for a full account of Indonesia’s Golkar party under Suharto.
[12] Larkin, No Bad News for the King, 138.
[13] Josef Silverstein, “National Unity in Burma: Is It Possible?” in Durable Stability in Southeast Asia, ed. Kusuma Snitwongse and Sukhumbhand Paribatra (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), 80.
[14] Ibid., 80–81.
[15] “Obituary: Khun Sa,” The Economist, November 8, 2007, /node/10097596.
[16] Jonah Fisher, “Myanmar’s Strongman Gives Rare BBC Interview,”, July 20, 2015,
[17] Robert Kaplan, “Was Democracy Just a Moment,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1997.
[18] Maureen Aung-Thwin, “Burmese Days,” Foreign Affairs 68, no. 2 (February 1989): 150.
[19] Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung and Maung Aung Myoe, “Myanmar in 2006: Another Year of Housekeeping?” Asian Survey 47, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 197.
[20] James F. Guyot and John Badgley, “Myanmar in 1989,” Asian Survey 30, no. 2 (February 1990): 191.
[21] For an excellent treatment of ASEAN and the dilemmas that shape the organization, see Donald K. Emmerson, “Introduction,” in Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (Stanford: The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2008), 3–56.
[22] Claire Phipps and Matthew Weaver, “Aung San Suu Kyi Vows to Make All the ­Decisions—As It Happened,” The Guardian, November 10, 2015,

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Southeast Asia in the New International Era

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by Robert Dayley


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