Myanmar’s other struggles for democracy: narratives and conceptual contest in the Burmese democracy movement
AffiliationSchool of Social and Political Sciences
Document TypePhD thesis
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© 2016 Dr. Tamas Wells
Democracy inspires many social movements around the world. Yet there is no consensus about its meaning. This thesis examines the Burmese democracy movement in the years leading up to the 2015 election victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. I argue that attention to the ways democracy was given meaning amongst activists, opposition leaders and aid workers in Myanmar reveals important conceptual contests. These were struggles not between military elites and the Burmese democracy movement but within the democracy movement, and with its Western supporters – what I have described as ‘other’ struggles for democracy. The concept of narrative can unlock new perspectives on the way democracy is given meaning by political actors, and especially in the construction of meaning through conceptual contest. Drawing on fifty formal interviews and three months of observation in Myanmar (in 2013 and 2014) - within activist networks, aid agencies and the National League for Democracy - this study revealed three contrasting narratives. An institutional narrative, prominent amongst Western aid workers, emphasised the problem of personalised politics and the need for capacity building to develop formal democratic institutions. A benevolence narrative, common amongst activist leaders, highlighted the problem of dictatorial leadership and the need for unity, discipline and selfless leadership in the country’s democratization. Finally, an equality narrative, prominent in other activist networks, stressed the problem of hierarchy in Burmese culture and a vision of democracy as relational equality. As simplified stories containing diverse visions, challenges and strategies, these narratives were important means through which democracy was understood and communicated. Yet activists and aid workers also used narratives of democracy to position themselves in relation to rivals - to establish themselves, and their allies, as experts who could define what ‘genuine’ democracy was, and was not. Conceptual contests in the democracy movement were not only over contrasting visions, challenges and strategies; they were also over the construction of ‘characters’. In other words, narratives were not neutral but a way in which activists, opposition leaders and aid workers could exercise power in a discursive form. Finally, while narratives were in some ways a means for the exercise of power, these struggles were not always overt in the democracy movement, and in fact the nature of narratives and their associated practices often served to obscure conceptual contests. Myanmar has freed itself from military rule. Yet as democracy is increasingly held up as a valued political concept, it is crucial to unpack the many ways in which it is given meaning. This study extends the democratization literature by explicitly addressing the plurality of meanings of democracy. It also furthers the agenda of interpretive studies of democracy, and studies on the transmission of global norms, by highlighting the role of context specific conceptual contests in creating meaning. I conclude that uncovering these other struggles for democracy, and inevitable contests over democracy’s meaning, also challenges prevailing notions of how democracy can be ‘promoted’. Democracy may be a widely valued concept, yet it will remain impossible to pin down.
Keywordsdemocracy; myanmar; burma; narrative
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