Shona Loong discusses what Rebel Politics tells us about peacebuilding among Karen communities.
This is Part Two of a four-part commentary on David Brenner’s monograph, Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (Cornell University Press, 2019), in which the authors reflect on war and peace in Myanmar from various scholarly and activist perspectives. The Introduction can be found here.
Part One, by Lee Jones, discusses the merits of the book in light of wider trends in the fields of Myanmar Studies and Conflict Studies. Part Two, by Shona Loong, reflects on the relevance of David’s book to peacebuilding efforts in Karen State. Part Three, by Kai Htang Lashi, reads David’s book from the perspective of a Kachin diaspora activist. Each of these pieces reflects the unique point of view of individual authors. Finally, in Part Four, David responds to these critiques.
Any keen observer of ethnic conflict in Myanmar has to confront the sheer complexity of its ongoing civil war.
Imagine a map of Myanmar populated by little figures meant to represent each ethnic armed organisation superimposed on the territories they claim; a mishmash of overlapping colours and lines. Now imagine this map changing over time, to reflect successive ‘tides of war and peace’ (in David’s words) washing over Myanmar’s border areas. The map would have altered significantly at many points, including the 1994 KIO ceasefire, the resumption of the Kachin conflict in 2011, the 2012 KNU ceasefire, and the 2015 NCA. I have been learning about Myanmar for three years, but these maps continue to leave me both fascinated and utterly confused.
With this in mind, I appreciate the clarity with which David’s book explains Myanmar’s civil wars. Maps of Myanmar’s multi-fronted ethnic conflicts seem perplexing because of the multitude of actors they scatter across Myanmar’s edges and frontiers; Rebel Politics makes clear that no matter the number of actors, there are similar dynamics that drive each front of the civil war. A crucial part of this dynamic, the book argues, has to do with how grassroots actors perceive themselves as recognised by armed groups and embedded in the social structures that support them.
Yet maps also occlude, because they present only the military dimensions of rebellion. They rarely, if ever, account for the qualitative manner in which local people relate to armed organisations, or the way in which power is ‘located within social relations’ encompassing rebels, communities, and the wider socio-political milieu, ‘rather than the sole property of rebel leaders.’ (Brenner 2019, 104). An emphasis on these ‘rebel social figurations’ (Brenner 2019, 104) distinguishes David’s analysis from many existing analyses of ethnic conflict in Myanmar, which often focus on political leaders and business interests.
David makes clear that Rebel Politics was possible only through an ethnographic approach, during which he spent four months each with the KIO and the KNU. Ethnography lends texture to the book: we read about revolutionary songs in Kachinland’s karaoke bars, and how factionalism within the KNU plays out in sleeping and eating arrangements at the organisation’s meetings. These incidents humanize rebels, portraying them as individuals with their own careful readings of the peace process, who are part of a wider social and economic context. They show very well that maps can never be the whole story.
During my research on Karen State, I encountered several portrayals of the KNU. INGOs complained that the NLD government was top-down, bureaucratic, authoritarian; in contrast, the KNU was perceived as decentralised to a fault. They bemoaned having to meet with several levels of the KNU when implementing projects, including representatives at the central, district, and department levels, and earn the buy-in of KNLA Brigades. They joked darkly that the KNU showed the inefficiencies of the federal system.
I also encountered strikingly different perceptions of the KNU among its constituencies. My interest in the Karen was precipitated by speaking with Karen migrants in Mae Sot in 2016, who felt like the KNU had done nothing for them. They pointed to houses where KNU leaders allegedly lived, wondering how they could attain luxuries when migrants were struggling to eke out a living. In contrast, while people in the northern areas of Karen State are, too, critical of the KNU’s top leaders, they nonetheless relate to the KNU’s brand of ethnonationalism. When it comes to their protection and flourishing, they see much more hope in the KNU than in the Bamar-centric Myanmar government.
It is a mental struggle to square these portrayals of the KNU: one, as a fractured political actor; two, as inclined towards corruption and warlordism; and three, as a virtuous actor, seeking the protection of people who have been marginalised by the state. All these portrayals of the KNU are “true,” in the sense that they are expressed by people who encounter they KNU in some form, on the ground. However, these fly in the face of conventional academic understandings of rebellion, within Myanmar studies and without, that see rebel movements as monolithic struggles against the central state.
Rebel Politics explains why rebellion can wear many faces, instead of wishing these contradictions away. David uses Paul Staniland’s framework of the horizontal ties (between elites) and vertical ties (between elites and grassroot actors) that constitute rebellion to develop three layers of the rebel social network—incumbent leaders, aspirant elites, and grassroots. In the context of the KNU, David uses incumbent leaders to refer to a faction of powerful KNU leaders, aspirant elites to an internal opposition, and grassroots actors to refer to rank-and-file rebels as well as local communities in areas claimed by the KNU. He argues that rebellion depends on the relationships between these layers, which vary across rebel territories. This framework helps to explain how people who encounter the KNU can have vastly different interpretations of its legitimacy.
For example, in the KNU’s mountainous northern territories, state penetration is limited. This allows the social contract between grassroots actors and aspirant elites to remain intact, to the extent that rebellion is ‘enmeshed in local communities to an extent that conflates the social identities of local communities and the Karen revolution’ (59). Hence, even as grassroots actors in these areas are critical of the KNU’s top leaders for signing the 2012 ceasefires and the 2015 NCA, they still relate strongly to the KNU’s brand of ethnonationalism.
In contrast, most of the young migrants I spoke to in Mae Sot, who saw the KNU as a corrupt, self-seeking actor, were born in the Hpa-An area after 1995. Rebel Politics explains that in these southern, lowland areas claimed by the KNU, the social contract between grassroots actors and aspirant elites is much weaker. Grassroots actors perceive that the KNU has failed to protect them from the ills of ceasefire capitalism, as manifest in SEZs and large infrastructure projects. Hence Rebel Politics provides an explanatory framework for varying perceptions of the KNU’s legitimacy across its territories, and a powerful rejoinder to simplistic, monolithic portrayals of rebel movements in scholarly work.
Rebel Politics does not claim to be a book about peace, but its insights are timely in this respect. Myanmar’s peace process is widely acknowledged to be stagnating, not least because of the KNU’s yet-unresolved departure from the peace process in October 2018. Today, there is a broad consensus among Karen CBOs that ceasefires have not brought meaningful and sustainable peace to Karen communities, but this leaves an unanswered question in its wake: if the official peace process cannot build peace, what will?
This question again reveals the relevance of David’s framework, rooted in relational political sociology. Policymakers have often conceptualised peace as an outcome achievable by negotiation among elite leaders, through official channels. Rebel Politics critiques this in its final chapter, when David offers two provocations to policymakers: firstly, that talks led by leaders of armed organisations, without the buy-in of communities, will create new internal divisions. Secondly, that co-opting rebel elites via business opportunities alienates grassroots. In both cases, elite-dominated peacebuilding has the opposite effect of contributing to drivers for violence.
The power of David’s framework is that it helps us to ask a different, better question. That question is not whether or not ceasefires are implemented well, how many actors there are at the peace table, or what issues have resulted in deadlock. Instead, we should be asking how peace can be made accountable to the people that hope to experience it. Any conception of peace that does not take the grassroots seriously is bound to fail. Myanmar’s peace process has overemphasised horizontal ties—or the ties between elites—over the vertical, to its own detriment.
In addition, David’s book prompts us to ask where peace might be possible. Surely the end goal is peace on a national scale, but the fact that rebel social figurations are present in numerous forms, even within Kachinland and Kawthoolei, shows that perhaps peace is better conceptualised on a local scale. Instead of imposing peace on the terms of elites, perhaps there are places where trust between the grassroots and rebel leaders is already a firm feature of the local landscape.
Here I am thinking about the Salween Peace Park, a peacebuilding initiative in KNU-controlled northern Karen State. Across a territory of more than 5,000km2, Karen communities indigenous to the area, Karen CBOs, and the Mutraw district KNU have established a local constitution that gives communities a greater say in cultural survival, natural resource governance, and justice. Not only is this this initiative unrecognised by the government of Myanmar, it is also associated with the KNU’s internal opposition.
To me, this initiative offers a rare promise to break the mould of the official peace process. By giving communities, district KNU, and CBOs the unprecedented space to make decisions on the same level, the Peace Park creates a new, localised balance of power that is only possible within this particular rebel social figuration. In this sense, Rebel Politics points towards possibilities, not just critique. It’s helped me to locate my reading of the Salween Peace Park in the uneasy relations between rebel elites and their grassroots.
It would be a grave error to dismiss how relations between authorities and grassroots are central to the ‘tides of war and peace’ that have ebbed and flowed through Myanmar over the past seven decades. After all, it is within these relations that peace might be realised. Rebel Politics is timely, novel, and instructive in this respect.
Rebel Politics will be available free and open access until 30 June 2020 through this link, courtesy of Cornell University Press.
Shona Loong is a DPhil student in human geography at the University of Oxford. Her ongoing research aims to understand how civil society and development actors are reshaping governance dynamics in Karen State, across areas controlled by the central government and the KNU. She is interested in understanding the role that civil society plays in reshaping social relations among civilians, and between civilians and armed groups, after war.