Pro-democracy protestors hold up flag representing various ethnic groups and organizations at a protest in Mandalay on February 22, 2021. (Frontier)

Myanmar: Failed state or failed nation?

The recent talk of Myanmar being a “failed state” overlooks a potentially bigger issue: that the people of Myanmar do not share a sense of a united Myanmar identity despite decades of effort by military and civilian governments alike to cultivate one.


Following the chaos caused by the February 1 coup, many have begun to call Myanmar a “failed state” – a term that has been used extensively in the past few decades to characterise countries and governments that collapsed or are dysfunctional. The term covers a wide range of bureaucratic and other sins, and has been used for a variety of levels of mal-administration – from its absence to authoritarian control.

Although there are numerous definitions of the term, an administration that cannot provide normal state functions, such as defence, rule by law and some sense of justice, access to reasonable education, social and economic security and standards, and an internationally acceptable stance honouring such commitments can be called a failed state. Such states often experience internal violence, corruption, crime, poverty and decaying infrastructure.

In Myanmar, the breakdown of governance in all fields – most notably health under an explosive COVID-19 outbreak – constitutes a human tragedy that the world should not ignore. Anti-military demonstrations, resistance and rebellion, resulting in widespread arrests and close to 1,000 deaths and even more casualties, are rife throughout the country, compounding the chaos. It is now questionable whether any near-term government can mitigate this downward trajectory of the human condition.

But common “failed state” definitions ignore the possibility that although an administration may fail to supply its population with a reasonable standard of living, it may be considered a strong state through its coercive power – the weight of its military, police or intelligence apparatus in internal control.  

That control in Myanmar is currently in great dispute, and the outcome is uncertain. The Tatmadaw still seems unified in its efforts to extend the dominance it has effectively had since independence in 1948. The military leadership has been able to maintain cohesion and prevent destructive schisms of its power structure in spite of internal rivalries. Because of this unity, it may prevail for a time against the wishes of much of the population, which was expressed first in the 2020 election results, and later through mass protests and the Civil Disobedience Movement. 

But the wishes of the population matter. A strong failed state might not easily collapse, but it may only temporarily be powerful because its authority is not based on popular acquiescence or support. It could break down through the reallocation or destruction of its coercive assets, or due to splits within its authoritarian structure.

But defining Myanmar as a failed state does not strike at the core of some of the country’s underlying problems, namely that since independence in 1948 the country we now know as Myanmar has been a failed nation even when it has not been a failed state.

Divided from the beginning

“Nation” only partly alludes to a recognised country or state. It is internal – emotional to members of that society – as distinct from the legal norms associated with the word “state”. So, one might be a member or citizen of a state but emotionally not part of that particular self-defined group. 

The term “nation” refers to a group of people who identify themselves as belonging to a group sharing norms and values, having some common history, and who are usually ensconced on a particular territory. They usually have a sense of affinity or loyalty to similar people sharing that territory.

In other words, a nation is a state to which there is an overarching emotional identity and loyalty. This transcends the locality of residence, the affinity of religion, linguistic or cultural preferences, heritage or experience, all of which may be important but are subsumed by a transcendental affinity.  

There is probably no country in recorded history, or in the modern world, that is homogenous in all the factors noted above. States everywhere have been torn asunder: by ethnic-regional differences, by those that have continuing struggles for national unity, and by those in which some elements of the population have been exploited, misused, denied opportunities, or rendered politically, socially, and/or economically mistreated. Myanmar is one of a very long such list.

Why, then, may Myanmar be unique? 

This in part stems from the very formation of the state itself and the negotiations with the British colonial rulers for independence. Burma in the pre-colonial period was a strong, often aggressive, country ruled by ethnic Bamar leaders ruled over their ethnic territory as well as un-demarcated areas of other ethnicities now considered parts of neighbouring countries. It forcibly incorporated the Kingdom of Arakan in 1785 and later quietly absorbed Karenni (now Kayah State), which was recognised as independent by both the Burmese court and the British. 

During the struggle for independence, British Burma had to decide if it was one country or several entities. The Panglong agreement of February 12, 1947, effectively placed the single country in the hands of the Bamar ethnic group even though a federal system was promised to minority leaders at that conference. This resulted in multiple insurgencies for either localised independence or some modified federal sharing of power and resources.

Burma/Myanmar has struggled for unity since independence, in part due to state attempts to promote unity under Bamar auspices through ceremonies, education, social coercion or by force. This ran contrary to explicit provision of its constitutions that called for respect of minority cultures. Instead, minorities have suffered economic discrimination and social and political marginalisation, compounded by the extensive, valuable natural resources of the minority areas, their economic potential, and their strategic location bordering on China and India. Many groups believed they could administer their regions more effectively than the Bamar centre.

The result has been calls for independence and revolts against the central Bamar authorities by many minoritised groups. These continued, and even expanded, over the next two generations, as the ruling Tatmadaw denied ethnic minority groups any significant degree of local autonomy, and labelled federalism the first step toward secession. 

Meeting of Myanmar and military political leaders in 2016 about the peace process. (Frontier)

A lack of “we-ness”

This fear of separatism resulted in national unity being the main focus of the Tatmadaw since independence, along with preventing any secession. This concern has affected not only military policies, but recruitment into military leadership and education policies for the state as a whole. 

The Tatmadaw began to, at least in theory, accept the largely undefined term of “federalism” from about 2012. However, the degree and provisions of a future federal system were still disputed among the various ethnic groups. The government, under both Tatmadaw and the civilian National League for Democracy, has been singularly inept in such negotiations despite the latter being led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, General Aung San, promised such governance at the Panglong meeting in 1947. 

At the 2018 Panglong meeting, Min Aung Hlaing said he was in favour of the peace process, but justified the Tatmadaw’s extraordinary powers on the grounds that it is a unique reflection of the country. “[Ethnic organizations] in some areas do not represent 52 million people. Likewise the political parties represent only those who support them. Our Tatmadaw, being born out of the entire people, represents the state and the people,” he said.

He was wrong then and now – the senior leadership of the military has been and is under the most recent coup exclusively Buddhist-Bamar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, which one might have expected to be more concerned with their wellbeing and stature because of her father’s role in promoting federalism, has been remarkably insensitive to their needs and history.

The National Unity Government, a parallel administration that the Tatmadaw regards as illegal and treasonous, has made some overtures to the ethnic groups, but for many it’s too little and far too late. 

“Nationhood” may contain both positive and negative attributes: pride in the state’s accomplishments in international, often artificial, fora (sports, the Olympics, beauty contests, etc), or prejudice against the “other” (the Rohingya, for example), or feelings that rapid social change is fearful and unity is needed against the “other” (eg, race, religious groupings). As a positive element, essential trust over the long term (and thus hope) is necessary. It has been lacking in Myanmar between the Tatmadaw and the minorities, between many minority groups and the NLD, and among the ethnic groups themselves, since the various ethnic group territories intertwine, with only rare exceptions.     

One is first a Kachin, Karen, or some other ethnic group which happens to reside in what is now known as Myanmar. And the majority Bamar have effectively excluded the minorities from positions of power, or given them formalistic, titular designations of ceremonial intent alone (the powerless presidency in the post-independence civilian period, a vice-presidency since 2011). Yet almost all significant minorities share space across international frontiers, undercutting such national loyalties. The Shan in Thailand and Yunnan Province, the Nagas in India, the Wa and Kachin (Jingpaw) in Yunnan, the Mon and Karen straddling the Thai border, and the Rohingya on the Bangladesh frontier, among many, many others.

There is effectively no overarching inclusive emotional reaction that places all the peoples together in a primary self-defined nation. The exception is under perceived international duress – for example, a time of war. Invasions from abroad are outmoded forms of imperialism, but economic control and social hierarchies perceived to be imposed from abroad are contemporary examples of such duress.

A sense of “we-ness” is lacking despite considerable coercive but ineffectual efforts by a variety of governments, both military and civilian, to instil such concepts. February 12 is Union Day, which celebrates the Panglong Conference and the decision of minorities to be part of the newly independent Burma, but it is “Myanmafied” – that is, pursued in a Bamar context. One example is place names, which have been Burmanised from their original minority designations. The cultural approach by the centre to the periphery has both been inept and lacking credibility.

If, under some remarkable but unlikely shift in politics and power, Myanmar were to evolve into a “non-failed” state through effective and open administration, popular support and sufficient foreign assistance, that transition could be relatively quick and productive. Popular governments would be less likely to tolerate corruption and inefficiencies, and result in stronger policy execution. The example from the top is vitally important. But to treat ethnic groups with equality requires positive changes in the administrative structure of power and opportunity, the educational system, and the elimination of the prejudicial attitudes that have been instilled in the Bamar populace for generations. 

This will require decades of concerted effort by all involved. Even if it were to occur, it would be a slow, uneven process, disheartening to many. And so, the tragedy of Myanmar is likely to continue, and Myanmar today remains both a failed state and a failed nation, and its peoples continue to be deprived and suffer. Would that it were not so.

David I Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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