From coup d'etat to 'Disciplined Democracy' : the Burmese regime's claims to legitimacy

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McCarthy, Stephen
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Burma (Myanmar) has experienced continuous military rule for almost half a century. During this time, the armed forces (Tatmadaw) have developed a series of claims aimed to legitimize their continued ruling of the country. Political legitimacy in Burma can be examined historically, through different periods of rule, or by themes and the transitions from one source of legitimacy to another. This paper will blend the historical and thematic as it concentrates on the sources of legitimacy relied upon by the Tatmadaw since it first came to power. In addition, the paper will discuss the foreign perceptions of legitimacy and influences that the international community have had on the regime’s search for legitimacy in recent years. The Tatmadaw’s early claims to legitimacy rested upon their success in the battle against ethnic separatist and communist insurgencies, at which time the survival of state unity was a paramount objective – both during the post-independence democratic period (from 1948–58, and 1960–62) and for many years following their coup of 1962. In time, they also came to rely upon some of the same claims to legitimacy that were made during Burma’s only experiment with democracy – the most significant of these was based in Burma’s historical Buddhist traditions, a claim that all rulers have had to make in this devout Buddhist country. Well aware that in Burmese historical tradition the promotion and defence of Buddhism ultimately confirmed a kings’ legitimacy, the Tatmadaw set about reinvigorating the monarchy and promoting their piety. This transition was imposed upon them by the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi, who courted the Sangha and developed political rhetoric that infused Buddhist ideas with democratic principles. Because Suu Kyi and the NLD offered a political alternative in terms of Western democracy and liberalism, they posed a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Tatmadaw’s authoritarian rule – this threat intensified following the Sangha’s siding with the pro-democracy movement in the demonstrations of 1988 and 1990. By promoting Buddhism, the generals attempted to respond to the threat of Suu Kyi while at the same time assume the legitimacy of a Burmese monarch for themselves.

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© 2010 Griffith Asia Institute and the Author(s). The attached file is reproduced here in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher. Please refer to the publisher’s website for further information.

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Government and Politics of Asia and the Pacific

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