A “Three Insecurities Perspective” for the Changing Myanmar

Maung Zarni

A “Three Insecurities Perspective” for the Changing Myanmar.

Changes in Myanmar over the past three years have indeed been dizzying. A cursory look at the turn of events since 201 in will persuade any doubters of the genuineness of the country’s transition. The question, however, is where it is transitioning to and how best to understand the transition?

After their visits to Myanmar, Thomas Carothers and Larry Diamond, two of the world’s leading scholars of democratization, reached a similar conclusion: Naypyidaw’s goals, definition and modus operandi of ‘democracy’ are at odds with the essence of a representative government.

Carothers likens Myanmar’s reforms with the Arab leadership’s top-down reforms in the decade prior to the violent Arab Spring. In his own words, “The steps taken by Arab governments were not democratizing reforms, rather they were carefully circumscribed efforts designed precisely to head off the possibility of true democratization by alleviating popular dissatisfaction with regimes.” 1 Diamond was more direct, “I think the transition is still very much in an early stage and it is not clear by any means at this point that electoral democracy will be the outcome of it or that electoral democracy is the intended outcome.” 2

But why is the international community cuddling the country’s ex-generals and generals and showering Naypyidaw with “aid packages” worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of the people, reforms and democratic transition? These global words of praise and aid for the reformists are taking place at the same time as the unfolding Rohingya’s ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, 3 the anti-Muslim mass violence by the “neo-Nazi Buddhist campaign” 4, the sharp rise in Kachin war refugees, and Naypyidaw’s widely reported complicity and responsibility? 5

The blunt answer is “global capitalism.” Myanmar’s generals have agreed to the externally assisted transformation of the country’s ailing political economy along free market lines in exchange for access to the emerging lucrative frontier economy. However, noteworthy is the fact that the full-scale reengagement of the liberal Western Myanmar is largely on Naypyidaw’s terms, a few concessions here and there notwithstanding. 6


“We need to zero in on the single most consequential ongoing global process, namely the capitalist transformation of Myanmar as a frontier market”

Factually, through the typical eyes of the global capitalists, Myanmar is first and foremost a “resource brothel”, the hottest “frontier market” 7 and a strategic linchpin for respective “grand strategies” in the seemingly eternal game of Great Powers, on the rise or on the wane. Human communities as “markets” and “sources of resources and labour” have been a rather durable view of any country on earth with land, resources and labour since large-scale, technologically driven capitalist transformation was unleashed several hundred years ago.

Fast forward to the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw in June 2013, it was about the elite-led “democracy”, skilled “civil society” and a socially responsible corporate-assisted “free market”.  But in essence, the international policies toward Myanmar are designed to extract optimal spoils out of one of the world’s last few remaining frontier markets; the other is North Korea.

This June, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was seen drinking Coke straight out of its fat plastic bottle at a ceremony in Yangon where Coca Cola, one of her corporate clients for her Albright-Stonebridge Consulting Firm, 8 opened the first-ever bottling factory in Myanmar. 9  As Chair of the US National Democratic Institute, Albright was reportedly in the country to promote democracy, interfaith and to teach “the people who have never had a sip” how to drink Coke properly.  But the Americans are not alone.

Amidst the unfolding pogroms against the Rohingya and other Muslims and the documented complicity of the authorities at the highest level, 10 the Islamic state of Qatar has no qualms about co-winning and accepting multibillion dollar telecom contracts in Myanmar along with Norway. The official peace-mediators in Oslo have indeed secured a rather lucrative phone contract for its national Telenor from the 2012 Nobel Peace short-listed President Thein Sein, while the Kachins, the Karens, the Shan, the Karenni and the Mon are still waiting for the successful outcome of Oslo’s peace mediation. 11 Phones before peace! Telanor for peace!

Thein Sein, President of Myanmar since March 2011
Thein Sein, President of Myanmar since March 2011

Were Karl Marx alive, he would have defined the process Myanmar is undergoing–the pervasive land grab, resultant economic displacement, the working poor, filthy labour conditions, forced migration, violent conflicts, import of technology, new modes and lines of production, capital infusion, mega-development projects and so on—as a marginally cash-based economy dragged through the ruthless process of what he termed “primitive accumulation”.

Here, I propose that a new way of reading Myanmar that reflects critically on why Myanmar studies have been an Orientalist backwater, and recalibrating and updating a Braudellian approach which Victor Lieberman has argued for Southeast Asian Studies. 12 We need to zero in on the single most consequential ongoing global process, namely the capitalist transformation of Myanmar as a frontier market. For it is this process, more than any other factors, which affects both our research objects—the people and our research itself.

The perspective which I have found most empirically verifiable and suitable in explaining the dizzying array of changes is a security perspective which I call the “Three Insecurities Perspective”, namely, (traditional) national insecurity, global insecurity and human insecurity.

First, national insecurity straightforwardly refers to the permanent sense of insecurity of nation-states, which, at its crudest, is about the uncertainties with respect to “regime survival”. Second, global insecurity is defined as the overall sense of insecurities and vulnerabilities of the world’s economic and political order, which in turn rests on the security of the nation-states making up the world’s political economy. Third and finally, human insecurity refers to the absence of “the security of the individual and communities in which he or she lives as opposed to the security of the states and borders”. 13

In a nutshell, the proposed “Three Insecurities Perspective” argues that since the end of the Cold War, global capitalism has brought communities, the Environment and national political-economies into a single overarching whole in the process widely referred to as globalization. Here, the three discourses of in-security compete for primacy in policy making and practices. While talking about the rule-based, predictable international order, every nation-state is preparing for eventualities such as war.  Driven by a profound sense of insecurities, domestically and internationally, even the United States is found spying on allies, citizens and rivals alike as shown by the latest PRISM scandal.

While all three are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the issue of vulnerabilities, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, and the unemployed, is typically placed on the policy backburners.  The security and well-being of persons and communities are trampled upon, literally and figuratively, especially when the other two insecurity regimes—national and global insecurity regimes—team up to form an exclusive symbiosis out of strategic calculations and political expediency.  This is why one often reads stories about how the policies and practices of states, 14 corporations, multilateral agencies and international financial institutions collectively contribute to the detriment of marginal communities and faceless human persons, their natural habitats and their access to livelihoods, safety, freedoms of movement, association and so on.

The developing Yangon pictured at night
The developing Yangon pictured at night

I believe the proposed “Three Insecurities Perspective” best explains Myanmar affairs (as well as other similar “national” cases) and reflects the country’s objectively verifiable realities. It also locates both the study of Myanmar and the country’s affairs within the context of the single most profoundly consequential process of capitalist transformation that the country as a ‘frontier market’ is going through.

Seen through this prism of insecurities, the country’s top-down democratic reforms are less about Myanmar’s democratization, but primarily about the country’s national ruling elite making an elite pact with the globalist capitalist forces, while morphing into a social class of their own, namely military-crony-capitalists.  In this pact, the people open up their hotly sought after frontier market in exchange for normalization, recognition, legitimacy and access to capital and global market, and technology.  Naypyidaw is opening the country up on terms agreeable and favourable to the country’s most powerful stakeholders—the military and its national insecurity regime. In this process, even the country’s most influential politician and global icon Aung San Suu Kyi has found herself on the global capitalist stage where she no longer controls the script, the staging, the tune or the lyrics.

The still unfolding case of the ethnically cleansed Rohingya Muslims presents itself as an empirical test case for the Three Insecurities Perspective. Despite the widespread abject poverty in Rakhine State where the Rohingya co-inhabited with the Buddhist Rakhines and recently marked by waves of mass violence, this area has become strategic and lucrative in the emerging capitalist economy of Myanmar—a strategic deep sea port, fertile agricultural land with potential for industrial agriculture, a fishing industry, a multibillion dollar special economic zone and the place of origin for China’s twin gas-and-oil pipeline.

In the civil war between East and West Pakistan in 1971, West Pakistani General Tikka issued a chilling order to his troops, “I want the land, not the people.” 15 Chillingly again, this time in Western Myanmar, the country’s national security regime may simply have reacquired the land, without the (Rohingya) people.

Without properly contextualizing Myanmar’s transition in the entangled web of this three insecurities outlook, our understanding of reforms, changes and democratization will remain half-baked—no less half-baked than a democracy being mid-wived by Naypyidaw’s national insecurity regime and the global insecurity capitalists.

Maung Zarni
Associate Fellow, the University of Malaya
Visiting Fellow, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit
London School of Economics

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 14 (September 2013). Myanmar



  1. Interview with Thomas Carothers, Irrawaddy, 7 May 2012 <http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/3706> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  2. Interview with Larry Diamond, Irrawaddy, 24 July 2013 <http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/9883> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  3. “All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State”, Human Rights Watch, 22 August 2013 <http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/04/22/all-you-can-do-pray-0> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  4. Kosak Tuscangate, “Burmese neo-Nazi Movement Rising against the Muslims”, Asia Sentinel, 22 March 2013 <http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=5276&Itemid=409>  (accessed 1 July 2013). Also see, Maung Zarni, “Myanmar’s Neo-Nazi Buddhists Get Free Rein”, Asia Times, 3 April 2013 <http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/SEA-01-090413.html> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  5. “Special Report: Myanmar Gives Official Blessing to Anti-Muslim Monks”, Reuters, 27 June 2013 <http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/27/us-myanmar-969-specialreport-idUSBRE95Q04720130627> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  6. For a grounded, first-person analysis of the evolution of Western policies towards Myanmar over the past 25 years, see, Maung Zarni, Burma/Myanmar: Its Conflicts, Western Advocacy, and Country Impact, The World Peace Foundation, The Fletchers School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, 25 March 2013  <http://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2013/03/25/burmamyanmar-its-conflicts-western-advocacy-and-country-impact/> (accessed 2 July 2013.)
  7. In a webcast roundtable on the country’s economy at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Naypyidaw, June 2013, Chairman of the Shangri-La Dialogue and CEO of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies bluntly put Myanmar as simply a lucrative frontier market where companies need to be even more informed about the country and its internal affairs than any foreign diplomatic mission.
  8. See Albright-Stonebridge Group at <http://www.albrightstonebridge.com/> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  9. “Coca-Cola Opens Myanmar Bottling Plant”, Associated Press, 4 June 2013 <http://www.komonews.com/news/business/Coca-Cola-opens-Myanmar-bottling-plant-210090851.html> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  10. For a grounded perspective on the interface between popular anti-Muslim racism and the state’s instrumental role, see, Maung Zarni, “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma”, Tricycle, Spring 2013 <http://www.tricycle.com/feature/buddhist-nationalism-burma> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  11. Burma Awards Lucrative Mobile Contracts”, BBC, 27 June 2013 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23078620> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  12. Liam C. Kelley, “Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Volume I: Integration on the Mainland (Review)”, Journal of World History, vol. 17, no. 1 (March 2006), pp. 102-104 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jwh/summary/v017/17.1kelley.html> (accessed 1 July).
  13. See, <http://www.lse.ac.uk/internationalDevelopment/research/CSHS/Home.aspx> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  14. The latest US attempt to address the issues of labour rights, the environment and corruption abroad needs to be watched closely as it is a rather novel approach opposed by the US corporations and US Chamber of Commerce. See, “U.S. Companies Investing in Myanmar Must Show Steps to Respect Human Rights”, New York Times, 30 June 2013 <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/world/asia/us-companies-investing-in-myanmar-must-show-steps-to-respect-human-rights.html?_r=0> (accessed 1 July 2013).
  15.  “Interview of Major General Rao Farman Ali AKA: The Butcher of Bengal”, 13 March 2010   <http://etongbtong.blogspot.com/2010/03/interview-of-major-general-rao-farman.html> (accessed 1 July 2013).