Unmasking Myanmar

It seemed Myanmar was inching towards a more democratic regime, but since February the military junta has cracked down again on protestors. In this article Chris Mabey seeks to understand the situation and discern some signs of hope for this war-torn land.

As a British teenager, I meet a beautiful Burmese girl, April, on the school bus. She and her family self-exiled in 1964, soon after the military coup, to start a new life in England. They arrived at Heathrow as immigrants with £100 each in their pockets and some furniture shipped to Southampton docks. I am blown away by her affections and by the warm hospitality of her parents, whose home is filled with the unfamiliar aromas of eastern cooking and stories of Burma’s golden days. My fascination is fired for this far-off land. 

This misty-eyed romanticism about Burma remains second-hand and largely untested until April and I make an extended visit in 1995-6, along with our four teenage daughters. We eat with long-lost family members and have a private meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi; April is reunited with her childhood nanny and we make new friends. But there is a sense of desolation in the country, a menacing presence of the military and a grim resignation on the smog-filled streets of Yangon. For April, not a lot has changed in 30 years, for me, it is an arresting reality check.

I am baffled. How did this country, with such a regal past, swathed in natural beauty and populated by a people of unmistakable poise and serenity, slide into repression and obscurity? How can the upbeat memories of April’s parents be reconciled with Burma’s current malaise? As a psychologist with a career interest in leadership, I am both appalled and intrigued by unfolding events in Myanmar. Around 2000, now employed as a reader in the Department of Organizational and Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck College’s, I start to record the oral history and reminiscences of April’s Burmese family – eyewitnesses to momentous events in mid-20th century Burma. Very few of her parents’ generation are still alive. 

Then, between 2010 and 2018, April and I make seven successive visits to help teach at a small bible college on the outskirts of Yangon, run by a Chin couple. We take the opportunity to travel widely and collect ethnographic data from a range of young people. I begin to unpeel the history, the mix of Buddhist faith and spirit worship, the warring interests of ethnic peoples, the decimated education system, the unequal distribution of wealth and the hidden human rights abuses, labelled by Amnesty International as among the worst in the world. What emerges is a far more nuanced picture of Burma/Myanmar than the stereotypically negative one portrayed by sporadic media reports. Unexpectedly, hope dawns in the form of inspiring and energetic young millennials who are dedicated to restoring devastated lives and communities. 

Here I seek to address two vexing conundrums. What factors have led to the current and long-standing malaise in Myanmar? What signs of hope exist to suggest a radical shift in fortunes? 

What makes Myanmar a special case?

Many ex-colonial nations have struggled with newly won Independence and their attempts to stabilise around more democratic principles have often faltered. The case of Burma, which gained Independence from the British in 1948, is one such example. Five factors, however, suggest that Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1997) is not just an extreme, but also a unique case.

First is the multi-ethnic nature of Myanmar. The national borders stretching from Bangladesh and India in the west, an extensive northern boundary with China to the north and Laos and Thailand on the eastern flank, is made up of at least 130 ethnic groups each with their dialect or language, indigenous culture and vested interests. Many, like the Karen, the Chin, the Kachin and the Shan have long maintained their own militia, fighting for basic human rights. The conflict between them and the dominant ethnic group, the Bamars, has continued unabated for 60 years. 

After the Second World War, General Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) formed an interim government made up of many of the country’s most promising leaders. But in 1947, he was assassinated along with six other members of his Secretariat. 

Apart from ethnic Burmese like himself, Aung San’s Executive Council included a Shan chief, a leader from the Karen and a Muslim leader from Mandalay. Attempts to secure the recognition of by the many ethnic groups have never been resolved, resulting in the longest-running armed conflict in the world to the present day. The unflinching style of government that has presided over these internal conflicts can, in many ways, be attributed to this factor. 

Second, the intransigence of the junta. It is one thing to impose military dominance on a country in chaos, but the generals that rule Myanmar have shown remarkable resilience in retaining their iron grip over their peoples for 60 years. Government legislation and affairs of state have been systematically passed from one generation of a small elite of generals to another. Power has resided in a close-knit cadre of military families, based initially in Yangon, and more recently from the new capital Naypyidaw. 

The style of leadership consistently exhibited by the junta in Myanmar matches the motivational profile of those taking senior positions in hierarchical organizations: a high need for personalised power, a medium need for achievement and a low need for affiliation (McClelland & Burnham, 1995). The main motivation of these so-called social dominants is to retain power and maximise remuneration for themselves; meanwhile they neglect long-term performance and the needs of other stakeholders. Because they see the world as a zero-sum game they compete for access to desirable resources such as financial wealth, education, health services, status and influence at the expense of those lower in the hierarchy. These individuals are more competitive, less empathetic, colder, more narcissistic, hubristic and ruthless towards others (Sidanius, 2013). The generals in Rangoon (now Yangon) uncannily conform to all of these characteristics.

Alongside its longevity, a third factor characterising the regime in Myanmar is its bullying nature, with frequent outbursts of extreme brutality. For long periods the people of Myanmar have acquiesced. On the occasions when popular uprisings have occurred, they have been repulsed by intense ferocity. Notably, student protests in 1990, when the regime refused to allow candidates for the newly-formed national league for Democracy (NLD) to take their legitimately won seats in government, the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007 when monks fronted civil unrest on the streets at government mismanagement and blatent inequalities. And today, the agonisingly slow progress towards democracy which has led to a popular uprising in towns and cities across the country. 

The finding that those high in Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) rise to the top of organizations at the expense of those who are more competent and effective, is perhaps unsurprising. But it is the behaviour of high social dominants once they are inside such institutions that seem especially useful when explaining the overbearing cruelty of the junta over six decades since 1962. For example, Sidanius (2013) predicts that those reporting high on social dominance are far more likely: to use their position to concentrate even more wealth and power into their hands and see this as entirely legitimate; to use fear of punishment and the enticement of rewards to control others; to attract and promote other social dominants at the expense of women (lower in SDO than men) and other groups viewed as lower status. Finally, and particularly salient to the military regime in Yangon, high SDOs are not attracted to egalitarian ideals and practices, they expect complete obedience, and are highly susceptible to flattery and deference.

How, then, do we explain the other side of dominance, namely the relative passivity of the Burmese people who have acquiesced to military rule for so long?  

Part of the answer lies with the fourth factor, and peculiar to the nation of Myanmar, is the prevailing belief system of Buddhism. Benign Buddhist beliefs have infused the Burmese mindset for centuries. Characteristics like tolerance, conservatism, pacifism and profound respect for others (the Buddha, monks, elders, teachers, parents, in that order) do not readily lend themselves to armed revolt against the political status quo. On our first family visit to Myanmar, 30 years since April had fled the country, we had the opportunity to have a personal meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, who had just been released from house arrest in 1995. It was evident that Buddhism was the beating heart of her hopes for her country. Her view was that non-violence is the way to end dictatorships.

But what of the junta, who themselves would claim for the most part to be Buddhist? How can their beliefs be reconciled with their behaviour? So far we have considered the explanatory potential of social dominance theory for understanding their individual pathologies, but it also helps us to understand the distribution of power in a society like Myanmar at a systemic level. According to this theory, all human communities organise themselves as social hierarchies where powerful groups dominate others (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). These hierarchies always include the subordination of children and women but there is a third category. This is known as an arbitrary set where various groups may be defined as being inferior to others based on, for example, ethnicity, social class, religion or nationality. The junta are almost exclusively made up of the Bamar people group who are by far the largest in Myanmar residing in the Irrawaddy basin in central and southern Myanmar. It is against this ingrained superiority that the other ethnic groups have nursed their grievances for so long.

It would seem that a combination of Bamar socio-ethnic superiority and Buddhist deference to one’s leaders lend multi-layered support to the continuing elitism of the generals in Myanmar. Yes, there is simmering resentment among the Burmese people of all ethnicities and creeds and this occasionally boils onto the streets. But for the most part, the junta can rely on hierarchy legitimising myths to bolster their privileged position, their disproportionate wealth and their callous swagger.  

There is a fifth and final dimension to the junta’s durability in Myanmar – the cloak of secrecy with which they surround their political and social activities. The incongruity of a heavily armed regime and this evident paranoia may seem odd. But as many studies have shown, attraction to power correlates with reduced empathy, compassion and concern for others (Anderson and Brown, 2010). In-groups come to be perceived as superior to out-groups. Power inequalities are legitimised and ruthlessness becomes normalised (Aiello, Pratto & Pierro, 2013). 

This latter trait is also consistent with cognitive dissonance whereby actors come to self-justify their actions to remove the discomfort of morally questionable activity. As Kets de Vries notes, humiliation is ever-present in human relationships, but paradoxically is a core motivator of over-achievers: “In all human interactions, there is always the concern that others will see us as we really are, that they will be able to read our minds, and that they can see all our deficiencies” (2017, p.1). This possibly explains the paranoia of the military junta, their obsession with controlling the media and internet access, together with their excessive shows of force. 

What hope for the future? 

The second conundrum concerns any signs of hope in this embattled nation. Following elections in 2015 when the National League for Democracy (NLD) were finally allowed to take up their seats in the national assembly and Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed State Counsellor (a figurehead role to appease the West), it appeared that Myanmar was inching towards more democratic rule. But the generals continued to guarantee themselves 25% of seats and they retained the key posts of Defence, Border Affairs and leadership of the Armed Forces. The iron grip of Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of defence and de facto head of state, persisted.

In February of this year, the habitual tolerance of the Burmese people was once again stretched to a breaking point. Given the refusal of the junta to recognise another landslide victory for the NLD in the November election, populist demonstrations erupted in cities across Myanmar. Ominously the 77th light infantry, who were at the forefront of brutally repelling the Rohingya uprising back in 2017, were deployed to deal with the protestors on the streets of Yangon, Naypyidaw and Mandalay. First with tear gas and rubber bullets and then with live rounds and even air attacks. In the plaintive words of one Burmese youth in a western newsfeed from the capital: ‘We were just learning to fly, and now they have broken our wings’. At the time of writing more than 700 protestors have been killed and hundreds more injured.

It looks highly unlikely that the intransigence and persistent discrimination of the military regime will soften soon. This would require wholesale replacement of generals with those leaders exhibiting socialised power, meaning they can restrain their egotistical behaviours. Blakeley (2018, p.146-7) argues that although this may appear to be idealistic, several practices that “support the development of responsible leadership can be found in many of the world’s spiritual traditions” and goes on to single out being “animated by a higher purpose [and] …embracing power in the context of conscience, good purpose, love, awareness and service.” She is one of many authors advocating and giving examples of this style of leadership motivated by a higher purpose. 

This indeed may be the greatest source of hope for this embattled nation. April and I have taught, coached and trained seven successive cohorts of students at the Bible college in Yangon. Each year a dozen or more graduates – along with 100s more from other similar colleges – return to their villages as community leaders to work in hospitals, schools, business and churches. On each visit, I have also interviewed many inspirational millennials. 

One is Kamaylar, born in rural Karenni State in 1986 to parents who were farmers. The Karen, who take their collective name from the red-coloured clothing, live in the smallest of the seven designated 'ethnic' states on Myanmar’s current political map. The local people have been trying in recent years to rebuild their communities following six decades of civil war. Like other ethnic nationalities in Burma, they have faced political deadlock and their ancestral lands and natural resources have been grabbed by the government.

‘I completed my undergraduate degree in 2013,’ Kamaylar says, ‘and decided to continue at University in Bangkok. Education in Myanmar is still heavily restricted, so I wanted set an example to the young villagers of how much they can achieve and succeed by completing their studies.’

Kamaylar also volunteered for a year alongside her studies, teaching English to Burmese migrant workers living on the Thai-Burma border areas as part of the Overseas Karen Refugees Social Organisation. She also works for the Mines Advisory Group, an NGO helping people who have been affected by landmines

Another alumni I interviewed is Taing Saing San, now known simply as Sasa. He was born in Lailenpi village in the Chin State to parents who had no formal education. Like many local families they couldn’t read or write, and to this day Sasa doesn’t know his birthdate. He attended the village school, a small bamboo structure which the students shared with livestock. 

One year when I was still young,’ Sasa says, ‘a friend of my mother’s died in childbirth, and three of my friends contracted diarrhoea and tragically died on the same day. It was a turning point for me. No one, at this time in human history and the development of health care, should die because they don’t have access to simple medicine. I realised then that education is the only way to save our people.’

Across the border, in India, a new college opened. Teaching himself Hindi and English, Sasa walked across the mountains to continue his studies. Eventually, he qualified as a doctor and returned to his village in the Chin Hills.

‘I decided to multiply himself,’ he says, ‘I called a meeting for village leaders from surrounding areas to come and receive health training. We launched the region’s first primary healthcare service, called Health and Hope. Hundreds of health workers from over 500 villages have graduated from the six-month training course. Now we run an educational scholarship programme to support the next generation of leaders in Chin State. It has expanded its health work to support the training of Traditional Birth Attendants and continues to respond to the critical issues of food insecurity and malnutrition across the region.’

I arranged to meet Hsar Doe Doh in Chiang Mai, from where he regularly makes visits to the heart of the Shan State. He is one of five children born to a teacher mother and political activist father, in Kaw Moo Rah region over the border in the Karen State. He tells me that from an early age he has lived with persecution and conflict growing up in this remote area. 

He is just one of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by a brutal military regime; tens of thousands more are refugees. Many toil away, illegally and for little money, in construction jobs, performing menial labour and in the sex industry. HIV and AIDS are endemic in these regions which are rife with narcotics use and where family planning has been virtually non-existent until recent days. He tells me about one of the programmes that he is working on called the Salween Peace Park. 

The Park aims to maintain a sustainable environment for local biodiversity and indigenous people in the Salween river basin. It’s a locally-led project. Grassroots organizations plan to protect the 5,400 square kilometre area of parkland from mining, damming, deforestation… and other environmentally invasive processes.’

These are just three of the many young people I have interviewed over the last 11 years. Others include Swe Swe, an ex-PhD student of mine, who is setting up a leadership training centre in Yangon; Aung Zaw Moe a Shan-Bamar and devoted Buddhist who is a business development consultant working in various parts of southern Myanmar; and Yee Htun, using her U.S. law degree to advance women’s rights in Myanmar. 

It would be tempting to dismiss these as isolated cases of self-sacrifice and dedication which have little purchase against the monolithic problems facing Myanmar. Yet I find myself disarmed by the courage of these Burmese nationals, the same age as our daughters. Their particular projects target a variety of needs in very different rural areas of Myanmar: education and training, mine-risk instruction, community health care, ecology and legal protection.

However, I am struck by some common features. All refer to the importance of early experiences, in many cases harrowing, and the influence of family members in forging their Christian or Buddhist values. All had the opportunity to receive education outside their country, which proved a significant springboard in giving them expertise in their professional fields.[1] And perhaps most poignantly, all are operating outside the myopic bubble of central government at Naypyidaw by choosing to return to their home communities to pass on their experience and invest these skills for the next generation. For much needed improvement in war-torn Myanmar, it is perhaps on these grass-roots activists that we should pin our hopes.

- Chris Mabey is a Chartered Psychologist and emeritus professor at Middlesex University Business School. His latest book Whispers of Hope: A Family Memoir of Myanmar is published by Penguin Random House. See Chris Mabey's review.

Originally posted online 16 April 2021

Key sources

Aiello, A., Pratto, F. & Pierro, A. (2013) Framing Social Dominance Orientation and Power in Organizational Context, Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 35, (5), 487-495 

Anderson, C. and Brown, C.E. (2010), “The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy”, Research in Organizational Behavior, 30,55–89.

Blakeley, K (2018) Reclaiming our organizations through collective responsible leadership.’ In (eds) Mabey, C and Knights, D, Leadership Matters: Finding Voice, Connection and Meaning in 21st Century, Oxford, Routledge

Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (2017) “Down the Rabbit Hole of Shame”, INSEAD Working Paper. No. 2017/72/EFE 

McClelland, D. C. & Burnham, D. H. (1995) Power is the Great Motivator, Harvard Business Review, 73, (1), 126-139

Sidanius, J, Ketily, N, Sheehy-Skeffington, J. Ho, A, Sibley, C and Durez, B (2013) You’re inferior and not worth our concern: the interface between empathy and social dominance orientation, Journal of Personality, 81 (3): 313-323


[1] In all the cases cited, the charitable agency providing scholarships is London-based Prospect Burma. From the early 1990s they have helped to fund more than 1300 students in a variety of disciplines and at a wide range of universities in the West and Asia. One criterion is that individuals will return to Myanmar to apply their learning.

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