Myanmar: The Transition from Social Control to Social Contract

By Jonathan Bogais | Adjunct Associate Professor - School of Social and Political Sciences - University of Sydney | Jan 28, 2016
Myanmar: The Transition from Social Control to Social Contract


This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More …




The overwhelming victory on November 8, 2015 of the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi[1] was not the end, but rather a waypoint for democratic development in Myanmar. Strategic thinking on the part of the NLD must now shift towards the broader question of how to civilianize the state while governing Myanmar with its subterranean forms of military influence. As power changes hands for the first time in five decades, the new leadership must piece together the nature of the new forms of group definition and boundary conflict in a complex environment. The new government must deicde what the chances are that these conflicts will be worsened or reduced by the process of transformation into a post-totalitarian era.

This essay will demonstrate that the new leadership’s intent to enter into a social contract with its citizens requires an analysis of the mechanisms of social control, which is the evolution of the means of power rather than its nature. It will examine how the model of totalitarian normality has functioned in practice in Myanmar for over five decades marked by ongoing ethnic conflicts, sectarian violence and ruthless repression of civil society. By closely observing the normalization process lying ahead, this essay will explore the complexity of the process to civilianize Myanmar.

Problems Ahead

Despite its significant wealth of natural resources, Myanmar has been stagnating economically and socially for decades.[2] There are few enterprises today that are not directly or indirectly controlled by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), or by businessmen affiliated with the military. The political economy of the country is such that the armed forces control most of the economic activities. Inequality is rampant. Poverty is endemic, especially in rural areas—where seventy percent of the population of 52 million live. This contrasts with the enduring resilience of a military regime that has remained in power by repressing, intimidating and co-opting its opponents, yet has managed to preserve an appearance of political stability.

One of the most challenging tasks ahead for the new government is to establish good governance to facilitate the transition from social control to social contract. Successful democratization in a state that has experienced nothing other than social control over five decades is a formidable challenge. It will be less about speedy democratic reforms than about whether the reformists are able to maintain political stability throughout the transition process, even though it may delay the advent of full democracy.Procedural notions of democracy generally focus on the existence of formally democratic institutions, such as a written constitution that recognizes a practice of regularly scheduled elections. Substantive democracy goes beyond simple procedures to add the norms of behavior and belief that underlie the political activities of elected officials and the existence of popular  liberties.[3] Within this context, the political institutions of Myanmar’s regions including the legislature, the executive, and judicial branches, as well as the practice of law-making, recognition of separation of religious and state powers, local government autonomy, electoral practices, the role of political parties and interest groups, and voluntary organizations should all be re-examined.

Civilianizing Myanmar requires embedding security sector transformation in a broader set of political reforms, whose success is essential for the new government to address the multi-layered conflict. 

Civilianizing Myanmar requires embedding security sector transformation in a broader set of political reforms, whose success is essential for the new government to address the multi-layered conflict. Failure to resolve these will impede the democratization process. Despite being able to form a government in its own right, the NLD still needs the support of the military to address the long-lasting ethnic and sectarian conflicts, some of which are still raging.[4] The essential question now is how the military can rebuild itself in a new political system—with other political forces—that is likely to involve a federalist model, an option it rejected outright in 1962 and has fought against since.

Social Control

Social control[5] involves the utilization of various mechanisms and techniques to discourage, restrict, or otherwise alter the behavior of those who constitute an actual or potential threat or problem to the majority. Example of control agents are the police, military, and religious and ethnic leaders whilst the principal control institutions are the central and local governments. The actions of control agents are seen as having been provoked by some instances of disturbing, disruptive, or deviant behavior and their responses are directed towards its management and containment. A particular temporal and causal sequence is presupposed: a seemingly anti-social act occurs, concern is expressed by the authorities and some sort of social repressive reaction follows. Deviance produces the need for social control. Examples of repressive reactions to deviance by control agents in Myanmar abound; the most significant were the military coup of July 1962,[6] the violent military crackdowns of the ‘8888 Uprising’ in 1988[7] and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.[8]

To enforce social control, totalitarian power needs a language that is the vehicle of the state ideology to prevent the emergence of ‘heretical’ thoughts. The state endeavors to rationalize language and the means of information to become both the medium and the message; its subject of discourse is the state itself. It declares that the state is the most important thing of all, of which the citizens are only minute parts. Totalitarian logocracy[9] threatens to destroy the capacity of a defenseless population to articulate freely a non-official evaluation of political, social and economic realities thus preventing civil society to develop. This strategy has been implemented ruthlessly by the Myanmar military since 1962.

Like all social life, the behavior of social control can be explained with its location and direction in social spaces. Each conflict has a social geometry that determines how it is handled. The theory of law,[10] for example, predicts how much law—or actually governmental control—is brought to bear on a conflict. Law is therefore a quantitative variable within the social geometry of conflict. Non-legal forms of social control are also explained by the social geometry of conflict such as violence. The location and direction of a conflict in social space explains whether a conflict becomes violent, how much violence is used, the particular form it takes, and its logic and language.

Social control involves the utilization of various mechanisms and techniques to discourage, restrict, or otherwise alter the behavior of those who constitute an actual or potential threat or problem to the majority. 

Violence in general may be unilateral (flowing in one direction from one party to another) or bilateral (flowing simultaneously in both directions). Unilateral violence in Myanmar involves the four “Race and Religion Laws,”[11] instigated by Ma Ba Tha (Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), a body of ultra-nationalist monks campaigning aggressively against Muslims in the name of Buddhists to protect the “purity of the race.” Experts say the laws—which were enacted in September 2015 with the full support of the NLD—discriminate against people based on religion and gender, legitimize state-endorsed persecution against the Rohingya, a Muslim community of about 800,000 living in the state of Rakhine.

Unilateral violence also involves ethnic cleansing, which is a form of social control—a usually moralistic rather than predatory response to behavior defined as deviant in which the perpetrators express moral grievances against the targeted ethnic group. In Myanmar, ethnic cleansing, which is condoned by local officials, involves hard repression against Muslims, land dispossession and destruction of all signs of identity, withdrawing of essential health services especially for pregnant women, mass internal displacement and forced migration. By systematically manipulating all information about the Rohingya in an effort to legitimize discrimination and persecution, Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists and the military regime have destroyed or altered the very criterion of truth, making it possible for lies to become truth. By managing to reconceive their narrative as truth, the regime can fend off accusation that they are lying, and thus portray any action, however violent, as an act of self-preservation and self-defense in the face of a perceived aggression.

Bilateral collective violence in Myanmar includes ethnic feuding and warfare going back to when the country emerged as a modern state from the late British colonial administration. The formation of the Panglong Accord negotiated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San from the predominant Bamar ethnic group, and the 1947 draft constitution laid down the basic federal principles of governance integration between the Burman heartland and non-Burman ethnic frontiers areas. After gaining independence on January 4, 1948, however, neither genuine federalism nor a highly decentralizing governance system was established or implemented in Myanmar’s political structure.[12]

The balance between state integrity and local autonomy—regarded by ethnic leaders as being essential—was not struck, leading to calls for secession from disillusioned indigenous and political group leaders who did not trust the Bamar. Faced with a state that refused to listen to and address their grievances through dignified mechanisms and credible processes, ethnic leaders resorted to armed struggles and warfare that have been ongoing throughout the country’s political landscape and a justification for the Tatmadaw to use hard repression against ethnic groups.

Two characteristics are pivotal to understanding the Tatmadaw success in imposing social control. Firstly, it is a large body that has created an equilibrium of power among key constituencies with a strong corporate sense of its interests. It is a unique form of public organization that has succeeded in establishing a virtual enclave, operating by rules of its own making that encroach on the civilian sphere. Unlike in Thailand and Indonesia, where the military became involved in business as they consolidated their political control over time, when the Myanmar military seized control in 1962, most private property was confiscated and handed over to a number of military-run state corporations. Secondly, the Myanmar military is endowed with a strong sense of government. It has assumed full authority in nation-building since coming to power, using all available means to propagate its unequivocal role in all matters of state and this by virtue of the constitution. This sense of legitimacy among officers can veer towards a sense of superiority over civilians. It also allowed the military to amend or impose a new constitution to suit its needs in changing environments as it did in 2008[13]

Social Contract[14]

Liberalization and democratization are the essential elements of transition. 

In political theory, a successful transformation consists of two steps: an initial stage of transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, and a stage of consolidation of the new system. Liberalization and democratization are the essential elements of transition. Consolidation must be seen as (1) the stabilization and effective functioning of the basic principles of the new system; and (2) as the process of adaptation of behavior and attitudes that promotes such a stabilization and effective functioning. The process of regime transition, regardless of the regime type itself, includes several stages, such as the breakdown of the old regime, the uncertainty of the political regime, and the installation of the new regime. The key characteristics of the uncertain stage are the uncertain position of actors and the institution-free environment. The completion of this stage is the installation of the new regime. The scenario of “elite settlement” is close to a pact, which includes the reorganization of elite interests and the achievement of substantial compromises among competing actors over the crucial political issues. There is a great variance across a spectrum of intervening factors that must be taken into consideration in developing a social contract in a complex environment that often depend on the allegiances of political actors.

On January 12, 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience at the opening of the latest peace conference that the peace process would be more effective if more ethnic groups became involved, even though she has called previously on ethnic groups not to rush into any agreement with the incumbent government of President Thein Sein. Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said during the meeting that the door remained open to groups that had not joined the cease-fire. These statements—seemingly made to reassure an international community eager for change—do not take into consideration, however, the uncertainties and anxiety caused by endemic and historic mistrust between all stakeholders. For the social contract to gain legitimacy, the new government must first overhaul the national dialogue process and involve all of the country’s ethnic and religious elements. This can only be achieved if the new dialogue is based on national ownership and political inclusion, which is a pre-requisite for the social contract to succeed.


Although the NLD holds the majority needed to govern, the conflicts in Myanmar are too diverse, multi-layered, deep-rooted and complex for a single mediation mechanism. Furthermore, the NLD’s dependence on the Tatmadaw will inevitably require an “elite settlement”—even in the event that the 2008 Constitution, giving the military 25 percent of seats in the Hluttaw (House of Representatives), is modified. Any transition to democracy is difficult, but Myanmar’s transition will be especially difficult. The key to successful democratization will depend on the new government’s ability to manage political stability and order. To prosper and transform itself into a democratic state in the foreseeable future, the new government must introduce good governance and the national capacity to articulate the interests of the people, craft programs and policies in complex environment,s and perform integrative functions in resolving internal contradictions of ethnicity and religion. It must manage carefully the transition from social control to social contract.

[1] Oliver Holmes, “Final Myanmar Results Show Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party Won 77% of Seats,” The Guardian, November 23, 2015,

[2] Myanmar has been stagnating economically and socially for decades. See United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Myanmar,” Human Development Report 2013,, 

[3] “Democracy and Democratization,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Self-Determination,

[4] Regarding the persistence of ethnic and sectarian conflicts, see Human Rights Watch, World Report 2015: Burma

[5] Kimberly Kempf-Leonard and Nancy A. Morris, “Social Control Theory,” Oxford Bibliographies, July 24, 2012,

[8] “The Saffron Revolution,” The Economist, September 27, 2007,

[9] See Charles Derber, William A. Schwartz, and Yale Magrass, Power in the Highest Degree: Professionals and the Rise of a New Mandarin Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 19.

[10] “The Pure Theory of Law,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[11] See Jonathan Bogais, “Democracy Cannot Exist without Social Cohesion: The Myanmar Challenge,” Middle East-Asia Project (MAP), July 30, 2014,

[12] David I. Steinberg, “Myanmar Grapples with Federalism,” Nikkei Asian Review, February 15, 2016,

[13] Text of the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the elections.

[14] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract: On Principles of Political Right (1762),