Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The pro-junta militia: how can they do it?

By Gemma Dursley

Oct 6, 2008 (DVB)–One of the more distinctive aspects of recent repression in Burma has been the involvement of apparently non-state agents – ‘patriotic citizens’ in the words of the SPDC.

Forming the shadowy, unofficial group known as Swan Arr Shin, these people were active during last September’s crushing of the Saffron Revolution and continue to put in uninvited appearances at events on Burma’s political calendar. They often make ‘citizens’ arrests’ on activists, have been implicated in numerous violent assaults, and engage in routine neighbourhood and activist surveillance.

This is worrying. If political change is certain because, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says, “all the military have are guns”, then it is disconcerting to think that the military might also have hearts and minds of some ordinary people. Soldiers follow orders of whoever is in government, but the ‘masters of force’ are tools of this administration only, and they stand and fall with it.

Many are drawn from the 23 million strong Union Solidarity and Development Association. The techniques the junta has used to build membership are well known: membership is mandatory for teachers and civil servants (and their families), it brings particular benefits such as educational opportunities, and human rights violations fall disproportionately on non-USDA members.

A large number of USDA members have also been tricked into joining. But it is hard to believe people can be fooled into beating monks or peaceful activists, or organising such violence. Many, perhaps most, of the USDA membership is indifferent to the SPDC’s ambition to crush the pro-democracy movement. But some actively engage in it. Why?

Selective incentives

Unsurprisingly, money is a significant factor. Many SAS are mobilised as and when needed by ward and township USDA or SPDC officials, and are paid a daily allowance for their work. To this they are usually quite indifferent. There is also a ‘hardcore’ SAS who have received training in riot control and surveillance techniques and who, according to Human Rights Watch, receive a small monthly salary and food allowance in addition to any daily ‘work’ they might do.

Many individuals within the core of the SAS group are already on the margins of society – ex-convicts, alcoholics, persons of ill-repute – and, with such low community standing, find no benefits to investing in being a ‘good person’. There is little for them to lose by participating in violence.

Organising violence demands more intelligence and strategic acumen. Individuals possessing this are unlikely to be interested in small cash sums and might be slightly more ‘respectable’ than hardcore SAS. Consequently, they probably look more to the long-term. Not by chance they find this within the USDA, which provides them with many lucrative corruption opportunities, as reported by DVB for many years. Their position within the USDA, and all the violent responsibilities that comes with it, becomes their career.

Team spirit

It is not completely correct, however, to see the average violence worker in Burma as a sociopath out solely for himself (they are mostly men). It is in the militia member’s interest to work for the good of the group: the more effectively the group works, the bigger or more secure are the individual benefits. Consequently, there is a ‘norm of contribution’ within the group.

Usually, such a collective norm gives rise to a free rider problem. People do nothing, as they can – hopefully – enjoy a common good without expending any effort. However, because the core of the pro-junta militia is a relatively tight-knit, closed structure, each person’s decision affects the other. Everybody has an interest in seeing the group norm enforced so group members ‘do their bit’, and encourage and support each other. The rational thing to do, in this instance, is not to free ride – it is to contribute and uphold the group norm.

This is one reason why those SAS mobilised for the day, simply to make up the numbers, are disinterested, unenthusiastic and quite often ashamed. Among the hardcore of SAS and USDA members, however, there is a real interest in collective action. They police one another’s contribution and encourage each other to go beyond the call of duty.

The response of the Sangha to pro-junta militia activity has been an overturning of the alms bowl, while much of the public shun militia members in daily life. However, this means that active members of SAS and USDA become even more independent of the wider community, strengthening the militia structure as recruits rely on themselves.

Compare this to the communities the SAS terrorise. Within relatively open social structures – indeed, they are far more open now than in the past – individuals opposing political violence cannot depend on the support of others. Here, it is rational to free ride.

A collective identity

Organisations are powerful shapers of individual behaviour. With their own conventions, procedures and rituals they are more than just a collection of individuals. Certain behaviour within the organisation is appropriate, whilst other behaviour is frowned upon. The pro-junta militia is an organisation with expectations and obligations like any other, and its core members usually act according to their given role.

Not only do people come to willingly perform their duties but also, even if they have joined for their own selfish needs, come to feel that group objectives are important to them. It is natural for people to perceive events like their associates perceive them, and this blurring of the military and the public means that recruits are increasingly likely to identify the pro-democracy movement as an enemy.

Consequently, the Orwellian propaganda which seems so absurd to the average citizen can easily strike a chord with the active militia member, helping to keep the group unified. This is exacerbated by the lack of free media to challenge such points of view and, again, the group’s ostracism by the wider public. Combined with their unique material benefits, this exclusion only serves to increase the arrogance of the militia.

It is not enough to say that people participate in militia activity for cash. Only by appreciating the range of techniques that the SPDC have used to assemble and maintain their militia can activists find a strategy to defeat it.
This is the second in a serious of articles by Gemma Dursley for DVB on Burma’s collective action problem.

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Burma’s collective action problem

Burma’s collective action problem

By Gemma Dursley

Sep 22, 2008 (DVB)–In order to understand the problem of collective action in Burma, imagine the following scenario: citizens in a town of around 100,000 wish to convert a patch of waste ground into a public park.

Costing about $500,000, it’s too much for any individual to pay, but a bright spark comes up with a solution: everyone should contribute a little money, say $5 each, and eventually the total will be reached.

I quite like parks, enjoy a picnic now and then and consider contributing. However, I know that my $5 will make almost no difference to the park’s provision. I also understand that if everybody else contributes, the park will be provided whether I contribute or not. And if no others contribute, my $5 will again make no difference – the park will remain a dream.

If, like most people, I prefer having more money rather than less, then it would therefore be irrational for me to give $5 and rational to hold on to it. In the meantime I’ll just hope everybody else contributes, and enjoy the park and my picnics on the back of their efforts.

Of course, if everyone thinks as rationally as I do, there will be no park. This problem is analogous to that which faces the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Like the park, democracy and human rights are public goods, things everybody can enjoy. This inclusiveness is inspiring, but it is also problematic – if I haven’t contributed to the struggle, I can still benefit from democracy and human rights.

And, like the $5 contribution towards $500,000, my individual participation in pro-democracy activity is almost meaningless. Working for democracy will surely cost me time and the other things I could have done instead of going out onto the streets, but with almost 2100 political prisoners languishing in Burmese prisons, I stand to lose a lot more than just this – the potential costs of rebellion are very high indeed.

It is therefore rational for me, and you, to wait for others to contribute and to ‘free ride’ on their efforts. The net result? Nothing changes. No park, no democracy.

Political scientists call this ‘the problem of collective action’ and it is one which all social movements face. Some succeed in mobilising people to work for a public good and even succeed in attaining their ultimate objective. Most, however, fail.

Grievances and zealots

Whilst this problem seems obvious and fundamental, it is often forgotten. With most Burmese people living in the shadow of extreme poverty and systematic human rights abuses, seasoned Burma-watchers are often surprised at how much the people can endure. What will it take to see people rise up and refuse to be bullied into poverty?

A similar idea is prevalent in much Marxist thought: when the grievances of a group of people are intense enough, revolution is only a moment away. As Bob Dylan sang, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. Yet, alone, this is obviously false. Grievances and frustration towards states is commonplace throughout the world, yet large-scale protests are rare events, revolutions rarer still.

Thinking in terms of the collective action problem helps us understand this. If we lump people together in a group – ‘disadvantaged Burmese’, say – we can see that the group would be far better off if it rebelled. But it is individual persons who join groups and rebel, and unless the benefits of participation outweigh the costs, they are unlikely to contribute. Even impoverished, abused individuals have something to lose, leading a careful observer to wonder there was more to last year’s protests than just economic conditions.

Undoubtedly, there are individuals within the opposition, many now imprisoned, brave enough to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the costs of collective action. Across the world, movements have their own Daw Suu Kyi and their entrepreneurial zealots on the ground, but alone or as a small group these brave – and uncommon – people are almost powerless. Indeed, their primary task is to overcome the problem of collective action, mobilising ordinary citizens and persuading them to join up.

Pro-junta militia and collective action

In fact, it is not only movements which face a collective action problem but also states, elites, and their agents.
Although there are many within the SPDC, Union Solidarity and Development Association and the business community in Burma who benefit materially from the crushing of the pro-democracy movement, it is rational for these individuals not to spend time and forgo income participating in repression activities, but instead to free ride on the contributions of others who do this. How, then, has the SPDC managed to convince people to join in its programme of tyranny?

Particularly pertinent for the pro-democracy movement are the combined repressive activities of the Swan Arr Shin and USDA – the pro-junta militia. Talking about them as a group, however, makes us forget that they are a collection of rational individuals. How has the junta managed to mobilise thousands to take part in USDA and Swan Arr Shin operations? At many events, activists are outnumbered by these people and other state agents. How can this situation be reversed? How, in other words, has the SPDC solved its collective action problem, while the opposition has failed to solve theirs?

With so much emotion surrounding the courage and spirit of the pro-democracy movement and the rightness of the cause, it isn’t easy to start thinking in such dispassionate terms as ‘rationality’ and ‘individual costs and benefits’. However, it is because the SPDC has done exactly this that it has managed to solve its collective action problem; this is something the opposition must face if it is to be victorious.

Unless the pro-democracy movement examines ways to overcome the irrationality of participation in pro-democracy activities and faces the fact that it can, at present, be rational for people to join pro-militia groups, it will not be able to combat the forces of violence ranged against it.

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The pro-junta militia: how can they do it?