Manusya, Journal of Humanities


Helen James

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In a country where signs, symbols and astrology have played key roles in its political and cultural evolution, the peacock as the emblem of a independent state has had a chequered history in Myanmar (Burma). Frequently juxtaposed to the Sheldrake, emblem of the Southern Mon kingdom centred on Pegu until incorporation into the larger Burmese empire in the mid-18th century, the country peacock could not withstand the advances of the rampant British lion during the 19th century. It is now a protected bird accorded sanctuary, and placed on a pedestal with reverence almost equal to that of the sacred 'White Elephant' found recently in the jungles of Arakan. Such indigenous institutions are playing a critical role as the transitional state of Myanmar seeks to transform its political and socio-economic fabric after 26 years of socialist policies (1962-1988). In analyzing the politics of institutional change in contemporary Myanmar, we are forced to take account of Muthiah Alagappa's observation that transitional states are not necessarily in linear evolution to Western models of democratic governance, for this expected trajectory 'has not been borne out in practice' whilst 'politics in developing countries has its own dynamics.' Alagappa's views resonate also in the writings of Robert Taylor who notes the complexity and problematic task of grafting multi-party democratic systems onto societies of civil society, low levels of economic development and patron-clientalist politico-social structures. The following paper focuses on some of the key political and socio-economic issues at the heart of achieving evolutionary institutional change in Myanmar (Burma).

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