Burma has entered a new period of political evolution. It's a process rife with opportunity, to be sure. But perhaps this is also a good time to consider the risks.
Defining a political path as "democratization" does not necessarily ensure that it will be democratic. In today's Burma there is a distinct possibility that political elites -- in league with outside experts or capitalists --- will push ahead with reforms while ignoring the interests or ideas of average people, leaving many sections of the population even worse off than under tyranny. Such an approach must be contested. The voices of average Burmese must be incorporated into the decisions that will govern their future.
Twenty years of media and NGO reports have presented Burma as a totalitarian state, with all the sophisticated and encompassing powers that implies. The reality is actually rather different: This is a state that has been strong at violence but weak at management. While Burma's military state demonstrated a terrifying ability to quash dissent, it was never interested in establishing a rationalized bureaucracy with the ability and will to know and regulate every aspect of people's lives. Indeed, the military rulers often crafted implicit deals with the rural people (who make up two-thirds of the population), allowing remarkable freedom for villagers to devise their own coping strategies while the state took its pound of flesh.
This does not mean things were good: far from it. Human development and economic indicators have declined for years. But it does mean that the wrong evolution risks making things worse.
The problems lie primarily in two areas. First, state-led reform has serious limits. President Thein Sein and other reformers cannot impose their will on the country's periphery or in deeply-entrenched institutions such as the military. Second, liberalization in the absence of existing political structures can have dire consequences. Lacking education or skills, millions of people could be forced off their agricultural land and shunted into a low-wage, low-skill manufacturing sector. This would be exploitative even under the best of circumstances, but the further problem is that such a sector does not even exist in Burma. What then will the vast majority of Burmese do? Fire-sale liberalization could produce surplus populations, turning the long-awaited Burmese dream of democracy into a cruel nightmare.
The realities of the system have not, however, prevented the development aid machine from deploying to construct elite-level solutions that ignore Burma's political and economic reality. Indeed, international financial institutions are re-engaging the state; bilateral development aid will flow through state structures as well. This focus on elite institutions extends even to Burma experts: In Foreign Policy's recent project "16 Ways to Fix Burma," the suggestions largely focus on outcomes (build a multi-ethnic democracy, develop the rule of law, buttress the economy by exploiting cheap labor, etc.) that presume the state's ability -- and desire -- to lead such changes.
This focus neglects the functioning institutions that have taken up many "state" roles in thousands of Burmese communities over the last decade. Indeed, a remarkably robust and powerful set of citizens, self-organized into groups outside of the state, has performed the necessary heavy lifting that has enabled society's survival under a capricious and abusive military government. Many observers may have missed this because these groups have always flown under the radar. Their genius under the regime was to deliver services, subvert abusive policies, and mobilize local resources, all the while steering clear of anything that could be construed as politically threatening. Simply put, they learned to beg -- and beg quietly -- for permission to do the job the state should have been doing.
These groups must be made central to political reform. But because of the particular bargain they crafted with the state -- freedom to operate in exchange for political silence -- civil society organizations now risk being ignored. This is because, while political space has certainly increased, civil society groups may not necessarily be eager to capitalize on it, especially when "politics" has long signified a narrow set of dangerous activities (street protests, opposition) off-limits to civil society groups. Such groups may see little to dissuade them from this stance even now, when the political process has come to refer to an equally narrow domain reserved for elite parties and periodic voting rituals. Civil society activists do not realize that their activities could also encompass writing op-eds, mobilizing communities to contact administrators, drafting amicus briefs, lobbying parliamentarians, etc.