Gangsters, Democracy, and the State in Southeast Asia 9781501719424

An essay collection that studies workaday, regional politics in Southeast Asia and its implications for evolving democra

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Gangsters, Democracy, and the State in Southeast Asia

Table of contents :
Democracy and the State in Southeast Asia
The Sinking Schooner: Murder and the State in Independent Burma, 1948-1958
Crime, Society, and Politics in Thailand
Murder, Inc., Cavite: Capitalist Development and Political Gangsterism in a Philippine Province
"Muslim" Political Brokers and the Philippines Nation-State

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Carl A. Trocki, Editor


SOUTHEAST ASIA PROGRAM PUBLICATIONS Southeast Asia Program Cornell University Ithaca, New York 1998


Editorial Board Benedict R. O'G. Anderson Tarnara Loos Stanley O'Connor K. W. Taylor Andrew Willford Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications 640 Stewart Avenue, Ithaca, NY 14850-3857 Southeast Asia Program Series Number 17

© 1998 Cornell Southeast Asia Program. Second printing, 2003. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in a review, no part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Cornell Southeast Asia Program. Printed in the United States of America ISBN 0-87727-134-8

CONTENTS Democracy and the State in Southeast Asia Carl A. Trocki The Sinking Schooner: Murder and the State in Independent Burma, 1948-1958 Mary P. Callahan Crime, Society, and Politics in Thailand James Ockey Murder, Inc., Cavite: Capitalist Development and Political Gangsterism in a Philippine Province John T. Sidel "Muslim" Political Brokers and the Philippines Nation-State Patricio N. Abinales


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One of the most enduring aspects of Southeast Asian political history seems to be the shifting dynamics of centrifugal and centripetal tendencies. The past fifteen or more centuries have seen a succession of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic monarchies, and colonial administrations, all seeking to assert the primacy of central state structures. Scholars such as Oliver W. Wolters and Stanley J. Tambiah have called attention to the resilience of local identities and to the fragile nature of "imperial" state structures. Tambiah's depiction of traditional Siam as a "galactic polity" shows a state system which seems an apt model for many other pre-modern Southeast Asian polities.2 A familiar figure in these landscapes is the type of political entrepreneur which Wolters has styled a "man of prowess."3 Together these elements, the segmented, mandalic polity and the charismatic, opportunistic strongman, have acted both as the stimulus for change in Southeast Asian politics as well as a chronic source of instability. More recently, military and civilian governments have faced similarly fissiparous tendencies as they sought to centralize new nation-states, often within the framework of earlier colonial administrations or other pre-modern polities. In collaboration with, or in opposition to these agencies, regional power holders have tried to maintain their control over local manpower and other resources. These leaders have sought to mediate, to their own profit, new instruments of power emanating from the center or deriving from global economic changes. Both the agents of the central state and the local men of power have employed stratagems of cooperation, subterfuge, or coercion in the ever-shifting balance of power between centers and peripheries, or perhaps more appropriately, between major and minor centers. 1

The studies here grew out of a panel at the AAS Annual meeting in 1992, in Washington, DC, on "National Authority and Local Power/' I would like to thank Patricio Abinales, Mary Callahan, James Ockey, and John Sidel who commented on earlier versions of this essay. 2 Stanley J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976). 3 O. W. Wolters, History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982).


Carl A. Trocki

Against the backdrop of this fundamental tension, recent decades have seen the emergence of "democracy" movements among the peoples of a number of emerging Southeast Asian polities. These movements have been supported, at least formally, by the Western democracies as well as other members of the world community. As a result, democratic forms, including elected legislative bodies and executives, regular elections, political parties, written constitutions, and formal guarantees of political and individual human liberties have become part of the legitimizing apparatus of most Southeast Asian nations. These movements and the practice of electoral and democratic politics have given a new twist to relations between central and local, or regional power structures in Southeast Asia. The maxim that all politics is local, long a cliche in American political life, has now gained a new importance in Asian politics. For some reason, however, students of most Southeast Asian governments have neglected the significance of this approach to the study of politics in the region. Most have focused on the level of national politics, or even international politics, and have presented the view from the capital city. This includes the work of Silverstein, Trager, and Taylor on Burma and Wilson and Girling on Thailand.4 Wurfel and others have done similar work on the Philippines, but in contrast to studies of other parts of the region, Philippine studies has a precedent for local history and interest in local everyday politics.5 Works by McCoy and Larkin are key examples of studies that focus on local issues.6 Likewise, economic anthropology and sociology have contributed to an important paradigm in Philippine political studies that builds "upwards" from the local studies of sociologists like Hollnsteiner and Lynch, to the provincial studies of Agpalo and Machado, to the holistic models of scholars such as Lande.7 There is nothing comparable elsewhere in Southeast Asia. 4

Josef Silverstein, Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977); Robert H. Taylor, The State in Burma (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1987); Frank N. Trager, Burma—From Kingdom to Republic: A Historical and Political Analysis (New York: Fredrick A. Praeger Publisher, 1966); David A. Wilson, Politics in Thailand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962); John L. S. Girling, Thailand: Society and Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981). 5 David Wurfel, Filipino Politics: Development and Decay (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988). 6 Alfred W. McCoy, and Ed. C. de Jesus, eds., Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations(Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1982); Alfred W. McCoy, ed., An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines (Madison, WI: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, 1993); John A. Larkin, The Pampangans: Colonial Society in a Philippine Province (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1972). 7 Brian Fegan, "Folk-Capitalism: Economic Strategies of Peasants in a Philippine Wet-Rice Village." (PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 1979); Girling, Thailand: Society and Politics; Mary R. Hollnsteiner, The Dynamics of Power in a Philippine Municipality (Quezon City: Community Development Research Council, University of the Philippines, 1963); Carl H. Lande, Leaders, Factions, and Parties: The Structure of Philippine Politics (New Haven, CT: Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, 1964); Frank Lynch and Alfonso de Guzman II, eds., Four Readings on Filipino Values (Quezon City: Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University, 1973); Kit G. Machado, "Leadership and Organization in Philippine Local Politics/' (PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, 1972); Kit G. Machado, "From Traditional Faction to Machine: Changing Patterns of Political Leadership in the Rural Philippines/' Journal of Asian Studies 33,4 (August 1974): 523-547; Remigio Agpalo, Pandanggo sa Haw: The Politics of Occidental Mindoro (Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 1965).

Democracy and the State in Southeast Asia


Works such as the volume of studies on the regional dynamics of the Indonesian revolution edited by Audrey Kahin, Geoffrey Robinson's Balinese study, and Benedict Kerkvliet's study of the Huk rebellion, are exceptional in their attention to local political leaders and situations.8 Even these, however, look at local issues only in the midst of extraordinary events such as revolutions and insurgencies. There are few studies that look at the practice of everyday politics on the local level, and at the manner in which local and central polities relate to one another. Fewer still are the works that try to come to terms with Southeast Asian political culture as it is practiced, other than to draw attention to its aberrant features. Even Kerkvliet, James Scott, and others seem committed to the patron-client paradigm, which at least in an oblique way, is challenged by the more exploitative and parasitic figures that emerge in these studies.9 The four essays offered here attempt to focus on local level political life and thus offer a different approach to the study of politics in Southeast Asia. They present various aspects of the political relations between central and local authorities in three different Southeast Asian states: Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines. These countries appear to share certain common traits that set them apart from the other states of the region. In each, a popular movement has arisen in the past decade or so to overthrow, or at least seriously challenge, an entrenched military or authoritarian regime. Each has had some experience of democratic/electoral politics. These elections have provided a vehicle for the expression of local interests and a path for local power holders to seek positions and to influence the state from a regional power base. Thailand and Burma both possess powerful military establishments which have dominated politics for most of the period since World War II. The Philippines saw fifteen years of heavily militarized, but formally civilian, rule under the dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos. In both Thailand and the Philippines, authoritarian structures were successfully overthrown as a result of popular movements. In Burma, the military elite has held power since overthrowing an elected government in 1962. In its current incarnation as the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC), it has annulled elections which would have threatened military rule. Political parties and their leaders, the most well-known being Aung San Suu Kyii, have been ruthlessly suppressed. These studies look both at the dynamics of local leadership within regional constituencies and at the upward links between local elites and the central power structures. They differ significantly from earlier approaches to Southeast Asian politics, first in their local perspectives, second in their detailed analyses of the interplay of local and regional forces and agendas, and third in the fundamentally richer and more highly textured views they give us of national politics in all of these states. Moreover, they do not assume that the top-down perspective is the only "legitimate" view of Asian politics. 8

Audrey R. Kahin, ed., Regional Dynamics of the Indonesian Revolution: Unity from Diversity (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1985); Benedict J. Kerkvliet, The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977); Geoffrey Robinson, The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995). 9 James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), and Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).


Carl A. Trocki

Finally, all focus on the practice of democratic politics. For that reason, it seems useless to attempt to define "democracy" in any theoretical sense. The approaches here are pragmatic, and each scholar presents the getting and exercise of political power as an act of violence. Perhaps these papers are not so much about democracy as they are about elections, but they are "democratic" elections, in the sense that elections in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are not. None of these are effectively one-party states. That is, the results of elections are not foregone conclusions, and the central state does not, or cannot, effectively engineer the desired outcomes. Local leaders must mobilize support on the local level, and the national leadership must negotiate power-sharing arrangements between the center and the localities. In this sense there is more of a political space for the "local" in the electoral systems that exist or have existed in Burma, Thailand, and the Philippines than in other Southeast Asian nations. As such then, each study provides an avenue for understanding the processes and forces at work within these Asian polities. ASIAN VALUES AND DEMOCRACY

In each of these states, the central apparatus presents itself as both modernist and nationalist. The authors all argue that it is incorrect, however, to accept without question the assertion that the state and its agents are necessarily modern, and that the regions and their representatives are necessarily traditional or divisive. In any case, appeals to modernization have all too often served as merely the excuses for extending control. It may be more correct to see the center-periphery conflicts as the perennial political "problems" of all states being re-enacted now in Southeast Asia with modern trappings, that is, with the addition of guns, capitalism, and electronic communications. The appearance of corruption, nepotism, violence, and gangsterism is also common to virtually all political systems. Sometimes these unwanted phenomena are the result of traditional political culture, and sometimes they are the result of modernization. Other times they seem to grow from the external environment of domestic political life. Whatever the systemic origins of gangsterism in these three states, the individual men who dominate politics on the local level in Burma, Thailand, and the Philippines are not the most admirable of individuals. They all are men who have achieved power through an electoral process. All enjoy, or have enjoyed, recognition from the central government, and have, to a greater or lesser extent, participated in that government. They would, by most measures, be considered politicians. However, on another scale they are all men of violence. Most of them are murderers, and those who have not themselves murdered have ordered others to do so on their behalf. They have their hands in most forms of large-scale crime, but these are gangsters of a special kind. They are involved in drugs, prostitution, gambling, and extortion. Political "corruption" is fundamental to their way of life. They prosper with the collaboration of other public servants, and they themselves often control the political process in order to reap the benefits of influence in landgrabbing, illegal logging and mining, industrial pollution, and violations of labor laws. They maintain active and intimate relations with the underworld. In short, they are gangsters, thugs, and members of what Americans would class as organized crime.

Democracy and the State in Southeast Asia


There is the perception that the emergence and influence of these gangsters has been more extreme and more pernicious under democratic or electoral systems than under authoritarian regimes. This may be so, or it may simply be that they are more visible because of the openness of democracy in contrast with the opacity of dictatorship. Also, democracies are more constrained by their need to act within the rule of law, a factor that causes them to appear less decisive in taking action at times. In any case, these authors reject the proposition that democracy is inappropriate in the Asian environment, while nevertheless presenting studies that suggest the permeability of democratic processes does indeed enable these gangsters to flourish. The activities and successes of elected governments have often seemed far less newsworthy than their failures. The records of these governments have appeared disappointing, particularly when judged against the aspirations of the urban intellectuals and the bourgeois students of the democracy protests. They have been less effective than authoritarian regimes in carrying out policies and reforms. Their tenures in office have often been short and confused. The government of Chatchai Chunhawan in Thailand [1988-91] was marked by wide-spread and well-publicized corruption. So too was the government of Chuan Leekapai which was elected after the 1992 demonstrations, even though they were seen as the "angels7' during the election campaign. The government of Corazon Aquino in the Philippines [1986-1992] was less than inspiring. And, in retrospect, the government of U Nu in Burma during the 1950s did little to improve the reputation of democracy in Asia. Often, elected governments have had difficulty in maintaining public order and in gaining the cooperation of their own recalcitrant military and police establishments. Implicit in each paper is commentary on the current debate about Asian values and how these values are translated into the political sphere. It is clear that a fairly consistent defense of authoritarianism is emerging from the various capitals of East and Southeast Asia. These conditions, described in these papers, may seem to lend an appearance of credibility to the charges by Asian authoritarians such as Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad of Malaysia, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, President Suharto of Indonesia, and Premier Li Peng of China, among others, that "Asian culture" is different, and that fundamental civil and human rights, as they are defined by the West, are inappropriate in the Asian political context, however it is defined. Democracy is, on the one hand, portrayed as an element of western neo-colonialism, an element alien to "Asian values," no matter what part of Asia one may be in. In another common critique, democracy is presented as a system that opens the door to the unbridled chaos and violence that constitute the "natural" tendencies of those who live beyond the pale of the legitimate state. The apparent economic successes of authoritarian political orders in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia were once offered as evidence that the ends may indeed justify the means. GANGSTER DEMOCRACIES

There can be no denying that these essays show the emergence of gangsters, gang violence, and corruption as a characteristic of "democratic" political life.


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These writers all stress the importance of understanding the pre-democratic political history of each of these countries. The heritage of colonialism and absolutism is intimately entwined with these forces of chaos. As Benedict Anderson has suggested, and as observers of American politics are well aware, the practice of democracy calls forth individuals and groups who can mobilize support and who ultimately vote at the local level.10 In societies marked by a peasant culture whose influence pervades both rural areas and provincial towns, these figures are likely to be the informal practitioners of violence and coercion who had managed to survive under earlier regimes. This has been particularly true in countries where authoritarian states have created exploitative systems of taxation and control. Often the thugs were there before democracy and the case may even be made that they were the legacy of the dictators and colonialism. Local individuals who have served the dictators in these capacities have often been well-positioned to advance within democratic, or at least electoral, systems. Nonetheless, their methods of operation continue to be violent. Whether we use terms drawn from the US experience or whether we employ words from the indigenous lexicons, the phenomena remain roughly comparable: bandits, gangsters, Mafia, and so on are equivalent to chaopho, naklaeng, militias, salvagers, warlords, and pocket armies. Indeed, the Thai and the Filipinos both use American and indigenous terms interchangeably. While it may appear that democracy has opened the door to gangsters, it is also important to understand the political economy of these regimes. Another significant element in the gangster phenomenon has been the emergence of capitalism in all of these states. It is in the interplay between "liberal" economic power and political power in developing societies that the gangster often finds a relatively free field of action. It seems, moreover, that the alliances between transnational corporate interests and local strongmen create a political terrain that is not at all conducive to popular participation or the rule of law. It may be understandable that the results of popular participation have often been portrayed as confirmation of the worst predictions of the authoritarians and statists. One general result of most democratic systems has been the tendency toward political decentralization. This has created opportunities for individuals from outside the state apparatus to seek political power through the electoral process. In Burma, Mary Callahan notes that today's military leaders have argued from their experience that the alternative to authoritarian central domination is the sort of localist anarchy that prevailed in the 1950s, where power fell into the hands of "gangsters." Of course, democracy, if it can really be called that, did not create the Burmese civil wars of the 1950s, nor has it perpetrated the violence that has characterized the rule of SLORC and its military predecessors since 1962. Nevertheless, the return of Burmese democracy continues to be held hostage by those who claim that only the military can prevent disorder. The distrust of democracy seems to be most deeply entrenched in Burma of all these three states, and many scholars have tended to reinforce this perception. Robert Taylor has argued that the forces unleashed by the independence movement in the early 1940s were not only anti-British, but fundamentally anti-state. This orientation characterized the coalition of forces that took power upon 10

Benedict Anderson, "Murder and Progress in Modern Siam," New Left Review (May-June 1990): 33-48.

Democracy and the State in Southeast Asia


independence in 1947. The period during which the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL) held power between 1947 and 1962 was characterized by widespread disorder and the emergence of local strongmen often at the head of "pocket armies." Mary Callahan's analysis of the period shows that the pattern of relations between the Rangoon government and their allies at the local level was actually far more complex than has been assumed, and that the parliamentary institutions of the state were in fact gaining momentum at the very time they were overthrown by the military in 1962. Callahan seeks to explore the events which framed the establishment of the military government in Burma by looking at one region and tracing the development of central power and the refurbishment of the Burmese military. Callahan's story of the "sinking schooner" is one of the first scholarly accounts of the conduct of local politics in Burma during the 1950s to appear in English. Her piece tracks the rise and decline of "armed democracy," as one present day military leader has termed it, between independence and the rise of the military. She takes issue with the suggestion by other scholars, and the Burmese military itself, that the army, as the only force of order at the center, moved to quell the disorderly forces that appeared with the first parliamentary government. Others have argued that the conditions of the time seemed to justify the use of despotic action to fend off chaos. While this has been used to explain the army's reluctance to see a return to parliamentary rule, it may not be a true reflection of the events of the 1950s and early 1960s. Callahan suggests that the growing power of the central administration under U Nu and the emergence of opposition parties within the state in the late 1950s all indicate that the military was not the only force of order in the country. The pocket armies of the 1950s, were, in fact, the sinking schooners. In his study of Thailand, James Ockey shows that gangsters have used democratic institutions to reinforce local power bases, bringing to the nation neither responsible government nor the exercise of authority according to the law. Throughout Southeast Asia, the appearance of such individuals seems to have been one of the most striking manifestations of democracy as it has come into practice on the local level. These most undemocratic characters and groups have tended to flourish like weeds in the garden of popular electoral politics. Despite the Hobbesian implications of these studies, it is also clear that the relationship between democratic processes and the rise of local thugs is not necessarily one of cause and effect. It may also be argued that even at their worst, the body count of the gangsters is minuscule compared to the systematic waves of murder, torture, and general exploitation that have characterized authoritarian regimes in any of these countries. Thailand's military has usually been cast as a counter-revolutionary force, but it too has a tradition of revolutionary activity which it gained in overthrowing the absolute monarchy in 1932. In subsequent years, the military arrogated to itself the absolutist agenda while also defending its actions by assuming the function of the "fence of the nation." It has even claimed responsibility for the economic "success" of the country. Since the 1970s, however, newly assertive democratic forces have arisen from the middle classes created by the capitalist transformation. Recent years have seen an acceptance of political pluralism and a level of popular participation that might be considered democratic. While there has been a movement toward egalitarianism, political liberty, and freedom of expression, the electoral process has also tended to empower local gangsters, to


Carl A. Trocki

spawn corruption, and to encourage random violence as new and old forces struggle for position. Recent elections, such as the ones in 1995, 1996, and that following the 1991 coup, have proven to be bonanzas for well-heeled politicos of questionable backgrounds. Even ex-drug lords have been able to demand important cabinet positions. While Ockey notes that the gangsters have flourished with the rise of democracy, he argues that their origin lies in the system which was overthrown by the student demonstrators in 1973 and 1992. Moreover, Ockey sees definite limits to the power of the chaopho as the middle class comes to dominate Thai society. In the Philippines, the oldest Asian democracy, the prominence of locally based strongmen, private armies, and "corruption" seems almost endemic. Most observers have concluded that a key result of American colonial rule was a "democracy" that empowered already entrenched regional elites. This has left the impression that the state is weak and perennially fragmented and that it has been unable to assert a national agenda that would damage the interests of the locally powerful families; weakness and fragmentation thus lead to the failure of land reform efforts and the growth of private armies. The accepted political wisdom maintains that a locally based oligarchy has come into being which relies on a combination of patronage, money, and muscle to dominate a weak central state. While John Sidel takes issue with the "weak state/strong oligarchy" hypothesis that typifies many analyses of Filipino politics, he too accepts the significance of local bosses in the national political process. Sidel examines the pattern of relations between local bosses in Cavite and the central authorities in Manila. Although bossism is clearly an ingrained phenomenon in the Philippines, Sidel seeks to define it more precisely and tries to take account of the relative weaknesses and strengths of those on both ends of the political equation. In Cavite, though there is almost always a boss, these bosses rarely last more than one generation each. These single-generation bosses have been capital-intensive and coercive in their styles of action. More importantly all such bosses have needed the support of the central state to stay in power. Manila has created these bosses, perhaps acting in accordance with the unspoken rule that the more predatory and illegitimate they are, the better, since the least legitimate are more dependent upon the whim of the President and thus easier to replace. Patricio Abinales, approaching Manila from the Muslim south, demonstrates that the traditional, local leadership has often acted to integrate, rather than fragment, the national polity. Like Sidel, he too argues that the Philippine state is far stronger than many other students have assumed. Abinales has highlighted the question of "ethnic" divisions in the Southern Philippines and focused on the local/regional interaction between the Roman Catholic polity of Manila and the Muslims of the South. He takes issue with much of the current literature which sees Islam as a perennially divisive element in the Philippines and suggests that the datu-politicians of Mindanao, more often than not, have acted as integrative agents and fostered peaceful co-existence. His discussion also throws new light on the emergence of the Moro National Liberation Front and the ethnic strife of the 1970s and 1980s.

Democracy and the State in Southeast Asia



All of these studies provide examples that challenge the conventional wisdom of Southeast Asian political analysis. Both those who criticize authoritarianism as well as those who accept statist "activism" will find much to ponder here. It is clear that national electoral systems have unleashed violent and predatory local figures, but these leaders have also relied on rampant capitalism to create bases of power. As Abinales argues, democracy, when allowed to work, has actually helped to centralize the overall political structures. Ockey takes a similar direction and echoes the hypothesis offered many years ago by Charles F. Keyes in his study of parliamentary politics in Northeastern Thailand that the election of local leaders to central parliaments had the effect of integrating the national polity.11 Running throughout these studies there is, in fact, evidence that democracy is not only healthy for the body politic, but that its long-term action is to unify the nation and to bring integrity and transparency to the political process. On the other hand, the continuing heritages of authoritarianism and rampant capitalism, whether stemming from a period of colonial rule as in the Philippines or Burma, or from a monarchical-military tradition as in Siam, are not always friends of popular sovereignty. It is natural in any society for leadership to arise out of a local community. It does not appear that it ought to be natural, even in Southeast Asia, for that leadership to be predatory and parasitic. As all the authors here argue, the experiences of colonialism and military rule seem to have done much to lay the foundations for gangster politics. The growth of capitalism, particularly the parasitic subspecies that appeared during the colonial era, has given greater power to those who are least likely to use it wisely and well. One is reminded of the famous malapropism of the late Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley; when defending the Chicago police beatings of anti-war demonstrators in 1968, he asserted that the police were not there to " . . .cause disorder, they were there to preserve disorder." Perhaps, as James Ockey suggests, the continued growth of modern social forces will change both the environment and the culture of politics in the region. There is, however, nothing to guarantee that gangsterism and bossism are necessarily selflimiting phenomena. Ockey's confidence in the transformative effect of middleclass culture may be overly optimistic. The arguments of Callahan, Sidel, and Abinales, that central structures always seem to dominate local figures, is likewise no reason to dismiss the prevalence of the bosses and gangsters. Just because the central authorities can dethrone this or that figure does not mean that they wish to eliminate bosses. The importance of these studies lies in their attention to local sources and the long-term transformation of political cultures. They have sought frames of analysis that grow out of the cultures in question, and each has noted the dynamic forces of historical change. The political structures have evolved with the economic and social transformations in the region as a whole. These authors have challenged the assumptions that continue to characterize much political analysis in Southeast Asia and have given us a series of refreshing and penetrating glimpses into the 11

Charles F. Keyes, Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand, Data Paper No. 65 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1967).


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operations of the living political cultures of the area. The questions they pose bring us back to the fundamental problems of violence and society; of order and chaos; of individual freedom and state power; and of the relationship between local and central political actors.


In May and June 1957, reports of a series of violent killings in the Mergui district swept the front pages of Rangoon daily newspapers, focusing the spotlight on the Pyusawhtis, the latest of the pocket armies of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). In the first incident, one Ba Myaing was sent word on May 6 that U Ba Toke, the Mergui West Pyusawhti leader, wanted to see him and a friend. The next day, they went to U Ba Toke's house, and when they didn't return after one hour, Ba Myaing's sister, Ma Po, got worried and went to look for her brother. U Ba Toke told her that he had arrested her brother and his friend because he had received information that her brother was in possession of a gun. When Ma Po protested, U Ba Toke reportedly told her, "Do you want me to send him to the Army? Won't it be better for us to settle the matter here ourselves?" He demanded three thousand kyat from her, offering to settle for 2,500 kyat. When she took the money to him the next day, her brother's friend was released but later she learned that her brother already had been killed. She reported the matter directly to the District Superintendent of Police and later to the local National United Front representatives, who finally got her case some publicity a month after the murder. This somewhat belated pressure from the press and the opposition party in Parliament finally led to the arrest of U Ba Toke, who managed to get the trial 1

Research for this paper was assisted by a grant in 1991 from the Joint Committee on Southeast Asia of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation, in addition to travel and research grants from the Cornell University Center for International Studies (1990) and the Cornell University Southeast Asia Program (1993). An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, March 26,1993. The author would like to thank Benedict Anderson, Vincent Boudreau, Anne Foster, Dr. Khin Zaw Win, Alfred McCoy, Takashi Shiraishi, Robert H. Taylor, Thant Myint-U, and Carl Trocki for their helpful criticism of various drafts of this paper. The opinions in and responsibility for this article remain solely that of the author, and not of the persons or organizations providing support and advice.


Mary P. Callahan

delayed long enough apparently to scare Ma Po into recanting her complaint and telling the court that "I forgot all my previous statements/'2 U Ba Toke was released. A week later, after several Pyusawhtis knocked on Ma Po's door, she was never heard from again. Shortly after the murder of Ba Myaing, twenty-five Mergui Pyusawhtis—some U Ba Toke's men, others under U Kyee Wan, the Mergui East Pyusawhti leader—were arrested for murdering at least eleven people aboard a schooner near the village of Sitaung-Aing in Mergui on May 22. The schooner, Aung-Gyi-Tha, had left SitaungAing with a load of rubber from an estate owned by a Chinese merchant, Ah Haung, and his wife, Ma Kyin Pwa, both of whom were on board. Another schooner from Mergui overtook the Aung-Gyi-Tha and between twenty and thirty Pyusawhtis came aboard. They robbed it of four hundred bales of rubber, nine drums of oil, and all its provisions. Then they ordered the passengers and crew down into the hold, nailed down the hatches, dragged the schooner out to sea, and scuttled it by breaking the timbers with axes. When survivors broke out of the hold and tried to swim to safety, all but three were mowed down by gunfire from the onlooking Pyusawhtis. Upon returning to shore, the Pyusawhtis proceeded to ransack Sitaung-Aing village, seizing clothes, money, oil, and kerosene. This story received far broader press coverage in Rangoon dailies, leading the government to dispatch the local Brigade Commander to investigate the crime, and leading to the later appointment of a Special Tribunal from Rangoon to hear the case. Much as it happened with Ma Po's case, witnesses subsequently "forgot" their earlier complaints and their identification of the Pyusawhtis as the murderers. Despite the intimidation, relentless pressure from the press and opposition politicians finally undermined the local bosses' influence and brought about the conviction of twentyfour of the twenty-five accused Pyusawhtis; the ringleader of these party thugs was sentenced to hang. If these events had occurred ten—or even five—years earlier, it is unlikely that U Ba Toke, U Kyee Wan, or their men would have ever been questioned by legal authorities, much less arrested, tried, and convicted. In this article, I will explain how local authority first came to rest in the hands of leaders like U Ba Toke and then later came to be challenged by institutions of national authority, particularly the army. Three aspects of this change will be covered in this article. First, the chaos that enveloped Burma at the close of World War II continued through the early years following independence. The armed forces that managed to regain and maintain control over a large expanse of territory outside of Rangoon in the name of the national government were forces organized not under the government's army (the tatmadaw) but instead under local and national Socialist Party leaders. Hence it was the Socialist Party forces that pacified most of the country by incorporating local bosses, dacoit bands, and thugs into units loyal to the Rangoon government. These units managed to hold off incursions by the Communists and other anti-government rebels.3 2

This quotation came from the c[m^ (Kye-Mon newspaper), September 26,1957. The account of the Mergui incidents which follows is based on reports appearing in Kye-Mon [The Mirror}, as well as inuooooooo(Hanthawaddy)andThe Nationnewspapers from May 12, 1957 through May 23,1958. 3 Besides U Ba Toke and U Kyee Wan, other well-known local bosses included Saya Hti in Meiktila, Bo Tauk Htain (formerly a member of the Thirty Comrades) in Pyinmana, Aung Pinle Thein Pe, Thakin Kyi Shein in Lewe, and—later—U Kuthala (leader of Young Monks

The Sinking Schooner


Second, although the tatmadaw, like the central government, was dependent on the Socialist Party for survival in the early years of the post-independence civil war, this dependent relationship ended between 1953-57 after the army had been forced to reorganize, retrain, and re-equip largely due to the presence of the Kuomintang (KMT) threat to Burmese territory. The character and capabilities of the army changed, and this came at a time when War Office leadership—many of these same leaders had been founding members of the Socialist Party in 1945—had become disenchanted with corruption among Socialist politicians. Third, this overhaul of the army, its field success against the KMT, and the weakening of the AFPFL's unity both in Rangoon and in the districts meant that by the time of the Mergui incidents described above, the army was beginning to take leadership roles away from politicians and to assert national authority against local guerrilla leaders and political bosses like U Kyee Wan and U Ba Toke. In 1958, these processes led to army intervention in politics at the national level when Gen. Ne Win took over the premiership from U Nu. BACKGROUND

To understand the situation in which the Mergui incidents occurred, one must look back to the formative period of Burma's struggle for national independence. The precedessors of political armies like the Pyusawhtis can be found in the "pocket armies" of the various anti-colonial movements of the 1930s. This sort of political army was organized in the form that typified the anti-British underground developed during the late 1930s, and probably was the basis for the kind of resistance organizations that developed under the Japanese, including the East Asia Youth League and various civil defense groups during the occupation. These semiprivate armies reappeared most dramatically in the form of the postwar Pyi-thu Yebaw Tat (the literal translation is "People's Comrades' Army," although it was in fact known in English as the "People's Volunteer Organization" or PVO). This was Aung San's postwar pocket army. At independence, these armed units did not disappear, but instead multiplied in the chaos that characterized the physically devastated and politically mobilized country. The official transfer of power from the departing British colonial government to the national front government of the AFPFL occurred in less than Association) in Mandalay. Scholars Khin Maung Kyi and Robert H. Taylor refer to local political bosses by the term "Bo," or "lieutenant," literally. See Khin Maung Kyi, "Patterns of Accommodation to Bureaucratic Authority in a Transitional Culture: A Sociological Analysis of Burmese Bureaucrats with Respect to Their Orientations Toward Authority/' (PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 1966), p. 110, and Taylor, The State in Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), pp. 264-268. Former fighters from the war-time resistance army sometimes added Bo to their names and some of these people later became local strongmen or political bosses. However, not all of the local leaders were called Bo; many were simply referred to by the Burmese term for "politician." It is quite likely that in different parts of the country, racketeers and notorious politicians like these men operated differently and were subject to varying degrees of influence by Rangoon. However, in this paper, I am only trying to explain the overall and general pattern of changing authority relations in Upper and Lower Burma. This paper does not address authority relations in the Shan States, Arakan, Kachin, or Chin regions; for an excellent narrative of postwar developments in these areas, see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London: Zed Books, 1991).


Mary P. Callahan

ideal conditions. In the midst of negotiations for the transfer, one prominent group in the AFPFL—the Red Flag Communists, led by Thakin Soe—became fed up with the number of concessions nationalist leaders made to the British and rebelled openly against the government beginning in July 1946. Nearly all of the major nationalist leaders including the hero of the struggle for independence, Aung San, were assassinated by political opponents five months before the transfer. The majority of the Communist Party, still legal and led by Thakin Than Tun, walked a tightrope, trying not to betray the AFPFL unity that these assassinations had inspired while also maintaining critical opposition to the increasingly more conservative leadership of the AFPFL. Within three months of independence, these Communists—the White Flags—also went underground, eventually taking with them at least one-third of the army and the majority of the nationwide People's Volunteer Organization (ostensibly a veterans affairs group, but in reality a paramilitary wing of the AFPFL). The Karen National Defense Organization rebelled in January 1949, prompting the defection of the Karen Rifles and Karen-dominated artillery units from the government's army. By this time, one half of the government troops had revolted and nearly that proportion of its equipment was gone; important cities like Mandalay, Maymyo, Prome, and even Insein (a suburb of Rangoon) fell to insurgent control. By the time Ne Win assumed his position as Supreme Commander in 1949, he commanded only two thousand remaining troops.4 The crisis split the government leadership. Pressure came from the leftists in the army and the PVO for Prime Minister Thakin Nu to negotiate with Thakin Than Tun's communist forces in order to bring them into the government. Perceiving duplicitous anti-communist activity on the part of the Socialist Party, the PVO especially attempted to force this pro-communist "leftist unity" program and when that failed, the majority went into rebellion. Eventually, due to perceived threats of a communist-backed army takeover, the Burma Socialist Party (BSP) members of the Cabinet resigned en masse in April 1949, and Nu formed a new government but remained steadfastly opposed to negotiations with armed communist rebels. This left the government with little authority outside of Rangoon: in fact, at the time, diplomats widely referred to U Nu's government as the "Rangoon government."5 At this point, two longer term processes of consolidation were initiated: first, the focus of the Socialist Party—discredited at the national level—returned to local politics to shore up the security of the Rangoon government by arming Socialist followers in the countryside; second, after nearly collapsing during the early months of civil war, the army eventually was transformed from a state of decimation to a 4

Defense Services Historical Research Institute (hereafter, DSHRI), "An Administrative History of the Armed Forces in Burma/7 vol. 1, (Rangoon: unpublished manuscript for internal circulation, n.d.), p. 776. 5 John F. Cady, A History of Modern Burma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958); scoo|^i C9300COGQOO p[c«oi CS-SO-O-OD GS>OO ojgsy^oscowcs og£o-Gj (G&GOOC ooooojoSi 0599) [Kyaw Nyein, "History of Pyinmana During the AFPFL Period," (MA°°Thesis, Mandalay University, 1974)]; Manning Nash, The Golden Road to Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); and less directly, the village studies of Robert E. Huke, "Rice in Burma," (PhD Dissertation, Syracuse University, 1953), and syci G3oo&^3fo^oGQ° og^o-Gj (cj|o^|oooo3^o$i ogoo) [Chit Khin, "Regional Administration, 1948-62," (MA Thesis, Rangoon University, 1981)]. It is difficult to judge how representative the villages, towns, and


Mary P. Callahan

thick of the crisis, these leaders raised levies and village defense units, and armed them with weapons that had probably been buried or hidden by villagers at the end of the war. British military observers estimated that as many as fifty thousand weapons remained in private hands in Burma at the end of the war.13 It is interesting to note that in spite of the inability of army and government leaders to provide weapons to Burma Army field commanders who sent desperate requests for supplies to Rangoon,14 Socialist Party leaders in villages, towns, and districts around Burma had very little difficulty obtaining weapons from their own stores or through the black market operating around the country.15 The key issue was whether the local leaders chose to use the weapons to fight against rebels raiding their harvests or against government troops doing the same, since both needed food for sustenance. One important consideration that conditioned a pro-government stance for some local politicians was the linkage between a number of them and the Socialist Party that dated back to the networks forged among participants in the 1936 and 1938 student strikes and later in the Thakin party and the underground resistance. Additionally, the Socialist Party's success at incorporating local leaders into their mass organizations around the country provided a mechanism for insuring loyalty to the Rangoon government among these local armies.16 Though the economy had been crippled by war damage, rising debt, and fleeing capital, the government nonetheless had a few resources to parcel out via the party and its mass organizations—including ferry licenses, small loans of capital or materials to cultivators, trading licenses to merchants, licenses to operate public transit and alcohol shops, and unofficial promises to ignore the smuggling of teak, rice, gold, and other commodities in the regions controlled by Socialist followers.17 districts they studied were, but the patterns noted herein do run throughout the areas studied by these writers. Finally, the reports of British and American diplomats regarding their trips upcountry often contained useful descriptions of the local politics of the regions visited. 13 Figure cited in B. R. Pearn, "Burma: Political Developments 1945-1948," Confidential Memorandum, DB 1015/13 BUR/28/55, in Public Record Office, FO 371/117029. 14 For example, see Col. Khun Nawng's letter to Lt. Col. Ba Han requesting supplies (August 9,1949; in DSHRI, DR 8101). See also U Nu, Saturday's Son (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), pp. 185-187. 15 The most sought-after resource in the early civil war period was weaponry, and there is evidence that the Socialist Party officials throughout the hierarchy were able to gain access through both official and unofficial channels to guns. For example, a former associate of Saya Hti reported that Saya Hti and other leaders were able to purchase weapons from the Shans and the Kachins. (Interview on author's behalf, February 1993.) The Shans had been wellarmed by the British throughout their near century-long colonial rule and were willing to sell some of their stocks after the war. Also, the Kachins sold homemade weapons. 16 The Socialists seemed to be making efforts to incorporate existing village armies more formally into a hierarchy with orders emanating from Rangoon, although this was impossible at the time. See the final article in (opGGooocooi OOOWGOOOOO^Cc