Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Citizenship and Public Affairs
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
Comparative Politics | Political Science | Political Theory
This paper looks to answer the question: Why do citizens in Burma continue challenging the military regime through peaceful social movements despite of the threat of violent oppression? I set out to examine Burma as an anomaly in political opportunity structure theory. Political opportunity structure influences the type of political action most likely to take place within a regime by affecting which political claims are possible. At first, Burma appears to be a low-democracy, low-capacity regime, which should host civil wars. However, in Burma’s cities, peaceful social movements continue to take place. My capstone seeks to explain this problem.
In order to explain why social movements rather than the expected violent conflict take place in Burma’s cities, I used data gathered from Freedom House to show that Burma falls squarely in the “low democracy” category of political opportunity structure. After describing the current theories, I constructed a chronology of political events in Burma’s cities and compared those to political events in Burma’s border regions to show how political participation differs between the two regions. By mapping political behavior on a timeline, I examined the different types of political actions by region in order to determine whether there is a difference in political action in cities compared to border regions.
I argue that Burma is not a true anomaly in political opportunity structure, but rather that the current understanding of political opportunity structure is too basic to provide a valuable prediction of action in countries where state capacity is composed of two distinct factors, infrastructural and despotic capacity. Additionally, a center-periphery split in Burma (as well as many other countries) leads to very different political action between the majority-controlled cities and ethnic minority-controlled border regions. I suggest that solidary incentives offered by the Sangha, or Buddhist monks, as well as the political leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, provides pro-democracy movements in Burma with relational consumption goods that are valuable enough for protestors to overcome the threat of violence.
The evidence for this argument comes from a data analysis of political events in Burma as well as a review of relevant scholarly research. In my analysis of different types of political actions by region, I found that political participation in Burma’s cities generally takes the form of social movements, while political action in the border regions often occurs as violent conflict. I conclude that the reason why political participation in Burma takes different forms in the cities versus the border regions is because there are two distinct political opportunity structures within Burma. The first is a high-capacity, low democracy structure in the cities, where the government presence and infrastructural power is greatest. The second is a low-capacity, low democracy structure in the ethnic minority-controlled border states, where strained economic resources and limited despotic influence mean that the armed opposition groups are strong enough to combat the military in violent conflict. I call these disparate regional structures “micropolitical opportunity structures,” and suggest that this theory is applicable to many other sites of political contention.
Loring, Nicole, "Micropolitical Opportunity Structure in Burma" (2011). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 303.
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