On Social Mobility, the Military, and Democratization: Contrasting Evolutions in Korea and Burma. Notes for a Peliminary Inquiry

By Steinberg, David I. | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

On Social Mobility, the Military, and Democratization: Contrasting Evolutions in Korea and Burma. Notes for a Peliminary Inquiry


Steinberg, David I., Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Although we focus on the word 'democracy' as an element of U.S. policy, we should rather focus on the term 'democratization,' for this inherently includes the concept of process, while democracy is more like a finished or completed product, ignoring the tortuous path leading to that goal. A U.S. official at a conference not long ago ran down the list of recent elections in Asia, indicating that this demonstrated that democracy was spreading. That was a half-truth, because an election alone does not a democracy make. It is the process of building attitudes, institutions, and procedures that is the critical element in such change, which, without extensive previous experience, is likely to be hollow or short-lived. One of the problems in dealing with Burma, for example, is such a concentration on one election--May 1990--no matter how sweeping the victory was. Whether honoring that election should be the goal of U.S. policy should be subject to dialogue and debate, but even if it were honored, imbedding democracy in that society would still have to be achieved.

One key component of the coercive authority structure in both Burma/ Myanmar and North Korea is the role of the military--pervasive in Burma and enmeshed with the Korean Workers Party in North Korea. One of the elements of the democratization process in most societies is the diminution of the role of the military in active administration and governance. When they have held power, how can they be convinced to relinquish authority? Aside from the issue of indemnity against charges of previous abuses/crimes, which at least in Burma is a major issue, how can this transition be achieved and how can the military be convinced that such a profound change is not a transitory phenomenon?

This raises the issue of how opportunities for democracy come about. Do autocrats and/or the military voluntary give up power? Is there an evolution of plural authority over time? Does it occur suddenly through revolution or external pressures-military, economic, diplomatic? Such factors will effect both how society views such changes and how it may react to foreign proffered advice or assistance. The Philippines changed through an essentially bloodless 'people power' revolution in 1986. South Korea changed through massive demonstrations, together with U.S. pressures, creating an evolutionary process in 1987, and had previously changed through a violent student revolution in April 1960. The typology of change will affect the result and the consequent institutionalization of power.

Whatever the process of change from autocratic rule to more pluralistic governance, one aspect of such an evolution is the development of avenues of social mobility that allow for, and promote, the perception of societal change. Many have claimed that the development of a middle class has been a causal phenomenon in the growth of democratic processes in a variety of states, although it could equally be argued that it may be a parallel characteristic. Although a middle class is by definition a matter of economic status, it is also has an attitudinal characteristic--that one has hope that one's children will have better lives and that progress and change is possible. Such class changes are, of course, one element of the mobility process, but in concentrating on the economic aspects of the growth of a middle class, which is usually associated with the development of a vigorous private sector, one sometimes may ignore a broader phenomenon on which I wish to concentrate below.

Aspects of social mobility and the changes in both Burma/Myanmar and Korea (in this instance one is referring to the Republic of Korea) offer instructive suggestions that may be important to understanding the role of the military in society, their potential removal from direct administrative power, and in furthering the democratization process. Burma moved from a wide avenue of social mobility under a civilian government in 1960, including through the military channel, to a restricted form of mobility either through or controlled by the military. …

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