The notion of external ‘help’ to the people of Burma has taken a beating from across the ideological board. The debate around the issue even made international headlines during that brief moment following the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis when Burma was apparently interesting enough to the rest of the world to warrant significant reportage (September 2007 notwithstanding). Central to this debate has been a narrow understanding of politics as the struggle over institutional authority to which opponents (otherwise in seeming disagreement) have held fast. Speaking of the Cyclone Nargis aftermath, Ban Ki-moon told the UN General Assembly in May 2008 that “this is not about politics. Our focus is saving lives.” The following month, The Irrawaddy argued that “the international community, in its efforts to depoliticize the humanitarian crisis still unfolding in Burma, may end up ensuring the ruling regime’s political survival while doing little or nothing to save lives.” More recently, this dispute flared up at the Burma Day conference held in Brussels this past October.

In the most polarized cases, this debate sets those who advocate pressure aimed at national-level political reform (or in some circles ‘regime change’) against those who argue for ostensibly apolitical (yet State regulated) humanitarian and development assistance. Not only has this debate grown unnecessarily tedious, but it’s a false dichotomy which has hindered the development of more innovative and just forms of engagement with contemporary Burma. Both approaches remain overly focused on elite politics and miss opportunities to implement politically-mindful forms of intervention which support rural villagers’ everyday efforts to resist abuse. At least, that’s one of the assertions of a new report released this week by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG). Given recurring discussions and debates on New Mandala, the new report, entitled Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State is of particular relevance.

In an effort to move beyond the above debate, the report’s authors criticize narrow understandings of politics and resistance that prioritize struggles over formal authority and neglect the many ways through which civilians (especially the country’s overwhelmingly rural population) resist abuse and engage daily with the informal political processes that surround them in order to address humanitarian and livelihood concerns. This approach has much in common with those of James Scott and Benedict Kirkvliet insofar as ‘everyday resistance’ and ‘everyday politics’ are given their due place of importance. In areas of Karen State under Burma Army control, for example, village-level resistance to exploitative abuse (such as persistent forced labour, movement restrictions, arbitrary taxation and ad hoc demands) has included negotiation, bribery, lying, outright refusal, confrontation, various forms of discreet false compliance, jokes and counter-narratives, and temporary evasion. In areas of more overt armed conflict this resistance has involved villagers’ efforts to support displacement in hiding as a means of evading attacks and forced relocation by the Burma Army. Such persistent forms of resistance are amongst the most effective means currently employed to address humanitarian and livelihoods concerns in Karen State (and presumably elsewhere in rural Burma). They are also political.

Despite the success of village-level resistance strategies in addressing humanitarian and livelihoods issues in rural Burma, these efforts have largely been missed by external actors attempting to ‘help’ improve current conditions in the country. The marginalization of indigenous ‘self help’ efforts has been due, in part, to external depictions (often as part of otherwise well intentioned journalism and advocacy) of villagers in non-ethnic Burman-dominated areas like Karen State as helpless victims passively terrorized by the Burma Army. Seemingly without ability to assess and concretely respond to their situation, the voices and concerns of these individuals have been excluded from ongoing political processes (like humanitarian relief programmes and foreign policy debates) intended to ‘help’ them.

There is currently a great opportunity for external actors to help address intertwined humanitarian and human rights concerns in Burma by incorporating village-level resistance strategies into a variety of ongoing aid programmes. This requires that the far-too-often excluded voices of rural villagers be included in the political processes that affect them and that their concerns shape any related intervention.

Stephen Hull is a researcher with the Karen Human Rights Group. Their Village Agency report is available here.