BANGKOK — Myanmar, so the popular narrative goes, is a land of pro-democracy peasants bitterly shaking their fists at military overlords.
But perhaps the narrative is mistaken.
There is no shortage of reasons to despise the military of Myanmar, the troubled Southeast Asian state formerly titled Burma.
The nation’s army is infamous for ethnic cleansing, torturing critics and even drafting children into military service. During five decades of totalitarian rule, which ended only three years ago, the ruling military elite hoarded the nation’s wealth as citizens suffered.
And yet, inside Myanmar, the army’s reputation may not actually be so dark.
A US taxpayer-funded poll — billed as the “first of its kind” in Myanmar — takes a hatchet to the popular notion that Myanmar’s people widely revile their oppressive military.
The rare nationwide poll suggests that a whopping 84 percent of Myanmar’s public actually hold a favorable view of the military — although these findings may say as much about the poll as about Myanmar.
Since 2011, the nation has been helmed by a military offshoot party vowing to morph Myanmar from an isolated dictatorship to a freer, more modern nation. This ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party — stacked with ex-generals who rose to power through the old regime — is nevertheless popular, with a 74 percent favorable rating, according to the January poll.
Myanmar has indeed changed radically in recent years. Authoritarianism has softened: mobile phones now proliferate, political prisoners have been freed and US sanctions have fizzled. The very existence of the survey is genuinely groundbreaking. US-funded pollsters getting clearance to probe the thoughts of Myanmar’s citizens would have been unthinkable under totalitarian rule.
But the military has scarcely changed its kleptocratic behavior. And such high approval for the military must be unnerving to those who’ve suffered its abuse firsthand.
The poll also gauges support for the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 68-year-old pro-democracy icon that President Barack Obama calls “a hero of mine.” Freed from confinement in 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize winner now sits in parliament.
In Western halls of power, her word can shape foreign policy, and it has long been taken for granted that she would triumph over military-backed forces in any free election.
But by most markers, according to the poll, she’s neck-and-neck with the ex-generals she’s devoted her life to opposing. The favorability rating for her opposition party? Only 70 percent.
US taxpayer dollars
So who funded this poll?
If you pay taxes in America, you did. The poll was conducted by the International Republican Institute or IRI, which is exactly what it sounds like: a US tax-funded group, dominated by Republicans, intent on influencing politics in foreign countries. They also receive funding from conglomerates such as Coca Cola and Chevron.
The institute is technically nonpartisan, although it is chaired by Republican stalwart Sen. John McCain. Its past and present board members are comprised of top aides to ex-President George W. Bush, neoconservative security advisors and ultra-wealthy Republican Party donors.
The institute props up “pro-democracy” movements — notably groups fighting governments that don’t get along with America. (The Democratic Party does similar work via its own nominally “nonpartisan” group: the National Democratic Institute, which also operates in Myanmar.)
More from GlobalPost: Myanmar emerges
Regardless of its intentions, IRI’s backers offer raw meat for conspiracy theorists. One of Myanmar’s leading news outlets, Eleven Media, ran an article suggesting the poll is contrived to push an American agenda. The US State Department’s senior advisor on Myanmar, Judith Beth Cefkin, has insisted that “the poll results don’t in any way reflect the US government’s position ... just to be very clear.”
But when it comes to Myanmar these days, Republicans and Democrats generally have identical goals: opening up the market for US corporations, dulling China’s influence and helping US-friendly leaders take the reins. The poll results actually defy the traditional Republican line on Burma: loudly condemning the military and demanding heavy US sanctions.
One of the top Myanmar experts with Human Rights Watch, senior researcher David Mathieson, reviewed the poll and told GlobalPost he doesn’t suspect any manipulation. “I don’t think people should be looking for American bogeymen under the bed here,” he said.
But are the results legitimate?
“It’s a very interesting exercise. It challenges a lot of elite commentators’ assumptions,” Mathieson said. “But the poll is a bit ambitious for a post-authoritarian society.”
In Myanmar, pro-military propaganda starts in primary school and never stops. On the radio and in the press, the military is proclaimed as a valiant force protecting the people and holding the nation intact. Factor in decades of censorship, plus violent targeting of army critics, and the military’s high approval rating makes more sense.
The military’s worst behavior — shelling of villages, forced labor — also takes place in far-flung places.
Myanmar is dazzlingly diverse and its ethnic minorities, largely clustered in the hills, have formed guerrilla factions to defend their native turf. In the West, these militias are typically seen as persecuted and noble. In mainstream Myanmar, they’re often depicted as malevolent separatists.
Though poll workers went to every state in Myanmar, many remote zones that have suffered bloody attacks are practically impossible to reach.
About 70 percent of those polled also belong to the most prominent ethnicity (Burmans), who dominate the army. They’re more likely to have relatives or neighbors in the army’s rank and file.
“The military is a huge institution that touches many people’s lives,” Mathieson said. It also sprang from righteous beginnings: Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, founder of the army, is credited with running out British occupiers who subjugated the country for more than 120 years.
“People are sophisticated. They might respect the institution but hate the current leaders, who are corrupt and venal,” Mathieson said. “People also tend to have a favorable impression of the military until their 14-year-old son is abducted at a checkpoint and forced into the army.”
There is another factor that almost certainly boosted the military’s approval rating: fear.
Myanmar has only recently started to dismantle a police state that targeted dissidents for torture and imprisonment. “If you stick a clipboard in someone’s face and say, ‘Do you like the military?’ they’re going to be terrified,” Mathieson said.
What else does the poll reveal?
Myanmar’s people appear to have very little nostalgia for authoritarian rule. Nine in ten, according to the poll, would “definitely vote” in new elections. Another 9 percent “might vote.”
If leaders keep their word, they’ll get the chance in 2015, when Myanmar will hold its first free general election in decades. The last significant round of voting, a 2012 by-election, offered a landslide victory to Aung San Suu Kyi.
But more than elections, Myanmar’s people crave an escape from bleak poverty. “Low income” was singled out as the nation’s most severe problem followed by “unemployment.” Decades of government neglect have left behind a network of decaying hospitals, empty schools and children forced to work like adults to keep their families fed.
“Usually the elites are focused on democratic reforms, election reforms, things of that nature,” said pollster Rob Varsalone at a recent IRI panel. “The people are always concerned about bread-and-butter issues.”
The poll’s results have been presented in-person to both Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling party, according to Varsalone, a Republican who oversaw the poll for IRI.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, is still “beloved,” Varsalone said. But he characterized the ruling party as well organized and flush with resources. “They’re political operatives. Not activists,” he said. “We did the poll presentation and they said, ‘Well, so how do we win? ... No seriously, how do we win?’”