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Insurgency as a social process: authority and armed groups in Myanmar’s changing borderlands

Brenner, David (2016) Insurgency as a social process: authority and armed groups in Myanmar’s changing borderlands. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This thesis asks why some ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar have de-escalated since 2011, while others re-escalated concurrently. It investigates this puzzle by zooming into the country’s most important ethnic armies: the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Findings from nine months of ethnographically-informed field research in the Kachin and Karen borderlands reveal that internal contestations within both movements have driven their respective conflict and negotiation strategies with the state. These intramural conflicts were sparked in the context of changing political economies in the country’s borderlands that enabled the enrichment of individual rebel leaders but eroded their authority within their movements. The original contribution of this thesis is two-fold: Theoretically, the thesis contributes to the emerging literature on the internal dimensions of rebel groups by moving away from the prevalent focus on rebel elites and rationaldecision making. Instead, it conceptualises insurgency as a social process between differently situated elite and non-elite actors, grounding itself within relational sociology. This appreciates how social dynamics - including figurational interdependencies, reciprocal power relations, and embodied practices - develop a momentum of their own in driving political violence. In doing so, it is suggested that the emergence and erosion of leadership authority in rebel groups depends on whether elites address their grassroots’ claim to recognition, enabling the latter to develop and maintain self-perceived positive social identities through affiliation to the insurgent collective. Empirically, the thesis contributes to a better understanding of one of the world’s longest ongoing but least researched civil wars by presenting original findings on its most important rebel groups, particularly with regards to the often uneasy relations between rebel elites and their grassroots and the ways in which internal contestation drives their strategies. Its findings also have implications for policy in so far as they highlight the pitfalls of counterinsurgency and peacebuilding approaches that aim at fragmenting rebel movements and/or privilege the material interests of elites over issues surrounding recognition and identity that – as this thesis shows – are underpinning ethnonational insurgencies.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2016 David Brenner
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JZ International relations
Sets: Departments > International Relations

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