Karma: Individualism in the Culture of Myanmar

When measured on the individualism-collectivism scale, Myanmar largely falls in the realm of collectivism, especially when compared against Western societies. However, Myanmar’s unique culture and history instils traits of individualism into its belief system, and sets it apart from East Asian collectivist cultures such as China and Japan.

At first glance, Burmese culture and society demonstrate characteristics of collectivism. Aside from respect of differential treatments and hierarchical positions in the social order, the Burmese ascribe great importance to familial relationship and communitarian spirit. It has been suggested the family is at the centre of Burmese society. With strong family unity, Burmese family members help out each other by all means, and material supplication by junior to senior close members of the family is viewed as a blessing of good fortune and merit. The close-knit togetherness spirit of the Burmese people is radiated to their communities, which are the core of their social patterns, and a unique communal value is maintained through a common culture. As individual liberty is the condition of men in society with minimised external coercion, in cultures like Myanmar where people are expected to accommodate and uphold societal structures and rules, people are likely to be aware of and place high emphasis on duties to the collectives.

While Myanmar shares certain similarities with ‘Sinosphere’ countries such as China, Japan and Korea which Confucianism has been identified as the chief influence, the predominantly Buddhist tradition of Myanmar sets it apart. Unlike Confucianism which emphasises suppression of personal identity in favour of forging a social identity within structured hierarchical relations and familial piety, Buddhists uphold moral maxims in a rather individualistic sense, based on the principles of karma that stresses the law of cause and effect. In order to be released from human suffering, every individual is eventually responsible for himself that he must acquire his own merit through altruistic behaviours and good deeds.

Therefore, even though Buddhists may exhibit a form of ‘compassion-based’ collectivism by culminating a selfless mind and promoting the advancement of collective interest, they are vested with the freedom and power to choose for themselves. Even the Buddha himself advocates that a Buddhist should make his religious and spiritual development a personal experience, and should avoid blind subservience to the teachings of others. Drawing influence from Buddhism, the Burmese culture places less emphasis on generated hierarchies and social unity compared with East Asian Confucianist cultures. Instead of embracing an ideology of top-down harmony promulgation and imposition, it is the belief of Buddhists that social harmony and peace can be sought at an individual level by every ordinary citizens, if they recognise the insight that all living beings are interconnected and practise love-kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna).

The people in Myanmar value individual liberty, albeit not entirely in the sense that is known and accepted in the west. This is exemplified by the views of Burmese activists and democratic leaders on the notion of ‘freedom’ – not in the sense of exercising of own entitlements, but rather the freedom for moral conduct and bear to the responsibilities of democracy.

All in all, the Burmese people may show great respect for status hierarchies and collective needs, but in case those in power are oppressive and unjust in exercising their freedom in the choice of conduct, their karmic fruit may eventually dry up leading to legitimised resistance and even rebellion from the oppressed. In view of this cultural background of the Burmese people, it is imperative for foreign ventures to develop suitable review and compliance systems with regards to the regulatory requirements and demands from the local authorities and population. Ethical business practices and management methods should be adopted to ensure sustainable and good relationship with the Burmese people in the long run.

Myanmar’s legal culture under the spotlight

The development of democracy in Myanmar had for years captured attention of the world. With Myanmar on the path of democratisation and economic liberalisation since the reforms in 2011, Myanmar’s foundation of democratic stability and economic development will depend on the country’s legal environment.

Drawing its roots from the Buddhist law tradition of Dhammathats, the modern Burmese legal system is shaped by English common law, but has diverged significantly as a result of decades of military rule and socialist transformation. Whereas scholars have demystified the legal system and tradition of this once hermit kingdom, very inadequate interest has been shown towards the legal culture of the people of Myanmar, which is unique in the world with influence from its social environment and cultural orientations.

With a rapidly expanding industrial sector, the implication of the tremendous influx of foreign capital and personnel into Myanmar is significant. According to research from labour rights groups and NGOs, the health, safety, and other fundamental labour rights of Myanmar’s workers are consistently under threat, and adverse environmental impacts generated by foreign-invested factories are on the rise. Amid tense relations between foreign investment and the Burmese people, there have been a number of large-scale strikes and even violent confrontations launched against factory management .

To provide a concrete support and regulatory framework for foreign investors, Myanmar’s legal environment in relation to foreign investment has evolved rapidly. But to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the legal order in Myanmar, it is necessary to reach beyond the current knowledge of the structural and substantive components of Myanmar’s legal system to unveil the cultural and social elements of it, which is the legal culture of the Burmese people, especially the legally-oriented attitudes and behaviours that are manifested when interacting with foreign investors.

How do Burmese people resolve disputes

Dispute resolution is a social phenomenon highly dependent on the particular cultural and social influences. Since Myanmar had been in isolation for a few decades, academic studies about Myanmar in general are very limited.

Myanmar’s national culture is largely derived from the country’s traditions and influences from Buddhism. Prioritising interpersonal relationships, upholding tenderness and modesty, as well as stressing on caring for others, these elements of Burmese culture profoundly shape the preferences towards the procedures and goals of dispute resolution.

The Burmese people embrace a code of social behaviour based on anade, a term that can roughly be understood as ‘saving face’. To avoid getting shamed for inappropriate behaviours and losing face, Burmese people tend to show respect and give greater concern for the feelings of others, while scrutinising their own speech and actions to not cause trouble and make others lose face. Harmony, the desired outcome, is achieved when people minimise conflicts and confrontations by moving away from self-centredness to empathise with others.

It is possible that the characteristics of anade, which share similarities with other Asian cultures, may drive many Burmese people away from litigious and rigid means of dispute resolution, and drive them towards more non-contentious alternatives.