Patron-Client Relationships

   In Burma as well as other Asian countries, patron-client relationships are important in business, politics, and daily life; they are especially vital in societies where the rule of law is weak and protection must be sought from powerful and influential persons. Patron-clientism suffused Burmese society during the monarchical period, when elites were composed neither of hereditary aristocrats (as in Europe) nor meritocratic officials (as in China), but rather of men who enjoyed the king's trust and favor who were subject to his whims. In such a context, power was personal, not institutional.
   During the Burma Socialist Programme Party era (1962-1988), black market entrepreneurs sought military and BSPP party patrons, who could give them protection in exchange for economic rewards, on which the officials in turn became dependent in an economy of great scarcity. This pattern has continued under the State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council, arguably becoming more pervasive because the "state capitalist" system established after 1988 made available more money (including foreign investment) and more opportunities for profitable ties between business and officials. Burmese often comment that if a person has good connections to top Tatmadaw personnel, especially members of the SPDC, he or she can make huge profits quickly on enterprises that otherwise would not be economically viable; this includes the government's granting of exclusive import-export licenses to favored businesspeople who would have been unable to obtain them had economically rational criteria, for example, cost-competitiveness, been applied.
   Throughout Burmese society, people seek the aid of influential persons who are relatives, went to the same school or university, served in the same Tatmadaw unit, or came from the same township. But such ties can produce unpredictable results. If a patron, such as a high-ranking military officer, is disgraced or purged, his clients will suddenly be cut off from lucrative opportunities and may even be arrested for corruption. Although loyalty and trust are much-esteemed Burmese social values, Burmese society is very volatile, and it is difficult for a someone to be loyal to a patron who might suddenly lose power.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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