Comparative Authoritarianism: On Vicente L. Rafael’s “The Sovereign Trickster” and Erin Murphy’s “Burmese Haze”

By Rosalie MetroOctober 5, 2022

Comparative Authoritarianism: On Vicente L. Rafael’s “The Sovereign Trickster” and Erin Murphy’s “Burmese Haze”

The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte by Vicente L. Rafael
Burmese Haze: US Policy and Myanmar’s Opening ― and Closing by Erin Murphy

MYANMAR AND THE Philippines, although both routinely described as part of “Southeast Asia,” seem at first to have little in common. The latter is an aspiring middle-income country, whereas a 2021 coup in the former derailed its moves to exit the United Nations Least Developed Countries list. While both countries are classified as having authoritarian regimes, former president Rodrigo Duterte’s inconceivably crass comments (jokes about raping murdered nuns, personal anecdotes about erectile dysfunction) contrast with Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s bland reticence and incoherent rambling. Moreover, democratically elected Duterte remains genuinely popular, whereas Myanmar’s military junta is widely despised, as evidenced by massive 2021 demonstrations and ongoing boycotts in healthcare and education sectors.

Two recent books analyzing these countries also differ in tone. The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte (Duke University Press, 2022), US-based Filipino historian Vicente Rafael’s “prismatic” view of Duterte, consists mostly of essays previously published in Philippine outlets such as Rappler and Bulatlat, and is heavy on French critical theory. Meanwhile, Erin Murphy, a CIA agent turned investment consultant, has written Burmese Haze: US Policy and Myanmar’s Opening — and Closing (Columbia University Press, 2022), an insider’s account of foreign policy which assembles valuable information that has until now been scattered among news articles and closed-door conversations.

Yet both authors are well placed to offer intimate knowledge of their subjects: Murphy is on a first-name basis with US government officials Derek (Mitchell, former ambassador to Myanmar) and Kurt (Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs); Rafael opens his book with a firsthand encounter with Duterte at a relative’s funeral, and he has devoted thousands of words over decades to illuminating the Philippines’ political (mis)fortunes.

To draw connections between these books and the countries they cover, it’s helpful to return to what Rafael calls “the springtime of Third World dictatorships.” This was a late-20th-century period that saw the seemingly interminable reigns of Ferdinand Marcos, Robert Mugabe, Suharto, and (I would add) Ne Win, the erstwhile Burmese strongman. In the “sovereign as savior” role, as Rafael calls it, leaders come to “redeem the country and punish the evildoers” and are often “invested with magical powers.”

It is important, for the sake of comparison, to notice how these dictatorships ended. Rafael points out that the People Power revolution that deposed Marcos did not quite fulfill its promise, benefiting most “the class that had long ruled the country.” The same could be said of Myanmar’s fraught transition to democracy. While the middle class expanded between 2010 and 2021, Myanmar’s rich got much richer and the poor hardly benefited. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military — as revealed by their recent power grab — remained just one chess move from control the entire time. Elections are, as Rafael points out, often “instruments for regularizing elite collaboration” with already powerful groups, rather than vehicles of popular empowerment.

Authoritarian traditions are not so easily dispensed with, and Rafael’s analysis shows how the technologies of power they use contribute to their longevity. It is well known that Duterte’s administration in the Philippines has presided over thousands of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and addicts. Similarly, since Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, authorities have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and killed thousands of civilians — a tradition that was barely interrupted in the 10 years preceding the coup, even under the rule of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

While Murphy explicates the US response to these realities, Rafael reveals their underpinnings. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and Achille Mbembe, he describes Duterte’s use of biopower, “the control and management of all aspects of life to ensure and foster more than life,” and necropower, “the power to control death, to decide upon who must die so that others might live.” So not only did Duterte order drug addicts to be murdered; as Rafael vividly describes, he also had their faces bound with packing tape and their bodies left in the streets so their corpses would become “texts” where citizens could read the strongman’s power. Similarly, Myanmar’s military randomly kills children, seemingly to remind civilians of their absolute power, and photographs captives being forced to raise the three-finger salute, a symbol of dissidence, as they torture them — apparently to illustrate the futility of resistance.

Nor do anti-regime opponents always offer alternatives to this brutality: Rafael provides the sobering observation that the “militant left” in the Philippines “has operated along the same logic” as Duterte, assassinating counterinsurgents and suspected informants. Armed anti-regime groups in Myanmar have been accused of similar tactics: most troublingly, the murders of doctors and teachers who have not joined the Civil Disobedience Movement’s work strikes.

While acknowledging the violence of opposition movements, Rafael reveals what makes state-directed brutality so powerful: the politics of exclusion. In describing the exhaustive list Duterte keeps of his “‘imagined community’ of enemies,” Rafael observes that “if insurgents did not exist, they must, therefore, be conjured” — a description that will sound familiar to anyone well-versed in the Myanmar military’s paranoid invocation of “internal destructive elements” over the past 40 years. Authoritarian rule rests on the separation of “good” from “bad” subjects. By placing drug users in the Philippines and political and ethnic others in Myanmar (such as the Rohingya) outside the boundaries of humanity, authoritarian leaders in both countries solidify their own power.

Rafael describes this dynamic in terms of societal autoimmunity, “as if one harbored foreign bodies that threatened one’s health.” Case in point: Murphy’s chapter on the Rohingya, which will probably be of widest interest, notes Min Aung Hlaing’s mid-2010s donation to Ashin Wirathu, a leader of the Buddhist nationalist group 969 that drummed up anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s hard to think of a better example of biopower than the Thein Sein government’s objectionable yet popular “Protection of Race and Religion Laws,” which regulated marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men and targeted Muslim women for compulsory birth spacing.

Less obvious than these intrusive forms of power are the neoliberal economic ideologies that accompany them in both countries. Neoliberalism led to what Rafael calls “individualizing rather than collectivizing social agency by stressing the need to assume responsibility for one’s life and ‘accountability’ for one’s actions.” Both the Philippines and Myanmar have abdicated many responsibilities of governance and outsourced them to the market — whether through the international funder-driven aid industry or through unfettered capitalism. Access to basic needs, then, comes from entrepreneurial subjecthood or from membership in ranks of the deserving poor (of the correct religion and ethnic identity). In other words, if you are addicted to drugs in the Philippines or find yourself on the wrong side of a soldier’s gun in Myanmar, not only do you not deserve to live, but it is also implied that only your own poor choices, rather than social structures, led to your predicament.

I’d love to see Rafael, with his criticisms of neoliberalism, debate Murphy, who devoted years to counseling businesses on responsible ways to invest in Myanmar. She was hopeful that prosperity would trickle down to Myanmar’s poor if only she could get businesspeople off of the SDN (Specially Designated Nationals) list — a list of individuals and businesses blocked from financial transactions and relationships with US nationals.

While Murphy doesn’t, in my view, make an entirely convincing case for this pathway to progress, she does illustrate the farcical nature of the “engagement” process, which was often directed by US Congresspeople who only lightly grasped the situation in Myanmar. She points out that SDN designations had the “perverse effect” of rallying the population around the military in the midst of international criticism about treatment of the Rohingya. Murphy provides plenty of evidence that the US government’s actions were driven by appearances rather than reality. Moreover, she pulls back the curtain on the genuine confusion behind the scenes, as in her description of Myanmar’s 2010 election: “The US was grappling with what to do — call the whole process a sham? Offer cautious optimism?” You can almost hear foreign policy aides gaming out the optics and converging on the least risky position.

Murphy’s book raises the question of how much the United States can or should do in response to regimes like Myanmar’s (or the Philippines, for that matter). There has been much reflection on whether “engagement” with the military only legitimizes their rule, or can lead to change, a dilemma that has divided people in and associated with Myanmar for decades. Murphy notes that US and EU sanctions are largely symbolic, since many of Myanmar’s most lucrative products (such as jade) are traded mostly with China.

But these clear-eyed assessments contrast with Murphy’s rather forgiving assessments both of Suu Kyi (to whom she gives “the benefit of the doubt” regarding the Rohingya crisis) and the Burmese military, noting that not all of them are “hardened killers”; she even fondly recalls a conversation with a current sympathizer of the State Administration Council, whom she still believes shares her high hopes for democracy.

Relevant when considering Burmese Haze and US policy on Myanmar in general is one of Rafael’s other books, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History (Duke University Press, 2000), which describes the brutalizing missionary zeal of the colonial project in the Philippines and its long-lasting impact on US-Philippine relations. While acknowledging the white saviorism that is hard to miss in Myanmar, Murphy also exoticizes the country somewhat, quoting Rudyard Kipling at length and calling it “a country that grips people and never lets them go.” Myanmar “seeps into the imagination, terrorizes immune systems, challenges assumptions, influences views, and makes one question one’s role in the world,” she writes.

As a white American who has studied Myanmar for 20 years, I can’t dispute that description. But Murphy’s account, as valuable as it will be to political historians, positions Myanmar primarily as a conundrum for US foreign policy and as a phase of her own life (her account starts with her first journey to the country following Cyclone Nargis in 2008) rather than as a home to 55 million people who had little knowledge of or influence over the decisions that continue to impact their lives so deeply.

Perhaps what these two books do best, read together, is close the apparent distance between the powerful, aid-dispensing United States and the countries it “helps.” The forms of government in Myanmar, the Philippines, and the United States are distinct but not so distant. Authoritarianism is a machine that learns as autocrats borrow from each other: Duterte used the playbook of Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra’s “drug war”; Duterte prefigured Donald Trump (anyone doubting Trump’s aspirations to autocracy need only consult the January 6 Commission); and Myanmar’s military rehashed Trump’s cry of “election fraud” after losing the popular vote.

For those who aspire to absolute power, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Trump praised Duterte’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem” and told him he sang like Frank Sinatra. Murphy relays with shock former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s affirmative response to a QAnoner who asked hopefully in May 2021 if “something like what happened in Myanmar” — e.g., a coup — could happen in the United States. The fact that Trump’s coup attempt was unsuccessful, or that Duterte has handed power to his chosen successors (Ferdinand Marcos’s son and Duterte’s own daughter), or that the Myanmar military’s political party lacked a parliamentary majority from 2015 to 2021 — none of this disrupts the continuity of the authoritarian impulse.

With that example in mind, it’s clear that calling for the rule of law cannot be the only solution. As Rafael explains, Duterte didn’t violate the law, he used it. “Impunity,” he explains, “does not mean ignoring laws. Rather, it entails operating in a context that allows for their selective suspension in the face of exceptional situations.” Likewise, Myanmar has endured “emergencies” that drag on for years. Suu Kyi always, somewhat naïvely, lobbied for the rule of law, only to have it used against her — for instance, the bizarre ban on walkie-talkies and the spitefully invoked COVID-19 regulations that led to her current imprisonment. And the military regime recently executed four activists on trumped-up charges. Rule of law is only as just as the people producing and enforcing the laws.

However, Rafael cautions us against seeing these autocrats as evil monoliths. He describes Duterte as a “complex, fragile, and ambiguous character in a political drama he cannot fully control” — an apt description of Myanmar’s current dictators as well (not to mention Trump). Perhaps it is through understanding the vulnerability hidden in their power that their ambitions can be stymied.

Rafael ends his book with a call for pessimism, which is easy to summon either in Myanmar or the Philippines. “Whereas optimism sees historical tragedy as a source of moral lessons that points inevitably to happy outcomes, pessimism opens up a road to other futures in all their uncertain volatility,” he writes. “It is less a balm than a hammer with which to unmake and remake the world.”

Yet he offers hope as well, describing the community pantries that sprung up in the Philippines during the pandemic, disrupting the neoliberal requirement of good subjecthood with a mutual aid ethic. A similar communitarian impulse was apparent in the early days of the postcoup protests in Myanmar, when formerly maligned LGBTQ people and those of non-Burman extraction, including the Rohingya, were publicly embraced by ethnic majority Burmans (for an exploration of this dynamic, see the 2021 documentary “Padauk: Myanmar Spring”).

Murphy ends her book on a less hopeful note, with a point that’s indisputable: “It is hard to express just how bad the [postcoup] situation in Myanmar is.” But Rafael, despite all the theory, settles on suggestions that seem similar to those of Murphy and other neoliberals he might criticize: human rights and democracy. “Human rights, as contradictory and hegemonic as they are, remain our best hope for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiraling fear and violence it brings forth,” he writes. “Democracy,” he says, “speaks not in the accents of the barbarian, but in the words of the world citizen; not as an exclusive ‘I’ jealous of its prerogatives and privileges, but as an inclusive ‘we,’ schooled in the difficulties of sharing and the necessity of deliberation and debate.”

I end with these quotes because if human rights and democracy are good enough for Vicente Rafael, with his informed perspective and critical stance, they’re good enough for me — and they’ll probably satisfy most readers as well. Both in Myanmar and the Philippines, the meaning of these abstract terms will become clear only in context, as they are embodied by intergenerational coalitions of activists who have seen the cost of letting them go.


Rosalie Metro is an assistant teaching professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the author of Teaching US History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2017) and a novel, Have Fun in Burma (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018).

LARB Contributor

Rosalie Metro is an assistant teaching professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She researches conflicts that arise in the classroom around history, identity, and language, both in Southeast Asia and in the United States. She is the author of Teaching US History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2017) and a novel, Have Fun in Burma (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018). Learn about her work at, and follow her @rose_metro.


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