Written by U Ne Oo on 1997-07-20

There have been some discussion about SLORC and its legitimacy on the Net (most keenly by one of our friends from Switzerland). In this, it is found that the term "legitimacy" may be referred to its varying meanings along with the content of discussion. For example, the U.S.Committee for Refugee, in one of its report, states "increased international interaction with SLORC furthers SLORC's efforts to boost its legitimacy". That statement in connection with "legitimacy" may contradict, if not taken a correct choice of the meaning, with the statement by Human Rights Law Group of "international organizations may accord recognition to Myanmar does not imply the legitimacy of the SLORC regime". These two statements, in fact, are not in contradiction since they referred to different meanings of the term "legitimacy". Following, I summarized various interpretation of the term "legitimacy".

In the most common use, the legitimacy of a government is considered to be directly related to democratic process(that is, the government must not be a dictatorship) and the population obeyed the rulings of that government [1.Dictionary of Politics, 6th Edition, 1978, by Walter J.Raymond, SJD. PH.D.]:

LEGITIMACY: A notion applicable to state craft whereby, as long as the electorate (or the people in general) obey the government in power (provided that it is not a despotic dictatorship) and obey the law to the extent that government can sustain itself, that government is considered legal and legitimate. Also, the basis on which the government-of-the-day may command obedience and use power with authority.

A much wider meaning of legitimacy is given by [ [Dictionary of Politics, 2nd Edition, 1993, by David Robertson]. According to D. Robertson, not only the "elected governments" can have the legitimacy, any government-in-power may be considered to have some form of legitimacy; and the concept of legitimacy is connected with governmental power:

LEGITIMACY: Legitimacy is both a normative and empirical concept in political science. Normatively, to ask whether a political system is legitimate or not is to ask whether the state, or government, is entitled to be obeyed. As such the idea of legitimacy is connected with the legal concepts of de jure and de facto power. Whatever the accepted grounds of political obligation may be, legitimacy refers to these. Its more interesting application, however, may be in the empirical usage, especially in political sociology. Here the concentration is principally on how any given political system comes to be seen as 'legitimate' by a majority of its citizens. Why do most citizens of the USA and the People's Republic of China see their government as entitled to require their obedience when, presumably, people are much the same in both countries but policies and structures of the state are very different ? This is the question addressed by those who study legitimacy as an empirical fact rather than a philosophical problem. ......................................... ....... Thus democracies tend to argue for their legitimacy in terms of giving voters what they immediately want, while other political systems may offer general principles to support their right to command. Socialists states may focus on the ultimate benefit to workers, right-wing juntas on some sense of traditional national identity.

More clearer explanation of legitimacy is given by [The Dictionary of 20th-Century World Pol-Century World Politics, 1st Edition 1993, by J.M.Shafritz et.al] as:

LEGITIMACY: 1. A descriptive aspect of a social institution, a government or a family for example, that has both a legal and a perceived right to make binding decisions for its members. Only a public can grant legitimacy to an institution. Legitimacy is both a specific legal concept, meaning that something is lawful, and at the same time and amorphous psychosociological concept referring to an important element in the social glue that holds institutions together. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) is the foremost analyst of the legitimacy of governing structure. He asserted that there were three pure types of legitimate authority: charismatic (in which the personal qualities of a leader command obedience); traditional (in which custom and culture yield acquiescence); and legal (in which people obey laws enacted by what they perceive to be appropriate authorities). 2. The quality of an administration that has come to power through free elections or established constitutional procedures. Thus a government imposed by military force may lack legitimacy. As U.S. Ambassador to the UNited Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrik has said: "A government is not legitimate merely because it exists"( Time, June 17, 1985,).

According to the note above, the concept of "1. legitimacy" can, in fact, be applied in descriptive sense to any social or political institutions, including governments. It can also be noted that the meaning of "2. legitimacy" is more commonly referred in the writings.

In my opinion, the most comprehensive and the best interpretation for the term "legitimacy" is given by [A New Dictionary of Political Analysis, 1st Edition 1991, G.Roberts and A.Edwards.]. Their note regarding to legitimacy is:

LEGITIMACY: A characteristic of the exercise of political power when that power is believed to be in accordance with certain principles and practices. The term may be applied normatively, positively, or descriptively: normatively when power is judged worthy of acceptance according to some coherent set of standards, such as right or justice; positively when power is exercised within the limits laid down by law and constitution, by the persons and according to the procedures so prescribed; descriptively when power is more or less generally accepted, by those over whom it is exercised, to be in accordance with whatever principles they happen to hold. Political science is primarily concerned with the beliefs and practices actually present within a system, and so uses 'legitimacy' principally in the descriptive sense. The exact nature of principles and practices that confer legitimacy vary from society to society, and over time: divine authority, natural law, constitutional settlement, the rule of law, democratic decisions or elections, and hereditary descent, being common example.

Legitimacy is crucial for the operation of government, and for the survival of the political system. All government depends on some belief in its right to exercise power, even though that belief may never be unanimous and may sometimes be limited to key elements of the state apparatus. Governments will therefore seek to justify the form and content of their rule by reference to those principles that seem most cogent. The production of appropriate beliefs, whether by the conscious creation of ruling groups or by unintended social processes, is referred to as 'legitimation'.

In the domain of politics, every institution/person has to derive "some form of legitimacy", although the process of "legitimation" can differ from institution to institution. For example, a human rights organization (or activist) may request public to observe certain standards, referring to natural justice. In this case, such organization is deriving its legitimacy from natural justice, just as a monk or clergy making reference to the religious scripts or a Judge from the High Court interpreting Constitution. On the other hand, governments in democracies, based on their popular mandate, may derive its legitimacy from popular opinion and demand the public to obey a certain set of rules. Just as well, the military juntas, such as SLORC, may demand the public to obey its rulings based on various grounds, such as national security, etc.

[It's worth noting that human rights organizations (& activists) generally derive its "legitimacy" from consultations, not with the public opinion, principally with natural justice, etc (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example). This stance may probably have led some people to charge human rights activists as "Self-appointed Gurus" or "Dictatorial" etc. Furthermore, there are no such things in the world of activists' as "demanding obedience" and "exercising power". Instead, there are "appealing for co-operation" and "generating influence".]


For students of political science (i.e. we -the activists- all are), any process by which the SLORC government can increase its authority on Burmese population is to be seen as the 'legitimation'. In fact, any action that can create the impression to the people of Burma of "SLORC is in charge" or "Everything is under control" must be considered as legitimation for SLORC. In countering the SLORC's moves, it is as a matter of one's choice which process can become an effective legitimation for SLORC. For example, the visit of President Suherto to Rangoon can be considered, in this context, as providing some legitimacy to SLORC (Note: this is the case when the Burmese population admire President of Indonesia and cared about his visit). In the case of SLORC wishing to join ASEAN, there appears to be some element of legitimation for SLORC. Then again, it is up to one's own judgment about how much will it be effective [for SLORC in their legitimation] on the Burmese population.

With best regards, U Ne Oo.

Notes on Legitimacy