February 2, 2007


What to do about Burma (Thant Myint-U , 2/08/07, London Review of Books)

For the army, the uprising of 1988 was a shock. The government came close to being toppled and the strength of popular feeling was plain to see. Hundreds of people in Rangoon were killed as the government crushed the protests. But then there seemed to be some desire for compromise. People were allowed to form political parties, Aung San Suu Kyi and other politicians were (for a while) permitted to campaign, and elections were held in 1990. But when the election returned a landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (rather than the mixed parliament the army was possibly hoping for), and when some in the NLD began to talk about 'Nuremberg-style' trials for senior officers, the army went back on its promises.

Meanwhile, a completely new development - almost entirely unreported in the West - was transforming the political landscape of the country. In the summer of 1989, the Burma Communist Party, the government's chief battlefield opponent for forty years, with an army of more than twenty thousand well-trained and well-armed troops, collapsed after a mutiny. In the 1960s, the government had come close to defeating it, only to see it re-emerge with the active support of Communist China. By 1970, it controlled a huge swathe of territory in the Shan hills. But in 1989 its army splintered into several ethnic-based militias. The government, reversing its decades-long policy of seeking only a military solution to the civil war, entered into talks with these successor militias and all sides agreed to a ceasefire. The militias would be allowed to keep their arms and their territory, pending a final settlement. (Many turned to trading in narcotics.) Government forces were then able to pressurise or persuade nearly all the remaining ethnic insurgencies to stop fighting. By the mid-1990s, only the Karen National Union held out, but it came under fierce attack and lost all its remaining bases near the Thai border. For the first time in half a century, the guns were almost silent. There was an opportunity finally to end Burma's civil war, the longest-running armed conflict in the world.

For many in the West, the Burmese morality play of the past fifteen years has pitted Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters against the army leadership and its Orwellian-sounding State Peace and Development Council. One side stands for democracy and human rights, the other locks up opponents and allows very little political freedom. It's easy to take sides, easier still to support sanctions or boycotts and be happy that national governments and the UN should continually be expressing concern. But it's important to see that at least three different challenges currently face Burma: the need to find a just and sustainable end to the armed conflict; the need to help the country undo decades of economic mismanagement and develop its economy; and the need to begin a transition to democratic rule.

Burma's history makes all these challenges exceedingly difficult. With the collapse of royal institutions in 1885 and the subsequent failure of colonial institutions to take root, the army is, for better or worse, the only effective national institution left. It's no surprise that the leading officials of the NLD (other than Aung San Suu Kyi) are all retired army officers. A transition to democracy means not just removing the army from government, it means building up the other institutions that would make a civilian administration possible. Equally important is the country's history of militant ethnicity, the failure of successive political elites to understand that they live in a multicultural country and need to develop a more inclusive national identity. We tend to see Burma as a Velvet Revolution gone wrong, when in fact it is an impoverished war-torn society of 55 million people, half of them under the age of 18, with armed forces of more than 400,000 men (and over a dozen insurgent armies) who know only the language of warfare.

Some people still argue that trade and investment sanctions against the Burmese government are the only way to push the army leadership into talking with Aung San Suu Kyi. But the sanctions argument is deeply flawed. First, it assumes a regime very different from the one that actually exists. That is, it assumes a government that is committed to rejoining the world economy, that sees clearly the benefits of trade and investment or is in some way sensitive to the welfare of ordinary people. True, there are some in the army who like the idea of trade and investment and care about popular welfare, and for them sanctions might constitute a sort of pressure. But many in the military don't care. For them, national security, as they see it, is everything. Compromise might be possible on other issues, but if the choice is between political suicide and interacting with an outside world they fundamentally distrust, then there is no debate. Isolation is their default condition: not ideal, but comfortable all the same.

Second, sanctions really only mean Western sanctions. In the years since 1988, Burmese trade with China and several other neighbouring countries has grown considerably, and tens of billions of dollars' worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore. To believe that China would impose sanctions and cut off their access to Burma's energy supplies in order to push the country towards democracy is naive. Sanctions going beyond those already in place would mean in effect increased influence for China; not something likely to lead to democratic change.

Third, imagine for a moment that somehow, miraculously, extremely tight sanctions were possible - involving China, India and Thailand - and that these brought the government to its knees, without a dollar or renminbi left to pay for vital imports. While there is a possibility that reasonable heads would prevail, there is also a very good chance that the army leadership would stay in their F├╝hrerbunker until the bitter end, as the country collapsed into anarchy around them. Many of those who support sanctions hope that greater outside pressure would lead to disagreements within the army. Nothing could be more dangerous: the country could easily fall apart into dozens of competing military factions, insurgent armies and drug warlord militias. If that happened, all the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn't be enough to put Burma back together; it would be a disaster for Asia.

The problem with sanctions is best illustrated by the opportunity that was lost in the early 1990s, when a new generation of generals, eager for change, launched a series of reforms and opened up the economy to the outside world. Hundreds of foreign companies set up shop. Rangoon was transformed, with new hotels, shopping centres and official buildings, traffic jams on previously empty roads, and the first real influx of tourists in years. Satellite dishes went up everywhere. But thanks to boycotts and then, in the later 1990s, more formal sanctions (as well as continued government mismanagement of the economy), Western firms began to pull out, leaving Burma in limbo: with more than enough regional trade to stay afloat, but nothing like the momentum to begin changing society. If, over the last fifteen years, there had been aid and investment (as there has been in Vietnam), rather than a half-hearted 'regime-change' strategy from the West, there could have been real economic growth and social change. The isolation on which the regime depends would have diminished and it would have become increasingly clear to the officer corps that proper government is too complex for the army to manage. And this in turn would have created a better situation for Burma's democrats and more leverage for Western governments. As it is, Western leverage is close to zero. Focusing on political change at the top is not the answer.

This is not to say that Burma shouldn't be a democracy, or that the Western supporters of democracy and human rights in Burma should give up. Far from it. Liberal democracy is the only sustainable form of government for a country as culturally and ethnically diverse as Burma, but we need to start from the way things are. Per capita aid to Burma is less than a tenth of per capita aid to Vietnam and Cambodia: this should not be acceptable. Serious diplomacy that includes both the Burmese government and its neighbours should have priority over a new round of condemnation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 2, 2007 7:32 AM
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