Tag Archives: Burma

Obama’s Myanmar trip plays into the military’s hands

Khin Maung Win/Associated Press

Obama’s historic trip to Myanmar today – the first by a sitting US president – is the result of a widespread myth about the reform process in that country. Many campaigners have criticised him for rewarding President Thein Sein’s government too soon for its minor set of reforms over the past two years. But the US administration justifies the trip on the grounds of a story we are repeatedly told about what is happening in Myanmar at the moment – that a struggle is taking place with the government between reformists, represented by President Sein, and a shadowy group of conservative hardliners. The story goes that the reform process is on a knife edge and could be reversed at any time.

But what proof do we have of this division within the government? What if that is just a story designed to encourage Western governments to engage quickly, lest the evil conservatives overpower the trusty reformers and send the country back to the days of totalitarian dictatorship? The whole thing is cast in simplistic tones of good and evil, and offers Western governments a chance to play their favourite role – as the saviours of Democracy and Justice, riding in to provide crucial support to the good guys in their time of need. That this also opens the doors for Western businesses to feast on a virginal marketplace is a handy bonus.

Many observers are highly sceptical about this story of hardliners vs reformists. Jan Zalewski, a Burmese-speaking analyst for IHS Global Insight, argues that the entire reform process is a carefully stage-managed production that has been on the drawing board for the past 20 years.

“The reform process has been initiated by the military itself and is very controlled by them,” he told me in an interview for a piece I wrote for today’s The National. “There is a lot of cohesion within government about where it’s moving. There is only disagreement about more nuanced details – how far democratic reforms should go and how quickly. Thein Sein actually represents a kind of status quo. What’s coming out of the government would not be happening if [the military] didn’t want it.”

The military recognised years ago that the economy desperately needed foreign investment and that this required some level of international acceptance for the regime. Paranoid delusions that a Western country might invade at any moment also acted as push towards reconciliation with the world (it’s what led them to build their ridiculous new capital inland at Naypyidaw – see my article on the world’s emptiest capital here).

The military have done the bare minimum to gain that international acceptance. They released the most important figurehead of reform – Aung San Suu Kyi – along with some other political prisoners, while leaving many more behind bars. They relaxed censorship laws a little, legalised trade unions and allowed Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) to stand for a few seats in parliament in April’s by-elections.

But all this came after the military’s grip on political power had been firmly established in a new constitution (passed through an outrageously flawed referendum in 2008), followed by massively rigged elections in 2010 in which members of the military junta simply traded in their uniforms for suits in order to claim they were suddenly a civilian government. Only then did the supposedly reformist figure of Thein Sein arrive to tell the world that Myanmar had changed and everything was now lovely, and yes please, we will take that money now. The world happily glossed over the fact that he was a former lieutenant general, henchman to dictator Than Shwe and had cultivated dubious links to drug lords in Wa state during his time overseeing the brutal counter-insurgency in that region. He was considered a front-runner for this year’s Nobel peace prize.

The government’s much-lauded ceasefires with ethnic rebel groups have done nothing to resolve the fundamental tensions between the Burmese centre and the ethnic provinces, and the government actually restarted the war in the northern Kachin state AFTER the reform process began. The total failure of the authorities to address the brutal persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine state in recent months is further proof of how attitudes to minorities remain unchanged.

True, now that it’s begun, there is a chance that the reform process will build its own momentum and go beyond what the military rulers want.  What happens at the next general election in 2015 will be very interesting. With enough support, it is likely that the NLD will press for changes in the constitution to reduce the military’s power. That will be the real testing point.

But Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD are politicians – not revolutionaries. They also lack political experience. Already, serious divisions have appeared in the party over how it is run, and the compromises being made by its leaders in order to secure their place in the system. More than 130 members resigned last month in one Irrawaddy region over alleged ‘cronyism’ in the party’s decision-making process.

For now, the reform process has been extremely well managed by President Sein and the military regime that stands behind him. They may well be able to outmaneuver their more democratic opponents and retain the military’s powerful position for many years to come, while also benefiting from improved economic and diplomatic relations with the world. Mr Obama’s visit is a major step towards that goal.


India & Burma: Playing Nice With Rogues

Human Rights Watch do not like the turn India has taken in its international affairs in recent years. The more ruthless pursuit of its interests, they argue, not only costs India moral authority but wins it few tangible advantages, particularly in its approach to Burma:

India has moved away from supporting the democracy movement and honouring detained Opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi to deciding that economic and security concerns take precedence.

… However, what remains baffling is what exactly India can claim to have gained from supporting one of the most abusive regimes in the world. India has not won significant access to Burma’s energy reserves  … The Burmese military has not cooperated consistently with efforts to contain rebels in India’s Northeast. Nor has India been able to undercut China’s influence with the junta.

She goes on to discuss the blind eye India is turning the blood diamond trade in Zimbabwe and the support it gave to Sri Lanka in its war against the Tamils.

All terrible things, to be sure. But the question is: what good did India’s moral stance against Burma achieve in the past? Its support for Aung San Su Kyi certainly did her few favours. As we have seen from America’s attempts to support opposition movements in Iran, nasty regimes love a bit of outside interference because it allows them to label all protesters as ‘foreign spies’ that can justifiably be shot in the throat.

As this excellent article from Nader Mousavizadeh at IISS argues, the whole idea of trying to bully rogue regimes into compliance has failed miserably. Harsh words and harsh actions from the US and its allies have only hardened attitudes and closed off channels of communication.

Countries that have been locked out by the west – Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Burma – are increasingly able to rely on each other for support. Moreover, they can turn to China, a country that considers sovereignty  and influence much more important than western conceptions of human rights.

It might not be pretty, but it is happening:

[The West’s] two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights. 

… Virtually no aspect of Western policy here has worked: the military junta is as firmly in control as ever; the democratic opposition is in disarray; and where Western policy toward Burma used to be primarily concerned with the regime’s domestic behavior, it now must contend with the generals’ suspected ties to North Korea, including in the area of nuclear cooperation.

He concludes that the best response would be to do what these regimes fear most: remove the sanctions, open up trade, allow unfettered travel for students and business people. Stop giving them excuses to be bastards. 

Obama might have been the man to do this, but his government seems incapable of thinking beyond the idea of more sanctions. And sadly, for large swathes of the American right, even Obama’s mildly more diplomatic approach to international relations is seen as proof that he is indeed a Satan-worshiping Communist agent sent to feast on the guts of small-time America, burn all its money and hand over the keys of the White House to the reanimated corpses of Karl Marx, Hitler and King George III. Things are so bad that the opposition in America has started taking on the character of an insurgency, with a beaming monstrosity as its figurehead.

So perhaps India has it right. Perhaps the job of publicly decrying human rights violations needs to be left to private organisations like Human Rights Watch, and governments should rely on quiet diplomacy, building influence through mutual benefit and only levelling their criticisms behind closed doors.

Despite what HRW says, there are signs that the quiet approach is getting some results from Burma: a recent meeting between their home ministers led Burma to agree that it would help track down Paresh Barua, leader of one of the most violent insurgencies in northeastern India. In return, India agreed to continue training Burma’s fighter pilots for the planes it sold them. It’s all a bit unsavoury, but hopefully India are also using these meetings to pressure the junta about its human rights violations ahead of elections later this year. It probably won’t do much good, but they will certainly get a better hearing than the Americans.

P.S. I almost had a really good headline for this – something to do with joshing with rogues – Rogue and Josh, something like that, but it didn’t quite work. Damn shame.