Burma: The International Community Must Act

January 11, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As you’ve probably noticed, Burma is no longer headline news. In fact, it is barely news at all now, at best earning a few words of coverage in the latter pages of a newspaper. It has faded as little has changed, so the media have become bored with the story, and moved on. But nothing has been changing in Burma.

The regime has used its usual tactics: allow in an occasional official from the UN, free a few political prisoners in one go to look good (then gradually re-arrest them one at a time or put restrictions on their movements so as not to make headlines), and talk with people. The regime is a big fan of talking, discussing possibilities about theoretical changes to take place far in the future that never seem to materialize, only to be replaced by further talks. For example, they spent 14 years on a constitutional convention, which eventually recommended keeping a central role for the army in politics.

The military in Burma is breathing a little easier, as are ASEAN and China, relieved that the nuisance has disappeared from headlines. India hasn’t even needed to breathe a sigh of relief, as few ever criticised Burma’s most uncritical supporter – it’s much easier to blame these things on China.

It is worth a quick look at some of the history of the Burmese junta to see how deeply paranoid it is, why it is so expert at dealing with and dividing opposition and at delaying tactics, and why it is happy to prostitute the country for its own benefit. It also needs to be remembered that the struggle in Burma consists basically of two elements – the restoration of democracy and the rights of ethnic minorities. To attain the latter, the former has to be achieved.

The junta’s paranoia is fully demonstrated by the fact that it has recently moved its capital to Naypyidaw, a city built specifically for this purpose deep in the jungle. This was essentially to provide it with protection against street protest, as only a minimum of non-government and non-military people will be living in this city in the centre of the country. The Indian journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, who visited Naypyidaw in January 2007, described the vastness of the new capital as “the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘colour revolution’ – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography.”

This government is also almost uniquely expert at dealing with protest, as it is one of the only governments in the world that has come to power on the back of crushing demonstrations. The military had been running Burma for decades, but more directly under the dictator Ne Win. He was effectively removed by the protests in 1988, which sections of the armed forces later moved to crush in order to insert themselves in power as the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC), later renamed the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC). This time around, there was never any doubt that they would react in the same way as before, in the same way as Uzbekistan when its government faced protests, rather than reacting like the Georgian or Ukrainians in recent years.

It is so adept now at dealing with protest from around the world because it has dealt with this from the moment the SLORC moved to take power and fired into the crowds in 1988. It survived the uproar over annulling the elections that it promised in 1990, and so it knows how to survive dealing with world pressure now too. The Burmese ambassador to the UN has stated that “the Government of Myanmar has established the Investigation Body chaired by the Minister for Home Affairs with a view to investigating offences against fundamental human rights during the September event” saying that further outside investigation was not necessary. However, no such body has ever been reported upon in the state media, and no one is known to have met with the body. The UN is now spending time trying simply to ascertain whether this body exists whilst the junta continues on as before.

In a position of such control, the SPDC has allowed the country to rot, as it is need not worry about being kicked out. Despite Burma producing a rice surplus, people go hungry due to travel restrictions, an unwillingness to allow food to rebellious minorities and rampant corruption – Burma is ranked as the most corrupt nation on earth by Transparency International. The government has for years spent as little as 2% of its fairly small budget on health care, whilst spending up to 40% on the military, i.e. itself.

The other major historical problem in Burma is its huge and diverse ethnic minority population, and the insurgencies that have gone along with it. There have been insurgencies since long before the military took over, virtually since independence in fact. These multiplied over the years (along with non-ethnic insurgencies), which further helps to explain the junta’s perception that it has enemies everywhere in Burma. The Tatmadaw (Burmese military) has however, after decades of warfare, become expert at counter-insurgency, and at splitting the groups. It has managed around 17 separate cease-fires with groups, leaving only a few still fighting. The ethnic minority issue is one that will not be easily solved by removal of the SPDC, as it pre-dates it, and many groups will not want to be part of a country they have spent so long fighting. However, a democratic government that is very mindful of these problems would at least have a chance of solving the issue, unlike the brutal SPDC.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) recently released a report detailing four key principles for action and suggesting that the international community should focus on four main leverage points. The world’s largest global trade union organisation and the oldest international human rights organisation with a universal mandate has proposed that Burma should be kept as a top priority on the international agenda; that increasing pressure on the junta now would be useful, not harmful to the reconciliation and democracy process; that the international community should accept “taking responsibility for Burma” rather than sticking to its “wait-and-see” attitude; and that it should implement a two-pronged approach of influencing the regime and encouraging the people by sending clear messages of international support. These are about as sensible a set of proposals as have been made with regard to Burma, and if followed, may have at least a chance of helping to bring about a democratic future for Burma. Unfortunately, the resolve of the SPDC to remain in power seems to be greater than that of the international community to apply pressure, so the chances of even these moderate proposals having an effect remain slim.


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This post was written by Ian Broughton

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