Burma’s Conflict in a Nutshell: Burma/Myanmar Backgrounder

prepared by the Free Burma Coalition
30 September 2005

Historical Background

Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989 which, as a matter of fact, is in accord with the Burmese linguistic and historical tradition of the country’s dominant ethnic group – Bama or Myanmar - is a typical ‘Third World’ nation-state: it is poor and conflict-ridden; it is endowed with rich natural resources such as gas, jade, rubies, copper, uranium and oil; it has fertile and alluvial soil and houses most of the world’s remaining teak forests. Its multi-ethnic society embodies a wide variety of historical, linguistic and political traditions.

Since independence, the country’s local post-colonial elites of all ideological stripes and ethnic backgrounds have been struggling to pursue their often-conflicting visions for the country as a whole (as in the case of the dominant Burman elites, civilian or soldier) or narrower ethno-nationalist visions for their mono-ethnic group (as in the case of most or all non-dominant ethnic groups, armed and unarmed).

Consequently, the country’s transition from a colonial polity with the British-developed capitalist economy to a newly independent, nationalistic welfare nation-state in the post-World War II period has not been a happy occasion Although Burma (Myanmar) was not a still-born at birth, that is, upon independence in 1948, its political maturation process, as well as economic development has been stunted by both internecine ideological and ethnic conflicts and aggressive meddling of foreign powers, specifically Thailand, Mao’s China and the Cold War-era United States.

The country’s less than successful nation building efforts need to be understood properly against the backdrop of the following historical and socio-political factors that have come to define the nature of local politics,
both in form and content:

125-years of British colonial rule characterized by political domination, psychological subjugation, economic exploitation, and over-ethnicization of the politics among local intra and inter-ethnic communities and 3 short but devastating years under the military occupation by Fascist Japan on the eve of the World War II;

the spill-over impact of the Cold War, most specifically 4-decades of Beijing-supported Burmese Communist insurgency which collapsed in 1989 and the Central Intelligence Agency-backed Kuomintang resistance which set up its military bases and the nucleus of the present-day narcotic industry on Burmese soil in order to self-finance its military operations against Mao’s China;

Thailand’s twofold use of the armed ethnic minority insurgencies for nearly 4-decades, which dotted – and continue to do so - the long and porous Burmese-Thai borders, as both military buffers against the historically hostile Burman State and as cross-border trade partners in arms, teak, gem stones, agricultural and forest products, as well as consumer goods;

India’s ideological and financial support of successive pro-democratic revolts by Burman politicians in exile (such as the deposed Prime Minister U Nu) and freedom fighters against the military rule (including both the non-violent leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese hijackers), since the early 1970s until early 1990s;

and last but not least the deeply-rooted authoritarian socio-political traditions that permeate, without any exception, throughout Burma’s communities, both the dominant Burman ethnic group and non-Burman ethnic communities, irrespective of their institutional backgrounds either as civilian politicians or soldiers.

The Main Issues Confronting Burma (Myanmar)

The single most fundamental barrier in ending the 15-years-old political deadlock in Burma is the fact that key power holders, that is, the generals and officer corps and their challengers (and by extension, their respective constituencies and external and domestic supporters) do not speak the same language, thereby continuing to talk past one another.

On one hand, the State Peace and Development Council, the ruling junta (and the rank and file of the Armed Forces), speaks – and understands – only the language of ‘national security’. On the other hand, the civilian democratic forces, both the mainstream pro-democracy groups led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic minority groups which operate fully independent of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, speak the language of “political reforms, economic liberalization and human rights” (although how far many of them really understand it is questionable).

In this situation, the dialogue will be neither fruitful nor feasible.

If the country is to move forward both economically and politically – along the lines of a liberal democracy – the above-mentioned political actors will have to establish a common political language, integrating concerns and interests of each group, legitimate and valid from the perspective of each group.

Through the eyes of the generals (and their rank and file members), the West is using the Burmese opposition, both armed ethnic minority organizations, and Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian opposition groups, as proxy organizations to push
for their ideological and political agendas while pursuing their political initiatives disguised as human rights concerns and issues through international agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF, as well as the International Labor
Organization and the UN Human Rights Commission.

The West – EU and US and Canada – doesn’t have significant strategic interests in Burma. Accordingly, it has adopted policies that reflect liberal values. While it has engaged with other regimes that are equally or more authoritarian
(than the Burmese) (for instance, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nepal, or Uzbekistan) it has shamed, condemned, isolated or shunned the Burmese at every opportunity – writing off any and all legitimate concerns and interests of the military leadership, personal, historical and institutional, as simply self-serving, and greed-driven. The apparent double-standards have led to the feeling on the part of the Burmese military leadership, however perverse and twisted it may sound, of unjust and unfair treatment internationally at the hands of the Western nations, especially Washington and, to a lesser extent, the European Union. While they are less concerned about the U.S.-led invasion of Burma – as they watch happily the American quagmire in Iraq unfolds – they are convinced that the West, most specifically, the United States is bent on destabilizing Burma economically and politically through increased economic sanctions and political isolation, funding, capacity building, political support and propaganda campaigns with the purpose of inciting a domestic mass

One of the concrete instances which have convinced the Burmese generals that Washington is waging an economic and political war against them and hence strengthened their ‘bunker mentality’ as soldiers is the Cubanization of US drug policy toward Burma. By empirical and objective measures, the narcotic production and export in Burma under the military regime has gone down significantly while the narcotic production in Afghanistan under the U.S.-backed post-Taliban government has increased. Whereas the international and Western assistance in the area of crop substitution and narcotic eradication has gone up for Afghanistan the West, most specifically the United States, has refused to recognize not only the Burmese regime’s eagerness to cooperate with the United Nations Office of Drug Control, as well as with the U.S. Government, namely the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Department of Treasury, but also its effectiveness in reducing the narcotic production and flow. As a matter of fact, both senior officials within the US State Department and Treasury were said to hold the view that given the decrease in narcotic production and export, as well as the regime’s full cooperation with the DEA, Burma qualified to be decertified from Washington’s list of countries that do not cooperate satisfactorily with USG on narcotic affairs; but a small, but organized Burma lobby in Washington succeeded in blocking the decertification move by US Departments of State and Treasury as early as 2002. This strengthens the SPDC’s belief that no matter what they do to respond to Western concerns, the goalposts will be moved.

The Burma lobby in Washington is made up mostly of American lobbyists which pushes for maximal demands and conditions and holds the views that only the regime’s demise through ‘a people power revolt’ – not the peaceful, evolutionary process – will pave the way for democratic and economic development of Burma to be overseen and managed by Aung San Suu Kyi. It
operates under the bi-partisan Congressional patronage of Senators Mitch McConnell and Diane Feinstein in the Senate and Congressman Tom Lantos. Recently, it has succeeded in forcing the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) to terminate its humanitarian programs in Burma by introducing unmanageable safeguards and restrictions on its operations which, when combined with the SPDC-imposed restrictions, made GFATM aid unimplementable.

The Burma-related policy developments in Washington further reduce American influence on the Burmese regime as the latter has reciprocated American hostility towards it by refusing to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in any way, shape or form, whom it considers nothing but an American puppet or a stooge of American neo-colonialism and ‘cowboy foreign policy.’

The West has very limited policy or strategic options in terms of promoting democratization in Burma. The attempts by pro-democracy groups, especially the American activists and lobbyists, to cut Burma off even humanitarian assistance
has alarmed local Burmese communities inside Burma, including former political prisoners who played a leading role in 1988 uprisings and have caused a backlash against those who advocate for further isolation of and sanctions against the already impoverished country of 50 million multi-ethnic people.

To be sure, there continue to be multiple human rights abuses including forced labour and, lack of political liberties. There is also significant food insecurity and, environmental degradation, and a need for sound macro-economic measures, and institutional and capacity building designed to foster, expandand strengthen civil society.

But the West, especially Washington, continuing with public and official condemnations and shaming and isolation of the generals have proven to have little or no impact on either the behaviour or policies of the ruling generals whose overriding concerns are national, institutional and personal security. If the United States is serious about helping bring about democratization and necessary economic development in Burma, it must review its current
Cubanization of American policy toward Burma. More than 40-years of American attempts at isolation and impoverishment of Cuba have not accomplished Washington’s avowed aims of either deposing Fidel Castro or fostering an open society in a small country in its backyard. It is incomparably less likely that Washington will succeed in adopting a Cuban-style policy applied to the far-away South East Asian country of Burma, which has developed strong economic and geopolitical ties with China, India, Japan, and ASEAN. In the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States, the Burmese generals are not taking any chances. While they are not entirely convinced that the United States will invade their country, a new military headquarters is being built in a more strategic location in the heartlands of Burma, as opposed to Rangoon, the present headquarters and Capital which is more vulnerable to outside military invasion. The security-driven measures drain State’s financial resources, leaving little or no resources for social, public health and educational spending, which in the long run, will contribute to home-grown and organic democratization process in Burma.

If the West is serious about helping to move Burma along liberal democratic path, it must explore constructive ways to address, in a strategic and integrated manner, both the regime’s national security concerns (as well as their individual and corporate interests) and the sorry state of human security issues (such as forced migration, forced labour, increased poverty, deteriorating public health conditions, and so on).

Its policy so far has been almost entirely based on a single event – multiparty elections held 15 years ago and won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy –, at the detriment of democratization as a process. Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford University historian and an astute student of democratic revolutions, has perceptively remarked that “elections are the roof of a democracy, not its foundations.” Prolonged economic sanctions and political and diplomatic isolation of authoritarian regimes whose concerns are national security – as opposed to reforms –damage the prospects and possibilities of democratization. For the very measures or policy tools designed to pressure these security-obsessed regimes to reform harm the emergence of civic, economic, administrative, intellectual, public health and cultural institutions which are part and parcel of an organic – not externally imposed - democracy. The greatest irony in the West’s well-meaning policy toward Burma – and the pro-isolation strategy it has chosen as the token act of solidarity with the Burmese – is that the very pro-democracy and pro-reform policy may be further undermining the political and economic evolution of that country by refusing to integrate and address the national security issues which successive military leaderships in Burma since independence hold with utmost sincerity and intensity.