Will the United Nations act on Burma?

December 3, 2005 Shan Herald Agency for News
- Harn Yawnghwe

The news that the United States has asked the United Nations to act on Burma (30 Nov 2005), has electrified some people in Burma. They are elated and celebrating. Their expectations are very high. Given developments, they expect something to happen. The report commissioned by former Czech President Havel and Archbishop Tutu; US President George Bush's meeting with Shan activist Ms Charm Tong; his, and Condoleezza Rice's follow-up statements on Burma, have all contributed to the heightened expectations. Some Burmese believe that the United State's Burma policy has changed. They believe that Burma is now a US priority. They expect that the US will take action after many years of lip service. Some even expect a US-led UN invasion to remove Senior General Than Shwe a la Saddam Hussein. What are the facts? What can we really expect?

As a long time Burmese democracy advocate, I am glad Burma has come to the attention of the UN Security Council. It is long overdue. I appreciate President Havel and Bishop Tutu's push to highlight the situation in Burma. President Bush's focus on Burma is also most welcome. But has US policy towards Burma changed? Is Burma now a US priority? Will putting Burma on the UNSC agenda bring action and change to Burma?

It is very important to clarify what is really happening. Wrong expectations can lead to wrong decisions by all sides and hundred if not thousands of lives can be needlessly lost in Burma. Some in the Burmese democracy movement want a mass uprising as in 1988. They believe that the time is ripe. The sharp rise in gasoline prices, and moving the capital to Pyinmana are key factors. Others like the veteran politicians are calling for a new coalition government in Burma. Expectations of UN action or a US-led military intervention could influence these decisions.

First of all, the Security Council is not about to pass a resolution to sanction a US-led invasion of Burma. The US-led action is merely to have a "senior level official of the (UN) Secretariat" brief the Security Council on the situation in Burma. The most we can expect as a result of the UN briefing is a press statement by the Council reiterating the UN's existing position "the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others, access by the UN Special Envoy and other representatives, the need for national reconciliation and an inclusive political process".

Nothing more. There will be no high drama of certain powers exercising their veto. A veto comes into play only when the issue becomes the subject of a resolution. This is not the case in the current situation. It is only a briefing. There is a big reality gap between briefing the Security Council and getting the UN to act on Burma. To get a resolution passed by the UNSC, the situation in Burma will have to directly impact the region.

My colleagues will argue that the briefing is the first step towards a UN-mediated solution to the problems in Burma. Yes, this is a possibility but a remote one. Why a remote one? It is remote because almost everyone in Burma is waiting for the international community to act, to intervene and save them. No one is as yet willing to act to bring about the change they desire. But the international community and the UN will not act until there is a viable alternative to the despotic rule of Senior-General Than Shwe. The key, of course, lies with the Burma Army (or Tatmadaw). If the Tatmadaw were to initiate reforms, they would be welcomed by the people, and supported by the international community.

In talking about acting to bring about a change in Burma, I am not advocating a people's uprising as some of my colleagues are. In my opinion, this will only lead to chaos and instability, and endanger people, especially Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I am saying this because the Burma Army will have no compunction about shooting unarmed civilians. The ensuing unrest will also scare Burma's neighbours. They will quickly support another military dictatorship to stabilize the situation. This will be done before the UN can be mobilized.

In conclusion, the UN Security Council briefing on Burma is most welcome. But it will not solve Burma's problems unless and until there is a viable alternative to the current dictatorship. The US has acted on Burma by bringing it before the Security Council. But calling for a briefing is very different from calling for a resolution. This does not signal a change in US policy. Burma is still not of strategic interest to the US, and is unlikely to be for some time. In any case, do we really want to see the US intervening in Burma? Recent examples around the world are not encouraging.

The best option for Burma as a whole and for all its people, is for the leaders in Burma to act in a coordinated manner. It should now be very clear to the generals that Burma is moving towards a crisis. The Tatmadaw was founded to safeguard Burma's sovereignty and protect its territory. It should be apparent to the most dull-minded general that they cannot do their job properly given current conditions. They will not be able to do their job at all if things continue as they are. In times of crisis, a patriotic army has to act. Now is the time for the Tatmadaw to show its patriotism.