An Integrated Approach to National and Human Security Issues in Myanmar or
Burma


Zarni (Free Burma Coalition)
Visiting Fellow
The University of London
Institute of Education


Paper presented
at the International Conference
on Civil Society, Religion and Global Governance

National Institute of Social Sciences and Law
Australian National University
Canberra, Australia
September 1-3, 2005

Integrated Approach to National and Human Security Issues in Myanmar/Burma

As most of you know, my country - Burma or Myanmar - has made occasional headlines in the international media since she emerged from self-imposed isolationism, following the collapse in 1988 of General Ne Win’s disastrous militaristic socialist regime. There appears to be a broad script in terms of how the outsiders understand my country.

In the eyes of the West, politics in contemporary Burma have indeed been an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Since the spontaneous popular uprisings swept across the country’s urban centers in 1988, the successive ‘illegitimate’ military governments have been locked horns with the election winner National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, for political power and the right to represent the great majority of the people.

The elected governments in the West - from the White House to Whitehall - have opted to support the NLD by imposing sanctions and other symbolically punitive measures against the authoritarian regime and exceptionalizing it as an international pariah, struggling to shake off its legacy of the self-imposed isolationism of 26 years.

All Asian governments, however, have refused to join the sanctions regime, quietly tacitly? writing it off as yet another example of the characteristic western hypocrisy cloaked in the language of democracy, freedom and human rights. Only Japan has applied limited sanctions, while continuing to be the major source of foreign aid to the country.

Meanwhile, cultural conservatives, free trade reformers and human rights liberals in the West have become strange bed-fellows, adopting the charismatic Oxford-educated NLD leader as their idol, and placing her in the league of such self-made, politician-revolutionaries as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

From the perspective of the Burmese generals, the West’s ‘adoption’ of Aung San Suu Kyi has only reinforced the common suspicion that she is, in fact, a stooge of ‘neo-colonialists’ in ‘big Western nations’ hell-bent on imposing their will and advancing their own national interests, ideological or otherwise, in Myanmar. Needless to say, this has led to the regime’s determined attempt to further render the NLD leader domestically irrelevant through prolonged and persistent incarcerations.

For better, or more for worse, the template of the contemporary Burma tale has been largely set in stone. And no protagonists may be expected to shift their views or switch their roles any time soon. It is against this backdrop that I attempt to argue for the integrated approach towards national and human security in Burma.

While I am a democrat at heart and deeply committed to democratic development in my country, I am prepared to state that the absence of democracy is not the only issue that confronts Burma, nor is it a panacea for all her ills - as staunch advocates of Burmese democracy, both local Burmese and their Western supporters, have made it out to be.

A quick look at the historical and structural issues that have led to the present sorry state of affairs in Burma would help us understand the nature of the country’s problems.

1948 was a very crucial year for Burma. Not only did this mainland South East Asia’s largest country regain her sovereignty and independence, after long years of struggle against the British rule, she also inherited the structural problems that were deeply rooted in the 124 years of British colonial rule. These problems include: highly uneven economic and social development along geographic and ethnic lines; the British-induced movement into the colonial Burma of Indian and (to a lesser extent) Chinese cheap laborers, as well as skilled laborers and the resultant economic nationalism spurred by the visible control of national economy by outsiders, both Europeans and Chinese and Indians; ethnicization of local politics amongst Burma’s multi-ethnic communities; a national colonial economy devastated by the World War II; fragile political institutions such as a nascent parliament and an independent judiciary; a controversial Constitution in indigenous cultures deeply unfamiliar with the notions and workings of a democratic Constitution; the abundance not simply of natural resources such as teak, gems, oil and agricultural products, but of arms and munitions left over from the World War II, and, last but not least, a significant number of armed organizations all too ready to put to use these stockpiles as the first resort in dealing with differences in interests, visions and ideologies.

As in many former colonial states, the stage was set for protracted internal conflicts among both ethnic and ideological groups to push for their conflicting interests and visions. The result has been the five decades of a devastating civil war. Some of these internal armed revolts flared up in less than three months after independence, such as the case of the Beijing-backed Burma Communist Party or BCP), which was followed by the almost successful military operation by the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) against the country’s first and democratically installed government of Prime Minister U Nu in 1948. Out of the country’s eight principal ethnic groups, namely the Chin, the Kachin, the Shan, the Mon, the Arakanese or Rakhine, the Karenni, the Karen, and the Burmese seven had launched, at varying points in time, armed resistance against Rangoon since independence in 1948. Amongst the Burmans or the country’s dominant ethnic group, the Burmese communists revolted against their former nationalist comrades who were in the Parliament and the Armed Forces, and supported financially, politically and ideologically by Mao’s Red China, produced a pro-Communist mutiny within the Armed Forces. In addition, the illustrious student activism, which started out as the anti-British, pro-independence movement, morphed into a political pawn which adult politicians and parties of all stripes and colors were quick to use towards their own ends. To make matters worse, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed remnants of Kuomintang/nationalist Chinese troops who fled Mao’s China, entered Burma from the East and set up military bases to fight Mao’s troops, while neighboring Thailand has long used armed ethnic groups operating along Thai-Burmese borders as a buffer, as well as a partner in cross-border smuggling of timber, precious stones and Made-in-Thailand consumer goods.

In a nutshell, the State in Burma has been under attacks since independence, resulting in the absence of political and national security. This sense of national insecurity has not only shaped the configurations of the State but it has also instilled a siege mentality in the successive generations of powerful stakeholders in the country’s national politics, that is, military officers and cadets. Operating in this state of mind, the successive generations of military officers, who have had an effective monopoly over politics in Burma since 1962, have elevated concerns of national security above any other aspects of State building - social, cultural and economic development, peaceful integration of multi-ethnic communities into a single national political community, and security and dignity of individual citizens and ethnic communities throughout the country.

Several factors should conceivably have lessened or reduced the generals’ acute sense of being under constant threat by both internal and external political forces. These include the end of Beijing’s historically supportive policy toward Southeast Asian communist armed rebellions following the reformist Deng Xiaoping’s ascent to power after Mao’s death in the 1970’s, and the subsequent total collapse of the Burmese Communist Party a decade later (in 1989). These factors, as well as the massive domestic unpopularity of and revolt against the military rule, helped pave the way for ’the ceasefire movement’ in Burma to emerge in 1989. This ceasefire movement resulted by 2003 in the signing of 17 ½ separate ceasefire agreements between the military-controlled central government and various armed ethnic groups (with the exception of the Shan State Army-South, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karen National Union - all Thai-Burmese border-based). These deals are significant achievements when measured against four or five decades of civil war, especially in the relatively under-developed non-Burman ethnic areas of the country, even in spite of the fact that the ceasefire deals have not been transformed into the necessary, lasting peace agreements between Rangoon and the ceasefire organizations, which since independence have fought for greater administrative and political autonomy.

A year after the beginning of the ceasefire movement and the collapse of the Burma Communist Party, the military held multi-party elections in 1990 as a response to popular demand as expressed in massive, nationwide protests, which in 1988 brought an end to General Ne Win’s rule and the collapse of his Burma Socialist Program Party government. Not yet prepared to leave the national political stage, the military leadership, which was made up of new faces intent on protecting both the now officially retired head of State, General Ne Win, and the institutional survival and, perhaps, supremacy, of the Armed Forces, found itself with new and formidable political foe: one of the parties allowed to contest in the military-sponsored multiparty elections, namely the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD has been led by the domestically widely popular Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s slain independence hero and the founder of the country’s Armed Forces. In spite of the fact that top NLD leaders were placed either under house arrest or behind bars, the Party went on to win a landslide election victory, winning 60% of the popular votes and 82% of the parliamentary seats. The military was stunned by the election results and started to feel the ground shifting underneath as there were talks of Nuremberg-style trials in Burma for the military leaders who were responsible for the bloody crackdown of popular revolts in Burma and for the generally oppressive political conditions.

The post-election years have seen the intractable political deadlock, specifically between the top military leadership and the NLD. Fifteen years after the 1990 elections, the country’s politics and economy remain categorically stagnant as a result. The military’s sense of personal and institutional insecurity and its concerns for national security - sovereignty, non-disintegration, and territorial integrity of Burma or Myanmar - remains as acute as ever, despite the fact that an overwhelming number of armed ethnic groups have entered into ceasefire deals, bringing many former armed conflict areas under indirect State control.

Militarily, there is no single group within the country, including the drug-producing, and best-armed United Wa State Army (UWSA), that can conceivably match Burma’s Armed Forces in terms of fire power and institutional strength. Politically, despite its domestic popularity coupled with its election-based mandate, the NLD has been reduced from the most formidable popular, non-violent democratic front to nominal opposition that exists at the mercy of the ruling military regime.

All the neighboring states - Thailand, China, India, Laos, and Bangladesh - have forged increased economic and political ties with the Burmese military leadership. In the case of Thailand, it has opted to work directly with Rangoon since trade, bi-lateral and regional, as well as political integration have begun to dictate national policies of South East Asian governments, in the wake of the collapse of Leftist armed movements, and has practically turned its back on Thai-Burmese border-based armed ethnic organizations, which Bangkok used as a buffer between the two countries for nearly 40 years. Since 1989, Beijing has transformed itself from the most serious threat via Burmese communists to the military-ruled Burma to Rangoon’s most significant ally. While the generals are still concerned about being too close to Beijing, the latter is eager to prove that it is the resource-rich and strategically placed Burma’s friend in need. Concerned about the growing Chinese influence and penetration in Burma and recognizing the need for Rangoon’s security and intelligence collaboration regarding its North East insurgencies, India on its part has from the mid-1990s on adopted a highly pragmatic stance toward Burma: New Delhi withdrew its initial financial and political support for the Burmese
pro-democracy movement in 1988 and conversely has established long-term trade, political and security cooperation with Rangoon.

In light of the removal of Beijing’s military threat, a merely nominal domestic opposition, the death of the Burmese communist movement, significantly weakened ethnic armed resistance, 17 and ½ ceasefire deals, and the lack of military threat from neighboring states, why then does the military leadership in Rangoon continue to operate with the bunker or siege mentality? Why do the Burmese generals and the rank and file feel they need to maintain a tight control over all aspects of Burmese society, economy and politics?

The answer, in a word, is the United States.

Since 1988 Washington has been the harshest critic of the Burmese regime. It has made strident calls for large-scale political reforms under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and/or for outright regime change in Rangoon. Many have argued that Burma is not really a significant issue for the United States. Washington’s top priority issues include trade, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) since the collapse of former USSR, energy security, North Korea, Iran, the Middle East-instigated terrorism, and the growing power of China and the resultant challenges (and threats), real and perceived, it feels.

However, as the neo-conservatives in Washington work toward re-fashioning the world unilaterally to serve U.S. national interests, too ready to resort to the use of unparalleled military prowess as evidenced by the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, under the guise of spreading democracy, the rest of the international community watches nervously what Washington might do. And the Burmese generals are no exception, especially since they have been singled out as one of the ‘outposts of tyranny’(ripe for regime change). Having witnessed the downfall of other generals who turned despotic, such as Suharto and Pinochet, and the US-induced collapse of several former USSR republics, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan, the generals are understandably concerned about the new American military adventurism.

The reported building of a new military headquarters in more strategically placed in Pinmyana/Yemethin area and the plan to move key government ministries there demonstrate how seriously the generals take the US threats to regime survival. The United States openly works toward changing the regimes in Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and so on - not necessarily through direct military intervention - but by supporting ideologically, financially, politically, diplomatically and technologically organized dissent within these countries and the respective diasporas. Despite the fact that the Burmese generals are not taking any chances regarding their concerns about the direct military intervention in Burma by the United States, they seem to be quite convinced that Washington is looking for “an honorable exit” from Iraq and that, because of the likely sense of failure with its mission in Iraq, the United States is unlikely to insert itself militarily in their country sandwiched as it is between China and India. However, judging from the official media reports and press conferences in Rangoon, the military leadership in Rangoon has further nurtured its deep suspicions that Washington is applying a similar destabilization strategy which the former has used in Cuba, Venezuela and other places, using as proxy organizations and armies Burmese opposition groups, both mainstream Burman opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the remaining ethnic armed resistance groups. Recently, Rangoon has formally outlawed a number of pro-NLD opposition organizations and non-Burmese ethnic insurgent groups which it suspects the United States is using as its proxies in Burma. These organizations include: the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) headed by Maung Maung, whose father Nyunt Wei, a Harvard MPA, serves as a member of the NLD Central Executive Committee and a close advisor to NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi; the Washington-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma headed by Dr. Sein Win, a first cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi; the armed All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) based on the Thai-Burmese borders, with its supporters scattered throughout the United States; and the Shan State Army-South with its links to the Shan diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia.

What appears to have cemented the generals’ perception that they are on the hit list of the United States which will not be satisfied with anything less than their downfall is a well-coordinated and deadly terrorist bomb blasts in May of this year that shocked Rangoon and shook the generals’ confidence and self-perception as guarantors of security and stability (at least in the areas under their direct and tight control). While its international legitimacy and the right to represent the people and the country have been challenged incessantly internationally since the NLD’s resounding electoral victory in 1990, its internal legitimacy in the eyes of the Burmese public is eroded significantly as it could no longer guarantee even the physical safety of the non-politically engaged public. Furthermore, the unilateral declaration of independence of the Shan State by exiled remnants of past Shan feudal lords from the comfort of their homes scattered across the globe in places such as Canada, Australia and so on, has given the generals one more reason to suspect that Western powers have either encouraged or quietly provided the Shan exiles with political blessing and/or financial backing.

Five decades after its rebirth as a modern nation-state, both the ruling class and the ruled in Burma have found themselves extremely vulnerable. And the country has been in a vicious cycle of violence, poverty, armed conflict, and political repression. So far I have focused primarily on the security issues as seen from the perspective of the ruling military.

One main reason for my having chosen to highlight Burma’s security issues through the eyes of the generals is that we have been inundated - and rightly so - with news and human rights reports about human security issues which have plagued the bulk of the population, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, and economic background, as well as their place of residence (that is, whether they live in the regime-controlled villages, towns and cities, or the non-Burman ethnic peoples’ armed conflict areas). There is a long list of human security issues. Among them are the chronic flow of significant number of refugees from Burma into the neighboring India, Bangladesh, and Thailand; the high percentage of malnourished children; numerous downstream local communities that are paying the price for the proliferation of damns; agrarian problems induced by deforestation, soil erosion, and misguided State agricultural policies; 1-2 million Burmese migrant workers in search of employment across South East Asia subject to all types of abuses as they live and work as ‘illegal aliens’; the lack of food security for the increasingly growing percentage of people inside the country; the increased HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma which is estimated to reach up to 600,000 in the country; an estimated half-a-million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) driven out of their ancestral communities by incessant, low-intensity military operations between government troops and the ethnic armed resistance organizations; the reported use of forced labor in military operations and development-related infrastructure building projects; the failing government-run public institutions in health, social and educational sectors and the list goes on. In short, there is no security or predictability in Burma, either for the ruling class or the ruled.

In order to break this cycle, there is a pressing need to take a fresh look at the problems that confront the country, both the ruled and the ruling junta, not from the conventional perspective of who is right and who is wrong, what is democratic and what is dictatorial. The past approaches pursued by all players - and their foreign supporters - have not been fruitful. Democracy-based demands or democracy-driven policy initiatives - such as tripartite dialogue as originally advocated by Burma’s non-Burman ethnic elite in exiles and called for by the United Nations accordingly, or instant democratic reforms, if not overnight power transfer - demanded by the West, and backed by the mainstream Burmese opposition - or the drafting and adoption of the Constitution - are not really addressing the real issues that the ruled and the ruling class, that is, the military leadership and the ordinary citizens experience on a day-to-day basis. For instance, while the public respect and love Aung San Suu Kyi and what she stands for - a free and democratic political system for the people - they are primarily concerned about various aspects of security in their lives. Scenes of massive audiences at her democracy lectures are misleading in that they give the impression that the NLD and “the masses” are one and the same while in fact the very masses quickly disperse into the safety of their homes and security of offices when the NLD party came under literal attacks by the regime-sponsored organization - the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). People seek security - however relative it may be - as opposed to revolution. Likewise, while ethnic minority elites demand political autonomy and ultimately right to self-determination, and forms of State structure such as federal versus unitary, the overwhelming majority of non-Burman ethnic peoples, especially those who are most vulnerable to rights abuses in armed conflict zones of Burma, would be happy to have fundamental security in their lives, something at least several generations of them have only dreamed of since they were born - and sucked into the conflict.

In its institutionalized memory, which has found its way into the political socialization of successive generations of military leaders, as well as the rank and file of Burma’s Armed Forces, it is the Armed Forces (and its leaders) that have successfully held the Burmese post-colonial State together since ‘multi-color insurgency’ - as ideologically and ethnically driven armed insurrections were known - flared up within 60 days of independence in 1948. During the subsequent fifty years, the military has inscribed itself into the body politics of Burma. National security, to them, is not to be differentiated from their own personal security, as well as the security of the Armed Forces as the most dominant institution. The current primarily rights-based approach advocated by the National League for Democracy and the non-Burman ethno-nationalists, both backed by the West, demands that meaningful economic and political reforms begin immediately while the country and its ruling military are reeling under the weight of economic sanctions and Western isolation, and continuing pariah-ization and condemnation of what would in many other cases be a typical Third World nation cursed by its own internal history and resources and caught in the long process of global capitalist transformation.

On the eve of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 60th birthday in 2005, a group of Nobel Peace Laureates who published an open letter, stating their support for further sanctions and isolation of Burma or Myanmar, until “the evil regime” there “reconciles with its people.” Almost a month ago, The Economist ran an Editorial and a Special Report on Burma, which stressed the need for the re-assessment of both the failed policies of sanctions by the West and constructive engagement by the East, and called for making a deal with the generals. In the light of what is on the generals’ minds, as well as the collective mind of ordinary citizens (from all walks of life and different ethnic and religious backgrounds, such a deal has to address both national security issues as understood by the generals and human security issues lived by ordinary people of Burma - not opposition political elites back by the West - in whose name the deal is to be struck. However unpalatable and unpopular this approach may be, absent total regime/institutional collapse or US-orchestrated regime change neither of which is desirable or conducive to democratic transformation of Burma, this is the only approach that has not been tried - and hence its validity or usefulness cannot be written off, without testing it.

The past offers of international aid package have been rejected indignantly by Rangoon, saying the Burmese military leaders are not monkeys who could be induced to do certain things by the offer of bananas! ASEAN’s “softly-softly” approach since 1997 has not yielded anything either because it doesn’t really address the real issue of regime-defined National Security. The dialogue that needs to take place is not between Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling generals,
much less the dreamed-of tripartite dialogue, however outlandish and outrageous it may sound to those who operate within the moralistic framework of Orwellian “two-legs-bad and four-legs good” or ‘evil-doers’ and the ‘good guys’. Perversely, the only deal there is to strike is the deal between Washington and Rangoon. For all the tough-talk, exceptionalization of Myanmar, and demonization of successive groups of generals since 1988 by Washington has convinced not simply the top brass in Burma but the military as an institution that their real opponent is not the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi or ethnic minority groups that ultimately want their own nations and states, but the evangelizing and unilateralist United States.

Within the local context, there is an extreme imbalance of (fire) power between the ‘democratic forces’ and the dominant institution of the Armed Forces and those who rule the country through this once veritable institution (at least for the Burman majority). Burma is a national security state and its rulers are most acutely concerned about issues of security, personal, institutional and regime as a whole. Until and unless the threat, perceived or real, has been addressed effectively, the chances of addressing the broader - and pressing - issues of human security that affect highly negatively 50 million ordinary citizens of all ethnic, religious and class backgrounds are pretty slim.

All modern nation-states created out of conflict, violence and exploitation that feel under siege, especially by foreign forces, are going to lash out at their legitimate critics and opponents, take unilateral actions - military or otherwise -, trampling on or rolling back any type of liberties - economic or political - and flaunting international norms, treaties and organizations. The United States, especially those who are now in the driver’s seat of US Foreign Policy implementing “National Security 2002” doctrine, is best positioned to understand the Burmese regime’s psychology and mentality as the United States is reeling from the increasing economic, political and military insecurity in the face of China’s growth, the emerging multi-polarity in international relations, the growing international resentment toward, and the near universal criticism of, the United States, and the on-going terrorist covert operations against the United States and her crusading allies by the Muslim fundamentalists. It is high time that the international community moves the Burma policy debate in the direction that addresses the mundane, but important concerns both of the ruling generals and the ruled by taking an integrated approach to Burma’s national and human security issues while adopting the long view of democratic
transformation.