Friday, November 25, 2011

Democratic Change in Burma/Myanmar?

Indian mass media coverage of developments in the strategically important country on our troubled eastern border has been dismal.

Of the four newspapers I get in Puducherry – The Hindu, The Times of India, The New Indian Express, and The Deccan Chronicle – only the TNIE has made any attempt to provide perspective.

In a perceptive edit-page piece in TNIE on 12 November, Whiff of Spring in Myanmar, Sridhar Krishnaswami, Head of Media Studies at the SRM University in Chennai, put the surprising reform initiatives of the new civilian government in the context of the Arab Spring and peer pressure from the Association of S.E. Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma/Myanmar is a somewhat pariah member. Naypyidaw (the junta's new jungle capital), wants the rotating chairmanship of the group in 2014.

 The other three newspapers have done no more than publish Western news agency reports, with The Hindu characteristically providing also an Op-Ed reprint (19 November) from The Guardian in Britain. In keeping with the general tenor of British media coverage, the piece struck a sceptical and disbelieving chord. That is understandable, for the junta has very little credibility; but readers are left wonderning what is happening and why.

The closest TOI came to providing its own coverage of the matter was a preachy, muddled edit-page piece on 15 November, Towards an Asian Century, by a “current affairs analyst and former CEO of a public sector company.” It exhorted India to “shed its hallmark lethargy and stupor” and make Burma/Myanmar a land bridge to China, which it portrayed as having a commanding position in the country. (China has seen its position significantly eroded as newly installed President Thein Sein, bowing to popular pressure, cancelled without warning or consultation a major dam project Beijing had funded in the expectation of getting 90 percent of the hydroelectric power it generated.)

 So what is really happening in Burma/Myanmar? (The two names are, respectively, of colonial and junta origin, one sharpening and the other blurring national identification with the country’s dominant tribe.)

 To get an informed view of recent developments I called up Vijay Nambiar, the seasoned Indian diplomat who is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Chef de Cabinet and has worn a second hat as special envoy to Burma/Myanmar ever since Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria left the post in some ignominy in February 2010. (In an oblique but acid comment on Gambari’s performance, a writer in Irrawaddy magazine called on the UN to appoint someone who would not “spend his time at Rangoon’s Traders Hotel nursing hangovers after late-night drinking sessions with Burmese girls.”)

Nambiar had just returned to New York from the Asia-Pacific summit at Bali when he took my call. There was no one reason for the changes that were afoot, he said. The government was impelled by a desire to move into the ASEAN mainstream, get increased economic support from the West, and avoid over-dependence on China. Equally important was a change of attitude on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition.

“I’ve met her three times now,” he said. She originally dismissed what was happening as a “parody of democracy,” saying it’s “worse than outright dictatorship” because people were fooled into thinking the situation had improved. Her National Democratic League (NDL) had split after it decided not to participate in the elections; a splinter group went on to field candidates and win a few seats as the official party procured a two-thirds majority. At their last meeting, Nambiar had suggested that a more receptive attitude on her part might help bring about real change, and she had altered course.

 Nambiar thought that the reforms were real and meaningful. Some political prisoners had been released, and there was talk of releasing all of them (a total of 500 according to the government, several multiples of that number according to the Opposition). The government seemed to be heading towards the “Indonesian model” of democracy. International agencies and important Western governments had acknowledged the government's sincerity by initiating a general thaw. The UN Development Programme, the World Bank and the IMF were all preparing to extend support; Hilary Clinton would visit the country in December.

New Delhi has not publicly pushed Neypyidaw towards democracy despite overt pressure from Washington; but India has obviously been a positive and supportive influence, especially in balancing a heavy-breathing Darth Vader-like China. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi last summer and President Thein Sein’s recent visit to India were both important markers of progress.

What are the chances the reform process will stall and go into reverse as it did under Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2003? Although the third ranking member of the junta and in charge of Intelligence, Khin Nyunt's tentative moves to relax the political situation in the country ran into opposition from other Generals and he was eased out.

In trying to understand the headwinds facing reform in Burma/Myanmar it is useless to look for information from sources bound by the prevailing Western omerta regarding the international criminality of its elites, or from the UN, which is religious about the Hear-See-Speak-no-evil rule when it comes to the underhand dealings of powerful member States.

To find an explanation we have to begin by looking at how the country fell under military rule and why the junta has remained so implacably hostile to democracy for half a century.

The story begins in the times of Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, the widely popular leader of the Burmese struggle for independence. He had allied himself initially with the Japanese to drive the British out of Burma in 1942-1943, and then, at the end of the war, switched sides. The British signed an agreement to hand over power, but six months before the scheduled date an assassin armed with a machine gun massacred Aung San and all his senior aides. A few low-level British officers were among those tried for the murders – the assassin's weapon was of military issue – but there was no actionable evidence against higher-level British officials who were obviously involved.

The xenophobia generated by those events gathered strength as the British continued to back armed uprisings by Burma’s secessionist tribes and the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos made the country the world centre of illicit opium production during the savage struggle for Viet Nam. That happened in the 1960s, just as the British began to develop, as a replacement for their dissolving Empire, a second imperium in the form of a global black market. The Burmese Generals became key players in the opium trade and heavily invested in the new underground British money management system.

After the end of the Viet Nam War, as opium production shifted to Afghanistan to fund another supposedly clandestine war (with the ISI as Britain's local drug runner), the Burmese share of the illicit trade dropped to about 15 per cent. However, trafficking the country's rich lodes of gemstones and hardwoods took up the slack, not to mention the junta's take from above-ground trade surpluses; the latest statistics show Burmese exports of $8 billion and imports of some $4 billion annually.

As with the ISI in Pakistan, Britain has provided the Burmese junta with solid financial incentives to remain firmly opposed to democratic rule.

In these circumstances how realistic is it to expect Burma to become a democratic country?

The answer lies not so much in the jungle lair of Naypyidaw as in The City of London. If the current American push to democratize lands long under autocrats propped up by Europe's neo-colonial elites extends to British bankers, there is hope. If not, we can expect the process in Burma/Myanmar to stop well short of meaningful democracy.

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