Thursday, March 5, 2009

Speaking out on the future of Burma

Special to The Japan Times

As Burma heads toward its 2010 elections, Jeff Kingston asks political observers about prospects for reform

These are tough times for the people of Burma. They have endured decades of economic mismanagement, low living standards and brutal political oppression under an incompetent and negligent military junta that shows no signs of relinquishing its grip on power.
Indeed, as the country approaches elections in 2010, the regime has cracked down on its opponents, imposing prison terms of 65 years on relief workers, comedians, writers, intellectuals, monks and others.

Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy in Burma JEFF KINGSTON PHOTOS

No challenges to the junta are allowed and thus those who joined peaceful demonstrations in the Saffron Revolution of 2007 or tried to help the survivors of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 were targeted by the regime for sentences that in many cases ensure the imprisoned will die behind bars. The number of political prisoners has more than doubled since 2007 and stands at 2,100.

The junta has sent a message to prodemocracy activists that they should not confuse the upcoming 2010 elections with an opportunity to build democracy in Burma. Unlike in 1990 when the military was embarrassed by a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, a result it has steadfastly ignored, this time around the results will be rigged.

The model for this sham-in-the-making is the constitutional referendum staged in May 2008 when an unbelievable 92 percent of voters approved a document that almost nobody had seen. There were widespread and credible reports of gross irregularities and there is a consensus that the referendum was not remotely free or fair.

As a result, the new constitution imposed by the regime that preserves political power for the military and excludes Suu Kyi has zero credibility, further undermining the legitimacy of a government that is overwhelmingly despised by it citizens.

And why wouldn't they despise it? In cracking down on the Saffron Revolution in 2007 — a monk-led, grassroots response to dreadful and declining living standards — the military murdered, imprisoned and tortured many monks, a transgression that trampled cultural taboos, triggering outrage and a smoldering resentment. People were seething at the sheer brutality of the junta, but were totally unprepared for the government's mind-boggling response to Cyclone Nargis.

In early May 2008, Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta region, claiming an estimated 138,000 lives, displacing some 800,000 survivors and leaving some 2.5 million people desperately in need of food, shelter and medical treatment. Any government would be hard-pressed to respond effectively to such a massive natural disaster, but instead of focusing on relief efforts the government prioritized the constitutional referendum. As a result, the government was slow to respond and even impeded relief efforts by international agencies by withholding approval of visas for relief specialists.

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The world looked on in disbelief as the junta devoted scarce resources to a sham referendum while ignoring the needs of survivors.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, there has been renewed debate about how the international community should respond and whether punitive sanctions and isolation are working to promote reform. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that the United States is reviewing its hard line policies toward the regime.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) provides in-depth analysis of conditions in Burma, but is often criticized for being overly solicitous of the military junta. The principal author of the ICG reports, Morten Pedersen, argues that the current strategy of imposing sanctions and isolating the military junta is not working, creating a stalemate that shows no signs of resolution. He asserts that sanctions and isolation actually strengthens the junta's grip on power, allowing them to pose as defenders of the nation. In his view, the military leaders will not bow to pressure for political reform and are well insulated from economic sanctions, especially with rising LNG revenues.

The problem is that the people of Burma are not insulated from the usual problems of endemic poverty — the United Nations estimates that 30 percent of the population faces acute poverty — and many are swept up in a gathering humanitarian crisis. Yet, despite appalling conditions, international aid to Burma is only about 5 percent per capita of what comparable developing nations typically receive. The ICG advocates broader, sustained engagement and a sharp increase in aid to fund "sustainable humanitarian development."

Win Min, a Burmese political commentator, also based in Chiang Mai

Pedersen acknowledges the brutality and venality of the military regime, but does not think that regime change is a viable option because government institutions have withered during four decades of military rule, meaning across-the-board capacity deficits that amplify the difficulties of coping with Burma's staggering challenges. The military is the strongest institution in a country known for its pervasive disfunctionalities and as such, he asserts, must continue to play a key role in any transition scenario.

In October 2008, the ICG issued a report arguing that the Nargis experience demonstrates the need to normalize aid relations and suggests a way forward out of the stalemate. The ICG points out that after the initial fumbling response, a normal relief operation was apparent by July 2008 and goes on to argue that the donor community now has an opportunity to build on this enhanced cooperation to transform and expand the aid agenda.

Credit for this turnaround goes to the Trilateral Core Group (TCG), a problem-solving task force that has one representative each from the Burmese government, the U.N. and ASEAN. The TCG, according to the ICG, proved effective in addressing operational problems and cutting through red tape, allowing aid organizations to conduct their projects as they would in any similar situation and monitor how development aid was used.

Yuki Akimoto, director of Burma Info in Tokyo

Yuki Akimoto, director of Burma Info in Tokyo, is more skeptical about the TCG and disputes the ICG's assessment, arguing, "The TCG has a built-in limitation in that one of the three parties is the military regime. The ICG assessment lacks credibility because it misrepresents the reasons why Burma is suffering socio-economically and not receiving development assistance. It is one thing to advocate for increased engagement with the regime, but it is an entirely different matter to defend the military regime, as the ICG assessment effectively does.

"ICG avoids holding the military regime accountable for the situation the regime itself has caused through its brutally self- interested actions and policies, which have enriched the generals and their cronies while impoverishing the nation."

Thant Myint U, former U.N. diplomat and currently a Visiting Fellow with the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, believes that the Nargis relief operations have helped build a better working relationship between the junta and international donors, saying, "The Nargis relief efforts have led to a big shift in attitudes. Now many in the government understand that there is no great danger in providing access to international aid workers, while on the reverse side many donors see the possibilities of working in Burma while meeting international standards of transparency and accountability."

The ICG, in calling for normalizing aid as a strategy for promoting change, maintains that the TCG can be the model for broader engagement elsewhere in the country, presenting it as a task-based, problem-solving approach that nurtures capacity-building, transparency and accountability. The ICG also argues that, "aid cannot be used as a bargaining chip, but should be seen as a valuable instrument in its own right for improving governance and promoting socioeconomic change."

Thant Myint U is less optimistic about copying the TCG model for expanded aid efforts elsewhere in Burma: "What is certain about the TCG is that it has been an invaluable mechanism for delivering emergency aid to affected people in the Nargis-affected areas. The international aid community has been given unprecedented access and it appears that space for ongoing relief and recovery operations can be sustained. Whether it can be expanded to other parts of the country is unlikely. We need creative solutions and shouldn't be tied to the TCG model. What's important is not the mechanism per se but finding ways to deliver aid in a way that meets basic international norms."

In early February one of the ministers who served as Burma's leading representative in the TCG was transferred, and some analysts see this as a sign that the junta is withdrawing its support from the TCG. However, a senior diplomat (who like several others interviewed for this story did not wish to be named) suggests that this speculation is off the mark: "His promotion should not be seen as the junta pulling back from the process. Rather, his promotion to the ministerial level will make it easier for him to act and push the process."

Bertil Lintner, a journalist who has covered Burma for more than two decades

Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written numerous articles and several books on Burma since the mid-1980s, is one of the most eminent critics of the ICG analysis. He told The Japan Times at the end of 2008 that the ICG report shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the military and Burma, rejecting as "naive in the extreme the proposition that adopting a more respectful tone toward the junta, understanding their worldview and not making an issue of past misdeeds will make it more likely to act rationally and engage in substantive dialogue."

According to Lintner, "The generals are not listening. They are doing what they want and ignore pressure, sanctions and engagement. Neither isolation or engagement have worked and there is no reason to believe that engagement and expanded aid will change their ways. They are happy to have the ICG doing their bidding. In Burmese they have a derogatory word for such people; they are not taken seriously."

In Lintner's view, the TCG does not offer a promising model for expanded engagement elsewhere in Burma, a point supported by several Burmese exiles in Thailand.

Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, the leading source of critical information about Burma, called it an "ivory-tower perspective written for people who want to increase aid programs. In reality it won't work and advocates should be ashamed of themselves for looking for any excuse to work with an authoritarian regime. But let them come and [Senior General] Than Shwe will teach them a lesson just like the Red Cross. He is good at using and manipulating international organizations and they are good at fooling themselves. He created a small opening in the delta, but can shut them down anytime he wants."

Zaw also scoffs at the ICG's assertion that the junta is able to exploit sanctions to portray itself to the public as defenders of the nation against foreign enemies, suggesting that the ICG has a condescending and inaccurate view of how gullible the people are. He acknowledges that Burmese do suffer from the sanctions and isolation, but says they see them as symbolically important, boosting people's morale because they know the junta is humiliated and that other countries care.

A U.S.-trained Burmese economist points out that the TCG was effective because there were only three ministries involved and each had talented representatives: "There is limited competence in the government and this makes it impossible to see how the TCG model can be expanded elsewhere. And, the government has made sure to insulate the rest of the country from the TCG opening. There is no political backing for an expanded TCG process, it is only for the delta. I can't imagine, for example, the government allowing such a process in Chin state where there is a famine and desperate need for relief."

Dr. Lian Sakhong, an ethnic Chin who is general secretary of the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), also doubts the government will allow relief operations in his homeland and thinks the TCG process will not be extended to any of the ethnic areas where development aid is urgently needed. In his view, the regime is interested in pacification and assimilation, trying to impose a mono-ethnic, centralized model that fails to recognize Burma's rich ethnic diversity.

The military remains allergic to a federal model, but Sakhong, winner of the Martin Luther King Prize in 2007, insists greater autonomy is the only way to create lasting stability in a nation where ethnic groups constitute 40 percent of the population living in 60 percent of the land area.

Win Min, a Burmese political commentator based in Chiang Mai, notes that the ICG has developed cozy relations with midlevel officers and bureaucrats, but doubts this will lead to political reform because there is no top level political backing for reform. He thinks that the ICG is being manipulated and worries that expanding engagement and aid "is unlikely to lead anywhere while conferring legitimacy and stature on a regime that deserves neither."

In contrast, Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst also residing in Chiang Mai, says "possibilities exist only for programs that don't threaten the military. I agree with the ICG about a long-term gradual process of opening and reform and it's worth trying.

"The problem is that Burmese political culture tends toward extremes. There are no quick solutions and the problem is that the government and opposition have become mirror images of each other, unwilling to compromise.

"Sanctions have prevented change because the regime sees the West standing behind Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. These are targets they can hit. What you have to understand is that many military officers do want better relations with the U.S. They want to have a modern military and know they cannot rely on China."

"After the 2010 elections," he says, "Burma will need and seek lots of help. This is an opportunity for the West. Not just throwing money at the opposition, but in terms of capacity building across the board. The nitty-gritty of training programs is the basis for long-term engagement that will help the people."

A Burmese economist, fresh from running a project management workshop for Burmese monks, also suggests an engagement strategy that emphasizes technical assistance programs aimed at capacity building. He notes that monks play a critical role in filling gaping holes in providing social welfare services in Burma, including running orphanages and clinics. In his view, the Nargis response exposed just how inefficient and weak the government is.

Dr. Lian Sakhong, general secretary of the Ethnic Nationalities Council and winner of the 2007 Martin Luther King Award

"International disaster relief specialists who arrived found just how little institutional infrastructure there is to mount an effective operation," he says. "The lack of capacity is endemic and a major obstacle to raising living standards." Over the last 20 years, he observes, living standards have improved throughout Southeast Asia, except in Burma.

In his view, more happened in terms of engagement and capacity building in the second half of 2008 than in the past six years combined. He suggests building on this with a brick-by-brick approach, using technical assistance projects as a basis for incrementally ramping up capacity while raising living standards. Expanded technical assistance programs, he believes, would help shape the internal dynamics of the junta and improve prospects for the post-Than Shwe era.

When it comes to the 2010 elections, Byo Kyi, cofounder of Burma's Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, expects little and argues that if the junta is serious about democratization they can start by releasing all of the prodemocracy activists they have rounded up. He contends that "the military does not want to listen to the will of the people because they know it is against them."

David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch's Burma expert, argues that the recent crackdown on dissidents was a mistake because it undermines the credibility of the elections: "Apart from being incredibly brutal, the regime was incredibly stupid in sentencing more than 300 dissidents to long prison sentences. Had they not done so, it might have been able to present this sham process as a legitimate, disciplined approach to democracy, giving the outside world grounds for working with it. Under the circumstances, HRW will not endorse the elections because they offer no glimmer of change. They are a dead-end."

His fear, shared by many other observers, is that several governments are eager to use the elections, even if deeply flawed, as a fig-leaf justifying resumption of normal ties. Mathieson believes, however, that major donors will now find it much harder to "ignore the absurdity of the elections."

Michael Green, a professor at Georgetown University and former director of Asian Affairs on the National Security Council during the Bush Administration, warns, "The junta has been adept at sowing division and exploiting the lack of coordination."

He worries that the elections have high potential for dividing the international community even if they are a sham, because they would provide cover for some countries eager to normalize relations with Burma. Given this risk, Green asserts it is crucial to quickly clarify and build an international consensus on what is minimally required for the elections to be recognized as legitimate by the international community.

A prominent Burmese observer suggests that forging this consensus will be difficult because the U.S. emphasis on human rights and democracy is at odds with the Indian and Chinese emphasis on maintaining stability in border regions. He also has a slightly more optimistic view about the elections: "In 2010 the junta will do as it says, hold elections and allow for the creation of a new government by the end of 2010. This will not represent a clean break with the past and the new government may well include some of the current leadership. But it is important not to underestimate the significance of this transition.

"There will be a generational change in the political leadership and there will be a slight broadening of the political base of the government as it attempts to bring more people and groups under its tent."

He worries less about the elections providing an excuse to engage than as a reason to continue isolation: "It may well turn out that the elections are deemed unacceptable by some Western donors and this would lead to a continuation of current policies and the stalemate. It would also mean a decline in Western involvement and influence in shaping outcomes in Burma and this would be regrettable for the Burmese."

"If there were free and fair elections," he adds, "any party led by Suu Kyi would win a sizable vote and probably a clear majority."

Alas, nobody thinks she will get this opportunity; thus the Burma tragedy will persist unless various stakeholders think creatively about exploiting opportunities the elections may create.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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