A five-prong action plan to push for regime change

I grew up in military circles in Burma and lived 25 years of my life under the first military rule of the late General Ne Win prior to going to the United States for further studies. I myself would have been a military officer by age 20, if it weren’t for my father, who told me to keep my admission letter to the Officers Training Corps as a souvenir.For the past two decades, I have ended up studying the institution of my childhood “career choice” professionally, while politically engaging with its members.

When the junta’s bizarre “election laws” hit recent news headlines, I heard the Burma policy mantra which is in vogue: “Neither sanctions nor engagement has worked.”

As a Burmese dissident who has embraced sanctions and engagement approaches, alternately, over the past two decades, I have grown rather tired of the “neither-nor” policy mantra.

This discourse of “policy defeatism” fails to ask the crucial question: “What type of sanctions, or engagement, under what circumstances, and for what purpose, one is talking about?”

This “neither-nor” view is not so much a sign of the absence of policy or political alternatives, as a symptom of the paralysis of strategic imagination, a typically insufficient understanding among Burma – and even Burmese – experts of the real conditions within Burma’s armed forces, and a lack of political resolve on the part of external players who purport to want reconciliation or clamour for real change in my country.

The crucial policy question is what approaches – notice the plural here – should be formulated in order to change the Burmese leadership and its overstretched system. Upon closer look, the regime in Naypyidaw has created a large-scale perpetual crisis situation whereby its orientation, decisions and policies only amplify Burma’s pre-existing problems such as armed conflicts, ethnic inequality, the absence of civil liberties, troubled foreign relations, ecological crises and ever-deepening poverty.

While most other experts on Burma see the staying power of the military regime, I see emerging possibilities for formulating more effective and strategic policies in order to induce change. Those wishing to see genuine change in Burma should remind themselves of the spectacular failures of most Sovietologists to anticipate the collapse of the “Evil Empire”. Based on my first-hand engagement with the military and my own communications with the regime insiders, I offer a five-point strategy to facilitate and accelerate genuine change:

- First, the Western governments that have stood by Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow dissidents need to close ranks and solidify their support for the opposition. Despite talk of a “third force” – that is political independents who claim they are neither regime proxies nor NLD supporters – there is no organisation or individual leader that can match her mass appeal, the NLD’s dormant grassroots base, mobilising power, and international support. Regardless of its legal standing, the NLD will continue to exist as a political movement.

- Second, the type of engagement with Burma will need to be strategically calibrated. Specifically, all those governments and organisations, both Asian and Western, need to shift the focus of their engagement away from the intransigent and backward leadership of the regime, towards its second and third-line leaders.

In addition to this government-to-regime engagement at lower notches, international efforts should be expanded to include various sectors of Burmese economy, cultural organisations, educational institutions and community organisations and informal networks.

- Third, pro-sanctions governments and political NGOs should intensify their campaigns for targeted financial sanctions, asset-freeze, travel bans, international legal actions, all singling out Senior General Than Shwe, his top deputies and cronies. For starters, these pressure groups should rally solidly behind UN Human Rights Special Envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana’s official call for setting up an international investigation of Than Shwe’s war crimes.

- Fourth, opposition-backing governments, such as Washington and London, need to pay attention to the ever-declining morale, material conditions, and anti-regime attitudinal changes within the rank-and-file of the armed forces which compel an ever-increasing number of new generation officers between the ages of 20-40 to desert the armed forces. Many officers are deserting out of a sense of outrage against intra-military injustices. Many of these officers as well as their comrades, who chose not to desert the institution, wish to contribute to genuine change in the country and leadership change within the armed forces. But they are finding there is little support coming from foreign governments.

- Finally, all governments that may be concerned about Burma’s balkanisation and resultant regional instability should take note of pent-up frustrations which could boil over in the near future. There is a deepening sense of injustice due to decades of repression of non-Burman ethnic communities. It would be short-sighted for regional powers to allow the junta to maintain domestic stability at gunpoint, as opposed to firmly pushing the regime for peace and reconciliation. Sixty years after a series of ethnic-driven armed revolts, all minority groups are ready to work together as ethnic equals within a union. Even the few that publicly clamour for independence are doing so as a bargaining strategy, rather than as a realisable goal. It is the junta, not the country’s ethnic diversity, that is creating regional volatility. The sooner Asian powers come to terms with this empirical reality the better for peace, stability and cross-border prosperity in the region.

The writer is Visiting Senior Fellow, Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, and Research Fellow on Burma, London School of Economics and Political Science.

BKK Post 19 Mar 2010

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