Maung Zarni: The futility of threatening Burma

Over the past two decades, the West-led threats have hardened the regime's resistance

On Monday, under house arrest and virtually alone, except for a live-in maid and two female companions, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be celebrating her 61st birthday in her lakeside villa in Rangoon.

Judging from the Washington-led campaign to get the United Nations to intervene in Burma, on the spurious grounds that the country is a "threat to peace and security", Daw Suu's supporters desire no better birthday gift than a Security Council resolution that would coerce the generals into conducting a dialogue with their heroine, and to embark on a programme of reform and reconciliation.

Although I share the ultimate goal of ushering in a new era of openness, peace and prosperity in my beleaguered birthplace, I disagree wholeheartedly with this futile approach. Over the past two decades, the West's threats have merely hardened the regime's resistance to reforms. Further, these threats have been counterproductive, especially when Burma's all-important Asian neighbours categorically refuse to jump on the sanctions bandwagon. Since 1988, it has been impossible to find an international consensus on the nature of the Burmese problem, let alone a cohesive Burma policy or strategy. No amount of spin from Washington or London will change this fact.

The American-led campaign, using Desmond Tutu and Václav Havel as the leading spokespersons, to frame the military-ruled country as "a threat to world peace" has only reinforced the military's view of Aung San Suu Kyi as a poster girl for the West, a stooge promoted to do their neo-imperialist bidding in Burma.

If the regime sounds paranoid and delusional, Suu Kyi's well-wishers are no less intransigent and unrealistic. They have refused to reflect on the efficacy ofa two-decade-long campaign that has produced no concrete results on the ground. Worse still, as they insist on the moral imperatives of their good versus evil narrative, and advocate prolonged sanctions, it is the Burmese economy, society and its vital public institutions that pay the price for isolation and punishment.

Unfortunately, typical discussions about the Burma situation are devoid of any serious understanding of the country's history, geography and the deep antagonism between the pro-West opposition as personified by Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime .

Based on my 17 years of political exile and my conversations with the junta's leaders - both "moderate" and "hard line", over the past four years - let me outline a series of tips which might serve as a basis for a more informed policy towards Burma:

First of all, the West needs to appreciate fully both the immeasurable cost of nearly 60 years of post-independence domestic conflicts and the urgent need to de-escalate and defuse them. A more productive policy would recognise the magnitude of Burma's nation-building needs, and the counterproductiveness of insisting on simplistic, if well-meaning, good versus evil moral imperatives .

It would acknowledge the limits of American power, and encourage the European Union to take a more independent stance towards the Burma problem. It would also appreciate the corrosive power of selective trade and commercial engagement, cultural and intellectual interactions on Burmese societal and governmental institutions, which are largely frozen in time.

The West must attempt to understand the junta's valid concerns for the potential Balkanisation of Burma, as well as the collective nationalist psyche of an officer corps moulded by half a century of armed conflicts and chronic political unrest.

Additionally, it ought to appreciate the historical role of the military as the country's most dominant stable institution, born out of the country's anti-colonialist struggle. After all, the military's vision and concerns will remain unchanged until the country's isolation ends, regardless of who is in central command.

Finally, a more effective policy would acknowledge the role of the ordinary Burmese - not the "evil" generals or the "noble" dissidents -as the ultimate "drivers of change", and assist them by raising their capabilities. The West's current policies in effect treat the Burmese people merely as victims of oppression and human rights violations.

The best birthday gift Suu Kyi's international well-wishers could give her is to reflect on their well-meaning, but wholly misguided, advocacy of greater isolation of Burma. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to end my country's long nightmare. Indeed, we all must view change not as a one-off event, but rather a long and painful process.

The writer is founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a visiting research fellow at Oxford University 

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