Outrageously optimistic

When European Union policymakers will meet to review the EU Common Policy on Burma, on 12 April, they will be wise to discard the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) recent call for the unconditional embrace of the country’s military dictatorship by lifting sanctions, normalising aid relations and promoting trade and investment. Like the Burmese junta’s regressively anti-democratic Constitution of 2008, the Brussels/Jakarta-based International Crisis Group’s latest report on the country, ‘Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape’, released this March, is not worth the paper on which it is printed. International policymakers and the Burmese public would be wise to dismiss the report’s recommendations – such as lifting sanctions and normalising aid and trade relations – as the analysis on which they rest is grounded in faulty assumptions about the Burmese military’s ‘ruling class’ and its collective psyche, coupled with unfounded speculation about the prospects for even incremental change arising from recent political changes. The ICG analysts seem to have chosen only evidence that agrees with a pro-trade, pro-aid policy stance, while critically lacking both conceptual and historical understanding of how dictatorships change.

In fact, the Crisis Group’s analysis was straitjacketed years ago. In an August 2009 report, ‘Myanmar: Towards the Elections’, ICG analysts warned that the regime-sponsored electoral political process should not be underestimated. It also speculates, ‘although the old guard may continue to wield significant influence behind the scenes, the reins of power will be in new hands, and the new political structures make it unlikely that any single individual will be able to dominate decision-making in the way that Than Shwe has in recent years.’

Almost a year later, in May 2010, the organisation put out a new report, titled ‘The Myanmar Elections,’ and insisted that its old Burma assessment and messages ‘continue to be valid’. Yet today, nearly a year later, neither Gen Than Shwe nor Maung Aye has shown any sign that they are about to hand over the reins of the military government. Contrary to recent media coverage of the junta’s ‘dissolution’, the regime has vested in itself with extra-constitutional authorities including the control of the country’s national budget, and has elevated the military as the ruling institution and the military personnel as a ruling class above civil laws and norms. Far from standing down, the regime has been attempting to cement its power for eternity, to borrow its constitutional lingo. 

Editorial line
One of the extraordinary things about the latest ICG report is that it manages to deliberately omit or downplay the fundamental issues confronting Burma today. Astoundingly, the report discusses Burma without making any serious mention of human rights, armed ethnic conflicts, political prisoners, war crimes, arms build-up or militarism. The phrase human rights appears just three times, and even in these instances is mentioned only in the context of calls by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) for discussions with Western governments. As for the plight of the 2300 dissidents behind bars, it receives no mention as if the ICG endorses the regime’s outright lie to the United Nations that there is no such thing as political prisoners.

It is difficult not to notice how selective the ICG has been with regards to how it has handled its sources and evidence. Citations to other works include only those advocating the removal of sanctions. Where it uses sources that are equally critical of both sanctions and engagement approaches, the group has referenced only those sections that explicitly support a pro-business, pro-aid stance. For instance, Aung Naing Oo, a former student revolutionary who is now deputy director of Vahu, an NGO with well-known ties to the military regime, is described as a ‘respected Myanmar exile’. ICG’s report has highlighted Oo’s fairly stunning admission that he had no clue as to why he was supporting sanctions, thus implying that a similar state of cluelessness applies to those in exile who helped to build the international sanctions campaign. Elsewhere, the report deems ‘respected’ two ‘economists in Myanmar’ who disagree with the NLD’s recently stated view that ‘economic conditions within the country have not been affected by sanctions to any notable degree.’ We are left to guess who those ‘respected economists’ might be.

Then there are the ‘ethnic parties and … National Democratic Front and Democratic Party Myanmar’, referred to in a footnote as having called for ‘lifting sanctions’. The NDF, it is important to note, is a splinter group that broke with the NLD in order to be able to contest the November 2010 elections. The regime allows no organisation or dissident to exist within Burma without its harassment, if these entities do not serve the system’s interests. Yet ICG did not think it worthwhile to point out the existential reason for these parties as seen from the regime’s perspective, even while it emphasised these parties’ call for ‘lifting of sanctions’.

The foreign voices chosen to criticise sanctions in the ICG report are hardly objective. Among the prominent figures included are East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta, former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, US Senator Jim Webb and Indian academic Brahma Chellaney. The latter’s views are reflective of the national-security and commercial interests, which view Burma through an anti-Beijing lens; Kouchner was reportedly a hired gun for France’s Total (an oil company with deep commercial interests in Burma); while President Ramos-Horta is actively lobbying ASEAN states to support his country’s membership application. Webb, meanwhile, is unapologetic about his well-known anti-Beijing American nationalism, and is pushing for Washington to regain a strategic foothold in Burma against the backdrop of growing Chinese influence.

Even relatively more nuanced views have been tweaked for consistency. When ICG quoted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, it truncated her original statement so as to sound as though she supports its ideological stance against sanctions. ‘Clinton has been forthright in pointing out that sanctions have failed,’ the report notes, and leaves it there. In fact, Clinton was pointing out both the inefficacy of the sanctions as well as the futility of engagement with the regime.

Elsewhere, ICG has used a report by an unnamed local NGO that was released within 24 hours of the November 2010 polls. While admitting the obvious – that the playing field heavily favoured the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party – the ICG analysts approvingly highlight the report’s preliminary finding that ‘the vote was peaceful, and in most places few polling irregularities were reported on the day’. While framing the source of the report as ‘an independent and politically neutral local association’ whose reporting was ‘based on observations by 175 volunteer observers in many different parts of the country who had been trained in international standards on election observation methodologies,’ ICG does not appear even to have glanced at elections data collected by dissident organisations. Between November 2010 and January 2011, 10 such election reports were issued and are readily available on the Internet. Needless to say, whatever the provenance of the unnamed local NGO that ICG used as its sole source, there is no organisation anywhere in Burma that can be truthfully described as ‘independent and politically neutral’.

Strategically sunny
ICG appears to be trying to make a meal out of Burma’s ‘post-election landscape’, just as it did out of the November elections, as the only pragmatic way forward. Sham or not, the elections have resulted in ‘significant shift in power dynamics’, it asserts. The group’s cardinal analytical sin is in privileging changes in form over the substance of ultimate control over the levers of power – that is, the country’s key security apparatuses, kleptocratic economy, revenue flows and budget, and foreign affairs. What the think tank emphatically characterises as Gen Than Shwe’s ‘exit strategy’ is nothing unfamiliar for the Burmese public, who continue to reel from the old model of transition from the direct military rule of the Revolutionary Council government (1962-74) to the ‘civilianised’ military dictatorship called the Burma Socialist Programme Party. In spite of all these new forms and structures, at its core and in its nature, Ne Win’s rule remained despotic, kleptocratic, erratic and, ultimately, ruinous.

To justify its optimism, the report identifies ‘five key elements’, in which it prophesies significant changes in underlying power dynamics. Let us examine each in turn:

Generational transition: Every Burmese knows the days of Than Shwe, now 79, are numbered. But unlike the ICG analysts, the masses of Burma are not hopeful that, under the next generation of military rulers, ‘decision-making will be less ad hoc, less idiosyncratic, potentially more coherent and possibly more effective.’ More to the point, the Crisis Group fails to give any evidence whatsoever as to why the new generation of military leadership would begin making decisions that are ‘less idiosyncratic, potentially more coherent and possibly more effective’, much less begin to think about how to ‘address some of the longstanding problems of the country’. On the contrary, a retired general has remarked that the up-and-coming military leaders are more eager to ‘get to the buffet table than address the needs of the public and the country.’

Diffusion of state power: ICG attaches much political significance to the formal separation of powers, crediting ‘the architects of the new constitutional system’ with having carefully ‘ensure[d] that no individual or power centre can become all-powerful.’ In fact, such an assessment was quickly rendered moot, when the senior leadership revealed that it has made reported attempts to create extra-constitutional bodies such as the Supreme State Council. Further, even before the legislature sat, the regime passed a new national budget of nearly USD 8.5 billion, nearly a quarter of which is for expansion of the military and security sectors. Finally, the regime enacted new legislation that allows the head of the military to access an extra-constitutional special fund without any oversight from Parliament.

Decentralisation: The ICG report excitedly observes that, ‘for the first time, legislative and executive power in Myanmar are partly decentralised … Even if the structures remain authoritarian, local decisions will be taken by the people from the area … The impact of this change will be felt most strongly in some of the ethnic states.’ While extolling the virtues of the new local structures and their promise for greater ethnic representation, ICG analysts chose not to make even obligatory mention of the regime’s electoral disenfranchisement of virtually all politically significant multi-ethnic minority populations during the recent polls. Further, ICG fails to explain how new local political figures will be allowed to evolve into local champions of their own ethnic constituencies.

Role of the military: While observing correctly that ‘beyond the considerable influence of the commander-in-chief, constitutional and legislative steps have been taken [by the regime] to secure the military’s position and autonomy of action in the new context’, the report fails to characterise the new constitutional military dictatorship for what it is. In fact, this is a military apartheid in which military affairs and personnel are above civil law. In response to critics of the regime, ICG concedes that these steps are designed to ‘perpetuate military influence’. But it also notes that while ‘many ex-military officers have assumed key legislative and executive posts, overall the changes curtail significantly the institutional role of the armed forces.’ For Burmese who lived through the transition of the Revolutionary Council government to the Burma Socialist Programme Party government, however, this is déjà vu all over again.

Continued influence of Than Shwe: In its report, ICG declares that ‘the challenge facing Than Shwe is … to maintain behind-the-scenes influence’, which it characterises as ‘notoriously difficult’. In fact, as noted earlier, within two weeks of the report’s publication Than Shwe had already done so, with the creation of the all-powerful extra-constitutional inner circle of militarists. Today, 25 years after Ne Win’s dictatorship collapsed, the military is quietly acquiescing to the surface changes that ICG considers ‘significant’. The entire military, after all, is comfortable in the knowledge that Than Shwe is creating a constitutional military apartheid that will serve their interests for the foreseeable future.


Ultimately, the junta’s institutionalised view on civil-military relations is summed up in a single phrase: reconsolidation of power. ICG claims to find cause for optimism in the entry into the government of two civilian technocrats and two business cronies, heading the new cabinet’s education, health, tourism and industrial development ministries. But even Ne Win’s cabinet and politbureau back in 1974 could boast far more capable technocrats and civilian professionals, trained at a host of top-tier US and European universities. In 2011, a sprinkle of pliable technocrats and cronies in the midst of 30 formerly high-ranking military officers hardly represents progress. Equally important, ICG fails to see the significance of the fact that the entire cabinet is made up of members of the dominant groups, ethnic Baman Buddhists against the backdrop of politically restive ethnic diversity.

For a global think tank that perceives itself as the world’s ‘eyes and ears’ to miss out on some of the most fundamental elements of Burma’s post-election, there can be only three interpretations. ICG is professionally incompetent, at least insofar as its Burma reporting is concerned; it is intellectually dishonest or ideologically driven; or it is all three. Whatever one’s conclusion, it is clear that the International Crisis Group is in deep intellectual crisis.

Maung Zarni is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science and founder of the Free Burma Coalition. His staff page: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/globalGovernance/aboutUs/people/muangZarni/maungZarni.aspx

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