Pulling No Punches, Irrawaddy Interviews Zarni

The Irrawaddy recently interviewed Zarni, a former Burmese activist who founded the Free Burma Campaign in the US and led the successful PepsiCo/ Burma boycott that resulted in Pepsi cutting all ties with the Burmese regime in 1997. He now lives in England where his research at Oxford University is focused on Burma’s political and economic developments. 

Zarni pulled no punches as he spoke candidly to The Irrawaddy about Than Shwe’s crimes against humanity, the futility of Asean, the spineless West and the Burmese regime’s madness, delusions and fears.

Question: What is your take on the Burmese regime's slow response to the cyclone disaster in the Irrawaddy delta? 

Answer: I hold an unequivocal view that the senior leader’s decision—choosing to ignore the cries of 2 million victims, stopping his deputies from mobilizing and sending theTatmadaw (armed forces) to help with relief operations, and obstructing international aid efforts at the most crucial time—amounts to crimes against humanity. 

We will never know how many victims died or will die needlessly as a result of the leadership’s criminal behavior. 

Both domestically and globally, Than Shwe is widely believed to have obstructed relief efforts. The Burmese navy itself—and its personnel and families—suffered enormously as a result of the storm. His decision may have killed not only civilians but families of the Tatmadaw as well. 

We clearly have an absolute dictatorship in place in our country. He who holds the greatest power is most responsible for anything that happens under his watch. Despots can’t claim ignorance to get away with their crimes and failures. 

Q: What is the role of General Shwe Mann, number three man in the ruling council? Initially, there were rumors that he was mobilizing troops for a relief mission that was called off. 

A: Sen-Gen Than Shwe is said to have stopped Gen Shwe Mann from mobilizing troops for relief operations. Obviously, Shwe Mann is not in a position to do the right thing, which would have been to either reason with his boss or simply defy this malicious order to let the victims fend for themselves—at a time when they desperately needed rescue and relief efforts. 

Q: What is your assessment of soldiers and officers in the armed forces? Are they unhappy with this ongoing national crisis and how the top leadership is mishandling the whole thing? 

A: The rank and file members are extremely dejected and insecure about their jobs and their future. They suffer economic hardships themselves. Many of them do not believe in the lofty ideas of the “Three National Causes” or the “Roadmap to Democracy.” They are painfully aware of the public disdain, hatred and disgust to which they are subjected to in their daily encounters. 

Many want to leave the army, but at the same time feel trapped because the Tatmadaw is the only means of livelihood they have. But they all feel powerless, caught in an entrenched state structure which is based on absolute loyalty, ruthless punishment and select incentives. 

The Tatmadaw’s rank and file members are not the problem—the power structure and the leadership that sits at its head are the real problem. As a society, as a people, as pro-change dissidents, we need to distinguish between needing to dismantle this dictatorial system from hating the soldiers, the human beings who are unfortunately caught in it. They are just like you and me—decent family men with similar daily survival needs. 

Q: The regime's Foreign Minister Nyan Win attended the Asean meeting in Singapore on May 19 and gave permission for the regional bloc to lead the aid mission. Is this a breakthrough? 

A: To be very blunt, Asean is really just a club of generally un-enlightened regimes, headed by autocrats, feudalists, state-paternalists and militarists—all sharing the worst strain of pathetic “Asian” paternalism.








It is simply guided by soul-less technocracy and commercial interests. They hang together out of a well-known, deep-seated fear of powerful China. This club has no roots in civil society nor is it influenced by any worthy human or societal values. As far as the collective welfare of Southeast Asian peoples goes, you can’t expect much from this set-up. 

Regarding the Asean secretary-general’s visit to Burma, Dr Surin Pitsuwan is a highly educated and thoughtful liberal politician. I met and talked with him some years ago and he is a very impressive Asian democrat with his heart in the right place. Anyone with his stature, knowledge of Burma and involvement from interacting with second-line Burmese military leaders is to be welcomed. 

But because of Asean’s futility as a regional group—not to mention its failures to affect any policy or behavioral change on the part of the Burmese regime over the past 11 years—I am not sure what Dr Pitsuwan could accomplish in concrete terms at the moment.

That said, the Asean’s involvement in the current Burma crisis is, in effect, a clear capitulation on the part of the regime which uses “sovereignty” as an excuse to keep any external players at bay—on issues which it considers to be Burma’s “internal affairs.”

Furthermore, the cyclone-induced human and political disaster forced the timid Asean to essentially suspend its irresponsible, long-standing dogma of “non-interference.” 

These are both good developments. But I wouldn’t call it a breakthrough or “a turning point.” 

Q: So, is the regime’s leadership in crisis? It has to find friends and allies as it faces this national crisis, and its major ally, China, is preoccupied with its own catastrophe: an earthquake on the eve of the Beijing Olympics?

A: I would most certainly say “Yes.” You only need to take a close look at the nature of the regime in power and the pathological ways in which it exercises its power over the people. 

These types of authoritarian regimes—with too much power, too little competence and no compassion for their people—periodically self-destruct. Out of delusion and through excessive fear of their loss of power and control, these regimes invent enemies where none exists. 

Tragically, neither the generals nor the rank and file appear to comprehend that they have become their own greatest enemy—not the people, not the West, not the international NGOs. Once they realize this, they won’t need the protection from outside powers such as China or Russia. 

Q: What do you think the role of China is in all this mess?

A: The Chinese have been holding their Burmese “little brother’s hand,” in the international arena. But even Beijing is said to be deeply frustrated with the regime’s intransigence, madness and utter incompetence. 

I think the Chinese may have told the Burmese regime to let the Asean coordinate humanitarian aid deliveries or else they would no longer keep defending the indefensible or keep the West at bay. 

Evidently, the Burmese regime is copycatting the way the Chinese leadership and armed forces are handling the aftermath of the earthquake—for example, by declaring a three-day mourning period or flying flags at half-mast. All empty gestures. 

In short, China is the single greatest threat to our national interests and will remain so, as long as the military regime is unable to address citizens’ grievances and needs or build internal unity. A divided house is prone to external threats. 

Q: Could you share your observation of the West and its reaction to Burma? 

A: The Western public has been genuinely outraged by the inhumane manner in which the regime has responded to the cries and needs of the cyclone victims. Also there is a general consensus emerging—across all ideological spectra—that the Burmese regime is committing major crimes against humanity and therefore needs to go, even if it means military intervention, with or without the UN Security Council’s endorsement of such a radical action. 

But the problem is a lack of serious political will in the decision-making circles—the White House, Whitehall, etc. Burma is not really an issue of strategic interest for Western powers. 

Q: Do you think the West is being hypocritical about Burma since they have no interest in Burma? France, the US and Britain sent warships but are waiting to get the regime’s permission.




Is sovereignty still an issue? 

A: Sovereignty doesn’t exist where oil or gas is—unless you are quite advanced in your plutonium enrichment program! 

The greatest irony is that Western governments—Washington and London in particular—have exhausted their military and financial resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, so when they really are presented with a case wherein they can realize their humanistic values they don’t have the will, the spine or the resources left. 

You hear a lot of huffing and puffing from George W. Bush and Gordon Brown, as well as all kinds of verbal condemnations of the Burmese regime from the West—but no meaningful, concrete political action. 

The only Western government that has really attempted to do something audacious is the French, especially their attempt to rally international support for invoking the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle. 

You may recall that, a few years ago, Britain invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for oil and strategic interests based on “sexed-up” intelligence reports, in the face of massive popular opposition. 

Now, in spite of the swell of popular and media calls for “humanitarian intervention” in Burma, the Brown government has failed miserably to live up to its responsibility to act in the face of a clear-cut act of “malign neglect”—British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s choice of words. 

The greatest irony is that Miliband used the occasion of the Aung San Suu Kyi lecture at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in February to reclaim Britain’s moral duty to promote democracy and human rights around the world and argue that, in some cases, military intervention may even be necessary. He needs to put his money where his mouth is.

Beware. There is a lot of hot air coming from these Western governments. Like I said, oil and strategic interests are what dictate Western policies, not their professed liberal values. All the talk of humanism or humanitarianism is just for public relations. 

Q: Why are some INGOS (international non-government organizations) and UN agencies willing to work with the regime and appease the regime? Several NGOs
and Burmese on the Thai border say that there has been an ongoing smear campaign launched by some of the Western donors, agencies and diplomats to discredit IDPs (internally displaced persons) and refugees, as well as the opposition and Burmese living along the Thai-Burmese border. Is this part of a campaign to stop aid flowing into the border area and sever cross-border assistance?

A: Yes, there are NGOs and individuals from the NGO community whose behavior borders on appeasement. But in general, I wouldn’t say the UN agencies and NGOs are appeasing the regime. I think there is a lot of bad blood and misunderstanding between those who view their primary mission as providing aid to the border-based refugees and those who work inside the country where the conditions are equally or even more dire. Many UN agencies and INGOs inside—despite their shortcomings—are engaged in extremely helpful community-building activities, no less pro-change and pro-people than the NGOs and dissident organizations on the border. 

That said, there exists a web of extremely unequal power relations between aid-receiving local populations, dissidents, and Western NGOs and Western governments. If I were someone working on aid issues I would seek complementary relations as opposed to creating more misunderstandings and contestations. I don’t think cross-border aid and direct in-country aid are mutually exclusive. That’s the key to building alliances across borders and organizations. 

Q: You were a prominent activist who founded the Free Burma Campaign in the US, lobbied very hard and called for sanctions on the regime. You have changed your 
position since then. 

Also, when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, you supported calls for invoking the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine in Burma. How do you see yourself these days?

A: I simply see myself as someone who pursues change in our country single-mindedly. I am not wedded to any ideology, strategy, viewpoint, analysis or organization. 

My role model is the late Bogyoke Aung San, who zigzagged his way to change in Burma, irrespective of applause or condemnation. When the on-the-ground reality changes, I change my analysis and my advocacy. I never rule anything out, violent or peaceful, legal or illegal, conventionally moral or immoral. The only thing I care about is that the status quo in our country changes, and that it changes for the better.



It was not the cyclone that caused my change of view from pro-engagement to pro-humanitarian intervention or whatever form it takes. It is the callous behavior of the regime’s leadership that pushed its political agenda over the massive suffering of our people that has compelled me to advocate humanitarian intervention. I have lost faith in finding any ounce of compassion or virtue in this regime, especially among the decision makers. 

I am not an extremist nor do I take extreme positions. At the height of our pro-sanctions campaign in the US, sanctions were a perfectly mainstream position advocated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. From Day one of my pro-engagement advocacy, I have categorically advocated that both the regime and society need to be engaged—not just engagement with the regime, which I think really amounts to appeasement. I also made it clear to the regime leadership that I am neither their man abroad nor a lackey of the West nor a blind follower of any dissident leader or organization. 

Now I chime in on the side of those who want to invoke the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine or humanitarian intervention because the suffering on the ground is massive and the regime leadership responded with extraordinarily mad behavior—holding this referendum on the graves of at least 70,000 Burmese cyclone victims. 

* Zarni is currently developing an online educational resource for his compatriots—military or civilian, Burman or other nationalities, in exile or within Burma—who are hungry for ideas and analyses. He told us it is not quite ready for launch, but it can be viewed at http://www.pyinnya.com








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