Sanctions Have Nothing to Do With Human Rights in Burma

1. Are countries moving too quickly to remove sanctions on Myanmar?

This is a question that I find difficult to answer for two reasons: first, I was one of the few dissidents and only one who publicly called for the removal of sanctions – to the displeasure of ASSK and the senior leadership of the NLD – as early as 2004; and second, I remain torn about the strategic value of the sanctions regime in pushing for change.

That said, the removal of the sanctions on Myanmar has less to do with the actual democracy and peace dividends that are accruing from the ascension to office of the “new” quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein; but rather more to do with western governments’ felt need to realign their strategic ties in Asia against the backdrop of China’s rise in power, wealth and assertiveness.

So, seen in this light, the swift attempts by Canberra, Washington, Brussels, Ottawa, London, etc to remove the Burma sanctions regime are not surprising. Just as the imposition of sanctions was done out of domestic political expediency – Burma was for the past 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall was a cost-free human rights showcase for the West that satisfy domestic pro-human rights constituencies in the West – so was the swift removal, or “suspicion”, of the sanctions carried out, for western strategic gains and out of strategic calculations.

Sanctions have, in the final instance, little or nothing to do with the fact that the Burmese are oppressed and persecuted by the regime in Naypyidaw.

There are western allies and/or business partners whose human rights records are equally appalling – Israel, Egypt under Mubarak, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, etc., as well as China and Vietnam – and these countries aren’t subject to any sanctions.

2. Should the world community do more to protect Burma’s ethnic minorities?

Absolutely, yes. The world community should pay as equal an attention to the persecuted ethnic minorities in Burma as it does to Aung San Suu Kyi. Surely, Aung san Suu Kyi’s personally heroic and inspirational tale of an Oxford-educated, media-genic daughter of Burma’s martyred independence leader, with an accent posher than the British Queen’s, giving up her family for her country, makes a better read, or viewing, than the most tragic tales of hundreds of thousands of faceless, nameless ethnic minority communities that have suffered myriad forms of atrocities which continue on unabated.

There are more films, including the Hollywoodized version her life, in “The Lady”, elevating the Burmese Nobel prize winner to the super-human level, than there are films and news about the most tragic tale of ethnic minorities being maimed, raped, driven away from their communities, hunted down like fugitives and otherwise destroyed.

There is something fundamentally pathetic and pathological about this utter imbalance of the world’s focus in terms of the Lady and the oppressed masses of Burma.

3. Will the military modify their hold on power enough to allow a democracy?

The military will modify their hold on power just enough to make sure that the pent-up, popular anger, frustration and hatred doesn’t reach the boiling point, again.

No military in the world is known to have led the democratization process and succeeded in recorded political history of mankind; no military will ever be able to defy this history.

Militaries all over the world, with no exception, are totalitarian in their institutional, professional, ideological and cultural orientations. Democracies are open-systems. Fundamentally, the military mindset (and institutional practices) and democratization are simply irreconcilable.

Burma’s history of the past half century (1962-2012) of military rule speaks volume about whether or not the military will be able to democratize Burma.

In 1962, the coup staged by the late General Ne Win wasn’t simply motivated by personal ambitions and desire for power alone although these were important factors at work. The coup in 1962 was triggered by the military’s conclusion that they could do a better job in building a socialist welfare state and holding a multiethnic society together than the squabbling civilian nationalists, then the post-independence parliamentarians under PM U Nu.

In a quarter century, the military-built socialist state collapsed, with only the military as the main pillar of this state, stood erect at the time of the great uprisings in 1988. Now the military is pursuing what it thinks and tells the world ‘democratization’; this is so not because it has realized ,come to appreciate, has internalized democracy as a way of life, a mindset, a political behavior and a messy but worthwhile process in building rule-based, fair-political system, but rather because it feels not just Aung San Suu Kyi and the dissidents but it too can build a democracy in Burma.

Of course, the problem is the men in green uniform in the Burmese military have never appreciated, studied, practiced or advocated democracy as a way of life or a political system of self-governance.

Quite the contrary, these men have only trained in and excelled at obeying and issuing orders, right or wrong, at great societal cost.

It is impossible to have any confidence in the military leading this process, single-handedly, with the parasitical role of technocrats, economists and advisers notwithstanding.

I have not seen any empirical evidence of the military men successfully building democracies anywhere in the world and during any period in history. Burmese generals and ex-generals, not known for their intellect or democratic ethos, will never be the ones who defy the history of democratization by becoming the first successful military-democratizers.

4. What is your long-range (10-20 years) outlook for Burma?

In the next 10-20 years, Burma will certainly be stuck in the political “twilight zone” – something Thomas Carother of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington points out about most former colonies which attempt to democratize over the past 50 years. It will be neither crudely military rule nor a democracy, if democracy is to be defined as ‘the government of, for and by people’. The economy will remain firmly in the grip of the generals, ex-generals, their cronies and foreign interests. The environmental decay will speed up, with the country opening up to massive foreign investment, especially by the global natural resource exploitative industries and venture capitalists who only see Burma as nothing more than a ‘brothel of raw materials’ and exploitable resources such as energy, minerals, forest products and agricultural produce. Sectarian strife will continue as there is no reconciliation effort worthy of its name at the national level and there is no educational effort to liberalize the illiberal society and cultures along humanistic and democratic lines.

Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to live to see the flowering of democracy. Even if she lives on to see genuine democratic change – the way Mandela did with the collapse of the apartheid and the new era of racial equality, at least in theory and at the level of institutions – democracy in Burma will likely be a hollow one, given that most public assets, valuable commons such as waterways, mines, forests, sea ports, transportation arteries and hubs, agricultural land, etc. will have been sold off to both domestic interests and foreign firms from western democracies, in addition to Asian firms.

In 20 years from today, Burmese citizens will most likely find it difficult to appreciate democracy and the hard-won political franchise, because there remains, they will realize, nothing economically or environmentally valuable left which are worth voting for!

Dr. Maung Zarni is member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press.

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