The Seven Sins of the Latest ICG Burma Report

“Myanmar: Major Reform Underway,” a report released on Sept. 22 by the International Crisis Group (ICG or the Crisis Group), the world’s best known think tank on crises, brims with hope, optimism and future possibilities.

For news coming out of Burma is grim most of the time.

Generally, Burma news is about the pockets of near-famine, widespread sub-Sahara-like conditions of life, the world’s longest smoldering civil war, the break-downs of fragile ceasefires, the use of convicts as “human mine sweepers,” new influxes of war-fleeing refugees, environmental degradation, massive public asset transfers to the generals and cronies in the name of privatization, or Burma’s corruption level ranked next to Somalia. This doesn’t even include the more distant but equally disturbing news items like the slaughter of peaceful Buddhist monks in 2007 and blocking of assistance and emergency relief supplies to Cyclone Nargis victims in 2008.

So any news and reports about something good and positive happening, or about to happen, to the peoples and communities we the Burmese exiles left behind for activism, makes our hearts leap.

Last Friday, Myanmar: Major Reform Underway did make me sit up and read. But once I got past the title I realized the report suffers such fundamental shortcomings in its understanding of the Burma crises—note the plural here—that it is not a credible basis either for the exiles’ excitement or any serious international policy discussions.

Here is my short list of seven fundamental sins the ICG report committed.

First, the report’s selection of sources has itself done great damage to its own credibility, and that of the commissioning Crisis Group. It was more than evident that the Crisis Group did not consult with sources that would most provide the intelligence which would contradict or invalidate the report’s sweeping claims about “major reform” in Burma. Nowhere in the 15-page text of the report did the Crisis Group indicate that it entertained, even as a matter of analytical possibility, alternative interpretations of things that the report characterized as part of “major reform.”

The ICG report repeated and amplified President Thein Sein’s offer of peace to the armed ethnic minority resistance groups, active and ceasefire, having gleaned it from the state media and official transcripts. And yet the Crisis Group’s “field research” didn’t deem it necessary to include any information as to how that “presidential peace offer” has been received by the armed groups.

Even if the Crisis Group researcher(s) considers it personally unsafe to travel to the country’s civil war zones, the border towns such as Laiza in Kachin State or Mae Sot in Thailand are accessible. In addition, directly peace-relevant views of the armed resistance organizations—such as the Karen National Union and the Kachin Independence Organization—are only a Google search away.

The Crisis Group forced on its Burma readers the conclusion that it doesn’t want to give minorities’ views vis-à-vis the Burmese military’s policy platform on this vital issue of Burma’s smoldering civil war.

Second, on matters as grave and well-documented as pervasive human rights violations and “war crimes,” the Crisis Group paid lip service while emphatically disapproving UN-sponsored fact-finding through a Commission of Inquiry.

Unsurprisingly, the ICG report mentioned only once the Human Rights Watch in connection with its report on Burma’s “use of convicts” in the military campaigns—at footnote 71 (out of 79 in total). Nor did the ICG consider Amnesty International’s intervention at the last Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva this March in support of the COI important enough to merit even a single mention throughout its report.

Third, on the country’s approximately 2,000 reported “prisoners of conscience,” a long-standing issue of domestic and international policy importance considered a key litmus test of the generals’ will to reform, it even disputed that number compiled by the Burmese-run Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, the main clearinghouse which assists groups like the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

Fourth, the Crisis Group obviously prides itself on putting out “field research”-based reports on the existing crisis situations, or those pregnant with crises around the world. But reading Myanmar: Major Reform Underway, any professional researcher with a modicum of standards would be left wondering what actually constitutes “field research” for the Crisis Group, without the group talking to real people on the streets, or communities across the country’s active and smoldering civil war zones of eastern and northern Burma.

The Crisis Group report gives an unambiguous impression that its Burma “field research” is little more than quoting from official state media and presidential speeches and conversations with international diplomats and UN officials, conceivably in luxury hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants as well as government offices in Bangkok, Jakarta, Washington and New York. The Crisis Group sprinkled its report with such puffed up characterizations of its chosen sources in Rangoon as "well-placed individuals in Myanmar," "well-informed Myanmar individuals," "recent visitors to Aung San Suu Kyi” and “people who have had multiple encounters with and spent a lot of time with President (Thein Sein).”

Talking to local commercial elites and presidential technocrats and bar-chatting with “recent visitors” to Aung San Suu Kyi is a useful method of information gathering, but nothing like hearing straight from the horses’ mouths, either the Lady or the generals.

Fifth, the Crisis Group was interested only in gathering corroborating evidence for its long-standing anti-sanctions stance. I am with the ICG on its anti-sanctions stance, providing that the generals engage in the give-and-take of international politics, rather than cry out for an international policy blank check (such as development assistance, loans, normalization, legitimacy, etc). As a matter of fact, I was the first Burmese dissident who openly broke rank with Aung San Suu Kyi for her continued endorsement of blanket sanctions, and I did so as early as 2003, at a time when it was politically and personally inconvenient for many of the latter-day anti-sanctions advocates, Burmese and foreigners.

That aside, Aung San Suu Kyi has acquired her worldwide fame as the staunchest advocate of dialogue. She and her NLD leaders would, no doubt, have welcomed an honest conversation with the ICG while ICG was doing field research in Rangoon. Maybe the ICG already knew she and her colleagues weren’t going to give any corroborating oral evidence for the ICG’s long-standing anti-sanctions “field research.” When she was quoted it was to buttress the Crisis Group’s claim major change is underway.

The Crisis Group was also unable to secure opportunities to conduct its field research in Naypyidaw where the buck stops, or speak with crucial ranking military officers who hold the real levers of power. “Senior Myanmar diplomat involved in negotiations” on the generals’ bid for the Association of Southeast Nations’ chair in 2014 simply just doesn’t cut any ice in Burmese politics. Not even the Foreign Minister dares issuing important humanitarian visas without a nod from behind the military’s curtain.

Sixth, on matters of utmost importance to Burma’s people and their collective future—that is, the military, its thinking, its modus operandi and its intra-military inner workings—the Crisis Group finds itself not only without access to the decision-making generals, but out of its intellectual and analytical depth.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Rangoon better qualified to shed light on the Burmese military and military-related affairs than Win Htein, a DSA-5 (class of 1963) graduate and a personal close friend of Vice Senior Maung Aye, who also spent nearly 20 years in jail as prisoner of conscience. And yet the Crisis Group chose not to avail itself to Win Htein’s intimate knowledge of his “once mother organization,” where he served as a key personal staff officer to ex-General Tin Oo, the then Defense Minister and now NLD Chair.

The Crisis Group’s analytical and interpretative capabilities regarding the key organization of power in Burma, namely the military, have significantly been hampered as a result of the extremely selective way it went about conducting in-country “field research.” It was more than evident that the ICG’s field research on Burma was solely about sifting and finessing empirical evidence to fit the ICG’s predetermined policy template.

The result was the Crisis Group was unable to offer any shred of evidence or explanation as to what really is the power base of President Thein Sein, whom the report “bigged up” in terms of his stature, vision and political will. Never mind that this ex-general, considered “thick” by dissident military officers who worked with him in the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense, spent half of his career at the desk.

The soft-spoken and mild-manner ex-general Thein Sein may be presentable to international diplomats and local commercial elites, but he has no power base inside the military, the government’s backbone since 1962.

Unable to decipher the military, the ICG tucked away the single most important issue in Burmese politics, economy and society, as well as her foreign relations, on page 6 of its 15-page report—the “the constitutional and de facto independence of the military.”

Even then this unquestioned constitutional primacy was mentioned only in passing, while the report spilled inordinate quantity of ink on the symbolisms—for instance, the bigger physical size of the Central Bank of Myanmar vis-à-vis that of the Ministry of Finance, the reappearance of a photograph of the martyred Aung San on the presidential office wall and the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s utterly innocent, brief travel essay in a Burmese langue publication.

Perhaps the Crisis Group erroneously thinks Thein Sein’s base is a mixture of the regime’s cronies and the puffed-up presidential advisors. The truth is Thein Sein’s advisers are completely intellectually neutered and “major reforms” are inconceivable without confronting head-on the military’s class rule and the generals’ pursuit of greed, delusions and paranoia.

At the root of any reform is a fundamental shift in power. In a country such as Burma where the military as the killing machine and surveillance-torture apparatus, ex-generals pushing for reforms, however genuine, have absolutely no chance without the backing of regional commanders and those who hold strategic posts.

The ICG really has nothing concrete, insightful or policy-relevant to say about the military’s vested class interests, how those are going to manifest themselves in “Myanmar’s major reform” which the Crisis Group asserts is underway, and how junior generals, who can’t wait to get their turn at the buffet table, can be persuaded to voluntarily permit external curbs and control over the generals’ half-century of extra-judicial, and since the new government was formed and the 2008 Constitution went into effect, constitutional right to rule Burma.

Seventh and finally, the ICG engaged in excessive self-referencing in backing up its assertions and claims. The act of referring to one’s previous written work is a valid professional practice among researchers whose work is original, as humanly objective as possible and has lasting validity. But the problem is the ICG’s analyses in the past have proven to have a valid shelf life of less than 6 months.

Only 6 months ago, the ICG was speaking with an intimidating air of authority in itsMyanmar’s Post-Election Landscape (released March 7). On page one of the report, the ICG stated:

“Predictably, in such a tightly controlled poll, the regime’s own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a landslide victory leaving the military elite still in control…. The new government that has been formed, and which will assume power in the coming weeks, also reflects the continued dominance of the old order with the president and one of the two vice presidents drawn from its ranks and a number of cabinet ministers recycled. These changes are unlikely to translate into dramatic reform s in the short term, but they provide a new governance context, improving the prospects for incremental reform.”

Granted that policy analyses and field reports are not based on rocket science, but primarily interpretative exercises, the ICG Burma reports’ short-lived empirical validity calls into question the Crisis Group’s intellectual contributions to the international Burma policy discussions.

However, producing analyses of lasting quality doesn’t appear to be the Crisis Group’s concern on Burma, obviously. For whatever the changing content of its analyses, it keeps beating its policy drum with the same tune from its Burma hymn book: embrace the generals, in skirts or in uniform, unconditionally; drop any punitive measures; and reward them with loans, grants, technical assistance and recognition.

The ultimate question the public in Burma need to ask the Crisis Group is this: “whose interests is your “Myanmar” reporting designed to serve?

Dr Zarni ( is a columnist for the Irrawaddy and visiting fellow in the Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science 

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