The Virtues of Careful Engagement

As a dissident who openly turned his back on sanctions and, since 2003, has attempted engagement with the junta, albeit with little or no success, I welcome US Sen. Jim Webb's highly publicized visit to my native country.

In spite of my own failures in practicing "diplomacy without license," I can see virtues in a carefully developed engagement approach which compliments and strengthens—as opposed to undermines and contradicts—Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition and ethnic minority resistance.

However, there are serious historical, analytical and empirical issues that need to be addressed if Washington's efforts at engagement with the regime are going to contribute concretely to both moving Burma's domestic politics forward and the economic betterment of our people. Not many analysts, Burmese or foreigner, pushing for engagement have yet raised these vital issues.

Some kind of self-censorship is prevalent among the writers and analysts who are currently pushing for engagement with the regime for fear of reprisal or in exchange for entry visas.

Instead, some of my fellow “engagers” are getting ahead of themselves. They sound increasingly preachy in their analyses and shrill with their pushes for engagement.

I didn’t just advocate engagement. I walked the walk. I gave up my US asylum voluntarily and returned home to Burma, having left my 5-year-old daughter in California in her American mother’s care. In good faith, I tried to work on both confidence building measures and more substantive issues, with both Gen Khin Nyunt’s camp, and,
post-2004 purge, with those who were responsible for his demise, for almost a decade.

While pro-sanctions dissidents and political NGOs obstinately refuse to acknowledge that China, India, Thailand and Russia, with their vested Burma interests, will not heed their pro-democracy calls, the engagers fail to recognize that the military regime has absolutely no desire to reconcile in any meaningful way with political opposition parties, dissidents or groups.

The regime may be likened to a clever fish which has learned to eat the bait around the hook.

If Western engagement with the military is to contribute to the Burmese opposition's uphill battle for genuine democratic and economic change, its overriding rationale cannot be Washington's needs to contain the growing power of capitalist China.

If Webb's push for "engagement" is for the normalization of US-Burma bilateral relations on the basis of a mutual fear of capitalist China, then sooner or later Washington will begin to treat the genuine process of democratization—Aung San Suu Kyi and 2,100 dissidents behind bars as well as oppressed and downtrodden ethnic communities in Burma's low intensity war zones—as an afterthought at best and an obstacle in pursuit of US commercial and strategic interests at worst. Where Washington goes, other Western interests will follow.

A clash of serious interests, rationales and values is already on the horizon.

While the generals are reportedly hailing the senator's red-carpeted visit as a "success," Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be the odd man out in this potentially new strategic equation between the two capitals.

For she has made it clear to the senator that she did not share his (and Washington's) view of China as a hostile power next door to Burma, but rather a "friendly one." Her stance on the Sino-Burmese relations will also wreak havoc with some of the high profile Burmese opinion makers who openly push for engagement with Washington, in particular, and the West in general. 

For example, in his recent Washington Post essay "Let's talk to the Generals, China sure Is" (August 16), Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the late UN Secretary-General U Thant, argued "without Western engagement, however, Burma's 55 million people risk becoming a virtual colony of their 1.3 billion Chinese neighbors…"

Having lived a quarter century of my life under Ne Win's regime that cleverly exploited Western Containment policies, it worries me that "we the people" will be sold down the river again by Washington, especially since I learned first-hand Burmese democracy or human rights has never really been a serious US or Western policy goal, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

During my first-hand involvement in building the sanctions campaign, I became painfully aware of the fact that none of the Western powers, US, UK, France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Germany and the European Union would ever forego their energy interests out of Burma, in spite of their loud denunciation of the Chinese, the Indian, the Russian and the Asean business interests in exactly the same natural resource extractive sector.

Cynically, Nicholas Sarkozy's France consistently takes a hard-line stance on Burma at various international forums, including the Security Council, in order to preempt criticisms of France because of the multi-billion dollar energy interest in Burma via its national gas and oil firm Total. While three US presidents have ritualistically renewed the existing Burma sanctions every year since 1998, the American oil giant Chevron continues to pump gas and repatriate dollars back to its headquarters in Richmond, California, uninterrupted. 

Small crumbs are thrown to Burmese communities near energy projects ostensibly out of "corporate social responsibility" while the lion's share goes to the generals who in turn are engaged, according to The Irrawaddy (“Burmese Generals' Goal: To Build the Strongest Army in South East Asia,” August 20), in enormously costly "weaponization" projects on 22 different sites across Burma, producing or planning to produce both conventional and non-conventional weapons, with help from South and North Korea, Singapore, China and Russia.

In the early days of the sanctions campaign when the Chinese or the Indians were not yet in a position to project their economic or political clout, Western policy makers and advisers would not help create greater sanctions leverage to level the uneven playing field for the non-violent opposition inside Burma, nor would they consider reinforcing the legitimate pillar of armed resistance in Burma's opposition movement. Meanwhile, the United States and its Western allies were bombing oil rich nations such as Iraq "back to the stone age" for the control of oil and strategic territory.

Disillusioned with the Suu Kyi-led mainstream opposition which treats sanctions as the only venue for change and convinced of the futility of staying the sanction course, I renounced my support for sanctions as early as 2003.

I want to outline six fundamental issues that need to be a part of any discussion about how to push for meaningful social change in Burma.

First, contrary to the current media and policy discourses which portray the Burmese regime as "isolated," neither the Burmese military nor its social base and business cronies are isolated from the post-Cold War world. It is in fact engaged in a process of "regressive globalization." 

How could a regime considered "isolated" receive solid military, economic and political support from the world's giants including Russia, China, and India, as well as a whole basket of Asian governments with varying clout—which also enjoys full economic engagement with the entire global natural resource extractive industry—not just state energy firms from Asian neighbors but also from multinationals from Australia, Canada, France, Italy and USA?

Second, the state in Burma is predatory and militarist in terms of its policy priorities, its institutional practices and its corporate worldview. Sen. Jim Webb was quoted as saying "(US economic) sanctions were the elephant in the room" which didn't get mentioned during his meeting with the junta head Than Shwe. Webb obviously failed to take note of the larger elephant—the predatory Burmese state and its militarist orientation. Empirically and historically, the state, in the hands of the generals since 1962, has vacuumed the country of all marketable natural resources much of which happen to be found in the ethnic minorities' ancestral land, confiscated a massive quantity of land, extracted labor from various pockets of population and viewed politics as an extension of war and military operations. Indeed both resource and ethnic colonialisms are in full swing in military-ruled Burma.

Third, the self-perception of the military leaders is deeply feudal and paternalistic to a fault: the officers, big and small, require their subordinates to view them as "Big Father" or "Small Father"—not "senior or junior general." The generals view themselves in the 
mold of the "Buddhist" warrior kings of the bygone centuries who rise to power—usually in blood baths and military conquests—is glorified out of proportions in Burmese nationalist historiography.

Fourth, the corporate worldview among the officer corps is uncompromisingly statist. Because they have captured all institutions of government, they embrace the absolutist notion of state sovereignty which in effect views the head of state, not the people, as the sovereign.

The result is the military which serves the sovereign leader feels no need to reconcile with any other organization in the country—not even with the most sacred segment of the Burmese society at large, namely Buddhist monks.

Fifth, those who think mere exposure of Burmese military officers to the West alone will change the illiberal character of the regime are suffering from historical amnesia, forgetting the role of the West in Ne Win's rise to power and the logistical, educational, technical and financial support the military institutions received from the West. Even in the heydays of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, it was to the West (US, UK and West Germany) where the greatest number of the state's scholars and military officers were sent for advanced training. And no general in Burma's modern history was more exposed to the West than General Ne Win: even after his second military coup in 1962, the general was welcome at the White House and was reportedly sipping tea with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He maintained a house in Wimbledon, played golf in Scotland, received annual medical check-ups in London, saw his psychotherapist in Vienna and stopped in Geneva to check his Swiss accounts!

Finally, Burma’s society at large is deeply illiberal. Let’s face it. We are an unmistakably hierarchical, intellectually intolerant, ethnically chauvinistic, semi-feudal lot. The ugly debates surrounding the plight of the Royhinga people in Western Burma, our overly personalized view of politics or the widespread social practice of privileging kinship and lineage over individual merits are only the tip of the cultural iceberg. Any attempts at social change will need to be fully cognizant of the illiberal features of the society, which will evolve only through sustained exposure to liberal cultures, ideas and societies in the region and globally.

Burma's problems are well-known and the atrocities well-documented. Un-strategically formulated sanction campaigns—of which I was a part—based on faulty assumptions about the role of human rights and democracy in Western foreign policies 20 years ago have created a situation where our Burmese people remain locked in poverty and oppression.

Another self-righteous push, out of "revolutionary pragmatism," to put the military in the driver's solo seat, again, for genuine reforms, despite its half-century of spectacular failures in nation building, will only further entrench the generals in power and politics. 

The current top-down elitist approach towards engagement is narrow in scope, ill-conceived and woefully uninformed about how repressive regimes, left or right, civilian or military, foreign or native, change their policies and behavior. It has no greater potential to either improve our people's lives or liberalize the country's domestic politics than does the orthodoxy of unilateral sanctions.

Dr. Zarni is a research fellow on Burma at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition.

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