Understanding the Changes in Burma

All the “dramatic” developments in Burma, including the release of 6,000-plus prisoners, are, as US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell put it, certainly welcome. Likewise, the man from the International Crisis Group was singing the praise of Naypyidaw on the BBC World Service News hour with Robin Lustig on 11 Oct .

And yet despite these loud applauses of “changes” in Burma, the Burmese public is finding it very, very difficult to feel hopeful.

Not even Burma’s highly regarded political comedian Zaganar could say he was happy in spite of his new found freedom today when he was released from Myitkyina jail where he was serving 34 years behind bars. He told the Burmese local Eleven Media Group before boarding the Rangoon-bound plane, "Based on my current experiences I dare not think changes are real and big this time either."

Time magazine quoted his remark to the Associate Press: "I am not happy at all, as none of my 14 so-called political prisoner friends from Myitkyina prison are among those freed today". 

So, how are we really to understand these much-trumpeted “changes” in Burma?

These changes do not include the change of heart among Burma’s rulers. They are in fact principally related to only two things.

First, the regime's felt need to realign its geopolitical interests.

The military’s uneasiness about its need to rely on China for international protection runs deep. Today China is also Burma’s number one foreign investor, all of it in mega-development, infrastructural and resource extractive projects.

And for Naypyidaw dealing with an increasingly aggressive, powerful and rich Beijing, without the backing of the West and the mainstream Burman public, is like fighting with one hand tied behind the back.

Tangible improvements on the human rights, political and development fronts are part of the price the generals have to pay to balance Beijing's growing influence.

Second, the generals and ex-generals have an acute desire to prove that they are not failures at nation-building, as the bulk of the Burmese public thinks. That’s understandable. The military has had nearly half a century to govern, develop and bring about peace and prosperity for all—not just themselves and their families. But they have turned the world’s rice basket into a basket case.

Hard facts on the ground speak louder than the military’s institutionalized fiction that the senior and junior generals vis-à-vis civilians are brilliant nation-builders. The generals’ Burma is ranked second to last, just ahead of Somalia, on Transparency International's Corruption Index. Public provision of health services exists only in name. There are no social safety nets. Period.

Public education, the largest provider of schooling, at all levels lies in ruin. Ninety-nine percent of university graduates don’t know what BA or BSc stands for, let alone how to spell Bachelor of Arts or Science correctly. And forget the home-grown PhDs.

This extremely low quality of human resources is not the exclusive problem of civilian educational and bureaucratic institutions. The bulk of the 4,000-plus graduates from the Defense Services Academy, the Defense Services Technological Academy and the Defense Services Medical Academy failed entrance examinations at Russian educational institutes where they were sent as “state scholars” under civilian disguise.

There are pockets of communities whose socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions are closer to those of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa than to those of an Asian country about to “take off” developmentally. Many spend more than 70 percent of their meager household income on food alone, while wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Chinese and a handful of cronies, who in part play the role of portfolio managers for the generals and ex-generals.

The country’s ecology and communities face serious threats to their survival from some mega-development projects such as dam construction—seven on the Irrawaddy, Burma’s Nile, alone—and the two major Chinese gas and oil pipelines and Thailand’s $13 billion Special Economic Zone construction in the country's far south.

Nearly one-million Muslims—Arakanese Muslims and Rohingya—are forced to live in semi-concentration camps in Arakan State. In the midst of economically rising Asia, the country produces the fifth largest refugee population in the world. The Burma Army is still waging military operations against armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union.
The generals’ offer of peace is largely motivated by their strategic plan to either split these groups or placate them momentarily. They should not be misunderstood as the generals’ “quest for peace and ethnic equality” or as a political solution to the non-Burman population's six decades of ethnic grievances and thwarted federalist aspirations.

While successive military governments have paid lip service to the country’s farmers, the bulk of the country’s population, the generals don’t have enough money to endow a national agricultural bank and a rural development fund. For the money is sucked into two dozen armament projects, including German-run fiber-optic networks and the assembly work of Made-in-N. Korea missile components, and buying several squadrons of state-of-the-art Russian Mi-G 29s and Mi-24 gunship helicopters.

But while Burma's erstwhile military rulers survey the ruins they have left as their legacy, one accomplishment serves to put their minds at ease: the institutionalized ruling ethos enshrined in the Nargis Constitution of 2008.

As the winds of change are said to be blowing the public in Burma, we should be asking some fundamental questions which will allow all of us to see these changes in their proper contexts.

Here is my favorite set of bench marks:

First, is the military weaning itself from its misguided view that it is the only institution capable of keeping the country together and developing her?

The emergence of formal institutions such as “Parliament,” the “presidency,” a “human rights commission,” and so on, is all well and fine. But they don’t mean a thing unless power relations between the military at all levels and the society at large, including the cronies and the legitimate businessmen and women, change along more egalitarian lines.

If Burma is to return to normalcy—after half a century of generals’ ruinous rule—the first thing that needs to change is its Orwellian “soldiers superior, civilians inferior” attitude.

Second, the medieval self-perception as “natural rulers”—the guardians of the nation—so typical of the ruling generals and ex-generals needs to be reassessed in a nationwide open dialogue, and be binned once and for all.

The only tangible way to prove that Burma is moving from the medieval political space to the 21st century semi-liberal place is to hold a plebiscite on the Constitution, which places the military above the law and legalizes military coups d'etat.

Third, the military needs to stop viewing and treating the non-Burman ethnic minorities, who make up 35-40 percent of the total population and who control nearly half of the country, like semi-colonial people to be bossed about.

There are two different Burmas, or Burma experiences. It is not enough to talk about some positive changes or the country being on the cusps of “irreversible” changes in the “Burma Proper,” to borrow the old British colonial lingo. We need to bring in the other Burma—where people still live in active war zones and dormant conflict regions.

Fourth, the new government of President Thein Sein should do the economically and ecologically right thing.

It is a standard democratic practice for any government that claims to enjoy a popular mandate to govern to review critically all existing massive commercial contracts with foreign powers such as China, India, Thailand, South Korea and Australia, as well as with investors such as the global oil and gas companies. Because many of these contracts were signed by the previous military government without any popular input or consultation of any kind, the overall review of these contracts would send an unequivocal message to the public at home and the skeptics abroad that the new Naypyidaw means business. There should be a blanket moratorium on all mega-development projects such as the Tavoy Special Economic Zone and the two Chinese pipelines, which go through conflict zones and are poised to harm communal welfare and the environment.

Finally, there have been Russian-style massive transfers of public assets to the generals and a handful of cronies, including former drug lords and their families who have laundered their money with the generals’ knowledge. The issue of who controls the country’s wealth needs to be discussed publicly and, above all, in the new Parliament.

I know this is a tall order for both those in power and the public. Raising these issues, which some will consider “inconvenient,” in no way implies that anyone who raises them is cynical, idealistic or unrealistic. Because the issues I have identified here are of paramount importance to the public welfare and the long-term future of the country, the public and the government alike ought to start thinking and talking about them.

As we say in Burma, when the situation calls for it, no issue is out of bounds.

Our country’s future and the well-being of the public depend on whether and how these fundamental issues are addressed now.

Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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