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Thant Myint-U: End Burma’s Isolation

December 6, 2010

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mccoy.jpgUntil Burma’s elections last month, the country had been in a sort of dysfunctional holding pattern. Most Burmese who might track on the world stage were overshadowed by Burma’s Lady, as Aung San Suu Kyi has been dubbed, or its ruling junta—that is, by absolute good incarnate, or absolute evil. Call it Burma’s decades-long clenching: Aung San Suu Kyi under detention in her home, the dictator, Than Shwe, endlessly promising elections while he aged; a Western sanctions regime riddled with holes punched by Chevron, Total-France, and Burma’s energy-thirsty neighbors, India and China.

Something had to give. And perhaps it has, says Thant Myint-U.

Following that period of student protests—simply dubbed “88,” which saw Suu Kyi step into the opposition and arrested, and nullified elections—Thant Myint-U worked on the Thai-Burma border, among a coterie of student-protesters and refugees. Eventually, he made his way into books, undertaking an assiduous reading of Burmese history. What he found was startling. Over the long haul of millennia, Burma’s kings and leaders had increasingly responded to the traumas and tests of history by burying themselves in a sort of reflexive isolation within their borders. In this light, it would seem that pro-democracy Burma watchers who had advocated sanctions and further isolation were on the wrong track, possibly putting the cart before the horse—to mix our metaphors a bit.

Like Aung San Suu Kyi, Thant Myint-U is heir to Burma’s post-independence luminaries. His grandfather, U Thant, worked in its early government and became Secretary General of the United Nations. His The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma appeared in 2006 and bolstered a group of dissenters from the sanctions and isolation regime, some of whom, like Morten Pedersen and Thant himself, had worked inside the country. So naturally, I was keen for Thant’s take on Burma’s momentous, if totally bullshit, election, which sidelined and split Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, and then released her; it saw the generals “retiring,” donning civilian threads and running for government, and then a new crop replace them.

—Joel Whitney

**Guernica:** Weren’t the recent elections a total sham?

**Thant Myint-U:** It’s difficult to say anything meaningful about the elections themselves without looking at the context. Burma’s a country of almost sixty million people, bigger than France and England combined, one of the poorest in the world, that has suffered from decades of armed conflict, that isolated itself from the outside world for nearly thirty years, and has been under one form of military rule or another since 1962.

bq. Who can say, even in hindsight, what the important steps were that eventually led to democracy in, say, South Korea or Indonesia.

Elections were held in 1990 but when the opposition National League for Democracy won nearly 60 percent of the vote, the ruling junta refused to implement the results. Since then the junta have taken tentative steps at opening up the country to the international economy, and to free up aspects of daily life. But with every couple of steps forward there have been steps back as well. It’s an incredibly complex place, where neither the state nor civil society, the ruling establishment nor the opposition are monolithic, not by any means. There was never any chance that the top leadership in the army would allow a repeat of what happened in 1990. The most that was ever going to be allowed was a carefully choreographed transition to some kind of quasi-civilian government, one with which the army would feel comfortable. Under the new constitution, the National Assembly and various regional assemblies would be only one (and perhaps the weakest) of three political actors, the others being the (semi-elected) presidency and the army. It’s within this context that one has to see the recent elections. Dozens of parties competed, most entirely independent of the junta. Millions have voted for the first time in twenty years. There have been serious allegations of vote-rigging and manipulation. And in the end, opposition parties have wound up with only a minority of seats, less than a quarter, the main junta-backed party having an enormous financial and organizational advantage.

Is this a step towards democracy? Only time will tell. Who can say, even in hindsight, what the important steps were that eventually led to democracy in, say, South Korea or Indonesia back in the 1970s, nineteen eighties and nineteen nineties? What we shouldn’t do is judge everything against what we might want as an ideal first step.

**Guernica:** And what of the politics more generally?

**Thant Myint-U:** What we have to realize is that these elections are taking place within a much broader political transition. Nearly the entire junta have resigned their military commissions, many ran in the elections and some will wind up in the new government. A whole new generation of army officers have recently been promoted to the leadership. The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party that won the elections have recruited heavily from among small town and local business elites and many of their members will now be in parliament. Until now, we’ve only had a strict army hierarchy. Who will be in charge when the new constitution comes into effect? The army under the new, younger officers? Or their ex-bosses, the current junta, many of whom are now out of uniform and will be in new government positions? Who will be more powerful in the new setup, the president and his cabinet or the armed forces commander-in-chief? General Than Shwe who has been in charge since the early nineteen nineties is clearly preparing for his succession and perhaps believes that a more diffuse political landscape will be better for him as he begins to fade away from the scene, better than seeing a new army strongman take charge.

bq. It’s very hard to imagine any transition to democracy without some sort of sustainable peace.

**Guernica:** What about the armed conflicts?

**Thant Myint-U:** It’s amazing that there has been such a singular focus on “democracy promotion” in Burma and so little attention to the need to find a sustainable end to literally decades of war. For forty years, from the late nineteen forties through the nineteen eighties the Burmese army battled against Chinese-supported communist rebels as well as an assortment of ethnic-based insurgencies. Over the early nineteen nineties, the fighting largely stopped and dozens of ceasefires have been signed between the army and their erstwhile battlefield opponents. But will these ceasefires lead to a negotiated peace? Or will there be a return of all-out war? It’s very hard to imagine any transition to democracy without some sort of sustainable peace. The army will otherwise remain if not center-stage then just off to the side. And ending these conflicts won’t be easy. The biggest armed group, for example, the United Wa State Army, is arguably the largest private army in the world, bigger than the Taliban, with over thirty thousand well-armed troops, ruling a mountainous area the size of Belgium, with a leadership wanted in the U.S. for drug-trafficking. It’s hard to say what the answer is, but a resumption of all-out fighting is not going to help. A much more nuanced international understanding of these challenges is critical if the outside world is really going to even begin to help.

U.S. policy for a long time has been based on an objective that was extremely unlikely to be met—a dialogue between opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta, leading to democratic change. And the economic sanctions that have been put in place over the years, to try to pressure the regime into dialogue, have been a disaster, undercutting the development of the very middle class on which a sustainable democratic transition would depend. In the end, no one can say for sure what will work in Burma. But I think we have to get away from this idea that somewhere out there is a perfect U.S. or international policy that will “solve” the Burma problem. Look at Afghanistan—with tens of thousands of Western troops, tens of billions of dollars spent, and all the thinking and work that has gone into Afghanistan policy—and we still don’t know what will work.

Like it or not, we have to accept that we no longer live in a time when the West can determine political change half way around the world. Raising false expectations certainly doesn’t help either. I’ve said for a long time that the answer lies neither in sanctions nor in engagement, if by engagement we mean high-level diplomacy. I have nothing against high-level diplomacy, but it’s not going to get far on its own.

bq. Another huge side effect of the policy of the U.S. and other Western governments has been to throw Burma into the waiting arms of China.

Look at how democratic transitions have happened elsewhere in the region. It was never through a mix of sanctions and diplomacy. It was, at least in part, through the development of a much more complex economy and society and increasing connections with the outside world, things that made a continuation of army rule look out of date, even to the generals themselves. The answer lies in promoting the right kind of economic reforms and in bringing down all the barriers that separate Burma (both the people and its rulers) from the outside world. Instead, through sanctions, we’re building a whole new wall just as theirs was starting to come down.

Another huge side effect of the policy of the U.S. and other Western governments has been to throw Burma into the waiting arms of China. Look at the map. Burma is right in between India and China. And between China and the Indian Ocean. This should be a huge asset. And being next to the fast growing economies in the world should be a dream for a country as poor as Burma. But under Western sanctions, without access to any development assistance, without access to Western markets, Western learning, Western capital, Burma, as a country just coming out of decades of self-imposed isolation, is turning first and foremost into a simple supplier of raw materials for China, with terrible consequences for the local environment and for many ordinary people. China this year alone is about to invest between ten and twenty billion dollars in hydropower projects, mining, two deep sea ports and in a huge oil and gas pipeline that will connect China, through Burma, to the sea. Nothing is more important for the Burmese people now than how they manage their relations with their two giant neighbors. But under Western sanctions, it’s hard to see how the Burmese can come out on top.

**Guernica:** Will Aung San Suu Kyi’s release lead to change?

**Thant Myint-U:** Of course it’s great that she’s released, but it’s very unclear what the effect will be. We have to remember that she’s been released twice before, in 1995 and in 2000. Both times there were some talks with the authorities, with moments of excitement and expectation, when some hoped for some kind of breakthrough, but in the end they came to nothing. I’m sure she will urge the release of other political detainees. I hope she will also speak out against Western sanctions. She and others in her party have said that they support only targeted sanctions, and not the broad economic embargoes and restrictions on assistance that could hurt ordinary people. Burma is the only poor country in the world that’s entirely cut off from international development cooperation. Laos next door, a one-party communist dictatorship, gets more than ten times the per capita assistance given to Burma. Literally tens of thousands of people die each year from easily treatable diseases because of this low funding. An end to sanctions, especially if coupled with necessary economic reforms, can be a much more important step towards a better life for ordinary people than almost anything else.

**Guernica:** Won’t economic engagement or development or trade lead to enriching a patently murderous regime?

**Thant Myint-U:** It’s not about enriching the government. The government is already receiving billions of dollars a year from the sale of natural gas and other natural resources. It’s set to receive billions more a year once the pipeline to China is completed. Western sanctions will not bankrupt the government, nor pressure military leaders towards political reform. What they have done is severely weaken the position of independent businessmen and more generally the middle classes on whom a democratic and open society depends. Burma is not more repressive today than say Indonesia thirty years ago. Would it have made sense to cut off all economic links with Indonesia? Boycott tourism? Prevent Indonesian authorities from visiting the U.S. and Europe? I’m not saying all trade and investment and tourism is good. I’m saying we need to think more strategically about the kind of economic interactions that will help to build the middle class, open up the country, and build links between Burma and liberal democracies. Generals don’t just give up power because they are being pressured from the outside. You have to change the landscape. A less isolated Burma is essential.

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