Preventing Burma From Becoming A Failed State

Stabilize A Faltering Burma

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, May 10, 2008

Cyclone-wracked Burma stands out as one of the world’s critically weak states that could become a transnational security problem without international stabilization efforts. Yet the tide of Western criticism its junta is facing over the cyclone-related relief operations and constitutional referendum rules out an early lifting of the sanctions against Burma. The referendum and national elections in 2010 are part of the junta’s purported seven-step “roadmap to democracy,” whose implementation within a timeframe, paradoxically, had been demanded by United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

Burma is a significant state in size, strategic importance and natural resources. It forms the strategic nucleus between India, China and Southeast Asia. Burma is where Asia’s main regions converge — South, Southeast and East Asia. But Burma is also a corrupt, dysfunctional state, although its state machinery, run by a predatory military elite monopolizing power, appears strong enough to wage political repression at home.

Both the annual Failed States Index (FSI) by the Washington-based group, The Fund for Peace, and the Brookings Institution’s new Index of State Weakness in the Developing World list Burma among their top 20 failing states. The Berlin-based Transparency International ranks Burma as the world’s most corrupt state, along with Somalia.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, it has been increasingly recognized that threats to international peace and security now emanate more and more from the world’s weakest states. Tellingly, two of the world’s critically weak states, North Korea and Pakistan, are members of the nuclear club. It has become routine for the major players to reiterate their commitment to pull critically sick nations back from the precipice of state failure.

It is that argument — to stabilize a failing state — that the Bush administration has used to pour some $11 billion in aid since 9/11 into terror-exporting Pakistan, ranked No. 33 in the Brookings’ Index of State Weakness in the Developing World. The White House now is considering throwing its weight behind Senator Joseph Biden’s call for a $2.5 billion package of additional non-military aid to Pakistan.

Can a different logic or argument be applied to Burma? Or should the stabilization of a failing state only begin when that country actually starts posing — like Pakistan — a threat to international security?

International responses to separate cases of failing states need not be cut from the same cloth because every nation’s situation tends to be different from the others. Still, the undeniable fact is that Burma represents a case of grave state corrosion, with international sanctions having had the effect, however unintended, to lower the living standards of ordinary Burmese.

Another question relates to the extent to which sanctions should be employed. Should punitive actions preclude engagement? Without the Bush administration engaging Pyongyang, to give just one example, would it have been possible to achieve the progress, however tentative it might seem at this stage, on the North Korean nuclear programme? It is nobody’s case that Burma is worse than North Korea.

Foreign trade, investment and tourism exert a liberalizing influence on a regime. External investment helps build private enterprises, boosts employment and wages, and aids civil-society development. But the US-led sanctions against Burma have sought to throttle investment and tourism flows and choke its exports, including textiles, precious gemstones and high-quality tropical hardwoods.

The military has been in power in Burma for 46 long years. But the Western penal approach toward Burma began shaping up only in the 1990s. In fact, it was not until this decade that Burma became a major target of US sanctions, reflected in the congressional passage of the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act and the enforcement of several subsequent punitive executive orders dating up to May 1, 2008.

Some U.S. measures put in place against the junta before 2003 included a ban on new investment and an American veto on any proposed loan or assistance by international financial institutions. That ban on new U.S. investments was imposed in 1997 — the same year ASEAN admitted Burma as a member. The Clinton administration could take that decision in 1997 because at that time the US had minimal trade with Burma and a total investment of only $225 million.  

Indeed, until the advent of the Bush administration, Burma was not among the key targets of sanctions, with the broadest U.S. sanctions being directed at countries identified as supporting terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan. But Bush, prodded by his wife, has made Burma key US target.

Laura Bush’s Burma activism — manifest from the unprecedented manner the first lady came to the White House briefing room this week and addressed a news conference on the cyclonic disaster in another country — is tied to the Christian fundamentalist beliefs that have long coloured her and her husband’s thinking. Her ire against a predominantly Buddhist Burma and its military, which sees itself as the upholder of the country’s unity and cultural identity, reputedly has sprung from information from some of the Christian churches that have a sizable number of ethnic-minority adherents in that country and from a meeting with a Karen rape victim.

Laura Bush’s first-ever visit to the White House briefing room was not to announce an aid package for Burma but to hurl insults at its rulers and accuse them of callousness in going ahead with the referendum. Actually, the junta has delayed the vote until May 24 in the cyclone-battered areas, where a third of the population lives. As one American newspaper columnist wrote, when a country has been “laid low by a massive natural disaster, the diplomatic thing to do is to respond with a show of compassion. Not kick ’em when they’re down.”

While the European Union has also slapped sanctions on Burma, especially after the brutal way the September 2007 monk-led protests were suppressed, the blunt fact is that no nation thus far has emulated the extent to which United States has gone in imposing penal actions. In fact, U.S. sanctions against Burma have followed a now-familiar pattern in American policy — first imposing an array of unilateral sanctions against a pariah regime, then discovering that the sanctions aren’t working and, therefore, turning to allies and partners to join in the penal campaign, and finally threatening sanctions against firms from third countries if those nations refuse to toe the U.S. line.

Interestingly, the history of Western sanctions against Burma underscores the manner the penal approach got shaped not by a cause — bringing an end to the military rule — but by the political travails of an iconic personality, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s founding father, Aung San, the Japanese-trained commander of the Burmese Independence Army.

Suu Kyi has had close ties with India since her student days. Because her mother, Khin Kyi, became Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960, Suu Kyi studied at a high school and college in New Delhi. Then, in the mid-1980s, Suu Kyi and her British husband, Michael Aris, a scholar in Tibetan and Himalayan studies, were fellows at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies at Simla.

Burma’s present problems can be traced back to the politically cataclysmic events of 1962, when the military under General Ne Win ousted an elected government and thereafter sought to introduce autarky by cutting off the country from the rest of the world. Yet the West, not unhappy that the military had ousted a founding leader of the non-alignment movement, Prime Minister U Nu, imposed no sanctions on Burma.

More than a quarter-century later, even a bloodbath that left several thousand student-led demonstrators dead or injured in Rangoon did not invite Western sanctions. For the democratic opposition, August 8, 1998 — the day of the bloodbath — symbolized the launch of the Burmese democracy movement. Its 20th anniversary thus will be commemorated on the same day the Beijing Olympics kick off with an opening ceremony that some world leaders are threatening to boycott over China’s brutal repression in Tibet.

When the bloodbath happened, the then UK-based Suu Kyi was in Rangoon to take care of her stroke-stricken mother. Within days, she was addressing her first public meeting. Having been accidentally thrown into the vortex of national politics, Suu Kyi then went on to inspire and mould the Western punitive approach toward Burma.

The junta’s detention of her from July 1989 onward and its refusal to honour the people’s verdict in the May 1990 national elections brought Suu Kyi to the centre of world attention. She received several international awards in quick succession — the Rafto Human Rights Prize in October 1990; the European Parliament’s Sakharov Human Rights Prize in July 1991; and the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1991.

A major trigger in galvanizing international opinion was clearly the junta’s brazen refusal to cede power despite the May 1990 national elections, which gave the detained Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party 59 percent of the votes but 82 percent of the seats in Parliament. By keeping her in detention for nearly 13 of the past 19 years, the junta has itself contributed to building Suu Kyi as an international symbol of the Burmese struggle for political freedoms.

The personality-shaped nature of the sanctions approach can also be explained by the fact that before Suu Kyi, there was no unifying figure to challenge the military’s domination in all spheres of the state and to lead a national movement for the restoration of democracy. The Nobel Prize greatly increased her international profile and domestic clout. Western aid cut-offs and other penal actions thus began only in the period after the junta refused to honour the results of the 1990 elections.

How a personality can help shape the sanctions approach was further underlined by the way Suu Kyi’s personal rapport with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright helped spur President Bill Clinton to reluctantly impose a ban in 1997 on new American investments to develop Burma’s resources. That ban was slapped even though international pressure, and the Clinton administration’s own intervention, had made the junta to release Suu Kyi in July 1995 after six years in house detention.

Even Laura Bush cited Suu Kyi this week to justify her Burma activism, announcing that President Bush would soon sign legislation conferring Congress’s highest civilian honour on her, just months after he had personally presented the same prize — the Congressional Gold Medal — to the Dalai Lama.

Not only has the sanctions approach been personality-driven, but also a personality hue has been put on the internal struggle in Burma. That struggle has been portrayed, simplistically, as a battle between Suu Kyi and the junta’s reclusive chairman, General Than Shwe, a fight between good and evil, and a tussle between the forces of freedom and repression. While such a portrayal is useful to draw international attention to a remote country that is peripheral to the interests of all except its neighbours, it helps obscure the complex and multifaceted realities on the ground.

Despite Suu Kyi’s central role in shining an international spotlight for 19 years on the military’s repressive rule, the grim reality is that years of tightening sanctions against Burma haven’t helped loosen the military’s grip on polity and society. If anything, the sanctions have only worsened the plight of ordinary Burmese.

Far from the people gaining political freedoms, an again-detained Suu Kyi’s personal freedom has remained an outstanding issue. While ordinary Burmese have been its main losers, the sanctions-centred approach has proven a strategic boon for China, creating much-desired space for it to expand its interests in and leverage over Burma.

In the period since the West began implementing boycotts, trade bans, aid cut-offs and other sanctions, it has seen its influence in Burma erode. Even as it has become fashionable to talk about better-targeted sanctions, the sanctions instrument, in reality, has become blunter. Sanctions were intended to help the citizens of Burma, yet today it is the ordinary people who bear the brunt of the sanctions.

Because Burma is poor, vulnerable and isolated, it only reinforces its attraction as a sanctions target. Still, Burma has proven an exceedingly difficult case on what the outside world can do, underscoring the limits of securing results through punitive pressures alone.

Building democracy in Burma is vital not only to end repression and empower the masses, but also to facilitate ethnic conciliation and integration in a much divided society that has been at war with itself since its 1948 independence. There is need for greater unity and coordination among the major democracies on adopting a pragmatic Burma strategy. A good idea would to build a concert of democracies working together on Burma, serving as a bridge between the U.S., European and Asian positions and fashioning greater coordination in policy actions.

Without a structured and more-progressive international approach, Burma will stay on the present deplorable path, with the military continuing to call the shots. As American analyst Stanley A. Weiss wrote after recently visiting Rangoon, sanctions against Burma “may feel right, but they have helped produce the wrong results. Encouraging Western investment, trade and tourism may feel wrong, but maybe — just maybe — could produce better results. That might be politically incorrect, but at least it wouldn’t be politically futile.”

In an era of a supposed global village, why deny the citizens of Burma the right to enjoy the benefits of globalization and free trade? A more dysfunctional Burma is not in the interest of anyone.

© Asian Age, 2008.

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