Don’t hold Burma to a higher international standard than other autocracies

A forward-looking approach on Burma

Brahma Chellaney

May 14, 2008

When the imperative is for a more balanced and forward-looking international approach toward impoverished, cyclone-battered Burma, the danger of a self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions has been underlined by new, ill-timed penal actions.

The politicisation of international assistance at a time when Burma’s food bowl, the Irrawaddy Delta, has been devastated by a major cyclone has brought the plight of ordinary Burmese to the fore. This month began with U.S. President George W. Bush announcing yet more sanctions against Burma. Less than 36 hours later, Cyclone Nargis had left a vast trail of death and destruction. Tragedy has come to symbolise Burma in a year marking its 60th anniversary as an independent nation.

Such is the politics of food aid that Western governments and outside relief agencies have insisted on the right to deliver assistance directly to the homeless and hungry. But the regime, fearful that such delivery could be intended to incite a popular uprising at a time when it has put a new Constitution to vote, has blocked the large-scale entry of foreign aid workers. Calls for forcible humanitarian intervention by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and others have made the junta’s hackles rise.

The regime postponed the constitutional referendum in the cyclone-racked areas until May 24, but held the balloting on schedule elsewhere last Saturday. With the military ensconced in power for 46 years, there are few takers for the junta’s seven-step “roadmap to democracy.” Widening sanctions, in fact, make it less likely that the seeds of democracy will sprout in a stunted economy. Punitive pressure without constructive engagement in a critically weak country, where the military is now the only functioning institution, is counterproductive.

Crucial factor

Distance from Burma has been a crucial factor in determining major players’ approach toward that country. The greater a state’s geographical distance from Burma, the more gung-ho it tends to be. And the shorter a state’s distance from Burma, the greater its caution. At one end of the spectrum is the U.S., which has followed an uncompromisingly penal approach toward Burma under Mr. Bush. At the other end are Asian states, emphasising a softer approach. The European Union used to be somewhere in the middle, but since 2007 has stepped up its own penal campaign.

The West, with little financial stake left in a country marginal to its foreign-policy interests, can afford to pursue an approach emphasising high-minded principles over strategic considerations, and isolation over engagement. About 95 per cent of Burma’s trade last year was with other Asian countries. By contrast, Burma’s neighbours cannot escape the effects of an unstable Burma. The imperatives of proximity dictate different policy logic. The current situation underscores eight international imperatives.

The need for a course correction. It is vital to carve out greater international space in Burma, rather than shut whatever space that might be left. When an approach bristles with sticks and offers few carrots, results are hard to come by. The sanctions path has only strengthened the hand of the military, with Burma now coming full circle: Its ageing junta head, Than Shwe, has amassed powers to run a virtual one-man dictatorship in Ne Win-style.

An approach predicated on the primacy of sanctions may have been sustainable had Burma been a threat to regional or international security. But Burma does not export terror, subversion or revolutionary ideology. Its focus is inward. If sanctions continue to undermine its economy and impede its regional integration, a dysfunctional Burma could pose a serious transnational security threat.

Target the junta, not the people. The weight of the sanctions has fallen squarely on ordinary Burmese. By targeting vital sectors of the Burmese economy — from tourism to textiles — the sanctions have lowered living conditions without helping improve human rights. An unaffected military has ensured continuing revenue inflows for itself by boosting gas exports to Thailand and signing a lucrative, 30-year gas deal with China.

What objective is served when disengagement blocks the flow of liberal ideas as well as investment and technology?

Recognise that a “colour revolution” is just not possible in Burma. Despite the temptation to portray the monk-led protests of last September as a “saffron revolution” in the making, Burma is unlikely to experience a tumultuous political transformation of the type symbolised by Kyrgyzstan’s “tulip revolution,” Ukraine’s “orange revolution” and Georgia’s “rose revolution.” No colour revolution has occurred in a country bereft of institutions except the military. Burma, with its deep-seated institutional decay, is closer to Sudan and Ethiopia than to the successful democratic-transition cases.

Help build civil society in Burma. It is a growing civil society that usually sounds the death knell of a dictatorship. But years of sanctions have left Burma without an entrepreneurial class or civil society but saddled with an all-powerful military as the sole surviving institution — to the extent that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party says the military will have an important role to play in any transitional government.

The “roadmap to democracy,” however flawed, offers an opening to incrementally prise open the Burmese system. After being in power since 1962, the military has become too fat to return to the barracks. In fact, it won’t fit in the barracks. It has taken the junta more than 14 years just to draft a new Constitution.

With the military determined to hold on to its special prerogatives, the demilitarisation of the Burmese polity can at best be an incremental process. But if that process is not to stretch interminably, it is important for the international community and the U.N. to utilise the new opening, however constricted, to get involved in capacity-building programmes that can help increase public awareness and participation and create a civilian institutional framework for a democratic transition. Although the military is the problem, it has to be part of the solution, or else there will be no transition.

Shift the focus from negative conditionalities to positive conditionalities. To help create incentives for a phased democratic transition, Burma’s rulers should be given a set of benchmarks, with the meeting of each benchmark bringing positive rewards. With sanctions to continue until the junta collapses or caves in, there are at present no incentives, only disincentives.

Indeed, recent penal steps against Burma run counter to the junta’s gestures and concessions — such as facilitating U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s three visits in six months; permitting him to meet with Ms Suu Kyi; allowing Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a special rapporteur to the U.N. Human Rights Council, to come and investigate the September 2007 violence; and implementing the “roadmap.” Mr. Gambari had sought a time-bound transition plan, but after the junta unveiled just that, Burma has been slapped with more sanctions, undermining the U.N.’s role.

In that light, the latest U.S., EU, Canadian and Australian sanctions suggest a lamentable lack of an incentives-based strategic approach.

Insist on ethnic reconciliation and accommodation. The struggle in Burma has been portrayed simplistically as a battle between Ms Suu Kyi and Gen. Than Shwe; a fight between good and evil; and a clash between the forces of freedom and repression. A complex Burma is actually the scene of four different struggles.

Four different struggles

One conflict rages within the majority Burman community between the mainly Burman military and democracy-seeking urban Burmans. Another struggle is between the military and the non-Burman nationalities, which make up a third of the population. While the Burmans live in the valleys and plains of central Burma (and dominate the cities), the ethnic minorities largely inhabit the rugged areas around the periphery. An inter-religious conflict also rages in Burma.

Then there is a larger unresolved struggle over the state’s political meaning and direction — whether Burma ought to be a true federation that grants wide-ranging local autonomy, or a unitary state. That mirrors the struggle, for example, in Sri Lanka, where the majority ethnic community has sought to give the state a distinct Sinhala imprint, triggering an unending civil war.

Avert a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Burma. The widening sanctions have sought to throttle industries on which the livelihood of millions of Burmese depends. Import bans, investment prohibitions, tourism restrictions and measures forcing foreign companies to disengage have contributed to serious unemployment and poverty.

As far back as 2003, then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley had warned in congressional testimony that many female garment workers made jobless by sanctions were being driven into prostitution. Yet, in its 2004 report to Congress, the State Department boasted that U.S. actions had shut down more than 100 garment factories in the previous year alone, with “an estimated loss of around 50,000 to 60,000 jobs.”

Foreign investment and trade boost local employment and wages and exert a liberalising influence on a regime. A weaker Burma will only fall prey to and spawn a range of transnational security threats.

Both carrots and sticks need to be wielded, but not in a way that the sticks get blunted through overuse and the carrots remain distant. Without a more balanced and progressive approach permitting engagement, democratisation is unlikely to progress. International principles need to be anchored in forward-looking pragmatism. There is no logic to Burma being held to a higher international standard.

© Copyright 2008 The Hindu


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s