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ASEAN ANALYSIS  3 November 2010

Nobody can stop Burma, why?

By  Myint Shwe

AseanAffairs     3 November 2010

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Amid domestic and international rejections, Burma’s military regime is going to hold an election on Sunday.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel winner is in custody. Her years of incarceration count 15 in total, still continuing. Students and minority leaders are kept in prison cells all over the country serving long prison terms. Repeated universal appeals for their release went unanswered.

Drunken soldiers and officers often assault, shoot and kill lads who dare to mess with them. Youths are picked up from roads, market places, cinemas, on the way to school – army recruits.

Rapes of minority women by soldiers in insurgent areas are still happening. Peasants’ farms are confiscated for army cantonments, state led development projects, for crony businessmen.

Newspapers and weekly journals require approval from the censor board before stories go for print. Telephone lines are cut right in the middle of conversation by regime’s agents in the exchange. Foreign websites are shut off. Foreign journalists are banned, kicked out of country if found with tourist visas.

You cannot list the sins of the Burmese junta that goes by the name, State Peace and Development Council, in a sitting.

However, adding stories to the already voluminous junta-bashing literature wastes everybody’s precious time. It is time for the rest of the world to ask itself a hard question, a very hard one.

Hard questions usually begin reality check.

Reality on the ground: Washington is helpless vis-à-vis the junta. Kurt Campbell, the U.S Assistant Foreign Secretary, was in Burma in May, fourteen years after Madeline Albright. No breakthrough though. Economic sanctions are ‘no more than a modest inconvenience’ to the Generals, according to him.

The UN is helpless. Creation of a Commission of Inquiry is far too distant to scare the junta, especially after

ASEAN, a small regional bloc, needs Burma more than it needs them in return in the ultimate sense. All members are birds of a feather anyway.

Even Beijing, the Asian superpower believed to hold sways, sometimes laments; “they just didn’t listen to us,” according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at Council of Foreign Relations.

From this reality, the hard question why Burma cannot be stopped arises.

Policy failures are due to wrong policy goals. Wrong policy goals, in turn, are shaped by wrong policy feeds. Finally, the reliance on wrong policy feeds reveals two things: policy makers’ taste and policy feeders’ self seeking opportunism. The buck stops here.

The issue has been hopelessly ailing for two decades in the hands of senile senators, Burma experts who neither speak nor read Burmese, self serving policy feeders - the highly opportunistic exile communities, and aggravated by media Orientalism.

A reassessment has to be made finding ‘who wants what’ in the issue, and how desperately.

Washington adds up Burma in its equation along with China and North Korea. Whereas, Burma lists up sanctions and normal relations. These are hard facts, national interests that come before democracy rhetoric. The difference between levels of desperation also is to be factored in.

Andrew Silth, an Australian scholar on Burma, identified two important aspects of the new U.S policy: that Washington now accepts a long, step by step process in changing Burma; and that domestic actors, not external powers, are to be heroes who do the lifting.

He also pointed out junta’s ‘open for business’ attitude toward the West and the new U.S Government’s direct high level engagement approach.

Indeed, one side’s positive attitude and the other’s direct engagement together constitute a good starting point.

What is necessary to accomplish Washington’s new step by step policy? Realistic

policy steps demand correct and comprehensive policy feeds not selected, distorted feeds. It is highly important for the Administration to get rid the old sources of policy feed and replace with new, alternative sources.

Next, though with new approach and new policy feeds yet the game itself is two decades old. It cannot be started back from square one. Burmese regime survived seven U.S administrations – from Ronald Reagan down to Barak Obama. During these years it has done re-entrenchment steps such as stability, economy and foreign relations expansion. These cannot be undone.

Washington can only make the Burmese regime victim of its own successes, not foiling.

The election is to produce a civil-military hybrid government supposedly to replace the direct military rule. A veteran Burmese politician, U Thu Wai, construed it as the strategic, initial step of retreat of the military from politics. Some Burmese share his view. He is one of the 500 civilians known as, ‘Third Forces,’ standing in election. They are to compete with 2000 pro regime candidates for the 498 national level seats. The military will send 156 officers directly to the legislature, 25 percent of the grand total of 664.

Unprecedented, this civil military partnership is an experiment to all those involved.

The new constitutional makeup can shape but the form only, not the political essence. Numerical superiority in the legislature alone will not guarantee the military its projected political course. The classic ‘tyranny of majority’ cannot prevail in this day and age.

Imagine a hypothetical situation that Aung San Suu Kyi were in the new legislature, how she could have shaped many important political decisions. Even if Third Forces can secure 20 percent of the seats (100 seats) they still can create impact. This is just a conservative estimate that fits well within Washington’s first step of the ‘step by step’ policy.

The post election months in Burma will be very fluid an historic moment and will be watched by the world with wide eyes. This will be the moment high caliber individuals have a chance to take over the masses in or outside the chamber and shape the future course.

New Burmese legislators may be fighting each others with fists and curses like in Indian, Taiwanese, South Korean, Russian and Ukrainian parliaments. Nevertheless, the introduction of new rules of the game will be a net gain, should be Washington’s first step.

Washington’s next step should be to drive perfecting the imperfect , new constitution. One such aspect is the institution of presidency. The President should be elected by direct popular votes, which is not the case at this stage. So is the unelected military portion of the seats in the assembly. Earmark them for the second step.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed by then. If she wills, she can help perfect the constitution so that she can be back in the political process and prepare for the next election in 2015.

The new attitude can be shown with the resumption of normal relations, appointing an ambassador, with the end of calling this country by its old colonial name ‘Burma’ and starts using its proud indigenous name, “Myanmar.” If Washington could self-edit its moral high ground rhetoric that irks the generals, excellent. These steps are more important yet easier than lifting sanctions that require a fight at home.

The new approach will be cost effective. It involves no sending of thousands of troops and no wasting of billions of dollars as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington only needs to make certain that the regime lies in the bed it has made.

Help a military regime make a regime-change done by itself - a metamorphosis. Enlightenment is the key word for the whole thing. Burma can stop its evils only by itself, given the arising multipolar world order.

Paul A. Ebeling, Jnr

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