Burmese days*

The situation in Myanmar/Burma** has stabilised somewhat, although the military junta has a lot to answer for, both in the short term and long term. (For an overview, see this BBC report here.)

The issue of Myanmar came up again earlier this month, this time at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University organised a panel discussion on diplomacy, under the auspices of its international studies graduate school. One of the panellists commented, in response to a question, that former UN official Thant Myint-U — the grandson of a former (3rd) UN secretary-general — had said the best way for Myanmar/Burma to liberalise was for Western countries to open 50 embassies there and flood the country with diplomatic links and tourists.

I’m paraphrasing what this panellist said, more or less, but the above was the essence of it. The panellist himself seemed to support this view. I can’t seem to find a published source in which Thant Myint-U might have said this, but he comes a bit close in this LA Times article, where he writes about the undesirability and ineffectiveness of Western sanctions, recommending “that access to Western markets and Western ideas will make all the difference in determining whether the Burmese become equal partners of China and India or merely the providers of cheap labor and raw materials.” (Have to put it in context)

It tells a lot about the thinking of people in certain circles of the international community.

Indeed, there is vigorous debate about ‘what to do about Burma’, so to speak. An American journalist has castigated Burma’s “wicked apologists” (in a rather crassly-titled article — see if you get it) and also made a reference to an earlier article by Thant Myint-U in the London Review of Books.

My reading of the situation is that there are two related threads, or themes, running through the so-called apologists’ thinking:

One, there is an underlying sense of despair that things will ever get better through international action, sanctions, and/or outside intervention and condemnation. The junta is just too comfortable with isolation and enriching itself and its elites at the heavy expense of the overwhelming majority of the Burmese people.

Two, it takes no stretch of the imagination to point out that trade and business links are more paramount in this corner of the world than concepts like human rights [oh, what’s that? you say. Can it be eaten?]. Even though some of the decision makers in ASEAN and adjunct bodies like the AIPMC have recognised Burma as a threat to regional security, it seems that the threat isn’t serious enough.

My second point could be inferred from the issues arising around the recent signing of the ASEAN Charter, as reported in the Beeb.

Amid a resolution from the US senate in early November calling for ASEAN to suspend or expel Burma from the regional organisation, it was made clear in the report that the rest of the ASEAN countries were not “vital” enough for them [the Burmese generals], and that expelling Burma from the association would not make any difference.

And not to get all Realist here, but it simply does not serve any foreign power’s interests to help Burma democratize or liberalise. At least not without good returns reasons. It is a fragile state and has probably gone too far to reverse itself, especially if and when the junta loses power violently. I would argue, however, that if the junta does open up before the fissures of Burmese society tears further apart, then a violent collapse may be avoided.

But I should point out that most of Burma’s problems came about because of the military junta’s economic and social mismanagement to begin with. [I don’t buy the thinking that the country has always been feudal and unstable, and will remain so. That is too deterministic, wrong-headed, and bloody-minded.] And that Burma is already an undeclared federation of ethno-lingustic states beyond centres like Rangoon/Yangon; one way of ensuring a smoother transition would be to officially become a federal country, recognising the various smaller states within the larger borders, and working out political arrangements with these states.

But I have a bad feeling that this, or anything remotely resembling it, will not happen for a long, long time.

It’s a real pity. Myanmar/Burma and the Burmese people deserve so much better than just offering platitudes like “how will it improve the situation, or enhance our influence?” The simple, straightforward answer is that it will probably not. But it will show the regime that ASEAN means business (and has a good set of cojones) for once, and not just the trading kind.

The last couple of double-quotation-mark quotes and related non-attributed references in the main body of the post above were from the BBC story (along with the picture). The statements quoted were from the Singaporean prime minister.

An additional comment must be made about those opinions that ASEAN is not able to improve the situation or enhance its influence in Myanmar: perhaps its not such much about this pragmatic attitude, but more about what ASEAN (through the minister) does not tell us – that ASEAN member states have vested interests in ensuring that Myanmar is not expelled from the organisation, and that they have as much, or more, to lose than to gain from Myanmar’s exit from the talk-shop organisation.

For instance, think of trade between Myanmar and the other ASEAN states. How will this be adversely affected if the former is expelled or even suspended? Would it continue on a bilateral basis between it and each member state (I’m sure much of the current trade are based on bilateral agreements anyway), or will it actually compel the generals in Yangon/Rangoon to cut all ties with the rest of ASEAN and happily step it up with China and India? [The world’s largest-/fastest-growing economy AND the world’s largest democracy. There has to be some supreme irony in that.] Expulsion or even suspension may cause either scenario, and a lot of unhappiness on the part of the Burmese junta. But my money’s on the more basic explanation that seems to have proven itself, even though no one official has come right out to say it – see end of paragraph above. Neither expulsion nor suspension will occur, because the other ASEAN states do not want to even consider the possibility of ‘losing’ Myanmar along with whatever trade, influence or ties they have. And probably ‘face’ too.

So forget about issues of humanitarian concern and human rights, about what is happening and has been happening to the ordinary people of Myanmar. These things have never figured much in the concerns of the ASEAN states, particularly in the uppermost levels of their decision-makers. Let’s not pretend they ever have.

* With apologies, and respect, to George Orwell.

** Although the official name of the country is Myanmar, various human rights organisations, individuals and other groups still call it Burma. However, the people of Myanmar (as a nationality) seem to be still called ‘Burmese’. I haven’t heard them begin referred to, or referring themselves, as anything like ‘Myanmarese’. If any readers can enlighten me or know more about this, do let me know.


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