Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2868

Policy Paper: Will America ever wake up to the Burmese Clarion Call?

Prof. Kanbawza Win

US President George W Bush, who has never been to Burma, has at least learnt to pronounce the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi correctly for which the Burmese activist dumped him, as well informed has delivered a major policy speech in Thailand and liaise with Burmese dissidents, while the first lady Laura Bush had visited Mae La, the biggest Burmese refugee camps (60,000 souls unofficial figure) to see things for herself.

To an average Burmese dissident this is heartening, but if President Bush means business we are wondering of why the USS Essex and other US naval ships withdrew from their positions near Burmese waters, when both Britain and French warships were ready to join the US in the Nagris Cyclone relief operations and end the Burmese dictatorship once and for all?

The entire Burmese people had pinned their hopes on Bush that he would invoke the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and together with the Western nations would order his naval force into the delta, where every Burmese would welcome them as saviour and give them every necessary help. This raises the most serious question about Bush’s administrations support for Burmese pro-democracy movement: Is there any real political will on the part of the US to effect substantive change in Burma, or is Washington simply offering moral support to the victims of a heinous regime to burnish its image as a defender of freedom is in the minds of every Burmese?

The 21 hour stop in Bangkok or Mae Lah camp seems Bush’s stance on Burma is merely a distraction from the troubling consequences of other facets of his foreign policy, others suggest that ultimately, the US is seeking to use Burma to “contain” China, which has become the Burmese regime’s most important ally. Now going to Beijing, where the word Burma and Tibet are taboo.

President Bush's Olympic odyssey started with a game of political one-upmanship, as his blunt critique of the host country prompted Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, saying "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues." The rhetorical barbs were likely to recede quickly as the games began and Burma together with Dafur and Tibet will be forgotten and will be forced to witness the extravaganza of Chinese Communist’s progress. Perhaps he did not recollect of what he told Olympians at the White House last month that they are more than sports competitors. He called US Olympians "ambassadors of liberty" who represent America's "regard for human rights and human dignity."

Despite numerous organizations and activists pushing for the President to make a political statement out of the Games, specifically referencing China's continued economic and political support for the Burmese regime, Bush remains adamant that he will not politicize the Beijing Games missing the fact that an aesthetic of political memorization, reflected in the host government’s declared aim that China should win more gold medals than any country; the world will once again be made to witness a triumph of the totalitarian will, because of its superb dictatorial communist system. We know that there is little more that the Burmese people can hope in Bush administration’s last Hurrah!

Will the torch of President Bush’s statement at the Map room of the White House “to let the people of Burma know that the United States of America hears their voices” be carried on by the President hopeful of Barrack Obama and John McCane? Politics, at least peripherally, have always been part of the Olympics. This time, too. In four days in Beijing, Bush will confer with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and other Chinese leaders to tussle over trade deficits, currency policy and other issues of bilateral mutual benefits. Bushes (his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was once an American ambassador) will help dedicate a shimmering new U.S. embassy and definitely Burma will be in a forgotten agenda. History will remember him as the first U.S. president to ever attend a Genocide Olympics on foreign soil even though he may not sit together with the Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein.

Thank You America

Admittedly in his eight years of unstinting support, which even the most sceptical Burmese like myself, have had to acknowledge as a major contribution to our cause and we thank President Bush when he uttered

August 8
is not only a day to recognize China’s achievements,
but also an occasion to recall
the unfulfilled aspirations of the Burmese people

We know that the United States has always strongly supported the efforts of Burma’s people achieve freedom from military rule. The current administration has been no exception. Though often criticized at home and abroad for his foreign policy, Bush has won the respect of most Burmese for his firm stance on the repressive regime in Naypyidaw.

In 2003, the US introduced the Freedom and Democracy Act in response to a ruthless attack on Daw Aung Suu Kyi and her supporters in the central Burmese town of Depayin (a name derived from the Portuguese decedents). In 2005, Bush identified Burma as one of the world’s “outposts of tyranny,” together with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Belarus.

Last year, following the crackdown on the September uprising, he blasted the regime and tightened sanctions against the generals and their cronies. As a further sign of support, the US Congress awarded its highest civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi last December. And just this week, Bush signed into law the Burma Jade Act, which restricts the import of precious stones from Burma and extends existing import sanctions.

Bush is not a visionary and his tendency to see complex issues in black and white, just like any self style Burmese foreign experts who tend to equate with any other country and refused to see that Burma is unique. But while many condemn him for trying to impose his political vision on Iraq, few can argue that in the case of Burma, he has taken a genuinely principled stand that is perfectly consistent with reality.

We warmly acknowledge that both Bush and his wife, Laura, who has been a real driving force in keeping Burma at the top of the world’s political agenda. She has met with Burmese activists in Washington and New York on a number of occasions and held video teleconferences with prominent exiles. She has also participated in several roundtable discussions on Burma with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari. When the Burmese regime crushed protests last year, she called Ban to discuss the situation—a rare move by an American first lady, and one that shows the depth of her concern for the fate of Burma’s people.

In May of this year, it became evident just how much the bull dog face General Than Shwe has staked on the ultimate success of this deeply flawed political process, which promises only a continuation of military rule under another guise. But one week before a planned referendum on a military-drafted constitution when the country was hit by its worst natural disaster in living memory, the American response to this disaster was markedly different from that of the rulers in Naypyidaw. The US moved quickly to temporarily suspend its sanctions against Burma so that it could assist in the relief effort, offering aid and the use of military aircraft to transport international emergency relief supplies into the country. But this did not stop the Junta going ahead with its rigged referendum, putting politics ahead of the lives of millions of people. No doubt humanitarian workers in Burma praised the Bush administration for its bold decision to send C-130 flights into Rangoon with relief items, setting aside politics for the sake of saving lives. Our profound and sincere thanks go to Bush Administration for keeping the Burmese cause alive at least morally.

The Realization

We are but halfway through 2008 yet it has already been witness to a sizeable shift in global power. The default Western mindset remains that the Western writ rules. That is hardly surprising; it has been true for so long there has been little reason for anyone to question it, least of all the West. The thinking of the Americans has changed that they live in the greatest country on earth and construe that they have the right to disregard the opinions of other countries and can impose our values on everyone else - after all, why should anyone complain about having greatness thrust upon them? But lamentably the estimate of their worth far outstrips its real-world value. They now see that the Vietnam Syndrome will soon be replaced by the Iraq Syndrome. It's not just that the world is fed up with U.S. foreign policy; it has become blind to its relative decline. Some construe that unwittingly, the US is the rogue elephant that will not cooperate with the rest of the world. No to Kyoto, no to arms control, no to negotiations and so on and is afraid to take the right action on Burma. I recall the lines in “Raiding the War Chest”, Miriam Pemberton writes that "our country has a massive international-relations repair job ahead in the post-Bush years. This job comes down to acknowledging that our military-led response to 9-11 has made us less safe by creating more terrorists than it has defeated. Furthermore, we must convince the rest of the world's peoples that we are ready to engage with them in a different way. Whatever is said along these lines won't be credible unless, as the saying goes, we put our money where our mouth is."

The assumption is that might and right are invariably on its side, that it always knows best and that if necessary it will enforce its political wisdom and moral rectitude on others. There is, however, a hitch: the authority of the self-appointed global sheriff is remorselessly eroding. There have been two outstanding examples so far this year and the first was Burma. The question facing the rest of the world in the aftermath of the cyclone, however, was how to assist the millions of victims of a humanitarian disaster. China, India and ASEAN — who largely make up the region — were opposed to the use of military force and President Bush bow down to them. If he had followed this instinct in Iraq and use the unilateral action with the whole West backing up President Bush the result would be much rosier. US leaders were living in a time warp: the knee-jerk responses of old, freshened up by the short-lived era of liberal interventionism, have become a stock response. It was not long before the bellicose talk subsided and the West was obliged to channel its aid via ASEAN.

The fact that the West could not understand the geopolitical realities of Asia, now the largest economic region in the world — and adapt its policies accordingly revealed that old assumptions and attitudes run very deep indeed. Burma has demonstrated was the limits of Western power, the need for the West to understand those limits. The second example is Zimbabwe. This episode has revealed British — and Western — impotence in its starkest form. After much grandstanding at the G8 summit, the Anglo-American attempt to toughen sanctions foundered in the UN Security Council, where it was vetoed by Russia and China and opposed by South Africa and two others. Meanwhile, President Thabo Mbeki, whose efforts to broker some kind of deal have been widely and patronizingly scorned, has scored a major diplomatic triumph. The Southern Africa Development Community's appointed mediator for Zimbabwe, Mbeki managed to bring both Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC to the negotiating table. All the Western bluster and invective now look just that: the route to a possible solution has been the work of South Africa, the SADC and the African Union alone. This is yet a further illustration of a shift in global authority. The two big bullies China and Russia which has just occupied Georgia seem to indicate that NATO (No Action Talk Only) is just a lame duck.

Western power can no longer deliver in the face of the growing power, competence and self-confidence of developing countries. Instead of universal Western power, we are witnessing the rise of regionalization and regional solutions. This reflects broader changes in the global economy. BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and a growing number of developing economies, now account for less than half of global GDP and that share is steadily falling. Such economic shifts are the irresistible prelude to parallel changes in political power. The two examples discussed are classic instances of this process: Burma involved China and India, together with the ASEAN countries, while Zimbabwe featured South Africa, with Russia which has taken advantage of the Beijing Olympic to invade Georgia, and especially China, emboldened in this instance to play a more assertive role on the global stage. They illustrate what might be described as the growing "Bricisation" of global politics.

They also underline the comprehensive failure of Anglo-American foreign policy. At the time of the invasion of Iraq, no thought was given to the idea that Western economic power was on the wane. Never underestimate the ability of political leaders to misread history on a monumental scale. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have both served to hasten Western decline: they have both failed to achieve their objectives and in the process demonstrated an underlying Western impotence. In contrast, those other "rogue" states, namely North Korea, Zimbabwe, and perhaps even Iran, show strong signs of responding in a positive manner to a very different kind of treatment. Liberal interventionism has failed. But as yet the West shows no sign of either understanding the new world or being able to live according to its terms. The West has refused to recognize the diminution in its own authority and, as a result, seemingly incapable of adapting to the new circumstances and coming up with an innovative response especially in terms of economics.

United Nations

Currently, U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari is scheduled to return to Burma to pave the way for a return visit of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later this year. The time has come for the United Nations to measure success by outcomes alone, not merely by the engagement in process. Were success to be measured by engagement alone, it would have already been achieved. Special envoys and Rapporteur have made literally dozens of trip to Burma over the years, with minimal effect. Unless tangible and specific outcomes are actually achieved from this visit -- including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, which is a prerequisite for any meaningful dialogue -- then it is time for the Security Council to take further action. Specifically, it should escalate the pressure on the junta by adopting a binding resolution to transform its recommendations from its presidential statement into demands. Pressure has been increasing from numerous ASEAN countries, which now view Burma as holding back the development of the bloc. And pressure has been sustained by the United States, United Kingdom and France. But all members of the Security Council -- including China, Russia, and South Africa, which had opposed prior action on Burma -- must be reminded of their subsequent agreement with this roadmap.

Foreign investment in Myanmar plummeted by 77% over the past fiscal year as investments in the oil, gas and electricity sectors were significantly lower even in the Burmese official figures. In the 12 months to March 31 2008, total income for the three sectors was $ 172.72 million. That compares with 2006-07, when 11 enterprises invested $471.48 million in oil and gas, and $281.22 million dollars in electricity, the National Planning and Economic Development ministry said. The figures showed neighboring India is the biggest investor in Myanmar with $ 137 million in the oil and gas sector this year, followed by Thailand with $ 16.22 million dollars. Germany invested $2.5 million in manufacturing, South Korea had $12 million in fisheries and Singapore invested $5 million into mining.

The Junta has also brazenly used the cyclone to its further advantage. The United Nations recently reported that aid groups have lost some 20% of the money they have brought in to Burma because of arbitrary foreign exchange rules imposed by the junta. Not only does the junta retain these funds as its own “tax” on relief operations, but this also reduces the aid provided to those most in need.

What ever the diplomatic pressure is on, Burma will not budge, and knowing full well there is nothing ASEAN can do. Of course, what the Junta is doing is to ensure that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is isolated from the political process. The Junta will hold the planned election in 2010 and it will be a fait accompli. The generals will use all kinds of trickery to maintain their power and dodge international sanctions. If the national referendum in May was any indication, the future poll will certainly be rigged. Burma's ratification of the ASEAN Charter was timed for maximum benefit. For the first time, the pariah state was able to say it is committed to the values and norms of ASEAN. In the 11 years since Burma joined ASEAN, it has caused only headaches for the group. Now, ASEAN and the international community are committed to help revitalize Burma after Cyclone Nargis.

Synchronizing the Foreign and Domestic policy

In deciphering the future policy of Burma one need to know not only that realities on the ground are somewhat different from the reports we are having in the West. Must be able to construed the broad picture and not be distorted with emotions. In astronomy it is called "gravitational lensing", where light was distorted because of gravity. Hence most of the ethno democratic forces of Burma are often than not blinded by emotions. Johan Alvin rightly asserts that Burma problem is not just the failure of the tyrannical Burmese Generals but `also that of the opposition and the international community. We would rather label it as a collective failure from President Bush on to the lowest resistance Burmese fighter.

The moral approach of the West particularly America and EU, the mainstream rational approach by the UN and the economic approach by ASEAN of the so called Constructive Engagement and the Hegemonic approach by China and India have all failed and one is forced to admit that Burma is unique. What we are clamouring is a collective responsibility approach.

A Burmese intelligentsia will not be fooled by clever Public Relations stance of the US President, because one can almost guarantee the US would place China on its list of priorities above that of Burma. If anything, the US would sacrifice Burma at the altar of vast Chinese economic advantage. Everybody knows that if China drops its support for the Burmese regime today it will collapse tomorrow. What we are emphasizing is that the Burmese ethno democratic movement alone cannot change the Chinese government and the people sitting on the Dragon throne, that's why we are asking the international community particularly the US to meet them and give another chance to talk. We are soliciting your help.

Burma's generals have long drawn the ire of the international community, over the brazenly deliberate attempt to restrict the handling of relief operations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis resulting in the death and disappearance of some 140,000 Burmese citizens and turning two million refugees into hostages. It is paradoxical that Bush did not raise this issue to the ten-country consortium of ASEAN that has consistently balked at considering comprehensive sanctions against Burma's generals, instead preferring a policy melded around engagement.

Coup de Grace

Every Burmese know that the regime is mortally wounded. It is difficult to overstate the outrage felt by almost all Burmese Buddhists at the brutalization of the monks. Monks are integrated into all levels of Burmese society. Monks give babies their names; they provide astrological charts for the newborn; in the almost complete absence of medical care in rural Burma (i.e. for eighty per cent of the population) they give traditional medical care in the monasteries, and general help and advice. Monks and pagodas are just about the most conspicuous things in Burma. The regime has 450,000 soldiers but there are 500,000 permanent monks. If you add the temporary monks (and all Burmese boys become monks for at least a few weeks in their lives) then at times there are more than two million of them. Monks were quite an organized group to provide effective help after the cyclone, handing out what little food was available and sheltering people in monasteries until the regime forced them out to return to their destroyed homes and villages.

Hence the brutalising of the monks, along with the aftermath of the typhoon has mortally wounded the regime. There is now a complete understanding between the monastic order and the nation that the present regime is beyond the pale. The danger is that the universal hatred of the generals, now turned into outrage at a sort of sacrilege, combined with rage at their astonishing indifference to the suffering caused by the storm, could lead to a violent eruption. What we need is just acoup de grace.

I often quoted that we don't need a drop of American blood or anybody's blood to shed for Burma, we Burmese will do the dirty job of finishing the Junta and its cronies. Just give us coveted support of arms and ammunition to implement our job, be it a CIA or whatever. This is the policy we are opting for. Now, after two decades, every body is convinced that non violent approach is not paying in as much as the world has not confronted Adolph Hitler for a non violent. The Junta knows only one language and when he sees the guns (the prospect of an American navy coming up the delta) is very upset and sends cold shrills through the spines of the Generals.

The ethnic armies even though badly bruised, is still capable of fighting, if properly armed and with the entire supported of the Burmese people and the international community could easily knocked out the Junta's forces. What more the ENC has already draw up a rough Federal Constitution not to mention the several declarations made by the Burmese ethnic forces that what they want is autonomy in the genuine Union of Burma and not separatism. This action alone proves the ridiculous claim of the Junta that they alone can keep the country together and prevent Balkanization. Remember the crux of the Burmese problem is ethnicity; there won't be any military coup, if the civilian government can handle the ethnic problem in 1962. And if there is no military coup there is no need for the struggle of democracy. Democratic struggle and ethnic problems are two sides of a coin. Yet, when President Bush met the Burmese dissidents there are only two ethnic representatives while the rest are democracy advocates with their megaphone diplomacy. America needs to change its advisers on Burma especially who stay hands in glove with the Arr Loo (literally translated potatoes) leaders and help solve the Burmese problems from its roots if the Union of Burma were not to repeat the mistakes prior to 1962.

Candidly also that among the ethnic leaders there are several racists who would never lift a finger for the prevalence of democracy and human rights and narrow on its ethnic right and federalism. The extremists from both sides, the Mahar Bama who construe that all Burmese ethnics should follow their lead and the racist ethnic leaders who opted for Balkanization still needs to be weeded out once and for all. Now the start has made with the coming of the Bushes, it need a snowball effect which we are quite positive will solve the Burmese problems once and for all.

The ethnics believe in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi like her daddy is the only person whom the ethnic leaders trust. She is manifestly more intelligent and better educated than they are, a better speaker, and beautiful: She is also the daughter of Burma's national hero, Aung San, who created the very army that now keeps her under house arrest. Her beauty and charm combined with her birth, her gentleness stand out against the stupidity and sheer brutishness of the Burmese Generals. There is a general belief that she speaks for the whole country and that no one else does so or even could do so. She has offered compromises to the regime. The army can keep some sort of political role if it goes back to the barracks. The top generals can even leave the country taking their loot with them. There is absolutely nothing that an intelligent, patriotically minded military has to fear from her. But the regime construes her as a nymph that comes to haunt them.

On the other hand the Burmese army better known as Tatamadaw has become a Mudane Thatmadaw (translated rapist not satisfied with killing). The whole strategy of the Burmese army is to divide and rule and turn one group against another. There is no claim to legitimacy, no program, no ideology, nothing except the immeasurable fear that it will lose its power and material gains. Add to that that many Burmese see it as handing over the country to its Chinese protectors (and Mandalay is called as 2nd Peking) and don’t harbor any semblance of being patriotic.

Than Shwe is an object of ridicule and contempt. He inherits the paranoia and weirdness of the Ne Win regime but not its measure of credibility. The regime has cocooned itself away from public opinion, and appears to have given up politics completely in favor of simple military rule. The regime's lack of response to the typhoon, its actual obstruction of both foreign and domestic aid, its determination to go ahead with a bogus referendum designed to legitimize its power in the midst of the emergency have produced exactly the mix of ingredients which can cause a regime to fall. The regime's 450,000 soldiers have families of their own, many of whom will have suffered, and are themselves (apart from the officers) not well paid. It is a proven fact that the commanding officer in Mandalay refused to order his men to fire on the demonstrators in September, and was replaced. Many Burmese will tell you with confidence that many of the young officers of the army hate the ruling clique. Mussolini absurdly tried to impose a martial, Fascist mentality upon the Italians and failed and something similar is happening in Burma. What we need is a little push for the Junta to fall off over the cliff. Will the new American president see this before ringing in the New Year bells?

- Asian Tribune -

Share this