Burmese generals just don’t care

Michael Backman
The Age
11 Oct 07

Sanctions are ineffective; the Burmese people have lived with them for decades.

There are two impediments to change in Burma. One is the military junta. The other is Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to compromise with the generals means that Burma cannot progress. Yes, she did win an election and was then arrested, and yes, it’s all very unfair, but pragmatism is what will lead to progress in Burma: principle has clearly failed.

Part of the justification for the West’s sanctions is that Suu Kyi supports sanctions. But is she still the right judge of these matters? After all, she has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years and has largely been incommunicado with ordinary Burmese. And she might have won an election but that was 17 years ago. It would be interesting to know how the other 53 million Burmese feel about sanctions.

It’s a disquieting thought that the main reason why any of us know much about Burma is because the principal protagonist is pretty and photogenic. Meanwhile, Africa has many oppressed black male opposition leaders that most of us cannot name.

Power is the No.1 priority of Burma’s rulers. It is not money, prestige or a place in history. This they have in common with the rulers of China, Vietnam and Singapore.

In each of these countries, the political leaders have sought to merge their identities with the state. They want their citizens to think that challenging them is equivalent to undermining the state; do so and you risk being labelled a subversive or at least being treated like one. It’s a trick that all authoritarian regimes like to use. Nationalism is another self-serving tool.

Any realistic solution to Burma’s troubles needs to acknowledge the reality of who has power. And the Burmese Army — with 400,000 personnel — has plenty of power and is battle-hardened from decades of fighting insurgents.

Change in Burma will require working with what’s there and that means the army. A softer approach from those in power rather than the removal of those in power is about all that can be hoped for. After all, this is how change has come to China and Vietnam, where today both governments are delivering astonishing increases in prosperity to their citizens in the absence of anything that passes for democracy.

The idea that Western governments have any leverage with the junta is a fiction. Most diplomatic heads of mission in Burma almost never have meetings with anyone of seniority — such meetings simply are not granted.

Similarly, shaming the junta overseas has no effect — they simply don’t care. Again, a comparison can be made with the Government of Singapore.

Foreign criticism of the Singapore Government’s unbelievably petty treatment of opposition figures and its outrageous control of the local media is simply ignored.

Singapore’s leaders are utterly resolute about their right to rule. Besides, you cannot shame those without shame.

Imposing even more sanctions is ineffective. Such a move serves almost as a reward for the generals; they want to be isolated, they want to be left alone. They don’t want the exposure that international interaction will give them. They have no interest in strutting the world stage. They are entirely inwardly focused. Their desire is to opt out of the world community so that their power within the confines of their borders can be maintained.

In any event, for most of its modern history, Burma has not been plugged in to the rest of the world. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, and into the 80s, it deliberately remained isolated, preferring little contact with the outside world. This means that sanctions are hardly going to work on a country that until recently had a system of self-imposed sanctions.

The other problem with sanctions is that they inadvertently encourage the status quo. How can the junta be expected to reform and evolve when it is cut off from the rest of the world? The generals do what they do because it’s all they know. They don’t understand sharing power, nor do they understand how to run an economy. When Burma’s banking system went into meltdown in 2003, the generals simply didn’t know what to do.

A situation that could have been nipped in the bud by foreign-trained banking experts grew and spread.

And that brings us to what the Burmese people really want.

The protests were not started because people want democracy. They started because people were angry about fuel prices. In essence, if the people can’t have the leaders they want, then they at least want the leaders they are forced to have to be able to manage the economy effectively. But Western sanctions make it difficult for the Burmese to have even this.

People tend to want democracy if they think it will bring prosperity; a better way of life. If they get that prosperity without democracy, then the urgency for democracy seems to decline. Singapore, Vietnam and China are examples of this.

This means that it is not only one of the biggest armies in the world, but also one of the most experienced. Moreover, it has been re-armed in recent years thanks to the money that Burma has earned from selling natural gas, particularly to Thailand. Technical assistance, sophisticated weapons and military IT have also come from China and Singapore.

All this means that Burma’s military is largely impossible to dislodge from power. The military’s position is further entrenched because of better housing, health care and education provided to soldiers and their families. This means that protesting monks don’t merely threaten a cabal of generals at the top, but also the schooling of the sons and daughters or younger siblings of every soldier who stands behind each Chinese or Singapore-made assault rifle.

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