Experts Help to Rebrand Burma’s Failed Dictatorship

BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 March 2011

by Dr. Zarni – TRANSCEND Media Service

Every time Burma’s military dictatorship is framed as “new,” it is being rebranded, to use the lingo of corporate advertising. The spoils of the positive public relations are shared as it were between the experts and their organizations that prostitute themselves by spinning for their neo-liberal governmental patrons and corporate “donors” in the West and Burma’s despotic regime, the former’s actual and potential business partner.

“While the underlying power structures have shifted significantly, dramatic change is highly unlikely in the short term. … Change will be gradual, but will accelerate over time,” reads the latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), titled “Myanmar: Post-Election Landscape” and released on March 7. The report on the whole reads more like a series of astrological calculations—which are all-too-familiar to the Burmese—than an empirically verifiable, serious work of analysis.

This portrayal of the so-called post-election political landscape in my country as “significant” is an insult to the common sense of the ordinary men and women of Burma, if not to the commercial and political elites who have concluded that they have more to gain by collaborating with the dictatorship than by standing against it. The ICG’s rebranded image of “post-election Burma” stands in sharp contrast to the political and institutional realities lived by the Burmese public, including ethnic nationalities in the country’s cease-fire regions or active war zones and the dominant majority living under direct military rule.

The loose network of local and global actors framing what the Burmese public knows first-hand to be the same old dictatorship in new garb as something genuinely new needs to be subject to empirical scrutiny in terms of these framers’ ideologies, interests, and the substance of their arguments or lack thereof.

From high-level policy lobbies such as ICG and the Burma experts of Chatham House (see “Burma Elections: First Step Out of the Impasse”) and Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies (see “The army’s new clothes”) to less articulate elements from within Burma’s local political and commercial elites, those who advocate for the normalization of “aid relations” (and in due course resumed and expanded commercial relations) view the opposition’s flagship organization, the National League for Democracy party (NLD) and its influential leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as a key obstacle to business engagement, economic development and even incremental reforms. Accordingly, these advocates are bent on chipping away the NLD’s legitimacy as the most representative voice.

One of their discursive strategies is to help reinforce the regime’s propaganda—a dictatorship under a new management evolving slowing in the right pro-democracy direction—while attacking the NLD’s claim as the last democratically elected party with a moral authority to speak for the Burmese public at large.

Two individuals stand out: Burmese writer Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the late UN Secretary General U Thant (and himself a second-generation former UN official), of Singapore’s quasi-autonomous Institute of South East Asia Studies; and Marie Lall, a senior lecturer with the University of London’s Institute of Education and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House.

In a recent New Yorker article by Joshua Hammer (“Letter from Burma: A Free Woman,” Jan. 24, 2011) Myint-U made assertions about Burma’s flagship opposition that are important but manifestly and verifiably false. Specifically, he “believes that the NLD’s insistence on the full implementation of the annulled 1990 election results doomed any hope of progress.”

Yet it is Burma’s dictator, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and his inner circle that have prevented progress and shown absolutely no indication of any desire to work with Suu Kyi and the NLD for the good of the country.

Tan Sri Razali Ismail, a former UN special envoy to Burma who made 12 trips to Burma on the specific mission of kick-starting a dialogue between the NLD and the military government, said in a public lecture on Burma at the London School of Economics two years ago that at the mere mention of Suu Kyi’s name, Than Shwe would, and did, end the audience with him.

In my two-hour face-to-face meeting with ranking officers of the military intelligence camp led by Gen Khin Nyunt in Rangoon on May 29, 2004, not even Brig-Gen Than Tun, then head of counterintelligence and the military’s chief liaison with the NLD leader, would say she was to be held responsible for the absence of dialogue and lack of political progress in our country.  Quite to the contrary, Than Tun emphatically stated—and I quote him verbatim—that “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is an utterly innocent party here.” Col Hla Min, the regime’s spokesperson, who was present at the meeting at 16B Inya Road, can verify this if and when he is released from prison.

Instead, Than Shwe, who reportedly orchestrated a failed assassination attempt aimed at the traveling NLD leadership in May 2003, went on to eventually purge any deputies who showed even a remote desire to cooperate with Suu Kyi and the NLD. And the rest is history as they say.

Priscilla Clapp, the former US Chargé d’Affaires and chief of mission in Rangoon from 1999 to 2002, noted in her report to the United States Institute of Peace, “Burma’s Long Road to Democracy,” that Than Shwe overruled the deal that his then intelligence chief, Gen Khin Nyunt, had reached with Suu Kyi in 2004.

After her release last November, the NLD leader herself has verified that she had agreed to work with her captors in order not only to help bring about gradual political changes but also to help improve the socioeconomic conditions and education of the public.

A well-known fact circulating in Burma diplomatic circles is that Than Shwe and his inner circle are determined not to enter into dialogue, much less cooperate, with Suu Kyi and the NLD, come hell or high water.

And yet Myint-U, Lall and their like continue to blame the persecuted opposition party for the country’s lack of progress, while keeping silent about the regime, which doesn’t see any need for dialogue, reconciliation or reform. One wonders if Burma experts spinning for the dictatorship might change their narrative if the NLD were the visa-issuing authorities.

Dr Marie Lall is a German-French researcher who is also affiliated with Britain’s semi-autonomous government think tank Chatham House. On Nov. 3—exactly four days before the Burmese generals’ election, Lall was airing her expert comment on “the election” on Chatham House’s official website (see “Burma Elections: First Step Out of the Impasse”). “The elections are the first step out of the impasse between the military and the wider population,” wrote Lall. “The democratic hardliners are today fewer in number and are more likely to meet popular indifference than to lead any popular protest movement, even should Aung San Suu Kyi be released soon.”

In her own words, the National Unity Party, made up of Ne Win-era anti-democratic dinosaurs, “is not only set to beat the [junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party] in many constituencies, giving it real power at a national level, it is also likely to take a different stand to the current regime on many issues, starting with land-owning rights for the peasants.”

Five days after her expert comment, Lall’s favorite party suffered a resounding defeat in the clearly rigged election, winning only 5.6 percent of the total seats contested vis-à-vis the regime’s proxy party, which won 76.8 percent of all contested seats.

Other significant subsequent turns of events—the post-election fighting between the regime’s troops and a Karen cease-fire group, the heightened prospects of renewed armed conflicts in the ethnic minority areas, and the thousands of local Suu Kyi supporters who gathered to greet the NLD leader as she emerged from captivity on Nov. 13—proved how out of touch with public sentiment and local conditions Chatham House’s Burma expert has been.

Today’s pro-democracy lawmakers, who constitute an utterly insignificant minority in the regime-controlled nominal Parliament, find themselves in a situation where they are forced to withdraw whatever draft bills they might fancy being deliberated in the freshly minted “legislative” chambers in the junta’s capital of Naypyidaw. So much for Burma’s “significant structural shift”!

Still, in her interview, “Time to drop Burma sanctions,” the Chatham House Burma expert is hard at work extolling what she considers the virtues of these new structures in “post-election” Burma, while complaining to the readership of The Diplomat, “the premier international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region, (that) reaches an influential audience of commentators, policymakers and academics,” that “Western policies give too much weight to the NLD’s position [vis-à-vis the new opposition leaders who argue for unconditional collaboration and appeasement with the Burmese dictatorship] even though it’s no longer a legitimate political party and can only play the part of an extra-parliamentary opposition.”

In the same interview, Lall approvingly helped amplify the accusation that the NLD, not the country’s dictatorship, disenfranchised Rangoon’s political elite with its decision to boycott the generals’ election, which even the Philippines—not to mention liberal democracies of the West—officially denounced as a “farce”. In her own words: “Last year there was great anger among politically-minded Burmese in Rangoon when the NLD, at [Suu Kyi's] behest, decided not to take part in the elections. They felt disenfranchised.”

It is worth stressing that as a lecturer at the University of London Institute of Education who has helped organize crash courses in international relations for the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Association, Lall’s “research and teaching visits” to Burma were initially funded by Japanese foundations, and subsequently sponsored by the highly controversial Myanmar Egress, which has been propped up with funding from German foundations, whose common, if unstated objective in funding Burma initiatives is to help secure export market niches in Burma for Japanese and German firms.

Lall’s other significant Burma connections are Robert H. Taylor, a founder of Myanmar Egress, sometime adviser to Britain’s Premier Oil and former London University School of Oriental and African Studies professor with well-known ties to Burma’s dictatorship since the days of Gen Ne Win, and Derek Tonkin, former British Ambassador to Thailand and one-time Burma investor for whose UK-based Network Myanmar Dr Lall serves as Secretary or Treasurer. She has written the sole commissioned paper on Burma (see “Ethnic Conflict and the 2010 Elections in Burma”) for Chatham House’s Burma Exchange program, funded by France’s Total oil company. Indeed Lall’s personal and professional associations are no less intriguing than her Burma doublespeak presented as expert analyses, comments and interviews.

Lall may, however, be forgiven for manufacturing her spin—namely “old-opposition-bad, new-junta-ok, opposition-renegades-best”—in light of the fact that such towering Western academics as Joseph Nye and Anthony Giddens, from Harvard and the London School of Economics, respectively, have recently been exposed for having played, wittingly or unwittingly, roles as academic white-washers for the four-decade-old regime of Libya’s Col Qaddafi (see “Spinning for Qaddafi” on CBS News, March 6, and “Despots and academia: more scandals ‘likely’,” The Independent, March 5).

If Qaddafi’s extremely influential network of academics and their institutions spanned across the Atlantic, the Burmese dictatorship and their “normalizers” are not doing too badly, either. After all, Than Shwe has produced neither the Burmese equivalent of Qaddafi’s “Green Book” nor a son or grandson of the caliber of Saif Gaddafi, who, armed with an Austrian MBA and an LSE “PhD,” effectively conned the Anglo-American political, commercial and intellectual establishments.

In addition to Chatham House’s Dr Lall and Dr Thant Myint-U, Than Shwe can boast quite an impressive list of individual and organizational white-washers, witting or not—from Nobel Prize-winning economic guru Joseph Stilglitz of Columbia University and former Thai foreign minister and present Asean Secretary General Dr Surin Pitsuwan to Dr Richard Horsey, former liaison officer of the International Labor Organization with the country’s regime and Open Society Institute Fellow, and other lesser known spin doctors masquerading as Burma Studies academics, “capacity builders,” “civil society representatives” and humanitarians.

It would be empirically incomplete, and intellectually dishonest, not to point out the all-too-obvious direct connection between Burma’s massive potential for commercial and aid-business opportunities and the calls for “normalizing aid relations” with the Burmese dictatorship. Jacob Ramsay, the senior Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks, an independent risk consultancy, was more honest than these Burma experts. He avoided all the lofty moral and strategic rhetoric surrounding the concerted efforts to rebrand Burma’s dictatorship as fit for normal aid relations—and business engagement. In a recent Reuters article (“For some, Myanmar is ultimate frontier market”), Ramsay was quoted as saying, “Everyone knows that fortunes will be made here once the sanctions are lifted and the economy opens up.”

Aside from these individual academics and Burma experts pushing for the embrace of Burma’s dictatorship, albeit under new management, in the name of incremental progress and regional stability, there are influential global networks such as ICG, the world’s largest think tank and high-level advocacy group, advocating a renormalization of Burma’s status quo and chipping away at the representational power and moral authority of Burmese dissidents and organizations of no less stature than Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.

By my own reading, the ICG’s latest Burma report is, both in terms of its content and analytical framework, at best intellectually incompetent and at worst empirically delusional. But this is a story for another day, and the subject of my next essay.

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Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is a member of TRANSCEND and a Research Fellow on Burma at LSE Global Governance.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 March 2011.

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