Change the Burmese Public Can’t Believe In


Maung Zarni – TRANSCEND Media Service

Burma is undergoing top-down changes, we are being told.

Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, after his whirlwind trip to the country, told the Financial Times on Oct 11, “I almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar.”

Last month, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) issued its latest report on Burma, “Myanmar: Major Reform Underway,” which brims with false hopes, unwarranted optimism, and projected possibilities for Burma—so much so that James C. Scott, Yale’s renowned Southeast Asianist, felt compelled to publicly criticize the ICG’s Burma spin in an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Driven by divergent agendas and interests, both influential external players and local commercial and technocratic interests are ignoring the country’s power and economic realities while singing the praise of Naypyidaw’s reform.

Notwithstanding the new mood music in the background, Burma’s generals and ex-generals cannot conceivably succeed in frog-marching the country towards peace, prosperity and democracy. A glance at their half-century-old record of failures at playing omniscient nation-builders suffices.

The country is ranked second to last, just ahead of Somalia, on Transparency International’s Corruption Index. There are pockets of local communities whose socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions are closer to those of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa than to those of an Asian country about to “take off” developmentally.

State provision of health services exists only in name, and so does public education, the largest provider of schooling. But that’s good news for global bankers such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which typically insists on drastically cutting public expenditures in exchange for massive loans.

The country’s environment and communities face serious threats to their survival from some mega-development projects such as dam construction—there are still six dams being built on the Irrawaddy after the halting of the Myitsone dam—and the two major Chinese gas and oil pipelines and Thailand’s US $13 billion Special Economic Zone construction in the country’s far south.

In the midst of economically rising Asia, the country produces the fifth largest refugee population in the world. The Burma Army is still waging military operations against armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union.

For foreign policy makers and gurus who wish to convince the Burmese public and international skeptics of the genuineness of the changes underway in Burma, they must address two outstanding issues on which they have so far been silent.

First, the current top-down changes are not going to make a dent in the most fundamental power relations between the citizenry and the exclusive ruling club of generals and ex-generals, still in service or in civilian skirts. Without both the genuine acknowledgment of and putting into practice the universal democratic ethos of “We the People as Sovereign,” no government can claim to be moving in the direction of some form of democracy. There are no signs that Naypyidaw-men have stopped viewing themselves as the country’s “divine rulers.”

On the contrary, the Nargis Constitution of 2008—so-called as it was imposed on the country amid the cyclone disaster—places the military above the law and legalizes any military coup at the whims of the commander-in-chief. This clearly violates both the spirit and letter of constitutionalism. For the military’s Constitution is not to curb the generals’ excessive powers, but to further enshrine them.

The Asian Human Rights Commission puts it thus: “The 2008 Constitution is in terms of human rights a norm-less constitution. Under its provisions, the armed forces are placed outside of judicial authority. The military, not the judiciary, is the constitution’s guardian. The judiciary is separated from other branches of government only ‘to the extent possible.’”

Second, the main economic policy changes—for what is politics without the economic?—such as attempts to readjust the country’s exchange rate with the help of the IMF and “privatizing” public assets, which in reality is a Russian-style wealth transfer into the pockets of the generals and their cronies, will neither improve the public welfare nor equitably increase the people’s stake in the economy.

In the first quarter century of the generals’ rule (1962-88), the late Gen Ne Win impoverished both the military and the public through his economically ruinous “Burmese Way to Socialism.” In the second quarter century since 1988, his successor—Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his underlings—have pursued “the Burmese Way to Capitalism.” Burma now has a new class of super-rich generals and cronies, who share the massive spoils at the expense of the multi-ethnic public and the environment.

Needless to say, the global oil, gas and mining corporations—for instance, France’s Total and the USA’s Chevron—and Burma’s Asian neighbors have gleefully grabbed as much of the loot of one of the world’s “last economic frontiers” that they can lay their hands on.

For the Burmese public, by the time they have earned their civil and political rights to organize, associate and protest, there will be nothing left worth protesting for.

Upon his release from Myitkyina jail, where he was serving a 35-year prison sentence, my friend Zarganar summed up the local disbelief when he told The Irrawaddy in an interview: “I wanted to believe in these positive changes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [and others] spoke about. But since this morning [upon release], I lost belief in them because I found that the government does not even have a genuine desire to release all political prisoners.”

And the comedian is speaking for the Burmese public.

Daw Suu’s positive characterization of President Thein Sein and his “want for positive changes” reminds me of former US President George W Bush and his discovery of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin‘s soul in the latter’s eyes.

Again Zarganar was spot on when he pointedly said that Naypyidaw has been handling amnesties in Burma in a fashion more akin to Somali pirates than a regime that has just had a “change of heart.”

Truth is, the same old military leadership is aggressively engaged in a well-timed and well-calculated strategy designed to placate diverse target groups, both domestically and internationally, with carefully crafted multiple spins.

Furthermore, after 20 years of trying to break, eliminate and marginalize their nemesis Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the generals have finally found an effective way to clip her wings with her own discourse of “peaceful transition” towards democracy and reconciliation.

There is arising a monumental problem with Daw Suu abandoning the streets, which were her original political home as a viable political space, in her hopeful quest for reformist needles in the parliamentary haystacks. There is neither an FW de Klerk nor a Fidel V Ramos within or outside the rubber-stamp Parliament in Naypyidaw.

Unlike de Klerk, Naypyidaw’s generals and ex-generals still do not think there is anything fundamentally wrong with them and their warped worldview. Unlike Ramos, Ferdinand Marcos’ cousin and the West Point-trained reformist who headed the Philippines’ Constabulary, President Thein Sein commands neither the military nor its respect.

It is far more important to take a glance at Naypyidaw’s old designs and new maneuvers than to look straight into the president’s eyes and find sparkles of reformism.

These include the farce of checks and balances, the establishment of a quasi-autonomous human rights commission, the emerging space for pliable presidential advisers, or “useful idiots” as Lenin bluntly put it, and launching concurrently a series of diplomatic offensives at presidential, ministerial and adviser levels to Washington, Beijing, New Delhi and Jakarta. On the international propaganda front, Naypyidaw is now engaged in well-coordinated public relations work which includes placing well-timed opinion editorials in The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and The Bangkok Post in its quest for normalization and acceptance of the quasi-constitutional military government with a civilian face through a carefully crafted narrative of Naypyidaw’s “hardliners vs reformers.”

Under the fog of trumpeted changes, even the presidential spin regarding the decision to halt the Myitsone Dam—that the new government is acting in accord with the democratic creed—sounds far less genuine and convincing after the Oct 12 amnesty and resultant release of some 10 percent of Burma’s politcal prisoners than when the Myitsone decision was first announced. In fact, in a recent interview with The Voice Weekly, the regime’s Burmese-language propaganda proxy, the president’s political adviser, ex-Col Ko Ko Hlaing, made it clear that halting the Myitsone Dam wasn’t a big deal for Naypyidaw because it was just a “small component” of the entire Irrawaddy dam scheme Naypyidaw is still actively pursuing.

So, modest political relaxation as opposed to meaningful democratization is a small price the regime seems prepared to pay the West in order for the Naypyidaw regime to be able to effectively fine-tune its geopolitical interests abroad and the system’s domestic safety valves.

In less than six months, whatever its façade, the military will be celebrating its Golden Jubilee as the world’s oldest dictatorship, which has outlived its world contemporaries, including the likes of Suharto, Marcos and, most recently,  Colonel Gaddafi.

It would be a grave mistake for Burma’s democrats to underestimate the ruling elite’s “will to power, control and wealth” and their boundless ability to deceive their opponents and adversaries. Indeed, bypassing Naypyidaw, the real winds of change are blowing only in places like Washington, Oslo, Brussels, Jakarta, Rangoon and Jakarta, where different interests feel an urgent need to resume business as usual in the generals’ Burma.


Dr Zarni ( is a Research Fellow on Burma at LSE Global Governance, London, and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Oct 2011.

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