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Thursday, March 5, 2009


Speaking out on the future of Burma

As Burma heads toward its 2010 elections, Jeff Kingston asks political observers about prospects for reform

Special to The Japan Times

These are tough times for the people of Burma. They have endured decades of economic mismanagement, low living standards and brutal political oppression under an incompetent and negligent military junta that shows no signs of relinquishing its grip on power. Indeed, as the country approaches elections in 2010, the regime has cracked down on its opponents, imposing prison terms of 65 years on relief workers, comedians, writers, intellectuals, monks and others.

News photo
Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy in Burma JEFF KINGSTON PHOTOS

No challenges to the junta are allowed and thus those who joined peaceful demonstrations in the Saffron Revolution of 2007 or tried to help the survivors of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 were targeted by the regime for sentences that in many cases ensure the imprisoned will die behind bars. The number of political prisoners has more than doubled since 2007 and stands at 2,100.

The junta has sent a message to prodemocracy activists that they should not confuse the upcoming 2010 elections with an opportunity to build democracy in Burma. Unlike in 1990 when the military was embarrassed by a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, a result it has steadfastly ignored, this time around the results will be rigged.

The model for this sham-in-the-making is the constitutional referendum staged in May 2008 when an unbelievable 92 percent of voters approved a document that almost nobody had seen. There were widespread and credible reports of gross irregularities and there is a consensus that the referendum was not remotely free or fair.

As a result, the new constitution imposed by the regime that preserves political power for the military and excludes Suu Kyi has zero credibility, further undermining the legitimacy of a government that is overwhelmingly despised by it citizens.

And why wouldn't they despise it? In cracking down on the Saffron Revolution in 2007 — a monk-led, grassroots response to dreadful and declining living standards — the military murdered, imprisoned and tortured many monks, a transgression that trampled cultural taboos, triggering outrage and a smoldering resentment. People were seething at the sheer brutality of the junta, but were totally unprepared for the government's mind-boggling response to Cyclone Nargis.

In early May 2008, Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta region, claiming an estimated 138,000 lives, displacing some 800,000 survivors and leaving some 2.5 million people desperately in need of food, shelter and medical treatment. Any government would be hard-pressed to respond effectively to such a massive natural disaster, but instead of focusing on relief efforts the government prioritized the constitutional referendum. As a result, the government was slow to respond and even impeded relief efforts by international agencies by withholding approval of visas for relief specialists.

News photo
Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The world looked on in disbelief as the junta devoted scarce resources to a sham referendum while ignoring the needs of survivors.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, there has been renewed debate about how the international community should respond and whether punitive sanctions and isolation are working to promote reform. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that the United States is reviewing its hard line policies toward the regime.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) provides in-depth analysis of conditions in Burma, but is often criticized for being overly solicitous of the military junta. The principal author of the ICG reports, Morten Pedersen, argues that the current strategy of imposing sanctions and isolating the military junta is not working, creating a stalemate that shows no signs of resolution. He asserts that sanctions and isolation actually strengthens the junta's grip on power, allowing them to pose as defenders of the nation. In his view, the military leaders will not bow to pressure for political reform and are well insulated from economic sanctions, especially with rising LNG revenues.

The problem is that the people of Burma are not insulated from the usual problems of endemic poverty — the United Nations estimates that 30 percent of the population faces acute poverty — and many are swept up in a gathering humanitarian crisis. Yet, despite appalling conditions, international aid to Burma is only about 5 percent per capita of what comparable developing nations typically receive. The ICG advocates broader, sustained engagement and a sharp increase in aid to fund "sustainable humanitarian development."

News photo
Win Min, a Burmese political commentator, also based in Chiang Mai

Pedersen acknowledges the brutality and venality of the military regime, but does not think that regime change is a viable option because government institutions have withered during four decades of military rule, meaning across-the-board capacity deficits that amplify the difficulties of coping with Burma's staggering challenges. The military is the strongest institution in a country known for its pervasive disfunctionalities and as such, he asserts, must continue to play a key role in any transition scenario.

In October 2008, the ICG issued a report arguing that the Nargis experience demonstrates the need to normalize aid relations and suggests a way forward out of the stalemate. The ICG points out that after the initial fumbling response, a normal relief operation was apparent by July 2008 and goes on to argue that the donor community now has an opportunity to build on this enhanced cooperation to transform and expand the aid agenda.

Credit for this turnaround goes to the Trilateral Core Group (TCG), a problem-solving task force that has one representative each from the Burmese government, the U.N. and ASEAN. The TCG, according to the ICG, proved effective in addressing operational problems and cutting through red tape, allowing aid organizations to conduct their projects as they would in any similar situation and monitor how development aid was used.

Yuki Akimoto, director of Burma Info in Tokyo, is more skeptical about the TCG and disputes the ICG's assessment, arguing, "The TCG has a built-in limitation in that one of the three parties is the military regime. The ICG assessment lacks credibility because it misrepresents the reasons why Burma is suffering socio-economically and not receiving development assistance. It is one thing to advocate for increased engagement with the regime, but it is an entirely different matter to defend the military regime, as the ICG assessment effectively does.

"ICG avoids holding the military regime accountable for the situation the regime itself has caused through its brutally self- interested actions and policies, which have enriched the generals and their cronies while impoverishing the nation."

Thant Myint U, former U.N. diplomat and currently a Visiting Fellow with the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, believes that the Nargis relief operations have helped build a better working relationship between the junta and international donors, saying, "The Nargis relief efforts have led to a big shift in attitudes. Now many in the government understand that there is no great danger in providing access to international aid workers, while on the reverse side many donors see the possibilities of working in Burma while meeting international standards of transparency and accountability."

The ICG, in calling for normalizing aid as a strategy for promoting change, maintains that the TCG can be the model for broader engagement elsewhere in the country, presenting it as a task-based, problem-solving approach that nurtures capacity-building, transparency and accountability. The ICG also argues that, "aid cannot be used as a bargaining chip, but should be seen as a valuable instrument in its own right for improving governance and promoting socioeconomic change."

Thant Myint U is less optimistic about copying the TCG model for expanded aid efforts elsewhere in Burma: "What is certain about the TCG is that it has been an invaluable mechanism for delivering emergency aid to affected people in the Nargis-affected areas. The international aid community has been given unprecedented access and it appears that space for ongoing relief and recovery operations can be sustained. Whether it can be expanded to other parts of the country is unlikely. We need creative solutions and shouldn't be tied to the TCG model. What's important is not the mechanism per se but finding ways to deliver aid in a way that meets basic international norms."

In early February one of the ministers who served as Burma's leading representative in the TCG was transferred, and some analysts see this as a sign that the junta is withdrawing its support from the TCG. However, a senior diplomat (who like several others interviewed for this story did not wish to be named) suggests that this speculation is off the mark: "His promotion should not be seen as the junta pulling back from the process. Rather, his promotion to the ministerial level will make it easier for him to act and push the process."


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