For decades, analysts and diplomats have been wrong-footed by events in Burma, and certainly none foresaw the dramatic developments of the past year.Perhaps what was predictable was that the heated debate and division over international policy on Burma would continue. Those long opposed to sanctions are calling for them to be lifted, and talking up prospects of reform. Those less trusting of the motives of the Burmese government argue it is too soon to lift sanctions, pointing to the limited scope of reforms so far and ongoing human rights abuses.
Both sides of the debate can point to evidence to support their case. On the one hand, elections were held in November 2010 – the country’s first in twenty years, albeit not free and fair. Six days after the elections came the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and this summer saw a small opening of political space, a relaxation of censorship, a lifting of the ban on some news websites, and the release of some political prisoners.
However, at the same time there has been a dramatic increase in conflict, with the newly elected government breaking three ceasefires with armed ethnic political parties. The Burmese army has deliberately targeted civilians, mortar bombing villages and gang-raping ethnic women and girls. Around 140,000 people were displaced by conflict in the past year, twice the usual annual number. At the same time, most political prisoners remain in jail, and continue to face torture and inhumane conditions. The irony is that at a time when there is unprecedented optimism that change is finally coming to Burma, human rights abuses have actually increased.
One question that is rarely being asked in the debate is why. Why are the reforms taking place, and why has conflict increased ? What is the end game ? Dictators in Burma have often been cast as superstitious, stupid or crazy, but this is far from the truth. While individual decisions taken by dictators have often appeared illogical to the international community, if one steps back to look at the big picture, they have been remarkably successful. There has been dictatorship in Burma in one form or another since 1962, one of the longest running dictatorships in the world. The ruling military and business elite have enriched themselves, living lives of luxury unimaginable to ordinary people in the country. Despite international outrage at the abuses they have committed, they have largely avoided punitive international economic sanctions which would seriously destabilise their regime. For two decades the United Nations General Assembly has passed resolutions on Burma which referred to violations of, and called on the government to respect, international law, yet there isn’t even a UN arms embargo against the country. Given this track record, it would be a mistake to think that President Thein Sein and the military don’t have a carefully laid out strategy to manage the current changes and ensure that they maintain political and economic control.
It’s the constitution, stupid
The most obvious place to try to understand the motivations and actions of the ‘new’ government of Burma is the 2008 Constitution. The principles of the constitution were drafted in a National Convention chaired between 2004 and 2008 by then-Lieutenant General Thein Sein, now the new president. Constitutionally, parliament has very little power. Above parliament is the president. Above the president is the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), and above the NDSC is the military, with a constitutional veto over any actions by the government which it deems threatens national security and unity.
With this triple locking of power and influence, the military and ex-military figures who still run the country have felt confident enough to make some significant changes. There has been, on the face of it at least, the ‘civilianisation’ of government. There is a new parliament where political debate is allowed, although the military has a veto on constitutional change thanks to its guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament. The parliament is starting to pass new laws, making some economic reforms, and also passing a bill that could allow trade unions to form.
One argument is that a firesale of state assets sold off cheap to business cronies and relatives of the military just before the election secures the financial future of the military elite, and the veto options in parliament and the constitution secures their political future. Therefore, they are now ready to step aside, but also able to step back in should things go wrong.
Moderates or myth ?
The debate over hardliners versus moderates began in earnest over the former prime minister, Khin Nyunt, placed under house arrest by then-President Than Shwe in 2004. A smooth communicator and head of military intelligence, Nyunt was keen to engage with the international community to remove Burma’s pariah status, even inviting Amnesty International to visit. He was reportedly arrested while working on a deal with Aung San Suu Kyi to take part in the National Convention.
Those now arguing that Thein Sein is a moderate cite the example of how the international community failed to back Khin Nyunt, and that this was a missed opportunity. But was Khin Nyunt really a moderate as we understand the word ? As head of military intelligence he was responsible for monitoring and arresting political activists. It was in his detention centres that brutal interrogation and torture took place.
Khin Nyunt was no closet democrat. He was a smart politician with great ambitions for his country, and he knew that some concessions would have to be made in order to achieve them. It was Khin Nyunt who announced the re-convening of the National Convention in 2003, leading to a new constitution which was approved in a rigged referendum in 2008 and entered into force in 2011.
In his inaugural presidential speech to parliament in March 2011, Thein Sein appeared to echo this approach. He spoke openly of problems faced by the country, in a way not seen since the days of Khin Nyunt. He outlined ambitions for the country, promising economic and political reforms. The speech was widely acclaimed domestically and internationally. In line with the general failure by observers in the past year to ask why current reforms are taking place, little attention was given to his stated reasons for reform : “National economy is associated with political affairs. If the nation enjoys economic growth, the people will become affluent, and they will not be under influence of internal and external elements.” He also stated a top priority for his government was building “military might.”
Thein Sein himself appears an unlikely candidate to be a genuine reformer. He is very close to the former dictator Than Shwe, who ruled Burma with an iron fist from 1992 until stepping down in March 2011. While Thein Sein was the regional commander in the ethnic Shan State in the 1990s, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma took the unusual step of twice naming him for directly ordering his troops to commit human rights abuses. In the same vein, it was as Chair of the National Convention drafting the principles of the new constitution that Thein Sein rejected all proposals by ethnic minority political party representatives for some level of autonomy and protection for ethnic culture and people. This hardline approach led to the increased conflict of the past year. The failure of central governments to accept and respect the rights and aspirations of ethnic people of Burma, who make up forty percent of the population, is at the root of dictatorship and instability in the country, but to date Thein Sein appears unwilling to address these issues.
An internationalist regime
What has long been misunderstood is that the military dictatorship that replaced the old dictator Ne Win in 1988 did not follow his isolationist approach. Still very much in charge, today’s military leaders crave legitimacy, and look back to pre-colonial times when Burma was a growing regional power, feared and respected. The ‘new’ government isn’t really new. It is exmilitary men continuing a plan made while in the forces.
The moderates within the government are those who look around the world and see that half of all governments take the form of dictatorship or authoritarian regimes. The vast majority of these have no sanctions imposed against them, and enjoy normal trade and diplomatic relations.
In the Burma context, the reforms so far can be seen as politically significant, but their impact on the ground is limited. Lifting the ban on some websites appears less significant when considering that just 0.3 percent of the population has internet access. Releasing two to three hundred political prisoners appears less significant when Than Shwe released more than four hundred in one go back in 1992. Can it be just a coincidence that the first political reform law is on trade unions, when the International Labour Organization has been the most forceful UN agency and there are moves for a new ILO inquiry into restrictions on trade union activity ?
The increasing human rights abuses, limited political prisoner releases and limited nature of reforms do not appear to be the actions of a genuine reformer. Rather, Thein Sein appears to be trying to gain the maximum benefit from the minimum number of concessions. So far the United States, European Union and Canada have held firm, demanding more action before any significant sanctions are lifted. Suu Kyi has seized the opportunity to extract some concessions at last, knowing that western governments are unlikely to relax sanctions without her agreement.
Suu Kyi and Thein Sein need each other for the time being. Each holds the key to the other’s current goals, and so more reforms and more relaxation of sanctions can be expected. Suu Kyi’s NLD is likely to reregister as a political party now that laws requiring them to expel convicted members and actively support the constitution have been changed. Suu Kyi may even enter parliament, either in by-elections or a future general election. Bringing the NLD under the new constitution will be a coup for Thein Sein, but Suu Kyi won’t be satisfied to remain in a parliament with limited powers. She will want some kind of process where much deeper and fundamental reforms can take place. But if Thein Sein’s goal is just to be a ‘normal’ dictatorship, with the rough edges taken off, then he won’t want any such process, and their concurrent interests will diverge. What happens then isn’t possible to predict.