Thursday, 13 August 2009

Post#139 Thoughts on Myanmar

Will the military dictatorship in Myanmar, Burma, if you prefer, survive? An interesting question, I think. I would have to say that Myanmar shows the very same structural factors that have served to weaken democracy in Pakistan on the other side of the Indian Subcontinent: it has a strong military tradition, a fairly weak civil society, and a fear of national disintegration. The situation in Myanmar is further complicated by a fear of outside intervention.

Remember, too, that the country did not gain its independence by the same political process at work in India and Pakistan. Rather, it emerged as a result of the war against Japanese occupation, involving local Burmese as well as Allied forces. This means that the significant leaders who emerged in 1945 all had a military rather than a civilian background. It's one of history's ironies that the greatest of these leaders, Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the voice of the democratic opposition, is also the iconic figure who has helped sustain the special place of the military in Burmese politics

This has also been supported, as I have said, by the relative weakness of civil society. During the days of British rule the native Burmese played very little part in managing day- to-day affairs, with administrators being recruited from among colonial Britons or Indians. Excluded from the civil service, the ethnic Burmese nevertheless formed an important part of the police and the army. Although an embryonic native middle-class was beginning to emerge in the course of the early twentieth century, it was almost completely wiped out in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Fear of national disintegration has roots in the early evolution of the Burmese state. In the two hundred years prior to the advent of the British in the 1820s, the Burmese kings had expanded their control out of the lowlands into areas inhabited by different ethnic and linguistic groups. The Shan, the Karen, the Arakanese, the Mon, the Chin, the Karenni and the Kachin, all non-Burmese speaking, now make up approximately one third of the total population, occupying two-thirds of the national territory. Fears that these centrifugal forces will destroy the integrity of the nation have been fuelled by the long-standing insurgencies of the Shan and the Karen. The opportunity this might provide for foreign intervention has strengthened the army's sense of paranoia, creating a siege mentality and a persistent mood of xenophobia amongst the generals. As far as the military is concerned it is they who are the guardians of the nation, the one guarantee that Myanmar/Burma will survive as a unitary state.


As a postscript to the above let me add a guilty admission and a recommendation, not that I have the least hope that anyone is listening!

A few years ago, after leaving school, but before going up to university, I took a gap year, an opportunity to travel to various places in the world, including south-east Asia. While there I visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. I also went to Myanmar, though I struggled with my conscience over that, mindful of the request by Aung San Suu Kyi for the world-large and small-to boycott the tyrants. She's a gallant and courageous lady, the leader of the opposition, the rightful leader of the country by democratic decision, the conscience of a nation; it's difficult to ignore her.

Look at the other side of the world, to Cuba. Here the vile Castro regime has been kept in power for so long I would say precisely because of the American boycott, not in spite of it. The one sure way of undermining Castro would have been to allow contacts of all kinds; tourist, cultural and commercial. He would no longer have been able by this process to have identified his Communist tyranny-as he has-with Cuban nationalism.

So, too, in the east the best way of opening up Myanmar to the prospect of change is for the west to abandon sanctions and boycotts. There is every sign-as The Economist has rightly pointed out-that the generals want to follow the same development path as China and Vietnam before them. Isolation has given them security, not legitimacy, and it is this they badly need. Economic development is likely to bring political development, which is likely to bring change. Aung Sun Suu Kyi is courageous, yes, but she is also wrong. There, I've said it!