fallibilist

"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Myanmar: What to do?

Among the "outposts of tyranny" listed by Condoleezza Rice last year, Myanmar (formerly called Burma) receives least discussion. Clearly the top foreign policy priories in Washington right now are Iraq and Iran, for differing reasons. Both represent profound strategic challenges. The same can be said of North Korea. It cannot, however, be said of Myanmar. That country presents an example of when democracy promotion can stand alone as a policy objective. The problem is that the ruling junta, which has so impoverished its countrymen, shows no signs of collapse or reform. Far from it: they recently finished construction of a new capital, named Pyinmana, in the jungle without services or infrastructure. As a project it symbolises the regime's operating tendencies: as an action, it is vain, paranoid and lacking in logical basis. Likewise, the generals seem unconcerned at the prospect of Myanmar's Asean membership being suspended.

The question of what if anything outsiders can do is a difficult one. The main problem right now is that the approaches taken by various powers are opposed and inconsistent. I wrote about all of this last year. On Wednesday in the International Herald Tribune, Ian Holliday argues that the United States should reassemble the coalition (the so-called "core group") it put together at short notice to help organise the relief effort after the tsunami disaster of 16 months ago. Thus, it would put forward a joint position with India, Japan and Australia. Talks last month in Sydney between the Americans, Japanese and Australians seem to have gone well. It's an interesting suggestion. The problem, of course, with Holliday's presciption is that it stops short of advocating concrete steps the allies should undertake.

At the moment the link above to my previous piece seems to be broken. So, here, for the sake of is the piece in full:

Myanmar: Time for a re-think (October 4th 2005)
Thesis: Our governments must re-think their approach to Myanmar. At present, a disjointed international approach has not succeeded in visibly moving the country's ruling generals toward democracy or improving the lot of the country's people.

Context
Since 1962, Burma - since re-named Myanmar - has suffered under harsh military rule. In 1988, the isolationist strongman Ne Win was deposed in a military coup. The country has since been ruled by a group of generals, which last November re-named itself the "State Peace and Development Council". The junta tolerates no political opposition. In 1990, it disregarded the result of an election in which Aung San Suu Kiyi's National League for Democracy won 83% of parliamentary seats. (The Noble peace laureate is currently under house arrest.) There is no independent judiciary; political and civil rights as we would understand them are effectively non-existent. For example, the Paris-based NGO, Reporters Without Borders, last year assessed Myanmar as the third least free state it measured. Arbitrary detention and forced labour are common. Many are in jail in Myanmar for non-violent political dissension. And at no time has the junta shown any intention of recognising the 1990 election result. The state security forces have a well-earned reputation for brutality: A number of human rights advocates have "disappeared" in recent years; beatings and torture are widely reported and documented. Thousands of students and others were killed during demonstrations in 1988, under the previous (like-minded) regime. Internal conflict continues. In the New York Times on September 19th, Jared Genser wrote that the government has destroyed 2,700 villages since 1996; rape is a common tactic against ethnic minorities. The regime uses, according to Genser, 70,000 child soldiers.

The junta is also among the most corrupt in the world: it ranked 142nd of 146 countries, as measured by Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2004. The generals have destroyed the economy: This year's Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, rated it the second least economically free country surveyed. The regime's uncontrolled, unbudgeted and unrealistic military spending has added to the debilitation. As a result, the country is exceedingly poor, probably the poorest in eastern Asia - its GDP per capita for 2004 has been estimated at US$1,700.

Public health is also in crisis and Myanmar is the world's second biggest producer of heroin - Fred Hiatt has noted sardonically that the country's two primary exports are heroin and HIV/AIDS. This is hardly surprising when one notes that, in 2002, Myanmar spent $30 per capita on public health; this represents the lowest portion of GDP of any country for which the latest UN Human Development Index has statistics. Strains of HIV/AIDS have spread from Myanmar to neighbouring states. The regime's lack of co-operation has led the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis And Malaria to terminate funding to Myanmar. In the New York Times piece mentioned above, Genser reports that around 700,000 refugees have flooded into neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand.

Our problem too? A disjointed approach
The wretched state of Myanmar is a tragedy for its people. It is also, or at least should be, of concern to outsiders as well. Myanmar's drug production and trafficking, its internal violence and consequent refugee flow, and its lack of action against HIV/AIDS pose serious threats to its immediate region. Thailand is particularly concerned and is reported by Human Rights Watch to have failed to protect and even turned away many refugees. Myanmar also borders India and China, which were instrumental in persuading the generals not to assume Myanmar's role next year as chair of ASEAN, the regional organisation. They should look to why it is they felt so uneasy about eastern Asia being represented by Myanmar. China in particular has cultivated an uncritical relationship with the junta. Beijing is wary of the prospect of a pro-American democracy on its doorstep and wants to retain access to the Bay of Bengal and Myanmar’s natural resources. Russia and India too have co-operated with Myanmar in relation to security and technology transfer; free trade and investment in infrastructure have also characterised the relationship. Japan and Israel also co-operate with Myanmar. German private industry continues to invest in economic projects, including mine and gas exploration. The United States, on the other hand, has imposed trade sanctions on Myanmar and has been loudly critical of the regime's anti-democratic ways. On September 22nd 2004, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on the UN Security Council to act, describing Myanmar under the generals as "a threat to the region". Condoleezza Rice, in her confirmation hearings, listed Myanmar among the world's "outposts of tyranny". And the "end of tyranny in our world" was of course the lodestar of President Bush's second inaugural speech last January.

These two approaches have jarred along incoherently; or, as The Economist put it in July, they have cancelled one another out. US trade blocks are ignored by Asian (and some European) states and companies; the pragmatic, mostly uncritical approach taken by Asian countries contrasts with US criticism of the regime. One example occurred last October. China - along with, among others, India, Thailand and Indonesia - threatened to boycott an Asia-Europe summit, if US/UK pressure were brought to bear to have Myanmar excluded. The broader results of such disagreement have been little short of disastrous. The US approach of sanctions and isolation has not led to the isolation of Myanmar or brought democracy any closer. (The Free Burma Coalition, an exile group, remarks that the only country this approach has succeeded in isolating is the US itself.) If America's approach has been unilateralist wishful thinking, China's has been to pursue its strategic interests without any regard to the junta's record or any pressure for reform.

Is there a way forward?
So the approach of the various powers has led only to gridlock. All of Myanmar's problems - internal repression and stagnation – remain undented. It remains a potentially destabilising influence on the region. The long-term goal of US and EU policy in relation to Myanmar, as elsewhere in Asia, must be the emergence of a market-oriented democracy and a more decent government i.e. one that does not repress its citizens and will allow Myanmar develop economically. America is right in its diagnosis in this regard, but its medicine has had no effect. If Western leaders are to help chart a way forward that is possible to implement in practice, they must be willing to learn lessons from the experience to date and must show the courage to spend some political capital on a country of no obvious strategic "interest" to them.First, it must be appreciated that democratisation is a process, not an event. The Free Burma Coalition quotes David Potter's definition:
"Political change moving in a democratic direction from less accountable to more accountable government, from less competitive (or non-existent) elections, to
fuller and fairer elections, from weaker (or non-existent) autonomous associations to more autonomous and numerous associations in civil society."
Thus democratisation can be called a process of change. The US approach to date - sanctions and isolation - by concentrating on the end product of free and fair elections in Myanmar, has ignored the process of democratic transformation.* Similarly, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kiyi's opposition party, demands that any "process of national reconciliation" be begun by convening the Pyithu Hluttaw (parliament) elected in 1990. This might seem to be the ideal result. At least three objections can be made to this entrenched position, however. Firstly, it is entirely unrealistic. 15 years is more than enough evidence that the generals aren't about to be overcome by conscience and reinstate the 1990 election result. Secondly, it ignores the fact that democracy tends to be brought about after a process, rather than as a one-off event.

The NLD’s absolutism also plays to the modern predilection about self-determination as an absolute moral good. While tyranny is illegitimate as fundamentally antithetical to human dignity and freedom, there remains a danger in setting self-determination as a goal in itself, in a critical vacuum, irrespective of other factors. Take the example of the Kurds of the Middle East. Why doesn't the United States or the European Union proclaim itself in favour of a unified Kurdish state, encompassing the Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Turkey? The idea is a non-runner with the governments involved; the consequences for regional stability of a breakaway state are enormous; and so on. Instead the Western approach to date has consisted of, in varying degrees, pressuring the states involved to legally protect Kurdish identity. Similarly, one wonders whether, if self-determination weren't so unrealistically romanticised during the 1950's and 60's, the transition from colonialism to independence in many parts of Africa might have worked out better. The point I want to emphasise is that other factors - including how developed a state institutions are, its ethnic and cultural make-up, the standard of education and wealth of a population, the state's history and so on - will sometimes dictate how self-determination should be viewed. For example, Germany in 1945 was a (potentially) very wealthy, industrialised state with a basically ethnically and culturally united people and a long history of central state authority. Contrast Afghanistan in 2001 (and today), where there was no sustained history of any sort of central authority providing law for the entire territory, where three-quarters of the population can neither read nor write, where there is a history of endemic warfare and conflict. Ethnic relations are calm at present but divisions remain. The country has never experienced industrialisation. There is no national transport or communications network. And so on. If international troops were to pull out of Afghanistan next year, citing "self-determination", the result would likely be worse than the situation pertaining today. On any scale of state development, Myanmar is closer to Afghanistan than Germany. The emergence of market-oriented democracy and human rights in Myanmar will be the work of decades.

Second, Asian, EU and US policymakers must separate the regime from the Burmese people and agree on at least a tentative common approach. This cuts both ways. The Asian powers that resent US interference and trade sanctions must take a more moral stand. In a region that has seen the considerable benefits of political and economic liberalisation over the last few decades, Myanmar stands out for internal strife, authoritarian and arbitrary rule and economic weakness. Asian powers must see that it is in their long-term interest to promote opportunities for political rapprochement and economic growth within Myanmar, slow as they might be in coming. That will involve extracting some concrete steps toward more decent government. On the table should be co-operation on HIV/AIDS, particularly in the light of fears that the next flu pandemic will come from eastern Asia. The release of Aung San Suu Kiyi would also be a symbolic gesture that the SPDC is interested in improving the country’s reputation and should precursor a halt in the conflict. China, India et al. must issue at least moderate public statements of concern over the regime’s human rights record.

And the US must realise that democracy’s prospects in Burma will only improve through if the international approach is more unified than it is now. In the short to medium term, a pragmatic approach would focus on improving the wretched living conditions of ordinary Burmese. If the regime is to be successfully prevailed upon to establish a degree of internal stability, genuine internal political fora and co-operation on matters like HIV/AIDS, then the US must be willing to revise, if not reverse, its policy of trade sanctions. The dilemma of using such sanctions is well illustrated by Robert Cooper in his book, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century**:
“Negative economic instruments are … a double-edged sword. Sanctions provide some incentive for the target country to change its behaviour and their removal may eventually be a useful card in negotiations. But they are also likely to hurt the people rather than the rulers. In spite of all efforts to the contrary, this is what happened in Iraq. Paradoxically, perhaps, sanctions will be most effective where they are least needed – against democracies – since hurting the people might cause them to take revenge on the government at the next election. External coercion often provokes a closing of ranks even around an otherwise unpopular government. It can have other perverse effects too. [Cooper notes that a “semi-criminal government” like that of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia may have profited from manipulated sanctions.]

Sanctions do not always fail. Where they succeed it is rarely on their own but as part of a wider policy involving other pressures or inducements … It is notable, in … cases of the successful use of sanctions [Cooper mentions South Africa, Rhodesia and Libya] that the element of isolation implied by the sanctions regime seems to have been as important as the economic impact. Most people want to belong to a community and most governments want to belong to a world or at least a regional community.”

In the case of Myanmar, both the hoped-for incentive to good behaviour and the desire for international respect and belonging have been blunted or removed by the approach of Myanmar’s neighbours and the paranoid, broadly isolationist character of the SPDC. Also, as Ernest H. Preeg commented at a US Senate hearing in 1998, unilateral economic sanctions differ from multilateral sanctions in two respects: their impact is greatly reduced, since only US trade and investment is prohibited and third country competitors can and do move in and displace US commercial interests, thus diluting the “economic pain” caused by the sanctions. America must be willing to revisit these sanctions, because they have served no visibly useful purpose. Blocking one’s own companies and individuals from investing in and trading with another country's, on grounds of the nature of the other country’s government, tends not to improve either the human rights protection or standard of living (as measured by income) of the poor. At any time, free trade should be a moral imperative and some likelihood of success must exist before punitive trade sanctions are imposed; evidence of success should be required before they are renewed. To what such evidence can the US point? Not only is there none, but it is likely that US expertise and investment would have precisely the reverse effect and would help the (eventual) emergence of a market-oriented democracy in Myanmar.

The integration of the Burmese economy into the world economy is vital to lifting the prospects of millions of poor Burmese. We should remember that buying a product made in Burma is helping keep poor Burmese in jobs in a competitive industry. It is only by helping the Burmese economy grow - with the quid pro quo of more responsible government budgeting - that internal wealth and, eventually, demands for democratic rights will develop. In places like Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan, economic liberty presaged much greater political liberty.

But even if the EU and the US were to realise that their sanctions policies have not brought about anything resembling improvement in the wretched state of Myanmar, will they not run into the brick wall of Chinese suspicion and intransigence? Perhaps, but it is worth testing if that suspicion cannot be disarmed, or bought out. Cooper recalls a saying of Jean Monnet, the driving force behind European integration: If you have a problem you cannot solve, enlarge the context. If America and Europe have little leverage over Myanmar, (of the EU countries, only Britain, France and the Netherlands claim a measurable share of the country's total foreign investment, and this at rather low levels: 18.8 percent, 6.2 percent and 3.15 percent, respectively, according to Yangon's figures) they have no option but to turn to those who have some influence, specifically China. As was written in The Japan Times last November:
"No matter how much the West agitates against Yangon, the generals feel at ease under China's protective aura."
If Mr Bush and Ms Rice are to make a genuine impact on conditions in this “outpost of tyranny”, they will have to show some daring and offer China a larger-context compromise. Perhaps if, in 12 months, China has used its influence to ensure the generals have taken specified verifiable steps, in return America could drop all its quotas on Chinese textiles. It might be worth floating an idea along those lines in the context of ongoing discussions on the Doha trade round. After all, if America and Europe think have few security interests in the internal affairs of Myanmar, they are well aware of the importance of their relationships with China.

*See US National Bureau of Asian Research, Reconciling Burma/Myanmar: Essays on US relations with Burma, NBR Analysis, Volume 15, Number 1, March 2004
**Atlantic Books, 2003, 2004; pp.118-119

1 Comments:

Blogger matt said...

Excellent stuff. Thankyou for writing about the Burmese cause.

Fri Apr 14, 01:26:00 PM GMT+1  

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