Guest Column

Obama Must See the Dark Side of Burma's 'Reforms'

By Maung Zarni 17 November 2012

In two days, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to make a brief visit to Burma, Asia’s hottest destination. While there, he should look beneath the surface and try to see the ugly realities of the country’s reforms and hear the cries of the wretched of Burma, such as the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Kachins.

President Thein Sein’s government embarked on reforms a year ago, ending the country’s international pariah status and a half-century of isolation, both self-imposed and externally maintained. In response, just about every leader of both the “free world” of the West and “un-free and semi-free worlds” of the East has hurried to Naypyidaw.

Development and humanitarian packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged, a significant quantity of foreign debt (to the tune of US$ 3.7 billion) has been forgiven, and lavish praise has been showered on the formerly reviled regime.

New offices are springing up in Rangoon, the former capital. Every other visitor to the country seems to be involved in “institution- and capacity-building” of one kind or another. Investors, insurers and
do-gooders alike are all elated.

Burma has arrived, finally.

But, there is more to this “model transition,” as Washington has put it, than meets the eye.

For Burma’s erstwhile dictators, genuine reforms and an equal partnership with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were the last resort. Until recently the generals’ survival strategy was self-sufficiency. They strove to be left alone, regionally and internationally. Their opposition to even international emergency aid in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was a case in point.

Indeed, despite their monopoly on power, the generals have never really felt entirely secure. They always felt they were riding on the back of an angry, wounded tiger—the oppressed and impoverished population.

Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, has admitted the generals’ collective fear. Within an hour of his meeting with the visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last December, the third-most powerful general in the former ruling council was telling Burmese journalists, “We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators. One day they were very powerful. The next day they died ignoble deaths.”

Of course, Washington’s new strategy of “pivoting” back to Asia has also made it possible for the generals to come out of their bunkers, literally and figuratively. The Americans wanted the Burmese to walk away from Beijing’s embrace, and for their part, the ex-generals are grateful to the Americans for helping to wean them off of their dependency on China’s international protection.

On the domestic front, the ex-military officers and their active-duty brethren retain complete control over the entire change process. In the new era of “democratic” transition, these men, in skirts or in green shirts, continue to hold all the levers of state power at all levels of administration. And it is they—not collaborating dissidents or the developmental technocrats—who determine the nature, scope, priorities and pace of reforms.

The generals are, however, pursuing reforms only for their own long-term survival, both as powerful military families and as the most powerful institution in the country. As a direct consequence, they will remain wholly unprepared to do the needful in terms of what will really promote public welfare and advance the cause of freedom, human rights and democracy.

As a matter of fact, the generals’ reforms are contradictory, reversible and fragile, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself has repeatedly stressed. They are confined to such narrow domains as freedom of speech, new business regulations and investment laws—that is, the areas important to middle-class Western liberals and attractive to venture capitalists and corporations. Importantly, reforms bypass active conflict zones, strategic buffer areas and resource-rich virgin lands.

When it comes to economically and strategically important regions on the country’s peripheries—that is, the ancestral homes of ethnic minorities who make up 40 percent of the total population—the reforms simply translate into forced displacement, a rise in militarization, a sharp increase in war-fleeing refugees, loss of livelihoods, and so on. It is indeed not merely coincidental that all fresh waves of violence, atrocities and raging wars happen to be in the zones which are designated to be homes of multi-billion-dollar mega-development initiatives, commercial projects, resource extraction, special economic zones and industrial agricultural schemes.

Curiously, both the origin and tail of China’s 2,800-plus-km-long twin pipeline bear witness to the unfolding violence: ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the coastal region where the pipelines begin and the hot war against the Kachin in the Sino-Burmese highlands of northern Burma, the pipelines’ tail end, before they snake their way into the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.

On the western front, an estimated 110,000 Rohingyas have been caged in new UN-financed refugee camps along the Arakan coast, while a slightly smaller number of Kachin have fled towards the Sino-Burmese border. To the east, along the Thai-Burmese border, donor agencies and host nation Thailand are preparing to prematurely repatriate another 150,000 Karen and Karenni war refugees, despite the absence of either a meaningful and functioning ceasefire or lasting peace.

Because these wars and atrocities are off the beaten path and largely inaccessible to the UN and other aid agencies, the dark side of Burma’s economic reforms goes largely unnoticed. They also lie outside the purview of the growing pool of visiting dignitaries, renowned experts and politicians on their whirlwind visits to Burma.

More ominously, many international agencies and national governments view this ugly side of development—ethnic and class conflicts, large-scale displacement, pervasive land confiscation, absence of human and food security, growing income disparity—as “inevitable.”

For President Thein Sein and the Burmese military, the pursuit of peace is not an institutional goal in and of itself, but rather a strategic means to developmental and commercial ends, including control of land, local populations and strategic routes, and the bountiful natural resources of ethnic minority regions.

Myanmar’s reforms are, upon a closer look, more about the interests and longevity of the country’s military and army-bred cronies than about peace, public welfare or democracy. As such, the hyped-up reform moves lack real potential to result in a new democratic polity which will build, and feed off, a new and sustainable economic system.

Maung Zarni is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics. He was the founding director of the Free Burma Coalition from 1995-2004.