Burma/Myanmar: Its Conflicts, Western Advocacy, and Country Impact
by Maung Zarni – World Peace Foundation
Burma’s conflicts are neither new nor are they singular. Conflicts along multiple-lines – class and ideology, civil society and the military, and ethnic groups– have been going on for nearly 65 years, that is, since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1947/1948. Understanding its conflict requires appreciation of the ‘deep’ historical dimensions; Burmese modern history is conflict-soaked(1947-present). Historically, the country was born out of pre-colonial and colonial conflicts in terms of ethnic relations, class divisions, and domestic power cliques, and into a new set of conflicts upon independence in January 1948. We can roughly divide the periods of conflict thus: the Cold War (1945-1989), the immediate post-Cold War period with its signature Western triumphalism (e.g., ‘The End of History’) (1988/89-2008), and the ‘new Cold War’ or new ‘Containment’ (2008-present)
When we talk about conflicts and advocacy, this periodization is crucial, because shifting external contexts and macro-level developments in international relations and the world economy have had significant impacts on both the country’s internal conflicts and the Burma advocacy, whether the advocacy is done by the West or the Burmese themselves.
It is inaccurate to frame Burma’s conflicts as ‘internal’ and advocacy as ‘Western.’ The term ‘internal conflicts’ is misleading because it implies neat discursive boundaries, as if Burma’s internal conflicts were simply confined within the country’s geographic national boundaries, with no real or significant outside players or interests (for instance, the U.S., the EU, ASEAN, China, India, and so on).Historically and sociologically, the methods of advocacy, the ethics or official rationale behind certain Western policy stances, and the impacts on the targeted conflict(s) (that is, Burma’s conflicts) shift depending on the discourse of security at play.
Three discourses of security as a macro-analytical framework dominate:
1) ‘National Security’ (i.e., ‘regime security’) – internal interests and value system
2) Global Security (For whom? Toward what end(s)? In whose interest?)
3) Human Security (i.e., security of humans as individuals and communities) (a liberal humanistic discourse of well-being, physical safety, and public welfare, which contrasts sharply with the former two institution-centered securities/interests)
The first two are more or less two sides of the same dominant coin. Interstate global capitalism is stitched together by the UN, ASEAN, the EU, the ANU, the OIC, and IFIs (IMF, World Bank, ADB, etc.), where nation-states, both the institutions and the individuals who manage them, serve as building blocks of the global political economy in which private corporate interests reign supreme. This is a marriage of convenience—although there may or may not be love in these marriages, namely an ideological/cultural affinity or compatibility. And there is certainly room for intra-marriage conflicts and competition, but also internal elite interests and outside/external interests.
The third – human- or people-centered – security trails as a distant third in Western policy making. This reality is opposed to public discussions, where the omnipresent rhetoric of human rights masks its diminished status.
Advocacy in the Burmese context
My discussion will be confined to two periods: the post-Cold War Western triumphalist era (starting with the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and ending with the first Obama presidency, which marked the beginning of a radical shift in Washington’s Burma policy) and the new ‘Cold War’ or ‘China Containment.’
In the Post-Cold War era, he chief advocates were (in order of importance and influence):Aung San SuuKyi and her Burmese followers and international supporters, individual and institutional, from grassroots to ‘high-level advocacy’ (a loose global coalition of activists, advocates, lobbyists, and institutions in the fields of Human Rights, Environment, Policy and Legislative Affairs, Corporate Social Responsibility, Religion, Social Justice, and Women’s Affairs); and ethnic minority advocates. Their work was grounded in liberal ideals including freedom, democracy and human rights, as well as non- violence and new environmental/ecological outlooks and ideas.
Their methods of advocacy included old-fashioned face-to-face lobbying, grassroots direct actions, media advocacy, personal connections (the ‘champions,’ GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, Andrew Samak, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and St. Antony’s College web of Michael Aris and colleagues and friends). The policies they advocated were largely punitive, more sticks than carrots. There were three waves of punitive measures since the uprisings and bloody crackdowns in the fall of 1988, further facilitated by the nearing end of the Cold War: starting with the downgrading of U.S. diplomatic relations from Ambassadorial to Charge d’Affairs, eventually culminating in various economic sanctions, including the highly restrictive financial sanctions, denial of ‘development assistance,’ humanitarian aid, and resumption of loans from the World Bank and other IFIs and development banks).
Here it is crucial to recognize the ‘circularity’ or ‘circular nature’ of policy substance, messages, and rationales. To be more specific, the chief advocate in Burma, Aung San SuuKyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), and Western Burma advocates – Burmese and non-Burmese, individual and institutional, grassroots and high-level – crafted the messages and rationale in a concerted fashion for about twenty years. Some messages originated in Rangoon and were amplified in the West, while others were formulated in key Western capitals such as Washington and London and subsequently ‘blessed’ by the NLD leadership.
Unlike during the Cold War era, with regard to Burma policy advocacy efforts, insofar as they existed, the effective promotion of circular Burma policy ideas and substance was greatly enhanced by the rise of the information technology, such as the worldwide web, personal e-mails, fax machines, and other digital technologies.
Impacts on the conflicts inside Burma—and society at large
Burma has already been isolated for 25 years under the one-party dictatorship of General Ne Win (1962-88),which was fully supported by the West, when, following the Cold War, the West shifted its Burma policy discourse and priorities, and, in line with calls from the NDL activists, further isolated the country internationally. The result was to arrest Burma’s ‘natural’ political and societal evolution with devastating long-term social and institutional consequences.
Contrast this to the Western approach to the equally repressive VietNam, especially Washington’s embrace of VietNam while both Rangoon and Hanoi attempted to open their countries’ economies along the state-led ‘Free Marketization’ process. Western advocacy further inflamed the main society-military conflicts as the former pushed for democratization and human rights in Burma. Among the ruling military circles in Burma and in ASEAN and Asian governments, this was nothing more than a typical Western double standard (as the West continued to support Suharto’s Indonesia and patched up with authoritarian VietNam).
Fearful of the West’s ‘hidden agenda’ under the disguise of human rights and democracy, the military intensified its repression against the Western-backed dissidents led by Aung San SuuKyi, while making ceasefire deals with armed ethnic minority resistance groups, thereby constraining the Burmese generals’ fight to a single-front battle, against the mainstream opposition of Aung San SuuKyi and the West.
This liberal Western advocacy was made possible because Burma was one of the places where the West felt it could afford to live out its liberal values, as it was pursuing its ‘core interests’ in places like the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia. In other words, advocacy of human security was allowed to dominate Burma policy discussions and media coverage because other Western interests in Burma were not deemed very important.
Further, a typical defense of the West’s pro-isolationist and categorically punitive policies towards Burma in those years is that as a liberal democratic bloc it had no choice but to adopt the sanctions against the country under military rule. For the military held the general elections in 1990 and then simply nullified the NLD’s landslide electoral victory, a rather weak rationale considering that the West behaved differently towards Algeria and Nigeria which too held the elections the same year.
One significant negative impact of the last twenty-five years is the manufacturing of Aung San SuuKyi as a human rights icon and the adoption of her as ‘the darling of the capitalist West’ whose messages of individual rights lacked any critical class and economic analyses. Consequently, mainstream society’s conflict with the ruling military came to be personalized, erasing all other important aspects of the domestic conflicts such as class and ideological differences within the pro-democracy opposition and promoting the narrative of an Oxford-educated daughter of a martyred Asian nationalist taking on a beastly military regime of home-grown thugs and brutes This liberal narrative devoid of a crucial class understanding resonated with do-gooding Western audiences that generally view their West as a global force for good.
Despite the circulation of liberal vocabularies such as human rights or democracy, Suu Kyi’s opposition – and its societal supporters – failed to internalize any ideals they advocated – human rights, ethnic equality, liberty, universal brotherhood (and sisterhood). The opposition’s notable silence, starting with Aung San SuuKyi’s refusal to condemn the state-facilitated violence primarily against the Muslim Rohingya population, to the second and third line leaderships, is a case in point of the absence of any value transformation in the Burmese opposition in particular and in the pro-opposition society in general. This needs to be viewed as the inefficacy of the Western advocacy model to facilitate diverse voices for human rights and democratization. The West was trapped in its choice method of anointing a single voice – that is, Aung San SuuKyi – as the sole voice of the voiceless Burmese people, “the hope of Burma”.
Also noteworthy is that the nearly two dozen ethnic minority resistance groups, with the exception of the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest armed non-state revolutionary group, did not feel a need to engage with Western advocacy because they were in various disparate ceasefire arrangements with the Burmese military . Even if these groups had engaged with the West on its Burma policies, it is doubtful whether their voices would have been taken as seriously as that of Aung San SuuKyi and the National League for Democracy. The KNU certainly did not gain any support, material or otherwise, from any Western government it had lobbied.
The New Cold War Era (2008-present)
There is a new crop of chief advocates that has come to overpower the old Burma democracy advocates, including Aung San SuuKyi. With regard to outside interests, for instance, Washington and the EU, both national governments and as a bloc, have reassessed and re-prioritized their respective Burma policies in the context of the decline of Western global influence and economic woes at home .None other than Obama’s White House led the charge in shifting Western advocacy from a focus on democracy and human rights, into line with the ‘Asian pivot’ or ‘new balancing’ paradigm.Luckily for the West, because it has long made Aung San SuuKyi the ‘voice of the voiceless’ in Burma, it found it relatively easy to bring on board a single dissident leader to accept the terms of (her) engagement with the ruling military.
Meanwhile, a ‘new’ discourse of ‘civil society’ has been developed and promoted by various Western advocacy groups, INGOs, media outlets, business interests, and faith-based organizations backed by Western governments, international development agencies, the UN, and other multilateral organizations. I put the word ‘new’ in quotation marks because this political and analytical notion has been around in modern political history since the days of the resistance movements against authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe. But, only in the later days of Western advocacy did Western governmental-sponsors of social and institutional change along ‘free market’ lines (for instance, the U.S. State Department and the U.K.’s Department of International Development) begin to promote the language of civil society, breeding a new group of urban elite Burmese tolerated by and/or with symbiotic ties to the Burmese military and its ruling circles.
One of the most crucial developments to note here is that Western advocacy is no longer circular in its direction or substance. In the new era of ‘re-balancing’ or the ‘Asian pivot,’ the West, specifically Washington, no longer needed Burmese dissidents, morally speaking, for the substance of its strategic and policy messages beyond Aung San SuuKyi’s public ‘blessings.’ On their part, the mushrooming of civil society groups and advocates – many of them led by Western-funded and -trained ‘civil society actors’ – are used as an alternative ‘domestic’ social force, a dynamic alternative to the snail-paced, elderly-dominated National League for Democracy of Aung San SuuKyi. Many of these Burmese ‘civil society’ actors are used in Western advocacy at multiple levels: at the grassroots, these local groups are supported by the West in what I call the ‘NGO-ization’ of national and local politics, while the ones with close ties to the generals and ex-generals serve as ‘fixers’ or ‘high-level advocacy’ local proxies for Western interests.
Further, since 2008, when the Obama Administration began its Burma policy review as part of its overall national security interest paradigm shift, the West has focused on lobbying the Burmese regime. This time, Washington has a new Burma mission: to create a new comfort zone for the generals and ex- generals wherein they would do business with the West, one step removed from Beijing. The new Western advocacy is about realpolitik while it continues to speak of Burma’s internal national reconciliation, gradual democratic transition, and human rights.
One other important development in terms of the emergence of new chief advocates is the fact that individuals and institutions with close ties to Western strategic and commercial interests (for instance, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, etc.) have come to occupy the center stage of Burma advocacy. Instead of the usual liberal human rights discourse, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of bringing world-class American investors to Burma and sending the CIA chief to Burma in promotion of the country’s reforms. On their part, international financial institutions (IFIs), development banks and organizations, the UN, and humanitarian INGOs have gotten with the program.
As is to be expected, Burma advocates and advocacy groups – with their human rights, environmental issues, corporate social responsibility, women’s and ethnic rights, etc. –have found themselves on their back foot in the face of the ‘new’ Burma advocacy groups who speak the language of ‘political pragmatism,’ ‘economic developmentalism,’ ‘the Middle-Class-before-human-rights,’ ‘gradualism,’ and so on.
Despite the same pervasive human rights violations, perpetual humanitarian crises, the genocide against the Rohingya, a full-blown war against the Kachins in northern Burma, and mining and development-induced mass displacement of rural and ethnic communities, President Obama went on to frame Burma, in effect, as ‘a success story’ of his U.S. foreign policy.
Human rights is out. ‘State capacity building’ is in. Ethnic conflicts are no longer to be resolved, but to be allowed to run their course without outside intervention – the kind that Ed Luttwak suggested in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the kind the Sri Lankan army pursued.
In the name of political realism, the same Western advocacy that punished the Burmese generals for refusing to honor the results of the 1990 general elections, which would have made Aung San SuuKyi effectively a new Prime Minister in the post-Ne Win era, is now rewarding the same military, albeit under a new management, for allowing her to take her a largely symbolic seat in the Parliament that was created in accord with the anti-democratic – not just unfair or undemocratic – Constitution written by and for the military.
In spite of the liberal veneer of reforms, democratic transition and the operational rationale behind a new Western advocacy – this time dominated by powerful national security and commercial interests in Western capitals – is realpolitik through and through. When ‘pragmatism’ roars, liberal humanism retreats into quiet if disgruntled quarters populated by marginalized Burmese dissidents and their international Western solidarity groups. The new discourses of civil society, gradual reforms, and democratic transition are still justified in the name of human welfare and the human progress of the Burmese. This new ‘messaging’ can only be fully understood and appreciated if one places the new Western advocacy – insofar as it has been completely taken over by national security and commercial interests – in the typology of the ‘three securities’ – national/regime security (of the Burmese regime), global security of commercial and strategic interests, and human security.
This time, the dominant Western advocacy no longer deems the promotion of human rights, beyond the rhetoric of Western and Burmese officials, as something affordable. But the ugly realities of human insecurity as lived by the great majority of Burmese Buddhist farmers, Rohingya Muslims, and Burmese Christians are difficult, if not impossible to address. So, Western advocacy is experiencing a Buddhist turn for the first time in the past twenty-five years: it’s all in the state of mind. If you can’t change the reality, change your perception, and the way you frame it, especially when doing so advances your national interest, however defined – hence, President Obama and his showcasing Burma as ‘a success story’ of his foreign policy.
The full consequences of this new Western advocacy will not be known for a long time. But if history is any indication, Western engagement with Burma’s authoritarian regimes (or, for that matter, with any other unsavory regimes) that is not informed by any humanistic principles but is largely driven by the West’s ‘core interests’ in Burma has not advanced the cause of public welfare.
Post-WWII Britain in effect agreed to Burma’s independence the same year as India’s independence–1947, but for astrological reasons the Burmese nationalist leaders chose to do the formal transfer of power only in the early morning of 4 January 1948.
I amusing the Cold War-era vocabularies with full awareness of differences and new developments in the emerging ‘balance of power’ scenarios and the Cold War-past.
Dr. Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website www.maungzarni.com.