This week’s visit of the Burmese junta’s vice-Chairman, General Maung Aye, who is also the army chief, will formalise an agreement to launch an India-funded multi-nodal transportation corridor linking north-east India with Burma’s Sittwe port. The $ 135-million Kaladan Corridor has been made imperative by Bangladesh’s refusal to grant India transit access — a blinkered approach holding up the BIMSTEC free-trade area accord.
Maung Aye’s visit is an occasion to remember that Burma today is one of the world’s most isolated and sanctioned nations — a situation unlikely to be changed by its junta scheduling a referendum next month on a draft constitution. The junta’s reclusive chairman, Than Shwe, announced last week that the military would hand over power to civilians after elections in two years’ time. But the junta still holds out the threat to debar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting.
Burma is an important State. First, size matters: this is not a Bhutan or a Brunei but a country that boasts the largest Indochina land area. Second, it is a resource-rich nation with copious natural-gas reserves. And third, it is a natural land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and thus critical to the economic advancement of India’s restive north-east. Such is its vantage location that Burma forms the strategic nucleus between India, China and Southeast Asia.
Burma’s present problems and impoverishment can be traced back to the defining events of 1962, when General Ne Win deposed elected prime minister, U Nu, an architect of non-alignment. Ne Win, a devotee of Marx and Stalin, sealed off Burma, banning most external trade and investment, nationalising companies, halting all foreign projects and tourism, and kicking out the large Indian business community.
It was not until more than a quarter-century later that a new generation of military leaders attempted to ease Burma’s international isolation through modest economic reforms. Such attempts, without loosening political controls, came after the military’s brutal suppression of the 1988 student-led protests that left several thousand dead or injured — a bloodbath that coincided with the numerology-dedicated Ne Win’s announcement of retirement on the ‘most auspicious’ day of August 8, 1988 (8.8.88).
Twenty years later, China, also addicted to the power of number 8, may be courting trouble by launching the Beijing Olympics on 8.8.08 at 8.08 am. The Games — communist China’s coming-out party — have already been besmirched by the brutal crackdown on the monk-led Tibetan uprising, just six months after Burmese monks spearheaded a challenge to authoritarianism in their own country through street protests that had an underlying anti-Chinese tenor. In fact, Burma’s majority people, the ethnic Burmans, are of Tibetan stock. The resistance against repressive rule in both Burma and Tibet is led by an iconic Nobel laureate — a symbol of soft power standing up to hard power.
Western penal actions against Burma began no sooner than the junta refused to honour the outcome of the 1990 elections, won by Suu Kyi’s party. But Burma became a key target of the US sanctions policy only in this decade, as underlined by the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act (which bans all imports from that country) and a series of punitive executive orders. The new missionary zeal is due to a Burma activist in the White House — not the president but his wife.
Laura Bush’s activism has only been aided by the junta’s remarkable short-sightedness. The regime invited a new wave of US-led sanctions by killing at least 31 people during last September’s mass protests. It continues to detain Suu Kyi, besides isolating itself from the public by moving the national capital to remote Nay Pyi Taw. With Burma’s 58 million people bearing the brunt of the sanctions, China — a friend to every pariah regime — has emerged the only winner.
The oversized military fancies itself as the builder of a united Burma. In a country that has been at war with itself since its 1948 independence, the military has used the threat of Balkanisation to justify its hold on politics. It trumpets its successes between the late 1980s and early 1990s in crushing a four-decade-long communist insurgency and concluding ceasefire agreements with other underground groups that left just a few outfits in active resistance. The period since has been viewed by the military as a time to begin state-building, while to the opposition it has been an unending phase of repression.
Given Burma’s potent mix of ethnicity, religion and culture, democracy can serve as a unifying and integrating force, like in India. After all, Burma cannot be indefinitely held together through brute might. But make no mistake: the seeds of democracy will not take root in a stunted economy, battered by widening Western sanctions.
Also, if the Burmese are to break their military’s vise on power, why has much of the world accepted the 1989 name change to Myanmar? As was evident from Ceylon’s 1972 renaming as Sri Lanka to give it a distinct Sinhala identity — a move that helped further alienate the Tamil minority — a name change represents powerful symbolism. The junta restored the traditional name, Myanmar, for nationalistic reasons. But a name change ought to have an elected government’s imprimatur.
The grim reality is that sanctions have put Burmese society in a downward spiral of poverty and discontent while strengthening the military’s political grip. Burma is proof that sanctions hurt those they are supposed to protect, especially when they are enforced for long and shut out engagement. A calibrated approach is called for, with better-targeted sanctions and room for outside actors to influence developments within. Instead of targeting the junta, the widening sanctions have sought to choke off industries — from tourism to textiles — on which the livelihood of millions of Burmese depends. Many female garment workers made jobless by sanctions are being driven into prostitution, as one US official, Matthew Daley, warned as far back as 2003.
Yet, in the face of a visibly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Burma, Laura Bush has championed more sanctions, roping in the EU. Her husband, underscoring how power respects power and the weak get bullied, spits fire at Burma but accepts despotic China’s invitation to the Olympics. He should see how the Burma sanctions are holding its people “economic hostage”, as Burmese author Ma Thanegi told Stanley Weiss in an interview.
Such is Laura Bush’s ability not only to influence US policy but also to orchestrate an international campaign that she announced last December 10 that, “India, one of Burma’s closest trading partners, has stopped selling arms to the junta”. New Delhi has still to confirm that. Nor has it repudiated the ban. Who can contradict a first lady whose fury on Burma reputedly flows from a meeting with a minority-Karen rape victim and information from a relative with an erstwhile connection to that country?
If the Burmese are to win political freedoms, they need to be first freed from sanctions that rob them of jobs, cripple their well-being and retard civil-society development. Years of sanctions have left Burma bereft of an entrepreneurial class but saddled with the military as the only functioning institution. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe, the same international standard applicable to autocratic, no-less-ruthless regimes in next-door China, Laos and Bangladesh should apply to Burma — engage, don’t isolate.