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MYANMAR/BURMAInside Challenges, Outside Interests
Brookings Institution PressCopyright © 2010 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
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Chapter OneLEX RIEFFEL
Change is in the air, although it may reflect hope more than reality. The political landscape of Myanmar has been all but frozen since 1990, when the nationwide election was won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The country's military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), lost no time in repudiating the election results and brutally repressing all forms of political dissent.
Internally, the next twenty years were marked by a carefully managed partial liberalization of the economy, a windfall of foreign exchange from natural gas exports to Thailand, ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen armed ethnic minorities scattered along the country's borders with Thailand, China, and India, and one of the world's longest constitutional conventions. Externally, these twenty years saw Myanmar's membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), several forms of engagement by its ASEAN partners and other Asian neighbors designed to bring about an end to the internal conflict and put the economy on a high-growth path, escalating sanctions by the United States and Europe to protest the military regime's well-documented human rights abuses and repressive governance, and the rise of China as a global power.
At the beginning of 2008, the landscape began to thaw when Myanmar's ruling generals, now calling themselves the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced a referendum to be held in May on a new constitution, with elections to follow in 2010. This process of transition to a new government provided the impetus for the workshop in Washington at the end of October 2009, Myanmar/Burma: Outside Interests, Inside Challenges, on which this book is based. The moment was especially ripe because the United States had just a month earlier unveiled a new policy of pragmatic engagement toward Myanmar, and the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, was preparing to visit Myanmar, as the most senior administration official to visit the country in fourteen years.
While the political calendars in Myanmar and the United States alone made the timing of the October workshop propitious, six other developments that generated newspaper headlines in the preceding months contributed to the significance of the moment. To begin with, ASEAN's ten member countries adopted the group's first charter at the end of 2008. Myanmar—supported at times by other member countries with authoritarian regimes—was the major obstacle to including a number of progressive provisions of the charter, notably the establishment of a human rights body. This is a good example of the challenge Myanmar poses for the ASEAN goal of building "one caring and sharing" community by 2015 that places "the well-being, livelihood and welfare of the peoples at the center of the ASEAN community building process."
Second, events in Thailand and Indonesia hampered ASEAN's ability to deal effectively with the problem of Myanmar. Thailand chaired ASEAN from mid-2008 to the end of 2009, but the Thai government was preoccupied with a domestic political crisis during this entire period. Indonesia had, in effect, the opposite problem. After completing a five-year term, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was reelected to a second term in mid-2009 with 61 percent of the vote. The heady experience of being perceived globally as a poster child for democracy increased domestic pressure on the Indonesian government to take a hard-line position on Myanmar.
Third, in December 2008 press reports surfaced about a couple of boatloads of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar that had been intercepted by the Royal Thai Navy, which subsequently towed the boats back to sea and left the almost thousand occupants to their fate. While many drowned, several substantial groups were rescued and brought to India and Indonesia. Although they are inhabitants of Myanmar, the Rohingya community, which follows the Muslim faith, is considered stateless by the government and is subject to some of the worst human rights abuses.
Fourth, a North Korean ship bound for Burma in June 2009 turned back after reports that it might be carrying nuclear materials and therefore in violation of the recently enacted UN Security Council Resolution 1874 to enforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It appears that Myanmar's military regime withdrew permission to enter Myanmar ports in response to appeals from a number of important UN members.
Fifth, Myanmar's army—the Tatmadaw—launched an operation against the Kokang ethnic minority on Myanmar's northeastern border with China in August 2009. The operation generated an influx of as many as 30,000 refugees into Yunnan province. The Kokang have historic ties with China, and the Chinese government expressed immediate and strong objections to the military operation.
Sixth, competition between China and India intensified in the context of efforts to purchase natural gas from a new offshore field close to Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. In December 2008 the SPDC awarded the off-take contract to China National Petroleum Corporation, which will build a pipeline across Myanmar to Yunnan province. A parallel pipeline to carry crude oil from the Middle East and Africa will also be built.
The chapters in this volume, developed from papers presented at the workshop, help to shed light on the major inside challenges and outside interests that are likely to shape Myanmar's future beyond the political transition that is now under way. A special effort has been made to bring an Asian perspective to the topic. The overview chapter seeks to place the discussion in a broad historical and policy context and explain why positive change seems possible after two decades of lost opportunities.
The range of internal challenges in Myanmar is vast. Indeed, it is hard to find any broad aspect of Myanmar society that is functioning well. Even the military is far from being a well-oiled machine.
The October 2009 workshop focused on two internal challenges: national reconciliation and economic development. Each of these in turn is a complex topic impossible to capture in a couple of papers or two hours of discussion.
On the topic of national reconciliation, two Burmese scholars take quite distinct approaches in part 1 of this volume. On the topic of the economy, a Harvard University economist focuses narrowly on the rural economy, and a Swedish scholar focuses on the rapidly growing commercial activity around the principal border crossing between China and Myanmar. The examination of inside challenges concludes with an analysis by an observer in Singapore of three possible political scenarios for Myanmar following the 2010 election.
Kyaw Yin Hlaing presents a factual and balanced view of national reconciliation in chapter 2. He characterizes the approach taken by the three main protagonists—the Tatmadaw, the NLD, and the ethnic minorities—as a zero-sum strategy. All three are focused on outcomes that validate their respective goals instead of on a process that would lead to peace and progress. He concludes that to achieve national reconciliation the military regime will have to give priority to solving the problems that create opposition rather than trying to extend and strengthen its grip on the country. He also notes the view of many Myanmar people that national reconciliation is not possible under military rule but would occur naturally in a democratic system. The deepening divisions that have emerged in the democratic system in neighboring Thailand, however, call this view into question.
Maung Zarni views the situation with a personal and rather more pessimistic eye in chapter 3. Like Kyaw Yin Hlaing he argues that the Tatmadaw is preoccupied with consolidating its hegemony over the country and has no interest in national reconciliation. He describes his own reconciliation initiative in 2003–04, with tacit support from Aung San Suu Kyi and the U.S. government among others, directed at the Tatmadaw's intelligence apparatus led by General Khin Nyunt. The initiative ended when this group of pragmatists was purged by hard-liners in the Tatmadaw, but other opposition leaders who felt upstaged had already undermined the initiative. The experience reveals, according to Maung Zarni, that personalities are at the heart of politics in Myanmar—a point that surely merits repeating.
Not surprisingly in a country where conflict has raged for so long, these two approaches represent small segments of the broad spectrum of opinion. While outside observers overwhelmingly blame the military regime for the continuing conflict, within Burma one finds arguments from thoughtful people that place as much blame on how the NLD followed up on its election victory in 1990, or the rent-seeking behavior of the ethnic minorities, or the meddling of China and Thailand. Maung Zarni also points to globalization as a factor, describing the SPDC as a proxy for the foreign corporations that are exploiting Myanmar's natural resources.
Myanmar has the distinction of having the world's longest continuing civil war. It began before 1948, when the country gained its independence. The end is not yet in sight. The problem at the heart of the civil war today is ethnicity, boiled and concentrated within the arbitrary borders of Myanmar, which in truth has never functioned as one united country. As Maung Zarni points out, however, the critical struggle in the period immediately following independence was within the Burman elite—between communists and socialists.
The Burman (or Bamar) linguistic group may constitute as much as 70 percent of the country's population of more than 50 million people, but both of these data points are disputed. Estimates of the total population of Myanmar range from as low as 47 million to as high as 58 million. Estimates of the Burman majority are even more divergent, and some observers claim that ethnic Burmans, narrowly defined, now represent only 40 percent of the population. Much intermarriage among linguistic groups and physical displacement has taken place over the past thirty years, making ethnic distinctions increasingly blurry.
The Burmans mostly adhere to the Buddhist faith and occupy the lowland center of the country defined by the Ayeyarwady River. The remaining population is divided among six major ethnic-linguistic groups (Rakhine-Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan), a dozen smaller groups, and more than a hundred other officially recognized linguistic communities. The ethnic-linguistic minorities live primarily in the mountainous regions along the borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, and some of the most prominent groups adhere to the Christian faith. In addition, three large nonnative groups of Bangladeshis (Muslim), Chinese (Confucian), and Indians (Hindu) together include at least 1.5 million people.
The first chance to achieve national reconciliation came a few months after independence, when General Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), who had emerged as the leader of pro-independence forces, presided over two conferences in Panglong in 1946 and 1947 that hammered out a political framework for the new nation. Significantly, the framework included an option for two of the minority regions to secede if they were dissatisfied with the performance of the union. In July 1947, five months after the second Panglong Conference, Aung San was assassinated along with some of his cabinet ministers, plunging the country into a political crisis with far-reaching adverse consequences that have yet to be rectified. Independence was formally granted by Britain in January 1948 under the 1947 constitution, which provided for a multiparty parliamentary government. Ethnic and ideological differences precluded any economic take-off during the period of democratic rule, which was brought to an end by a military coup in 1962. The ideological differences centered on a communist movement supported by the Communist Party of China. Religious differences were exacerbated in 1961 when a law was passed by Prime Minister U Nu's government making Buddhism the state religion.
Armed insurgencies grew in the 1962–88 period as the socialist and isolationist policies of General Ne Win proved to be as much of an economic disaster as the disorder of the parliamentary era. American funding went to remnants of the anticommunist Kuomintang forces that had escaped from China into Burma. Unsubstantiated reports suggested that British funding was going to the Karen and other Christian minorities, and Middle Eastern funding to Muslim minorities. Thailand—Burma's historic enemy—armed a variety of dissident ethnic groups along the lengthy Thai-Burma border.
General Ne Win's main initiative to achieve national reconciliation, albeit on the military's terms, was the promulgation of a new constitution. Drafted over a period of two years in a relatively open process, the 1974 constitution established a unitary socialist state with a single legislative body and a single state-sponsored party. One effect of the new constitution was to motivate the ethnic minorities to look increasingly for support outside the country. In another step that became an impediment to national reconciliation, the monks (the sangha) were put under government control through the creation of a Supreme Sangha Council.
One of the ironies of Myanmar history, hinted at by Maung Zarni, is that the Tatmadaw prevailed in its struggle with the Communist Party of Burma in 1989 in large part because the People's Republic of China stopped supporting its Burmese brothers. Yet barely a year later the Tatmadaw managed to create a more formidable opponent in the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
A people's revolution in 1988 pushed General Ne Win aside, and a new junta of military leaders—the State Law and Order Restoration Council—came to power. The SLORC's approach to national reconciliation proceeded on two related tracks: constitutional legitimacy and ceasefire agreements with the armed ethnic minorities.
Even before the palace coup on September 18, 1988, in the face of the popular uprising, military leaders were publicly committing to holding a multiparty election. However, the Tatmadaw presumably viewed the election more as a step to restore order than a transition to a democratic system or a way of achieving national reconciliation. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing points out, the SLORC explained before and after the election that the elected body would be not a new parliament but an assembly called to produce a new constitution, which would then have to be approved in a referendum and would subsequently serve as the basis for an election to form a new government. However, other observers do not accept this view and have argued that the voters expected the election to lead directly to a new government led by the winning party.
Within days of the coup, a party registration law was issued, and the election took place twenty months later on May 27, 1990. Ninety-three political parties and eighty-seven independents vied for 479 seats. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, received 60 percent of the votes and won 80 percent of the seats. The party understood to be favored by the Tatmadaw received 25 percent of the vote but won only ten seats. A standoff quickly ensued. The SLORC refused to certify the election results, and the NLD insisted it had the right to govern the country.
The 1990 election in Myanmar must rank as one of the modern world's biggest political miscalculations. After repudiating the NLD's election victory, the military was compelled by its earlier commitment to the goal of an elected government to initiate the process of adopting a new constitution as the basis for multiparty elections in the future. Myanmar may hold the record for prolonging this process. The National Convention tasked with producing a constitution opened in January 1993 and was not concluded until September 2007.
The opening of the National Convention created a dilemma for the NLD. It participated at the beginning but walked out after two years, when it became clear that the SLORC was unwilling to take any significant steps in the direction of transferring or even sharing power. Ethnic minority members and other nongovernment members of the National Convention had little perceptible influence over the result but stayed for various reasons. The National Convention was finally concluded, in the midst of the Saffron Revolt, when the military was under extreme internal and external pressure to reconcile with its opponents. The output of the National Convention was a set of detailed principles, and the SPDC quickly appointed a committee to draft the new constitution based on these principles.
Excerpted from MYANMAR/BURMA Copyright © 2010 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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