INTERVIEW Missing the point on Myanmar
By Charles McDermid
HUA HIN, Thailand - Burmese writer and historian Thant Myint-U's first trip to
Myanmar (in this interview referred to as Burma) was in 1974, for the funeral
of his much-revered grandfather U Thant, former two-term United Nations
secretary general from 1961 to 1971. It was an experience that shaped his
understanding of the
brutality of the military regime that rules the country to this day.
As John Lancaster of the New Yorker recounted:
When U Thant died, his
body, accompanied by the family, was flown to Burma for burial. [Former
dictator] Ne Win wanted U Thant buried in a private ceremony; but a convoy of
students interrupted the funeral procession, and demanded that U Thant be
buried at the site of the former Students' Union, which had been blown up by
the military during the 1962 coup. The family was moved by the intensity of
feeling but was not sure that a state funeral awarded by the dictatorship would
have been appropriate; the Army lost its patience; monks and students were
shot; and U Thant was laid to rest in the Cantonment Garden, near the Shwedagon
Pagoda, Burma's most important Buddhist site.
This episode gave Thant an early education in the vileness and stupidity of the
military dictatorship, and in the strength of feeling against the regime among
growing up in the north Bronx suburb of Riverdale, Thant became a senior UN
official and a veteran of three UN peacekeeping operations. His views gained
prominence in The River of Lost Footsteps (Farrar, Straus, 2006), a
history of Burma that explains the country's turmoil and isolation in terms of
the deeply wounded national psyche. As one reviewer noted, "Burmese history is,
in Thant's account, the story of 'imperial ambitions' on the part of the
various mini-states that competed to rule the country."
Thant blames the decades of failed international policy towards Burma on a
misinterpretation of this history. His assessment of international news
coverage is stark: "The military regime is bad, Aung San Suu Kyi good, and the
international community needs to apply pressure on Yangon and pressure means no
aid, trade sanctions, and more isolation."
In the last year, he has been to Burma six times and travelled extensively. He
has seen profound changes and traditional barriers falling away. All the more
case, Thant says, for a campaign to engage with the generals.
"In that period from 1962 to 1988, the country was almost entirely closed off
and they practiced Burmese socialism - a command economy with barely any
investment or trade. In the early 90s, a new generation of generals rose to the
top. They saw China and Vietnam and put forward new laws for foreign trade and
tourism - they said they wanted a million tourists [a year]. "They wanted to
remain a military-government, but pro-Western and with a more open, market
economy, like Indonesia and Thailand were at the time and South Korean had
been," Thant said.
What resulted, in Thant's view, was a huge failure of the international
community to engage and embrace these changes. Instead, sanctions soon
"It was a narrow approach," he said. "We tried to further isolate the country
as it was coming out of its own isolations. They built a wall around themselves
in the 1960s and 70s, and then we built another wall around that."
Now living in Bangkok and working on a new book on Burma, he spoke to Asia
Times Online correspondent Charles McDermid on July 2.
ATol: In your writings and interviews, you've pointed
out that the Western media has a fairly simple line - you've called it
"ahistorical" - on Burma. In terms of this, how is the current the situation
being played in the Western press?
TMU: For the past 20 years, Burma has been portrayed
in a media as primarily a democracy issue: the military regime and it's
repression of the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi dominates what
little coverage there is. It's a compelling story, and Aung San Suu Kyi has
emerged as an iconic global figure. But it's also a story that's been frozen in
time since the early 1990s - almost all the news about Burma is about this long
standoff between her and the generals, it's very one dimensional. But Burma's a
country of 60 million people, with dozens of ethnic nationalities, a civil war
that's only beginning to end, mired in poverty, with massive social changes
underway and a rapidly evolving relationship with India and China, yet no other
issues seems to get any attention. We shouldn't then be surprised then that
international policy often fails to gain any traction.
ATol: And yet that story continues to make news. To
your mind, what's been left out of the picture?
TMU: For me, there are at least two key issues that are always
missing. First, the civil war; Burma is only now emerging from six decades of
continuous armed conflict. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Burmese
government agreed to ceasefires with nearly two dozen ethnic-based rebel
armies, bringing close to an end the longest-running armed conflict in the
world. There is still no permanent peace and much work needs to be done. Yet
there has been almost no focus on this internationally, no encouragement, no
help. Imagine the alternative - a still active war in the borderlands
between India and China - it's amazing that no one seems to care.
The other thing is that Burma is one of the world's poorest countries. Millions
of ordinary people are living on the edge, and falling off that edge. What's
often missing from Burma discussions is the voice of the poor, who desperately
need to find new ways to simply survive and feed their families. I can't
imagine that any democratic transition will be sustainable unless it happens at
the same time as major progress in turning around the economy - yet here again,
there is almost no international attention, though so much more could be done.
The big improvement in cooperation between the government and the international
aid community since Cyclone Nargis last year is extremely important. Tens of
thousands of people literally die each year from treatable diseases simply
because of lack of funding - for political reasons more than anything,
international donors provide Burma with only a tiny fraction per capita of what
Laos and Cambodia receive, or Zimbabwe or Sudan. It's shameful.
ATol: What do you see resulting from the current visit of United
Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon?
TMU: I think in judging the trip we have to be mindful that
the international community is deeply divided on this issue. The key
governments involved - the US and China, etc - have very, very different views
as to what the challenges in Burma are. For the West, it's mainly about
democracy promotion. For neighboring governments, it's primarily stability. For
many other Asian countries its about business and development, believing
perhaps that political change will follow economic growth.
It's incredibly hard for an international figure like Ban to simply go in and
sort things out. In North Korea for example everyone accepts the focus is on
nuclear proliferation; but - here it's much more complicated, there are so many
different issues, and international opinion just on the nature of the problem
is completely divided. There are opportunities for Ban Ki-Moon but his success
on this trip will depend on his willingness to look at the big picture. But his
success on this trip will depend on his willingness to look at the big picture.
He has to deal with some of the immediate political challenges, but if he
simply repeats the mantra of the past many years and sees himself primarily as
a broker between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi, I'm not sure he can get
very far. I don't think he brings any leverage.
ATol: You've written that throughout its history, Burma has
sought isolation. Why does the current government want to be cut off from the
rest of the world?
TMU: Geography meant that Burma was for much of its history off
the main trading routes between East and West. There was always the option to
remain isolated. Burma's periods of creativity and even greatness were when it
was willing to overcome this isolation and connect to the world. But the option
of retreating back into its own shell was always there.
But more recently there's also the long history of repeated foreign invasions.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Burma was invaded three times by the British
who then ruled for more than 100 years; then it was invaded by the Japanese in
the 1940s, by Chinese nationalists in the 50s and by Chinese-backed communists
in the 1960s. Thailand, the US and many other countries have also had their
hand in Burmese politics for many decades. A xenophobia has developed that's
going to be hard to dislodge.
In the 1950s, when remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's army crossed into Burma with
support from the US and Thailand, Burma went for the first time to the UN for
help. Its didn't work and the lesson they learned was that you can't rely on
the UN. It was a turning point for the army. Before that they were mainly a
small counter-insurgency force; afterwards the began to turn themselves into
the massive military machine we have today. (See
Strength and dishonor , Asia Times Online, July 3)
ATol: How does this anti-colonial mindset come through in the
policies of today's government?
TMU: Anti-colonial rhetoric is imprinted on the minds of the
Burmese officer corps; it is at the heart of the regime's self-perception even
today. The military leaders see the country itself as a battlefield with
ethnic-based insurgencies and other political enemies all around. They suspect
that their enemies all have foreign ties and so their role, a patriotic one in
their minds, is linked to the anti-colonial struggle. This has been their world
view since the 1940s and it's how they still see things today.
This is an army - the only army I can think of, that has been fighting every
year since World War II. The groups they have fought have been extraordinarily
varied - from the Islamic mujahideen on the borders of what was then East
Pakistan [Bangladesh] to Chinese-supported communists to right-wing, US- and
Thai-backed militias to opium warlords and ethnic separatists; it's been a huge
variety and they have been fighting for more than half a century. We see how
war and especially counter-insurgency operations can brutalize an army after
just a few years, imagine what it does after six decades.
Until you unravel some of these things, there won't be a stable democratic
transition. I would like to see the UN take a deeper approach and think about
the 60 years of poverty and armed conflict. The UN always says security,
development and human rights are interlinked. I think this is right. But where
is this more complex approach when it comes to Burma?
ATol: Your formula for change was once described as "debate,
engagement and gradualism". Has this taken hold in policy circles - for example
in the UN or in Washington?
TMU: Just over the past few years I think many more Western
policymakers have come to the conclusion that sanctions-based approaches just
won't work with a regime like Burma's. There has been a willingness to go back
to the drawing board and think about fresh approaches.
Sanctions are at best ineffective because they are not universal. The
government is more than able to survive on just trade and investment from
within the region. In the worst case, though sanctions are extremely
counter-productive, in that they've held back two forces - American soft
power and global capitalism - that could have actually started to change
things. I fear the democracy movement has very little hope for success if it's
going to fight on the current landscape, that was created and cultivated by the
army over decades of fighting.
For me, the most important thing is to change the landscape first. The
involvement of the West through aid, investment and tourism could be a huge
part of changing this landscape. If over the past 20 years, if we hadn't had
all these sanctions and boycotts, and and instead had focused on ending the
armed conflicts, reforming the economy, and reconnecting Burma to the world,
including through global capitalism, I think the pro-democracy movement would
be in a much stronger position today.
ATol: What have the current events - the arrest and ongoing trial
of Suu Kyi - done to this push for engaging with the generals?
TMU: It's clearly stalled that momentum. It's hard to push for
engagement, which depends on taking a bigger picture view, when everything is
understandably focused around her situation.
The problem is that some see sanctions as a stick, and that therefore reducing
sanctions is someone taking a softer line against the regime. But in Burma's
Alice in Wonderland world, it's the opposite that's true. If we didn't have
sanctions, if we had the opposite, a flood of international trade and
investment and tourism, with a robust international presence, and growing ties
with the rest of the world, I really don't think army rule would last much
longer. Look at the democratic transitions we've had elsewhere in the region -
in Korea, Indonesia etc - none of those countries were under sanctions, all
enjoyed closer ties with the West, and their army regimes eventually crumbled
under their own weight. In Burma, through limited Western sanctions, I'm afraid
we've created the perfect political economy for continued authoritarian rule.
ATol: What is your opinion of the pro-democracy movement?
TMU: It's a gamble. If let's say tomorrow we suddenly have a
transition to democratic government, then everyone can say that her [Suu Kyi's]
strategy has been a great success. If that doesn't happen, then there is the
increasing cost of other roads not tested and opportunities lost as well as the
enormous effect sanctions and aid cut-offs have had on ordinary people,
especially the poorest and most vulnerable in the country.
ATol: Do you think the scheduled elections in 2010 will bring the
democratic change the government has promised?
TMU: 2010 will at the very least represent the biggest political
shake-up in Burma in 20 years. All kinds of new structures are being created,
and this is happening at the same time as an important generational transition
within the armed forces leadership. At the very least, it's a big internal
transition and perhaps new opportunities.
I'm not enthusiastic about any scenario that is based on changes to the
politics at the top. Where real change has to come is from the two much bigger
issues: ending the armed conflict and economic change. I'm not a Marxist, but I
do think that politics has a way of following economics. And the West has done
nothing to try to shape the economic landscape, instead, through sanctions, it
has more or less dealt itself out of the game.
ATol: What do you see for the future of Burma?
TMU: If 100 years from now, we wrote a book about the Burma of
today, I doubt the focus would be on next year's elections, or the democracy
movement or Aung San Suu Kyi's trial. I think we would see that the most
important thing happening today is Burma's opening to China and its ability or
inability to manage its position between the world's rising superpowers - China
and India. Burma is a country of 60 million sandwiched between nearly
two-and-a-half billion Chinese and Indians.
We talk about that in the West - the rise of China and India - think of what it
will mean to the future of Burma. It will mean everything.
Will it be swallowed up? Or will it benefit from being between the two biggest
and most dynamic countries in the world? If it can find a way for all its
people to benefit, then Burma's future in the 21st century can still be a very
Charles McDermid is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in