Burma Enters the World Stage

15. 3. 2017

The political changes in a remote Asian country, larger than France and England put together, may alter the balance of power on the geopolitical chessboard.

Among the hundred people deciding the fate of the world the Foreign Policy magazine late last year listed a couple of figures who until recently perfectly fit the scenario from the well-known French fable much publicised by Disney, namely The Beauty and the Beast. It was obvious that the Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was capable of seducing the world; she had done so a long time ago. But we would have never suspected that her partner would be General Thein Sein, today’s President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and previously Prime Minister and figure No. 4 in the junta until 2011 named side by side with the North Korean regime as the most cruel in Asia.

Thein Sein earned yet another distinction. On April 22nd 2013 in New York, he will receive the peace prize granted by the International Crisis Group think tank for “initiating a cycle of astounding and unprecedented reforms” in Burma, today called Myanmar, as the Group’s head Louise Arbor explained. What is this all about? The answer to this question was given by Kurt M. Campbell, assistant of the US secretary of State for Eastern Asia and the Pacific in a Foreign Policy article entitled “The Lady and the General”: “They jointly took a risk for the future […] and inspired us all.”

Trade the Guns for Laptops!

When in November 2010 the junta, which had uninterruptedly governed Burma for half a century, announced parliamentary elections, nobody believed in its “democratic” assurances. Especially that provisions of the new 2008 Constitution kept full control of the Hluttaw, that is Parlament, in the hands of the military. An overwhelming majority of them are the same people who had governed earlier but now they donned longyi, colourful chequered skirts which are part of the national costume.

The assessments of foreign observers were not changed by the decision to free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, taken one week after the elections. Her isolation had previously been deliberately prolonged, so that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) could not run in the electoral contest. The NLD responded by boycotting the poll, treating it as “nontransparent” and “nondemocratic,” and the world agreed with this judgement.

It was the military which chose the new President, Thein Sein. No wonder that his first speech in the Hluttaw on 30 March 2011 went largely uncomented, although it did contain pronouncements about the “necessity of reforms.” The realities of the country practically did not change. Political prisoners, counted in thousands and remaining behind bars since the bloodily repressed student revolt in 1988, were not let free; under the amnesty of May 2011, only criminals were released. Ethnic conflicts on the peripheries of the country, such as the longest guerrilla war in the history of mankind—against the Kayin (Karen) people—still smouldered, engaging the army and security forces. People were still forcibly resettled and behind the border with Thailand there still exists a community of over 150 thousand refugees in nine refugee camps, most of them the Kayin but also native Burmese.

The stagnation was not overcome by the second reformist speech by the President, given in the Hluttaw on 17 August. What really attracted attention was his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi two days later, on 19 August 2011. The meeting was broadcast life by government television and it took place—which carried a great symbolic weight—under the portrait of her father, General Aung San, the founder of the Burman independence (regained from the British in January 1948) as well as of the Burmese army, Tatmadaw. It was the beginning of a breakthrough.

In late September 2011, President Thein Sein, invoking the “will of the people” (which was absolutely unheard of ), put a stop to a large-scale Chinese investment, the Myitsone Dam in the upper course of the main waterway Ayeyarwaddy. It was worth 3.5 billion dollars, a huge sum for such a poor country. This step was unambiguously interpreted as an at least partial renouncing of the allegiance to China, which had been increasing their presence in Burma since 1989, slowly turning this country into a kind of protectorate. This started a stream of Western politicians coming to Myanmar, followed by delegations of business people.

The Navel of Asia

Before the generals came to power, that is after the coup in 1963, Burma, now counting about 58 million inhabitants, was the richest country in South-Eastern Asia besides the Philippines. Badly governed, it was getting poorer and poorer but its enormous potential remained. It is a large country, bigger than France and England put together, rich in natural resources, starting from energy (natural gas) to the largest reserves of teak-wood in the region or the world-famous rubies and other precious stones.

Such a country opening itself to the world after decades of complete isolation is a tempting proposition for all those who have not arrived there yet, for the Thais and Singaporeans had been involved in serious business with the junta much earlier. After 1992, when General Than Shwe took power, the Chinese started to throw their weight about there. The desire to discard this growing dependence undoubtedly was one of the factors which made the generals in skirts choose cooperation with the West as well.

Therefore, when in March 2012 President Thein Sein made his third policy speech, he was closely listened to—in Burma and abroad. He appealed to young people to “trade guns for laptops,” which almost met with an applause of his countrymen. Earlier he forced a change in the Constitution and announced by-elections to the Hluttaw on 1 April 2012. The NLD won 43 out of 45 seats and Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed that despite the fifteen years of isolation she still—like in 1988–90—rules the hearts and minds of the Burmese. A few weeks later she took her seat in the parliament and the government television was regularly showing her.

On 1 April 2012 Myanmar, previously a country with a “virtual economy,” also announced the plan of a gradual return to the real value of the local currency—kyat (pronounced chat). First ATMs appeared in the largest cities, Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay. VISA and Mastercard declared an intent of entering this market, earlier a paradise for money changers, exploiting the huge gap between the official and black market rate of the kyat.

The European Union opened its Embassy in Rangoon, just like many of its member states (only Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy had them before). Also USA, represented by a chargé d’affaires since 1988 only, also sent their ambassador to the former capital. Already in the first days of December 2011 Hillary Clinton visited Burma, as the first American secretary of state to do so in 55 years. Almost a year later she accompanied Barack Obama during a short, 6-hour outing to Rangoon—Obama was the first US president in office who travelled to this country. The guests paid visits to Aung San Suu Kyi in her private villa at 54 University Avenue, the same one where she had spent 15 out of 22 most recent years of her life.

President Obama did not go to the new capital Naypyidaw, created by the generals in November 2005 deep in the country’s hinterland. It was President Thein Sein who journeyed to the biggest city of Myanmar, Rangoon, the appearance of which—now dilapidated and faded—was the work of the British since the middle of the 19th century. These were not the only symbolic aspects of this controversial visit (some experts argued that it might have come too early). The American President made a speech in the main auditorium of the Rangoon University, which for decades had been a centre of disobedience to the authoritarian regime and the place where the bloodily suppressed revolution in 1988 erupted (the number of people killed is estimated at more than three thousand). The authorities locked up the compound, for years invaded by rain forest, and the buildings inside were smothered with spider-webs. We may easily envisage the amount of effort needed to prepare the run-down compound for the visit.

President Obama’s speech was interrupted by applause only twice. The first time was when the American head of state spoke about the citizens’ duties, suggesting that the future of Burma (he is more inclined to use this term than Myanmar) depends on whether civic society is built there. The second burst of applause was even more significant: the President spoke extensively on the complicated ethnic relations in the country and appealed for “national reconciliation.” Earlier he invoked two ethnic conflicts still smouldering on the peripheries of this federal state—involving the Kachins in the north-east, and in Rakhin in the south-west, by the border with Bangladesh, where in June and October 2012 the local Muslim population, denied all rights, clashed with Buddhists partly sent by the government.

The Burmese Rainbow

Burma has seven federal states (Mon, Kayah, Kayin, Kachin, Qin, Rakhine and Shan), over 130 nationalities and more than 200 languages; it is a true Tower of Babel and an ethnic rainbow. The Burmese are the ethnic majority but they form only 65% of the population. Minorities are important and for decades they were fighting for greater autonomy if not sovereignty. Separatist tendencies in the largest federal state Shan once made General Ne Win introduce a military dictatorship and a “Burmese way to socialism,” that is adding insult to injury.“Really existing socialism” Burmese style resulted in poverty, which was formally confirmed in 1987 by the UN, which placed Burma in the least developed countries group. The situation changed very little under the next junta of General Than Shwe, who ruled with an iron fist from 1992 to 2010. Under the aegis of capitalism the junta conducted operation Tatmadaw, dividing the national assets between members of the former nomenklatura. The generals got rich while the country remained poor.

Ethnic tensions were joined by painfully evident disparities in wealth. They often make themselves felt. After Barack Obama left the country, there were riots in the open-pit copper mine near the city of Monywa, supported by local monks. The authorities reacted in a time-tested fashion—by using violence. Twenty eight people were hospitalised, all except one being respected Buddhist monks, heavily repressed also during the so-called Saffron Revolution in September 2007.

Aung San Suu Kyi visited the scene of these events, condemned the use of violence and headed the investigating committee. It seems that without her personal involvement and enormous authority in Burma and abroad, national reconciliation would be doomed to fail. Her father, aiming for independence from the British, once engineered such agreements in Panlong in the Shan province. Now the NLD is rightly speaking about the necessity of signing a “second Panlong.”

The authorities are declaring that new, fully democratic elections will take place in 2015. It seems certain that the NLD will win. But the party must be rebuilt for in the times of dictatorship it was almost shattered. With the exception of Aung San Suu Kyi the party leadership is composed of persons who are eighty or more, while young people started to distance themselves from the NLD and question the political choices of the leader (for example, before the 2010 elections some activists were against the boycott).

Aung San Suu Kyi also has another problem. The 2008 Constitution prevents her from becoming president, for there is a clause saying that people with foreigners in the family may not run (her both sons have foreign passports and have taken permanent residence abroad). President Thein Sein has suggested that this article may be amended, just as it happened with another clause before the by-elections. But can a declaration of one person be depended on in the Burmese context, even if this person is the head of state? The current Constitution makes it possible to remove the president almost overnight, should the Hluttaw so decide. An institutional solution would be useful.

Former generals and colonels, serving in parliament, basking in appropriated national assets and wielding instruments of real power, including the ministries overseeing the army, police and the security forces, may lose these privileges after the 2015 elections and their control over the country along with them. Are they prepared for that? Are they going to give up without fight? History, also of Burma, has not heard of relinquishing power “for free.” Therefore it seems necessary to convene another round table before the democratic elections, sit down to purely political negotiations, which would guarantee to all parties that there will be no witch-hunts in the democratic era. Without some guarantees of safety for themselves the former generals and the whole military elite may be fearful about their future, for they are the ones who know best how brutally they used to behave. So in their own interest they may block new scenarios, and they possess the requisite tools and possibilities.

The incredible story of the last dozen months in Burma may create a misleading impression that it already is a normal country. Unfortunately it isn’t. The cruel former dictatorship and its ways make themselves felt at every turn, like near Monywa in November last year. Also worrying is yet another arrest of the hero of the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, monk Gambira, who was too vocal in protesting against the methods used by the authorities during the riots. No minority, including the Mons, Karens and Shans, has signed a peace agreement with the new government. Others, like the Kachin, Wa or Rakhine, are in fact in a state of war with the Burmese state. Material devastation and mismanagement from the former period are visible everywhere. The country is poor, although foreign capital, not only Chinese or Singaporean, started to pour in.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was taking off for her first foreign journey in 22 years, the first pilot invited her to the cockpit. Asked for her impressions later, she said that what amazed her most was not the modern electronics in the airplane but the lights over Bangkok just before the landing. Her country is struggling with chronic shortages of electricity. Weak lamps and light bulbs and power generating units are still an integral part of Burmese reality. The inhabitants have to wait for neon lights and resplendence.

In Thailand and during successive foreign visits the most famous Burmese, The Lady appealed both to foreign business and to the Burmese diaspora to come to Myanmar and “create the new reality.”In Thailand she visited the largest refugee camp called Mae La, with almost 50 thousand people living there. She called on them as well to return to their country, “where each pair of working hands is needed.” As far as we know, no one did. The camp inmates, just like their relatives back home, have experienced too much bad things, have too bitter and painful memories to trust anyone now.

And trust is a product which is dramatically in short supply in Burma. Is it going to be rebuilt? The future of the country to a large extent depends on the answer to this question.

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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