Dr Maung Zarni is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE). He is also an activist, commentator and writer, having founded the Free Burma Coalition in the United States in 1995. He now lives and works in the United Kingdom.
He talks to DVB about the west’s relationship to Burma, delusional international relations, the state of political transition, and anger.
Francis Wade: You’re known to be one of the most outspoken critics of the Burmese government and its allies, and have accused others of tiptoeing around the condemnation it warrants. Why do you feel a need to be somewhat vitriolic?
Dr Maung Zarni: I love your characterisation of my blistering criticisms as “somewhat vitriolic” against those whose views I consider “parasitically expert” or “expertly parasitical”.
To belabour the obvious, I am incredibly angry about what has been happening to my country over the past 50 years. Burma is dying a slow death, by all indications. The more you know the angrier you get. Alas, Western minds are typically incapable of either appreciating this rage over a country’s tragedy but also comprehending any scathing criticism against the “parasitical expert” and other creatures, that make light of our Burmese hell-on-earth.
But this isn’t new. A century ago Rabindranath Tagore obviously had to deal with the same issue: “All the great nations of Europe have their victims in other parts of the world. This not only deadens their moral sympathy but also their intellectual sympathy, which is so necessary for the understanding of races which are not one’s own.”
Here I would simply add that it’s not just Europeans and other westerners who are incapable of understanding this profound rage among the Burmese, but the colonised minds among us can’t appreciate it either.
FW: You have been critical of the EU, and what you see as it’s warming ties with Naypyidaw. Can you provide some context to the EU’s apparent shift?
MZ: The most helpful way to understand the EU is to disaggregate this entity. Instead of thinking of the EU as an enlightened multi-state organisation with humanity’s interests at its organisational heart, each time I hear the word “EU” what springs to mind is not the European peoples, millions of whom are themselves working poor or un- or under-employed, but rather, the word EU conjures up sinister images of Brussels’ Eurocrats in the pockets of European or EU-based corporations and national diplomats whose primary job description is to promote their home countries’ commercial, financial, industrial and security interests in their assigned outposts.
Then there are a myriad of banks, technology exporters, energy firms, insurance companies, large consultancies, development agencies, credit raters, gas and oil extractors, per-diem and commission-hunting experts and so on, who swarm the corridors of the EU’s national capitals, such as London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm, Rome, etc.
The EU shift on Burma is first and foremost commercially driven, and against the fact that Burma’s neighbours – such as the Koreans, the Thais, the Chinese, the Indian, the Singaporeans and so on – are raking it in, in resource-rich Burma. Greed-driven, the EU feels no longer justified in pretending to live its official “liberal” humanist values.
Now the European interests are in ready-set-go mode, simply waiting for the whistle. I loved it when Susan George, the head of the Transnational National Institute (TNI), bluntly and truthfully said that EU is nothing more than a mechanism for different European commercial interests, devoid of any redeeming humanistic vision.
FW: Do you feel EU policy is intended to benefit Burmese, or is there an element of self-centredness in it?
MZ: You must be kidding! There are no free lunches in international relations. The EU isn’t staffed with our parents, not even stepfathers! According to a recent BBC documentary, the EU is pushing for relaxing restrictions on blood diamond imports from places like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Find some of the most horrendous corners of the world, and you will find EU entities cuddling up to tin-point dictators.
So, the EU policy shift and policies are about EU interests, not about my people. Of course, there might be crumbs for the locals as “donors” bring in millions in so-called humanitarian aid to lay the groundwork for their Burma and Southeast Asia-wide commercial and strategic agendas.
To be sure, there are a lot of well-meaning, in-country foreign diplomats, EU officials, development experts, etc., who would like the Burmese people to have a future. Many of them genuinely believe they are promoting public welfare. But ultimately, it is not their good intentions and self-justifications for their own policies and initiatives that count, but the overall outcome of the concrete and impersonal policies and their impact on the historical developments of Burma as a whole.
It is a cliché to repeat here but, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. It is so true when it comes to international operations in Burma. Even Asian diplomats and ASEAN entities that openly coddle the Burmese generals delude themselves into thinking what they are doing is going to help the Burmese in the long run.
FW: Which country has taken this to the farthest extent, and why?
MZ: Obviously, France (with TOTAL Oil) must top the list here, followed by Germany. One of the major pillars of the German economy is Berlin’s ability to create ‘niche markets’ around the world for German industries. Burma, with its estimated 50 million potential consumers, is no small market. For capitalists, no amount of profit is small. The Brits are not so far behind either. More than 40 percent of Britain’s GDP is in the financial sector. British financial firms have never really ceased to operate in Burma, in one disguise or another.
Even the Norwegians and Scandinavians – with an eye on energy and agricultural sectors — are not as innocent as they would like to project themselves in the popular media. As a key consulting agency which drew up the operational plan for the Asian Development Bank-funded GMS energy market creation, the NorConsult, for instance, is deeply implicated in the creation of the integrated energy market within the six-country Greater Mekong Sub-Region.
The energy sector’s projected investment/capital needs for 25 years are about US$ 550 billion. Imagine what the volume of capital (and its return) for two dozen different sectors – from government reforms, infrastructure construction, transport sector, agri-business, tourism, education upgrade, capacity building, etc. – would be.
FW: Among the calls coming from Germany is a softening of sanctions. How would this affect the government and in turn Burmese people?
MZ: At the profoundly psychological level, the immediate impact of EU’s softening of its stance towards the Burmese government would be de-legitimising and marginalising, in effect, the resistance movements, both armed and non-violent, whilst strengthening the regime’s resolve to crush any type of serious resistance, especially from the non-Bama ethnic communities such as the Kachin, the Karen, the Karenni, and the Shan.
At a more material level, the policy softening comes with gradual shifting of support priorities away from the war-torn communities in eastern Burma and the exile organisations which have played a vital role in keeping the flames of resistance alive, with many forms of interaction and support to their comrades inside the country, to the creation of local EU proxies in the name of capacity building and community development.
This is resulting in the NGO-isation of politics in Burma, sucking local human resources into the NGO sector and away from popular resistance. Already we are seeing EU-funded entities such as Myanmar Egress that have become rather influential in promoting an intellectually dishonest and empirically false view – that development in a dictatorial political economy in particular and development in general can be, and is, apolitical.
Incidentally, EU officials and national diplomats from European governments know damn well that the military government allows Egress to act as its public relations proxy. But what the public doesn’t know is that precisely because Egress is linked to the regime in power, the EU entities rush to work with it.
FW: There also appears to be greater interest in Burma from the likes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What lies behind this?
MZ: The IMF is a banker through and through. It is also the monitor of global financial structures. Save co-operative banks and building societies, I know of no banker or financial organisation in the entire history of finance whose mission it is to promote the interests of the clients.
Out of the ashes of the World War II, the IMF was created by the United States with the purpose of building a global financial system of which the American commercial and financial interests would be the greatest beneficiaries. During the Cold War, Western powers used the IMF and the World Bank as powerful instruments in the fight against the USSR and for building ‘Pax Americana’.
The IMF’s main role in transitional economies or economies on the verge of transition (usually from variously failed leftist political economies) is, in effect, to transform these old systems into new, smoothly functioning building blocks of the global capitalist economy where local assets can be siphoned off into foreign hands. Now in the post-Cold War era, the IMF as the international lender of last resort and “development” banks such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have been used to promote the ideology of market fundamentalism, which is that it is the market, not public institutions, which best promote human welfare.
The ADB, for instance, in a politically unstable place like Burma, plays the role of a de facto business guarantor for venture capitalists and other foreign firms, and in many cases serves as a multilateral interlocutor or go-between, between dodgy national governments such as Burma’s and western investors.
I would highly recommend John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hitman for anyone interested in how this sinister world of international finance works.
FW: The government appears to have gone on something of a PR offensive since it came to power, enacting reforms to the media and ostensibly opening up dialogue with the opposition. What do you make of this?
MZ: The regime is definitely benefiting from the advice it has received from Burmese technocrats and politicos, as well as foreign experts and officials, and are doing an incredibly clever job of couching their political patrons and clients.
The power of the West is decidedly on the wane. Western interests, both commercial/financial and national security, are getting desperate to maintain and/or rebuild their foothold in places such as Burma where they made the mistake of privileging liberal humanism over their core economic and geostrategic interests.
This is a bad combination for the Burmese communities because outside interests, such as EU’s, know that the nature of the beast in Naypyidaw remains the same, but they will pretend things are changing for the better as a way of assuaging their own liberal guilt – assuming they feel the guilt at the subliminal level, or not.
The human mind is capable of acting in a twisted fashion. I am sure EU policy makers and strategists will find a moral discourse to justify the fact that they are embracing an essentially neo-totalitarian regime. Burma’s democratic opposition under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have lost the plot as the freshly minted regime has discovered a winning formula for itself. The real losers are the Bama public and, most especially, the non-Bama communities who live in the resource-rich, war zones of Burma.
FW: Taken in isolation, are there areas of governance that have seen legitimate improvement since last November?
MZ: I cannot think of a single area where there has been a legitimate improvement since the election charade last autumn. The whole governance structure is dysfunctional, pathological, and incapable of improving in a piece-meal fashion. Virtually all important domains of governance are in the hands of military officers or ex-military officers.
These guys are products of the military – a totalitarian institution. Let me put it in the most brutally honest fashion: the military in Burma, both as an institution and as individual officers, are an irredeemable failure; they are ideologically and intellectually un-equipped –not just insufficiently equipped – to build the country as a multiethnic nation.
FW: Fighting continues to rage in the border regions. Does the government have a ‘Final Solution’ for the ethnic minorities?
MZ: You mean as a ‘Final Solution as in Himler’s? I don’t think so. The generals who hold the real levers of power – whatever the outward form of their government – definitely display neo-fascist qualities: racist, militaristic, sexist, megalomaniac, myopically patriotic, and so on.
Naypyidaw is a tin pot dictatorship, unlike Hitler and ‘Tojo’s’ (Japanese imperial government in the 1930’s and 40’s) technologically advanced fascist regimes. Even if it wishes to implement a ‘Final Solution’ in Burma, it lacks the military capabilities to wipe out ethnic minorities. The extremely low quality and morale of the Burmese troops was one of the major factors which forced the Burmese regime to sue for a one-year temporary ceasefire with the Kachin.
The Naypyidaw government will likely seek ways to profit from the conflict politically – if not economically – especially if these smouldering conflicts can be used as a key justification for the military’s lion share of political power and financial resources. That said, I must say the Burmese generals are adept at playing the minorities off against the Bama majority, and vice versa. Even as we speak they are playing Aung San Suu Kyi and her Bama supporters off against the non-Bama resistance groups.
FW: Is the quest for autonomy still at the heart of the ethnic armies’ struggles, or has that changed over the decades?
MZ: I think the desire for ethnic equality and a life free from Bama imperialism is what has underpinned these ethnic resistance groups. Bama imperialism, both the official strain and the societal ‘disease’ is not just a perception by the minorities.
Look, I am a Bama from the heartland of Burma, and I know how ingrained this cultural imperialism is among the Bama, especially among the non-self-reflective and among the so-called educated class. The problem is real.The only non-imperialist among the Bama leaders I know who ever lived was General Aung San.
FW: Taking into account all that’s happening since last November, where do you see Burma in 10 years time?
MZ: I don’t have a Crystal Ball. Anything is possible. If I were a non-Bama individual I would be preparing my own communities for a time when this imperialist political economy collapsed, either as a result of accelerated implosion, or of a serious external shock like regional wars over resources and proxy wars between Great Powers.
Mind you, Burma as we know it didn’t exist before 1948. It isn’t a ready-made product that was handed down through generations and centuries since Bagan. Nation-states and political systems are like organisms. The new ones are born, the old and the sick die out or splinter into smaller new ones. Burma could disappear in 2048. Even if the disintegration of Burma happens in my life time, I won’t be shedding any tears.
I would consider patriotism and nationalism pathological if it compels otherwise intelligent and decent human beings to emotionally hold on to a place which is nothing more than an open air prison, which keeps 50 million unhappy campers inside.