Denial is not just a river in Egypt, Mark Twain once famously quipped. Indeed it seems it is a river in the memories of many international observers now swooning blindly over President Thein Sein and his reform agenda.
Things are changing: the sun sets, the world spins, people, even dictators, evolve. The nature of current changes is, however, all too often hugely simplified to analyses that suggest either a clear misunderstanding of this country, or an intentional misrepresentation of its politics.
Now, a year after the country’s elections, in which Burmese have lived under a government they did not choose, the state of power in the country must be scrutinised as an antidote to the cries of progress. One major change has been Burma’s relationship with China. Most would agree with the words of Burmese economist Khing Maung Nyo, who says that Burma“needs new friends”, and that her reliance upon China has had to end.
China’s weight on the country is keenly felt, none more so than by Burma’s generals who also have successfully pursued a neutralist policy since independence. They, according to the US embassy, mistrust their neighbours motives the most. And Burma’s generals need finance and a source of cheap loans. Why this is the case is because of the delicate power balance that exists.
Burma is not poor, but government spending is completely unsustainable for the economic long haul, as it has been since 1962. Nearly a quarter of the budget goes on the military, with no sign that this weighting will change any time soon. “I don’t think spending on health and education will change remarkably,” says Khin Maung Nyo.
“Remember there are really two governments in this country,” adds Win Tin, a political veteran and founding member of the National League for Democracy, noting that the core of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is believed to be opposed to many of the recent legislative reforms that the president has sought. But in fact there could be three, with the country’s military remaining a powerful force.
The most notable area of reform that the self-proclaimed elected party has fought hard against is agriculture: farmers make up nearly three-quarters of the population, but the USDP was deeply against their inclusion on the Labour Organisation Bill, a move that would have been remarkable were it not for an intervention by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
But in other legislation, such as the Land Act, the USDP had their way in legally subjugating the vast majority of workers. In a country where land confiscation, which amounts to the theft of people’s livelihoods, is a growing problem, the Land Act makes these disputes go not to a court of law, but to a committee. Thus the aiding of impunity before the law for the powerful and the elite, from which strata the USDP hails, continues unabated. As Khin Maung Nyo explains, “we are trying to change agriculture into a business” by taking small holdings and turning them into large commercial agribusinesses. The Land Act that prevents legal issues from arising will aid this.
So if the country doesn’t want to rely on China, it needs to placate the West to fund the dual priorities of the military and to kick start the economy.
Western priorities run fairly juxtaposed with the more upwardly mobile business elite in Burma, many of whom have been schooled in the West and many of whom now brief experts like the International Crisis Group’s Jim Della-Giacoma and other visiting dignitaries in air-conditioned hotels as far removed from the population as possible. This elite then desperately wants the trappings of the West – the credit cards, 24-hour electricity, the Western export markets and the international “economic legitimacy”, as Khin Maung Nyo terms it.
The IMF has of course just finished a trip to the country. The reluctance of institutions such as this to engage with Burma is one of the most powerful tools that visitors like US envoy Derek Mitchell have to pressure Thein Sein. The loans that such institutions can provide will be essential: at present the government has put a number of large-scale infrastructure projects on hold, and this as the value of government debts have soared by some 30 percent, despite massively increased tax revenue and foreign investment.
Mitchell will relate to Thein Sein on the basis of easily communicable signs of change, such as political prisoners. In all probability he will have read Della-Giacoma’s assertions that there was a “general amnesty”, which is fiction – the only thing “general” about it was the military rank of the man who ordered it, Thein Sein. In actual fact it was unremarkable.
In the government’s communiqués on the amnesty, it made no reference to any substantial change of tack – instead Thein Sein et al still claim that the 1,700 remaining political prisoners are in jail under existing laws, and refuses to show any contrition towards them or their sentences. Similarly, the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had to refer to political prisoners as “so-called ‘prisoners of conscience’”. The amnesty moreover was acted upon on an auspicious full moon day, indicative of the fact that this was not the opening of “freedom’s gate” as the Financial Times saw it, but a vain attempt to shore up whatever karma is possible for the soul of a Burmese general.
Della-Giacoma also claims in a shameful twist of logic that the amnesty was different in that the military nominees in parliament are now in favour of the prisoner release, thereby “indicating the move is openly backed by the armed forces in a way that previous releases have not been”. But who else has “backed” previous releases? Only the military has locked up political prisoners, and only the military can or has decided to release them, as they have done at intervals for years. Nothing has changed then, which suggests these commentators have a woeful lack of understanding of why there are military men in parliament in the first place – to do the bidding of the institution from which they hail.
Win Tin contends that the president would have gained approval for the amnesty from an 11-member military council of which he is the only “civilian” member, and that this council would not permit the move for all political prisoners. He claims that it is fearful of the “young men”, as Win Tin describes inmates such as Min Ko Naing, who can still disrupt the government’s controlled reorganisation. Councils such as this meanwhile simply will not allow for the cuts in military spending that are required alongside the crackdown on their vast corruptions that would allow the Burmese a fighting chance in terms of social spending. More money then must be sought.
The dynamic that parliament has worked under has caused interest. Primarily it seems there are breaks from the party line, with some government-aligned MPs straying from the traditional conservative bent of the USDP, while most have acted in unison with the particular house they are in. So there is an allegiance to the house of parliament they sit in, whether upper or lower. Both houses are naturally dominated by the USDP, whose ranks are filled with former military personnel and other elites. The upper house has a greater ethnic make up because of the regional weighting, and has reportedly sided more with the president, whilst the lower is more conservative.
The question of what brand of democracy Burma is headed towards must be asked. Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the Myitsone Dam was hail as a positive sign, although it should be seen more as a vital tool with which to make the reciprocal sensation felt once more in politics, and temporarily appease the people – after all, it has only been suspended, and does not necessarily mark a radical break with the country’s rapacious enthusiasm for destructive industry.
It would be impossible to put an appraisal on the year that has been without commentating on the upsurge in violence against two of the largest ethnic groups in Burma, the Kachin and the Shan. It could be that Thein Sein, despite his statements, has no control over this; that the conquests are solely in the hands of the “third government”, the army. Yet those who boast that he has forged peace with groups like the Wa and Mongla are attempting to distract us from the continued violence elsewhere: these two groups are keen business partners of the Thein Sein government, whom various experts have implicated in the country’s narcotics trade. Other “overtures” to the likes of the Kachin provide more evidence of the army’s intentions, given that they have been accompanied by various reports of rape and shelling of civilians.
Of the praise heaped on Thein Sein by key players in the international community, Win Tin provides some sobering afterthought: “Men like this simply do not change overnight”, he says of the man who has a lifetime of service in war and whose tenure in the top job has only heightened conflict.
On the other key area of sanctions, Burma has used the gullible ones out there to help massage the notion that its economic ruin is the fault of the West’s blockade, and not its own feudal system of governance and economics. The ICG followed suit by slating sanctions as “counterproductive, encouraging a siege mentality among its leadership and harming its mostly poor population”. The only thing now breaking this “siege mentality” is a realisation that the government desperately needs what sanctions blocked, finance.
So while Burma is changing, its change is not towards a simple state of “freedom”, but towards greater Western capitalism. This is elite-orientated and engineered, and arguably threatens its sovereignty as much as China does. As Western capital will sweep into a corruptible land with little rule of law, it will become party to the corporate seizures of farmland and squabbles over her mineral-rich hillsides – a corrupt feeding frenzy that remains the envy of Western companies.
Burma has not changed because of the good will of her leaders or their desire to be more democratic. The people on the street are not fooled; they appreciate the suspension of the dam on the “mother river”, the ability to buy posters of their hero Aung San Suu Kyi, but they do not forget. Rather, they still live in fear and know that the constitution that has been implanted on them reinforces the impunity for those above them and clamps a feudal yoke upon their shoulders.