I grew up in military circles in Burma and lived 25 years of my life under the first military rule of the late General Ne Win prior to going to the United States for further studies. I myself would have been a military officer by age 20, if it weren’t for my father who told me to keep my admissions letter to the Officers Training Corp as a souvenir. For the past two decades, I have studied the institution of my childhood ‘career choice’ professionally while politically engaging with its members.
When the junta’s bizarre election laws hit recent news headlines, I heard the Burma policy vogue: “Neither sanctions nor engagement has worked”. As a Burmese dissident who has embraced sanctions and engagement approaches, alternately, over the past two decades, I have grown rather tired of the ‘neither-nor’ policy mantra. This discourse of policy defeatism fails to ask the crucial question: What type of sanctions, or engagement, under what circumstances, and for what purpose, one is talking about?
This ‘neither-nor’ view is not so much a sign of the absence of policy or political alternatives as it is a symptom of the paralysis of strategic imagination; a typically insufficient understanding among Burma – and even Burmese experts – of the real conditions within Burma’s armed forces, and a lack of political resolve on the part of external players who purport to want reconciliation or clamour for real change in my country.
The crucial policy question is what approaches – notice the plural here – should be formulated in order to change the Burmese leadership and its overstretched system. Upon a closer look, the regime in Naypyidaw has created a large-scale perpetual crisis situation whereby its orientation, decisions, and policies only amplify Burma’s pre-existing problems such as armed conflicts, ethnic inequality, the absence of civil liberties, troubled foreign relations, ecological crises and ever-deepening poverty.
While most other experts on Burma see the staying power of the military regime, I see emerging possibilities for formulating more effective and strategic policies in order to induce change. Without changes in the top leadership, institutional transition is inconceivable, given the political culture and organizational setup.
While it is futile to imagine tipping points with each news-worthy mass revolt on Burmese streets, it would be equally unfruitful to swing to the other extreme by assuming the eternal lordship of the tyrannical generals. Those wishing to see genuine change in Burma should remind themselves of the spectacular failures of most Sovietologists to anticipate the collapse of the ‘Evil Empire’.
Based on my first-hand engagement with the military, from the now ousted prime minister and intelligence chief, Khin Nyunt, to his successors, and my own communications with the regime insiders, I offer a five-point strategy to facilitate and accelerate genuine change in Burma.
First, the Western governments that have stood by Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow dissidents need to close ranks and solidify their support for the opposition. Despite talk of a ‘third force’ – that is, political independents who claim they are neither regime proxies nor opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters – there is no organization or individual leader that can match her mass appeal, the NLD’s dormant grassroots base, mobilizing power, and international support. Regardless of its legal standing, the NLD will continue to exist as a political movement. In a country known for its lack of rule of law, the notion of the NLD party becoming ‘illegal’ is ironic.
Second, the type of engagement with Burma will need to be strategically calibrated. Specifically, the governments and organizations, both Asian and Western, need to shift the focus of their engagement away from the intransigent and backward leadership of the regime towards its second and third-line leaders. In addition to this government-to-regime engagement at lower notches, international efforts should be expanded to include various sectors of Burmese economy, cultural organizations, educational institutions and community organizations and informal networks. Tourism should be encouraged in order to create a larger flow of foreign travelers to
Burma; the would drain the regimes resources and man-power to monitor locals’ interactions with the outside world, thereby creating greater social spaces, unmonitored and unharassed for underground and above-ground political dissidents.
Third, pro-sanctions governments and political NGOs should intensify their campaigns for targeted financial sanctions, asset-freeze, travel-bans, international legal actions, all singling out senior general Than Shwe, his top deputies and cronies. For starters, these pressure groups should rally solidly behind UN human rights special envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana’s official call for setting up an international investigation of Than Shwe’s war crimes.
Fourth, opposition-backing governments, such as Washington and London, need to pay attention to the ever-declining morale, material conditions, and anti-regime attitudinal changes within the rank and file of the armed forces which compel an ever-increasing number of new generation officers between the ages of 20 and 40 to desert. Many officers are deserting out of a sense of outrage against intra-military injustices in particular and the general conditions within society at large.
Many of these officers, as well as their comrades, who chose not to desert the institution, wish to contribute to genuine change in the country and leadership change within the armed forces. But they are finding there is little support coming from foreign governments. They would tell you the officer corps has stuck with the current regime because they have not seen serious external or domestic support for ‘the good soldiers’ – not out of loyalty to the corrupt and tyrannical leaders nor faith in the regime’s official propaganda.
Finally, all governments, near and far, that may be concerned about Burma’s balkanization and resultant regional instability should take note of pent-up frustrations which could boil over in the near future. There is a deepening sense of injustice due to decades of repression of non-Burman ethnic communities and the regime’s refusal to acknowledge these historical and contemporary grievances.
It would be short-sighted for regional powers to allow the junta to maintain domestic stability at gunpoint, as opposed to firmly pushing the regime for peace and reconciliation. Sixty years after a series of ethnicity-driven armed revolts, all minority groups are ready to work together as ethnic equals within a union. Even the few that publicly clamour for independence are doing so as a bargaining strategy, rather than as a realizable goal. It is the junta, not the country’s ethnic diversity per se, that are creating regional volatility. The sooner Asian powers come to terms with this empirical reality the better for peace, stability and cross-border prosperity in the region.
Even military officers, from the high-ranking down to the lieutenants, with whom I have engaged, not to mention civilian dissidents who have been seeking leadership change, know that Than Shwe, his feudal leadership and zero-sum politics, stand in the way of establishing genuine peace, political stability, and ethnic equality, and have damaged civil-military relations in the country. Both these soldiers, who want to do the right thing, and their civilian counterparts deserve tangible support from the international community.
The severe prison sentences (capital punishment and 100-plus years, in some cases) meted out to scores of military officers suspected of disloyalty and disobedience over the past five years, and the latest anti-democratic election laws, are clear examples of how seriously the regime takes soldier dissidents within its own ranks and civilian dissidents under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership.
It would be a tragic loss of opportunity for the governments which are concerned about Burma’s political regression if they do not realize these domestic dissidents as potential agents of change as Than Shwe fears. There are alternatives to the ruling junta and there is room for making smarter sanctions and smarter engagement.