Since Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to Burma and to see the Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the Fall of 2011, the international media with a very few exceptions has taken the line that there is real change in Burma.
Beginning in 2009, the group called the Friends of Burma, the US Government and the major non-profits active in Burma have apparently taken the view that they can tango with the entrenched Burmese junta and win. At times it seems almost as if buttering on the praise liberally will make a regime which has had more than fifty years since 1962 to fine tune its strategies and tactics, really change to a functioning democracy.
If it were only so easy.
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If it were that easy Burma would be a living economic and human rights miracle right now.
But as anyone who follows the news in Burma closely knows, that is far from the case.
This author would like the reader to scroll back and review modern Burmese history. After a Burmese monarchy, it became a British colony in 1886, bureaucratically controlled as part of India until 1935. After Independence in 1948, it was only a quasi-democracy, as experts such as Josef Silverstein have called it.
In 1962 General Ne Win staged a coup and since then, successive governments, whatever they choose to call themselves and the country, have been in effect military dictatorships, the country always ruled by a council or committee of high military brass, along with one or two nominal civilians who are junta-friendly.
So all decisions are made at the top, even these days with respect to within which margins the rate of exchange is allowed to float.
It’s a command economy.
In September, 1988, after the crackdown on the nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations, the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) “opened up” the country a bit by legalizing cross-border trade with China, Thailand and India.
Between 1962 and 1988, the BSPP (Burma Socialist Program Party’s) practised central planning, even nationalizing curbside stalls that sold betel quid and cigarettes.
As luck would have it, for Thailand, Thailand had just run out of teak forests and banned teak exports when Burma opened up like that, so General Chavalit made a bee line for Burma. At the same time SLORC also started selling off blocks in the Bay of Bengal in Burmese waters for oil and natural gas exploration.
And there was “privatization” but the privates were mostly the wives and families of the big brass army officers, who surely would have bought everything at deep discounts, after all there was information asymmetry and only the in-crowd would now what was being sold of the floundering state owned economic enterprises.
Since then over more than two decades, terms such as “market economy,””crony” and “crony of a crony” have become commonplace in Burma.
There is thus a very wide income gap.
In 2005, after it had placed Aung San Suu Kyi under her third spell of prolonged house arrest after what was known as the Depayin Massacre, when the junta’s thugs tried to kill her, on May 30, 2003 the SPDC as it renamed itself, built a purpose-built capital city, just like Brasilia, in the rice fields of the Burmese heartland. This they called Naypyidaw, or “The King’s Royal City,”
and indeed there’s a high degree of wanting to return to a Burmese or Burman monarchy in the Burmese political culture as specified from the top by the generals.
In 2008 days after the devastating Nargis Cyclone, they “held a referendum” and pushed through a “constitution” often derisively called the Nargis Constitution.
In November 2010, after the “election” went through with the NUP (National Unity Party), the junta’s proxy party winning, Aung San Suu Kyi was released.
In an impossible situation. She had to negotiate for her better treatment and permission to travel overseas, in exchange for helping lift western sanctions.
Then it all looked very busy, with conferences and international trips and Burmese expats returning home to work at the helms of important non-profits.
But guess what?
The military men now nominally civilian, dressed in sarongs or longyis rather than in khaki pants, could not let go of their ingrained habits.
Beginning in 2011, “racial incidents” against the Rohingya in Arakan state started taking place.
Rohingya is a subset of Burmese Muslim. Arakanese, Burman, Chin, Kachin, Mon and other ethnic groups are subsets of Myanmar or Burmese. Burman is the predominant majority group.
These, and the Kachin State civil war, just happen to be at the western and the eastern ends respectively of the Shwe Gas Pipeline (which also carries crude oil), which goes to Yunnan in China.
Since 2011 and 2012, cases of “rape” always allegedly of a Burman woman by a Muslim man, have led to riots, and there is a reasonable assumption by many on the scene that these are state instigated, using their Swan Ahr Shin or Possessor of Strength thugs.
There’s even a hate monger by the name of Ashin Wirathu, dressed in monk’s robes and regularly spouting hate speech against Burmese Muslims.
The frightening thing is, from the western border, the incidents have proceeded at neat six monthly intervals to Pegu near Rangoon, Meikhtila, a big city in the center and now Mandalay, the second largest city.
So at this time we should be aware that getting rich a la reforms as advocated by Deng Xiaoping in China, and going to a market economy is not enough for democracy.
We need to go back to where all the ladders start, at the rag and bone shop of the heart, at the Human Rights level.
That is not there.
There are still political prisoners, still journalists being arrested, released with guarantees not to do politics, foreign journalists being deported, massive land grabs all over the country and now these cases of slow-burning genocide.
So should the US and other western governments still play along?
One does not think so.
The Mandalay unrest took place while the Australian Foreign Minister was visiting Naypyidaw close by.