By Kanbawza Win
Sanctions and other punitive actions on Burma should be maintained by the US and Western nations for the simple reason that the current regime is not interested in political solutions and is mounting an all out war against the Kachin ethnic nationalities, practicing ethnic cleansing and committing gross human rights violations on all other ethnic nationalities. It even continues to use chemical weapons to wipe out this particular ethnic race. One could not comprehend of why there is a cacophony of calls to drop the sanctions and let Burma into the community of civilized nations when it is still a rogue state.
By whatever barometer it measured, be it a capitalist or a communist, the DNA of the Burmese regime is fundamentally brutal and one should mot reward such a capricious regime just for making some superficial changes as releasing just a mere one tenth of the political prisoners and continue to lie the very concept of truth by uttering that there is no political prisoners. Maintaining its rapist army and relying and encouraging the narco related companies to run the economy, not to mention child soldiers, exporting refugees and killings its own people..
The crux of the Burmese Crisis is that its army better known as Myanmar Tatmadaw wants the Myanmar race to be a perpetual colonial power over the ethnic nationalities and not the Pyidoungsu Myanmar Naing Ngan the Union of Burma, which the architect of modern Burma Bogyole Aung San envisaged. The Tatmadaw wants to reign supreme in perpetuity. What more proof is wanted when you join the army, you can never resign, indicating its attempt to hold perpetual control and attract the young people as “The Triumphant Elites of the Future.” a motto that hung on the gates of the Burma Military Academy. Congressman Joseph R.Pitts remarked that “The brutality of Burma’s generals against the ethnic minorities has not stopped, even during this time when they are allegedly making democratic reforms. It has used the advanced light helicopters bought from India on the ethnic nationalities.”
Obama’s willingness to promote democracy around the world – a mission that hark back to Woodrow Wilson days fell short when George W. Bush took on to Iraq, is now back on its track, complimented with its foreign-policy move that the US is a Pacific power and will act with forcefulness required of a superpower’s presence. In this scenario, Burma is but one nation now wary of too close an embrace by an ambitious and aggressive China, and anxious for a balancing relationship with America. Obama’s America needs to add Burma to a list of countries – Vietnam, Philippines, India, Australia, and most of the ASEAN countries that recently sought stronger ties with the United States.
Lying next to India and under the giant belly of China, Burma would be a key plank in the US strategy to reassert influence in Asia, hence the visit of Hillary Clinton to Burma. President Obama, who grew up in Indonesia, seems to understand that the wielding of power in Asia isn’t always the visible kind – besides guns, ships, money, trade, natural resources, norco drugs (in Burma and Mexico) not to count the psyche and rationale of the generals are included in the deciding factors. Perhaps, Burma will test American concepts of power. Two decades of US-led economic sanctions against Burma have done little to loosen the military’s grip or to help the beleaguered the ethnic nationalities.
Factually, t he US has looked to Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the champion of democracy and rights in Burma. Obama called Ms. Suu Kyi by phone to gain her approval for Mrs. Clinton’s visit. But the US also needs to see more of where Suu Kyi looks for her legitimacy. It isn’t just enough that she is the daughter of Burma’s founder or that she helped rally protesters in the 1988 demonstrations, house arrest for one and half decade and spends time as she can with the behind-the-scenes power in Burma i.e., the Buddhist monks. The much-revered monks were on the front lines of the 1988 protests and again in 2007.
Hundreds, if not thousands have been killed or jailed. Burma’s robed clergy play a powerful role as stewards of a common faith for the Burmese majority. In Burmese history, they have often bestowed or withdrawn legitimacy to a ruler. Their power flows from their followers’ reverence for the way monks display spiritual qualities, such as compassion, humility, and pacifism. The monks’ daily walks among the people to collect alms helps make them moral leaders and identify themselves with the people. That compels the military to fear their influence – and to co-opt or suppress them. China now on the defensive sees the writings on the wall and had sent a Buddhist relic – an alleged tooth of the Buddha – to Burma in November. The tooth was carried by an elephant in high-profile processions in various cities, which delighted the strong man Than Shwe who pulls the strings from behind. It was under his directions that the ruling party and military MPs oppose the adoption of releasing the political prisoners and instead introduce new restrictive laws designed to limit political participation. This is just but one example and hence what rational can we consider to lift the Western Sanctions.
Knowledgeable Burmese who have contact with the regime had warned that far from true changes what the regime really wanted was to follow a path of development perfected by China. The Chinese model, at first glance, is an attractive one for repressive, autocratic leaders: by applying one foot on an economic accelerator and another on a political brake, a regime can bring a better standard of living to citizens without threatening its grip on power. The story of China’s rise over the past two decades has been one of both exuberant growth rates and non-existent political change. The regime is stealthily following this path without much ado.
But the crucial difference between Burma and China is that the Chinese government has unleashed economic reforms that have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Around 130 million of China’s 1.3 billion citizens may live under the official poverty line (an assessment of $1 a day, which is lower than the World Bank’s $1.25 a day), but one-third of Burma’s 50 million-plus people subsist in poverty. In a single generation, the economic trajectory of many Chinese lives has gone from grim to upbeat.
Elderly Burmese, however, remember how their country used to be one of Asia’s richest and wonder when the real change will come.But the Burmese people are committed to the superiority of the Western-style democracy rather than the proud Chinese whose 5, 000 year old civilization construe that a wise and benevolent ruler with a mandate from heaven. No doubt the new quasi civilian administration of Thein Sein can bring much needed political and social reforms only if he managed to throw off the shackles of Than Shwe whose right hand man Tin Aung Myint Oo is the Vice President. So actions should remain in place as long as the semi-authoritarian regime controls the legislative, administrative, and judicial functions of the new government.
On the other hand the regime is cynically observing the downfall of dictatorships around the globe and is moving before Burma’s long despotic reign comes to the same ugly end. The pragmatic reason for this sudden accommodation with the US is because of the bad breath of the Chinese. From their perspective Burma is placed between the devil and the deep sea and obviously if given a choice they prefer America. These hybrid military-civilian rulers are growing increasingly wary of Beijing’s geopolitical sway—not to mention China’s economic dominance over Burma’s natural resources. No doubt they are endeavoring to find a counter-balance to China. Hence an American charm approach of market reforms, release of political prisoner, stop an all out war to the ethnic nationalities compound with modicum of political liberalizations, should be enforced without any compromise.
Surely the new US engagement policy in the Southeast Asia in general, and Burma in particular, is based on a smart public diplomacy and must be calculated a policy of fairness that support the existing foundation to win the hearts and minds of the people to utilize its role in the region. The US should be highly sensitive to the development of a wider East Asian community, and its policy should not only deal with governments only but the people in the region. It must be people-centered, people-driven and people-oriented that sends an important message to the world that people in the region have the right to freedom and the right to respond and interpret what is understood as fair and unfair as appropriate to them. The people of Burma will surely agree with the WikiLeaks of how US Charge d’Affaires Larry Dinger sent a cable to Washington, “The most senior generals are looking for an escape strategy, they are getting old and want an assurances that, they and their families will retain their assets and will not be prosecuted”.
Even though “Freedom from Fear” was written by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the people of Burma, unlike the Arabs still could not conceptualise that this freedom from fear was the basic human rights. The story of the Tunisian vegetable vendor so humiliated by police that he lit himself on fire, showing the world that his right to human dignity was more precious to him than life itself was not much admired in Burma, even though Phone Maung episode of 1988 sparked that nation’s protests is still fresh on them. Compared with those of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen etc. Burma’s revolution has not been so successful because its soldiers are willing to shoot demonstrators and the monks. For now, the Burmese must continue to “live like free people in an un-free nation,” and perhaps wait for a new generation to achieve liberty. Then and only then, America should think of releasing sanctions.