A Mixed Picture in Myanmar

Chiang Mai, THAILAND

In the past week, the world has learned a great deal about Myanmar’s military ambitions, possible rifts within the ruling junta, and the nature of Myanmar’s foreign relations, namely with North Korea. But we should not presume to have an understanding of a complete picture of these developments. Alongside this stream of startling news emerging from the SE Asian region, the world community has presented a most undecided reaction. The US is notably to blame for this.

Democratic Senator Jim Webb (VA), the highest ranked US official to visit Myanmar yet, has sent mixed signals. Last week in Bangkok, he decided to cancel his third trip to the country after Norwegian-based media company Democratic Voice of Burma’s recent documentary, “Myanmar’s Military Ambitions,” showed credible, leaked evidence of nuclear development in interviews with defected Major Sai Thein Win. The short film offered proof that senior generals within the junta had secretly visited North Korea, consulting with experts on nuclear reactors. In turn, the North Koreans made a series of trips to remote sites within Myanmar, where the country is building nuclear facilities and a complex network of underground tunnels. The film showed German technicians installing the necessary equipment to enrich uranium at high levels, though the German company Trumpf claims it is unaware of Myanmar’s military ambitions, as the Burmese army officers on site, dressed in civilian clothes, claimed no such motives.

Sen. Webb is justified in his reluctance to make a trip which many Burmese expatriates and nationals worry reflects his tacit support for the military regime. For this reason, Webb is very unpopular in certain circles of Burmese democracy advocates. At the same time, he stands out in the United States Senate as a critic of current sanctions against the regime. However, his longstanding pro-engagement stance conflicts with his decision and statements made last week.

Sen. Webb was the first American politician to meet with both Senior General Than Shwe and Daw Aung Suu Kyi, of the main opposition political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). This shaking of hands (with beauty and the beast, not in that order) is understandably worrisome to many who condemn the rigid and repressive policies of the military state, notwithstanding his plea that Myanmar’s leader release Suu Kyi. As for the NLD, veteran politician and former political prisoner U Win Tin, voiced his disapproval of another meeting between Than Shwe and Sen. Webb, saying, “He doesn’t have good sympathy for Burma’s democracy movement.”¹

To be sure, Webb is a staunch advocate of the democratic movement in Myanmar. But perhaps he is playing both sides: abiding by the junta’s proscriptions and meeting senior officials too congenially, while also meeting with and supporting the political opposition. His actions are highly controversial to many, but at least he seemed to have a clear position up to now: lift US sanctions against the regime, allow the 2010 elections to proceed under the auspices of the regime and the 2008 fraud constitution, and hope for a modest, emergent democratic constituency.

Now his position is murky: in a recent letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he complained of his staff’s inability to acquire the State Department’s authoritative confirmation of Myanmar’s violation of UN Resolution 1874. Last month, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, accused the military regime of violating the resolution by welcoming an unidentified North Korean tanker, suspected of carrying arms, into a major port under the cover of night. However, the international community has yet to validate this allegation, and no international player has yet acted on it. As a result, the world sits and watches apprehensively as Myanmar gets the ball rolling with its military advancements.

The groundbreaking DVB documentary aired by Al Jazeera pushed the envelope. When it was released hours before Webb was scheduled to fly to Myanmar, he decided to cancel his trip pending further information (Myanmar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has alternately refused to comment and denied all allegations: typical). Had Webb gone to Myanmar, the junta may have manipulated his presence once more to claim international legitimacy. However, he has had success in seeking concessions from the junta in the past. At this point, his office must make a clear statement on its future expectations from the regime, and definitively assert his own position on the possible nuclear project.

The US is not going to intervene in Myanmar’s internal affairs in the near future. However, the new allegations brought against Than Shwe’s regime have focused world attention on Myanmar’s nuclear program and its ominous relationship with North Korea. Signaling growing fear of these ties, the State Department has issued a statement saying that a nuclear Myanmar could “tremendously destabilize” the region.²

The only good to come of these disturbing developments is a potential rift within the regime. In fact, as many as 200 military officers have abandoned their ranks in the last few years.³ After Major Sai Thein Win defected, smuggling incriminating evidence across the Thai border, at great risk to himself and others, the junta is increasingly paranoid of further insubordination, and it is subjecting its officers to extensive questioning in an attempt to manufacture consent and stamp out internal dissent. In a sort of Hegelian dialectic, a contradiction from outside the ruling system (i.e., a conflict between an authoritarian state and a repressed civil society) is often less conducive to immediate reform than is a contradiction inside that state’s power apparatus (i.e., conflict among the inner ranks of the junta).

At this point, the elections will proceed as planned. That much is clear. No foreign power will challenge their results to any significant degree. By all measures, there will be little change in the hierarchy of Burmese politics. If we are permitted any hope, however, we just may see a growing divide within the junta if other soldiers have the courage to voice their disagreement with Than Shwe’s dead-end road policies.

¹“Webb’s Change of Plans Means No Change of Heart,” in The Irrawaddy, 4 June, 2010. <http://www.irrawaddy.org/opinion_story.php?art_id=18623>.

²“Myanmar Nukes Would Destabilize Region: U.S.,” in Defense News, 10 June, 2010. <http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4665830&c=ASI&s=TOP>.

³ “Army Increases Surveillance of Possible Defectors,” in The Irrawaddy, 9 June, 2010. <http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=18663>.

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2 Responses to A Mixed Picture in Myanmar

  1. Alex says:

    Interesting post Hunt. I know very little about Myanmar aside from the fact it is ruled by a Junta and that there are better places to be a monk. As a philosophy major I like your point about the dialectic nature of reform, however, isn’t the resulting synthesis (the regime that wins out in an internal struggle) often just as dangerous if not more so than then prior regime? And isn’t that how regimes such as Myanmar’s junta often come into power in the first place?

    • Con Trau says:

      Alex, you are a scholar and a gentleman. I should silence you with my absolute authority to delete any comments connoting any demonstration of free expression. Dissenter! What I was thinking of when I wrote that “Hegelian dialectic” bit was actually something other than Hegel. Francis Fukuyama quotes a brilliant excerpt along the lines of what I said: a contradiction between a suppressed people and an authoritarian regime doesn’t matter to the ruling power, but a contradiction WITHIN that power can lead to its unraveling. I have now forgotten that quote because that book is sitting on a bookshelf in Brookline. So I thought of Hegel, who expressed the famous dialectic in similar terms, but I know any true scholar of Hegel could pick me apart piece by piece (but I took the risk, because you’re probably my only reader capable of that). I would much rather have used the Fukuyama excerpt to say what I really meant, but, alas. Anyways, the result of that contradiction–if it were to represent any meaningful change–would be a more radical regime change, as in one to democratic dialogue. I meant that, in theory, perhaps the very underlying legitimacy to that junta would be shaken to the point of collapse. Granted, this would take a very large rift within the group of generals. But it doesn’t appear the Burmese ruling junta is on the correct side of history at this point. That’s what I was inferring.

      I would like to schedule a conversation on Hegel on your porch with stogies and scotch, first week of September, if at all possible.

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