By Roland Watson
June 12, 2006

For an old, decrepit dictator, Than Shwe is remarkable flexible. He:

1. Joined ASEAN and then used it successfully as a foil against international pressure for nine years.

2. Continuously snubbed the organization and also clearly signaled his willingness to leave it if and when it ceased to suit his purposes (i.e., by declining to take the group chairmanship).

3. Initiated a “Roadmap to Democracy,” with a “National Convention,” as a subterfuge that he was sincere about allowing a democratic transition. (This also served as a time delaying tactic.)

4. Used Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Thailand as a secondary foil, essentially as the Junta’s sanitized international mouthpiece, particularly through the “Bangkok Process.” (At Than Shwe’s behest, Thaksin also repressed Burma democracy activists living in Thailand.)

5. Established a strategic alliance with China, and then when China’s support began to weaken negotiated backup relationships with India and Russia.

6. Emulating the policies of his predecessors, worked to split the ethnic resistance forces of Burma. He then redirected the Army against those groups that refused to capitulate. (Than Shwe has used “divide and conquer” both to undermine the overall unity of such groups, and also the internal unity of specific groups, e.g., the Karen).

7. Using spies and also organizations such as USDA, turned the Burmese people against themselves.

8. Tricked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, Special Envoy Razali, and virtually everyone else, that under the right conditions he would be willing to engage in dialogue.

9. Tricked humanitarian organizations operating inside Burma about his sincerity, and used them as additional foils against international pressure.

10. Imprisoned and released democracy activists, again and again, as a means to keep the human rights and diplomatic communities perpetually off balance.

11. Purged Khin Nyunt when his services were no longer required, which was also only one in a long series of purges designed to weed out threats and to create a climate of fear within the Junta itself. (Many people have commented that the SPDC, at least publicly, is united, but the pro-democracy opposition is not. This explains the former.)

If you want to liken the struggle for freedom in Burma to a chess match, Than Shwe is making good use of all of his pieces and has a well thought out plan.

In contrast, the Burma Democracy Movement has called for freedom for Daw Suu, and dialogue with the SPDC as the sole means to a resolution of the problems of the country, without any serious consideration of other alternatives.

This discrepancy in creativity and flexibility, and determination – Than Shwe is determined to stay in power, we are not determined to get him out – is the fundamental reason for his continued rule.

(Of course, he also uses astrology! Rumor has it that in accordance with the wishes of his council of astrologers, there was a coronation ceremony during the Water Festival in which he was crowned Emperor.)

The Burma Democracy Movement also relies on what I call “celebrity activism.” What I mean by this is that we organize grassroots initiatives as a means to generate higher level interest, from diplomats and pop stars. We then depend on these individuals to create the degree of pressure that is required to trigger change. For example, now that Than Shwe has unequivocally spurned dialogue with the NLD, the movement is focused, again exclusively, on the Security Council. The idea seems to be that perhaps with Council scrutiny, he will reconsider and come to the bargaining table. (There is no expectation whatsoever that an international force or similar strong measures will be organized to expel him from power.)

The alternative to celebrity activism, to seeking help from people who typically pay attention for a moment but then lose interest, is for grassroots organization to empower the people of Burma themselves to demand change. Instead of having a two tier process, and with an external focus (activists – celebrities and diplomats – U.N. Security Council), we need a simpler, one stage process concentrated directly on the people of the nation.

Right now the focus of the Burma Democracy Movement is 90% on the international community and 10% on the people of Burma. This ratio needs to be reversed.

Until the people of the country rise up, Than Shwe is secure. Of course, we shouldn’t drop our efforts to get the SPDC on the formal Security Council agenda, particularly now that the United States finally seems to be getting serious. But we have to help the people in the country as well, politically. Burmese media that is broadcast or distributed inside should convey revolutionary messages and education. Anyone outside who is in a position to help organize underground networks and resistance groups inside should do so. For activists around the world who don’t have these abilities, the missing ingredient is funding. Revolutions do not come free. Even $100 can make a huge difference by enabling an internal network to pay for transport and checkpoint bribes. Everyone can help with fundraising, and then convey the money to individuals and groups who are in direct contact with revolutionaries inside.

It is a fatal mistake to depend on diplomacy and dialogue. When we concentrate our efforts on diplomacy, we have to recognize that we are putting all our eggs in one basket. There is no fallback plan.

Diplomacy and dialogue are risky not only because of Than Shwe’s intransigence, but also due to “geopolitics.” No one, not a single government on earth, not even the United States, really cares about what is happening to the fifty million people of Burma. The proof of this statement is simple. If they did really care, they would do something. Even the U.S. has refused to assist real democracy activities inside the country (and also to fund IDP crisis relief projects).

We should also understand that while we may think we are, we are not in fact asking international parties to sincerely care about Burma. Rather, what we are really asking is for them to tip the geopolitical game in our favor, to throw us a bone. This is a dangerous strategy for many reasons, not the least of which is that it takes forever, and even when we do get support we might lose it at any time and for any reason. I would like to ask the people of Burma: How do you feel about being a pawn in the game of international geopolitics? Or to the Karen, Karenni and Shan: How do you feel that the atrocities committed by the SPDC against you are simply not large enough to demand action? Diplomats are essentially saying, if you added a zero, if the number of new internally displaced persons was 180,000 instead of 18,000, then they might be persuaded to end their game and actually do something. But it’s not. Therefore, there is no reason for them to act. Their loss of face only exceeds their quest for reasons not to act when a crisis reaches Darfur, Rwanda and Nazi levels.

What’s under discussion now at the Security Council is only a non-binding resolution, not sanctions. The diplomats are light years from considering expulsion from the U.N., the imposition of a comprehensive arms embargo, and the introduction of a peace-keeping force into Eastern Burma.

The diplomat’s argument is that they don’t want to set a precedent, for example of expulsion from the United Nations General Assembly. They seem not to mind that another precedent is being established: the dismissal of the suffering caused by the one of the worst political and humanitarian crises on earth. (One recalls Marie Antoinette’s famous response to a question about the starving French public, which had no bread: “Let them eat cake!”)

This is one of the best measures of success as a diplomat, your ability to create convincing reasons for inaction. (From this one can conclude that diplomats are inherently immoral.)

They also rely on the many systemic blockades to action that exist, which they themselves have created, including:

- Sovereignty. Diplomats accept that the SPDC are sovereign rulers. If you enter Burma, for any reason, you have to ask Than Shwe first. In addition, to respond to a crisis you have to confirm that it exists. But access, including for such thing as a genocide investigation, and IDP aid, is not permitted (including via Thailand). This provides an excuse. If you can’t study a situation, first hand – there is no need or obligation to rely on activists who at the risk of their lives have documented what is happening – then it doesn’t exist, hence there is no reason to act. (This same argument is used by the U.N. agencies, and other large NGOs, that assist refugees but ignore IDPs. (Note: not every such NGO is ignoring the IDPs.)

- As far as action from the U.N. staff itself, beginning with Secretary General Kofi Annan, their bureaucratic excuse is that they are merely “international civil servants.” Power resides exclusively with the member states; they have none. (This is another interesting precedent that has been established.)

- Then there is the issue of mandate. Many nations believe that whatever happens in Burma, it is none of their business, even when they rotate onto the Security Council. (Of course, they might feel differently were they the victims of totalitarian rule.) Similarly, most NGOs working on Burma have narrow mandates, and use this as an excuse not to be involved in politics – in the push for democracy.

- “Burma is not a threat to international security and peace.” Security Council consideration is being blocked, now with Japan’s lead, through the use of a World War II era interpretation of “international threat.” This interpretation, that only cataclysms approaching the scale of a world war justify action, is a means to emasculate the Security Council, to deny it the right to investigate and intervene on international threats of lesser scale and more recent evolution.

All of this, particularly the last, is firmly underlined by the fact that leading and permanent members of the Security Council, certainly China and Russia (but also arguably the United States, in other geopolitical situations), want the world to be insecure. Solving the problem in Burma would make the world more secure, not less, hence it is against their perceived self interest.

Than Shwe is emboldened now because of all of this, and also due to the re-pricing of energy supplies on the world market. He is flush with cash from the sale of natural gas, and has enough funds to build Pyinmana and to pay for weapons (from Russia, China and India) and spies. A good question one might ask is: why has no boycott been launched against ChevronTexaco, the acquirer of Unocal? And how can we increase the scale of the campaign against Daewoo?

Large demonstrations against the embassies and other offices of Russia, China, India and Japan would also be a smart move.

Than Shwe’s contingency plan – all high achievers, and he is a high achiever, always consider and plan for the worst case scenario – is to divide and exhaust the democracy movement so that if for some reason he ultimately is forced to make a deal (e.g., if China reverses its position), it will be a good deal for him. Following the Indonesia model, this would be an amnesty for the crimes against humanity that he has committed and significant power-sharing for the Tatmadaw. Further, Than Shwe’s family and cronies would not be stripped of their wealth, but instead would retain their financial power such that they could later reestablish their political power in a form more palatable to the diplomats and political leaders of the world.

In closing, I was at a seminar about Burma recently that as far as politics is concerned focused entirely on the international community. In the question and answer period I commented that the seminar had ignored the people of the country – the room was full of Burmese people – who surely would like to participate in the struggle for freedom. A panelist – a Thai journalist – then commented that the people of Burma were afraid and would do nothing. My translator asked me to refute this, and I responded that I wasn’t the right person to do it, since I am not Burmese. I write about Burma, document the abuses of the regime, and try to organize various pro-democracy initiatives. But the people of Burma themselves have to win their freedom. I’m doing everything I can to help, but they have to lead this change. (And then, when they are free, they will have to build a well-functioning nation and democracy.)

We waited, but no one in the room stood up and challenged the journalist.