March 2006

Recently, we were asked a series of questions about Burma by an American university student. The questions and our responses follow.

1. Are the people of Burma optimistic about their future in regards to the constitutional process and should they be, or are these latest moves towards democracy just another ploy?

The latest moves are just an SPDC ploy – the National Convention has already been suspended again, until the end of this year – a stalling tactic and psychological warfare. Other than the idea that it is inevitable that democracy will come "some day," there is no optimism. (I don't agree with this idea. Burma could and will be a dictatorship for another hundred years, unless we boot the bastards out.)

2. The recent withdrawal of the U.N. envoy to Burma may be a setback, but what does this mean for U.N. operations in general?

It's not a setback. Razali Ismail's presence actually hindered the democracy movement, by creating false hopes. His idea – dialogue with the Junta as a means to initiate a democratic transition – would never work. It's great news that he's gone.

As far as I can see, the U.N. (Kofi Annan and his staff) has no democracy initiative whatsoever for Burma.

3. Is the U.N. going to take any action on Burma that will not be vetoed by China, or circumvented by China’s actions?

It's difficult to say. With the right type of pressure from the U.S. (not the U.N.), meaning very strong, China could end its allegiance with the SPDC. Right now, political arguments are counter to economic arguments. The Chinese dictators do not want a democratic Burma, as it would pressure them to move to democracy and also undercut their control of Tibet. Hence, they support the SPDC. On the other hand, if Burma were free everyone in the region, particularly China, would have an economic windfall.

The U.S. needs to pressure the Chinese to see, and accept, the economic rationale. Of course, one possible pressure mechanism is through the Security Council, where we are pushing for formal deliberations. But it will start with the U.S.

4. Recently George W. Bush met with several Burmese exiles, is there any new rhetoric that would make you believe any action is forthcoming?

There's lots of new rhetoric, but that's all it is. The U.S. has escalated its diplomacy, but from what I know there is no real on the ground support for democracy (e.g., of the type that the U.S. provided the student group Otpur in Serbia). We want help, financial and logistical, for Burmese resistance groups inside that are actively pushing for freedom and democracy.

I am not referring to the NLD. I mean ethnic resistance groups, student revolutionary movements, etc.

5. Some have suggested that lifting sanctions on Burma will relieve the pressure on the people, and lead to a toppling of the government, is this your belief as well?

The pressure on the people is from the SPDC. Sanctions should not be lifted, they should be expanded and made uniform, i.e., through a Security Council resolution.

I've written about sanctions many times, so I'm not going to repeat everything here, but the basic point is simple: you don't do business with murderers. The SPDC is an armed gang of mass murderers, nothing more. They are not a government. They have no legitimacy whatsoever. It is criminal that companies, from wherever, do business with them.

Also, before the SPDC, Burma was ruled by General Ne Win, who for decades followed an isolationist road to socialism. The Burmese public survived this lengthy period without any substantial trade with the outside world. Trade with Burma now would only benefit the country if the regime were gone.

6. Is there an infrastructure in place for a democratic government to hold onto power?

Yes. There have been numerous constitutional drafting efforts. Many of the important issues of federalism for Burma have been systematically addressed. Also, an election was held in 1990, and while many of the elected MPs have died (including at the hands of the SPDC) enough remain to form a caretaker government until a new election can be held.

As for a security infrastructure, Burma would need some form of peacekeeping force in the transition period after the defeat of the SPDC.

7. Asean has recently stated their desire to see democracy in Burma, but will this occur, when individual nations profit from their illicit trade with the Junta?

I don't believe Asean. The countries in the group, both individually and collectively, are not sincere about Burma at all. Some individual MPs are, such as the members of the Interparliamentary Caucus on Burma, but formal government policy of the member states continues to either directly or tacitly support the SPDC.

Asean only acted, to boot the Junta from its chairmanship, after Secretary Rice boycotted a ministerial meeting. If we don't keep pressuring the group, they will do nothing more.

8. What suggestions would you make to the United States on how to deal with the Junta, including your opinion on military intervention?

The U.S. should back on the ground initiatives that Dictator Watch has proposed (which I'm sorry I cannot reveal), and also other proposals from other border groups of which I am aware. The U.S. should directly support all efforts by the Burmese people to initiate a new popular uprising. Further, the U.S. should publicly warn the Junta that a violent crackdown, as occurred in 1988, will not be tolerated. A carrier group could easily be moved up from Diego Garcia to accomplish this end.

The U.S. should also back the armed resistance groups, including with arms and training. America should further make it clear to PM Thaksin of Thailand that it is going to do all of this, and that it will not be satisfied until Burma is democratic, so Thailand might as well get with the program and support such initiatives as well, and end its ridiculous support for the Junta.

9. Lastly, and although I was not asked this specific question, I would like to offer a comment about the prospects for a new popular uprising in Burma. My starting point is that there have been many revolutions around the world in the last few years, including in Georgia, the Ukraine, and Kyrgystan. Right now, aspiring dictators Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines are under great pressure. The SPDC are the worst of the worst: why is there so little popular movement inside Burma to get rid of the junta?

I do not mean to imply that the people of the country do not want change. I am certain that the vast majority of the general public want to be rid of Than Shwe and his fellow generals as soon as is humanely possible. The question, then, is what is holding them back.

Many specific factors are at work. I have previously commented that the people of Burma need to be politicized: they need to focus on the big picture instead of just trying to survive. Said another way, they need to directly confront their oppression, and think of every way possible that they can fight back, from non-compliance tactics through to underground organizing and revolutionary activities.

Recently, someone commented to me that for this to happen the gap in education for ordinary Burmese has to be filled. Not everyone has a radio and listens to the broadcasts into the country, or access to a satellite dish and the new DVB TV broadcasts. Many of the younger people in the country have little or no knowledge about the massacre in 1988, much less what is happening in the remote areas of the country where offensives by the Tatmadaw against the ethnic nationalities are a regular occurrence.

It is difficult to address this gap, but creative educational initiatives to reach large segments of the Burmese public, that address political issues and history, and which encourage action, obviously need to be developed.

I also don’t mean to underestimate the difficulties and risks involved in underground organizing. It is dangerous, and it requires cash, ideally access to such things as copy machines, and other logistical support, particularly transportation. This actually reveals another major gap. Many foreign governments talk big about helping the people of Burma, but when you ask for a little funding for these types of activities, there is no response. I’m not talking about asking for guns, though. There would naturally be many concerns about supplying weapons to any armed conflict (although I believe the resistance groups of Burma deserve such support), but that’s not the issue here. We’re talking about funds for non-violent activities, and to my knowledge none has been given.

It is also possible that all the big talk – that Razali’s “dialogue” will lead to a democratic transition, or that this will follow from U.S. pressure or the United Nations Security Council – created unrealistic expectations. Some people in Burma may believe that freedom is a foregone conclusion, and that there is no need to do anything. They can just sit back and wait.

(Here it is important to emphasize that there is no way to know how much pressure on the SPDC will be sufficient. The tipping point is necessarily unpredictable. For example, we do not want to think that formal Security Council deliberations, and action, are the solution. They may well not be. The only option is for everyone who cares about Burma to push as hard as possible, and in every imaginable way – including in the Security Council, until the pressure becomes so great that the SPDC breaks.)

Next is the issue of leadership, about which I have also commented previously. Burmese people, as do all people, rally around strong leaders. The junta has recognized this, and imprisoned or killed the strongest leaders. This still raises the question, though, of why new leaders do not surface. I think there are a number of reasons for this, the first of which is the above described educational gap. You have to understand something before you can take a stand on it. And only after many people take such stands do competing ideas face off and the proponents of the most convincing become recognized as leaders.

There are other factors at work as well. For example, I wonder if many of the individuals who are most willing to act are somehow being channeled into the above-the-ground groups, where they are easily targeted by the SPDC, rather than into underground groups, including new groups of their own formation. Also, what about the ethnic nationalities that have formal ceasefires? I find it difficult to believe that ordinary Kachin, or Wa, do not want freedom and democracy. Are they being prevented from acting because the leaders of their so-called independence groups have struck deals with the junta?

It further is regrettable, and surprising, that there is only a small amount of public discussion by Burmese pro-democracy groups and media about the merits and practicalities of a new popular uprising.

Lastly, although this is speculative, I am concerned about the victim of abuse syndrome. It is commonly recognized that victims of abuse, e.g., child abuse or rape, suffer psychological problems. These can include blaming yourself for the abuse, believing that it was somehow your fault, and also an inability to break free of it. Victims of abuse regularly get caught in a cycle where they are mistreated again and again.

The people of Burma have been the victims of a long-term pattern of abuse. Some have suffered more severely than others, admittedly, but everyone, except the SPDC and its cronies, is subject to harsh repression. It is true that underground organizing is dangerous, and that there are many spies. But some things can be done, with minimal risk, and not everyone is a spy. Again, I am uncertain to what degree this factor is present in Burma, but it is a concern because if it is present, the people may have become paralyzed into inaction.

All of the above factors combine to suppress the popular will. I don’t have the answer to the question of how we get the people of Burma moving again, but I do recognize that you have to understand a problem before you can begin to solve it.