Contact: Roland Watson, firstname.lastname@example.org
A REALITY CHECK FOR BURMA/MYANMAR
February 13, 2016
This is a speech I gave on February 11th at the Asia Democracy Alliance Seminar in the U.S. Congress. Please post and share.
I've been a pro-democracy activist for going on twenty-two years. I've mainly worked on China's neighbor, Burma, which is now also known as Myanmar.
I've focused on the suffering of the ethnic minorities of the country. They prefer the term ethnic nationalities. There's no proof that any group has a majority.
Today, I'm going to talk about the country in a way which - to Westerners - might seem unfamiliar. It's not to the people of Burma. I hope it will be enlightening.
It's important to realize that Burma wasn't even a country until the British arrived in the 1820s. The borders were really only drawn following World War II. Many groups, particularly in the North and Northeast, had been functionally independent. At this time, an extraordinary array of ethnic peoples were grouped together in one nation.
Starting in the Southwest and going around the perimeter, there are the Arakan, Rohingya, Chin, Naga, Kachin, Kokang, Wa, Mongla, Shan, Lahu, Lisu, Palaung, Pa-O, Akha, Karenni, Karen, Mon, and Burman peoples. That's 18 groups, and there are others as well.
The first to migrate into the territory were the Pyu, from Yunnan, China, followed by the Mon, Karen and Arakan. Then the Burmans appeared in the 9th century, and launched an aggressive series of wars. The Pyu city-states were destroyed and the entire people absorbed. Burman kings have maintained some degree of control since this time. In the 18th century, they committed genocides against the Mon and the Arakan.
When the first modern dictator, Burman General Ne Win, seized control in 1962, he attacked many of the groups, and with the attacks against the Shan, Karenni and Karen also rising to the level of genocide. The Muslim Rohingya in the West suffered severe persecution in the late 1970s, the early 1990s, and once again starting in 2012, such that they are experiencing a slow-burning genocide as well.
Because of the actions of the Burmans, the leaders of which believe themselves to be superior, and in the majority, the country has not only had civil war since 1948, it has suffered a full one thousand years of racist Burman control. In the last year alone, the Burma Army has launched attacks against at least seven different ethnic armies. There are six refugee of war crises underway right now, not to mention an estimated two million people who have fled the country looking for work.
Burma though, in the press, and in the U.S. Administration and Europe, is considered to be a great success. This is because Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy now has a majority in Parliament.
I would caution against having irrational exuberance for the future. Suu Kyi and the other top NLD leaders are also Burman, as are the majority of MPs. The ethnic nationalities have minimal representation.
In recent years there has been a call for tripartite dialogue, between the dictatorship, the NLD, and the ethnic groups. The Burman generals always refused. Now, with the NLD in Parliament and with the military still unreformed, the two formal power centers are both Burman.
Many of the ethnic nationality people believe that they have been cast aside. They have to depend on Suu Kyi to defend their interests, and as she has ignored the ethnic issue in the past, there's not a lot of confidence that she will.
Finally, if Suu Kyi is good-hearted, if she is not a racist herself, she has formidable obstacles to overcome. The military-drafted constitution guarantees 25% of the seats in Parliament to military representatives. This means that even though the NLD won the recent election by a landslide, there is still a large military block in the legislature.
More importantly, under the Constitution the military controls the Defense, Border Affairs, and Interior ministries, and which take the bulk of the national budget. Border Affairs covers large-scale development in the ethnic homelands, which development the ethnic groups do not want. Interior covers the police and prisons, which are still full of political prisoners, and also the General Administration Department, or civil service, down to the township level.
What this means is that the powers of the new Parliament are severely limited, only a fraction of a true national government. And, to get anything done, it will have to work with a hostile, military-run civil service.
Burma is balanced in a precarious equilibrium, and which can shatter at any time. The Constitution also allows the military to launch a coup and resume absolute control, in the interests of national security. Soldiers and police further have immunity for any abuses and crimes that they commit.
You could say that Suu Kyi and the NLD are stuck between the people and the generals. The people want freedom and rights, and they, and many of their MPs, will push for it. The generals don't want to yield anything. Suu Kyi has to try to please everyone. As I wrote in one of my articles, what could possibly go wrong?
As a forecast, I don't think Suu Kyi will be able to hold back the popular aspirations. The military will become more and more stressed. In the meantime, the ethnic armies will never disarm. I think there is a 25% if not a 50% chance that there will be a coup within the next five years.
I want to conclude by talking briefly about China's interests in Burma. Geopolitically, China sees the country as a rich source of natural resources, and as an alternative route to the Indian Ocean. Chinese businesses already have major stakes in large mines, pipelines, dams, and many other operations.
Politically, Beijing has been trying to favor all of the different sides. The Burman generals are clients. But, China also supports some of the strongest ethnic armies. Suu Kyi even has kind words for Beijing.
There has been a report that she will bargain with China over the peace issue. If China pressures the ethnic armies to sign a nationwide ceasefire, she will allow more Chinese dam building and resource extraction.
From my perspective, though, I don't think she can pull it off. The ethnic armies won't abandon their peoples.
In any case, China has one core interest that overrides everything. Even business interests will be sacrificed if necessary. Notwithstanding its Parliament, Burma must remain under military control. China cannot have a new, real democracy on its borders.
Not only would it feed the longing for democracy in China itself, it would give hope to the long-oppressed Tibetans, and the Uyghurs of East Turkestan.
Because of this, China will never stop backing Burma's generals, which they well know. The generals have been fooling the West, and which con game Washington and European diplomats have been only too happy to swallow, because of their own lust for Burma's resources.