Don’t Force Democracy in Burma

By Thant Myint-U, the author of the forthcoming ‘The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma’ (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 29/09/06):

THIS afternoon, the United Nations Security Council will hold its first-ever meeting on Myanmar, also known as Burma. The American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has pushed hard for this meeting, arguing over Chinese and Russian objections that the situation in Myanmar constitutes a threat to international peace and security and warrants urgent attention.

Recent reports warn of severe human rights abuses, ethnic violence and a looming humanitarian emergency. An intransigent military regime seems unwilling to begin even the first steps toward a democratic transition, and calls from advocates for tougher sanctions and censure of all kinds have become more strident.

But will any of this work? What outside pressure can bring about democratic change? And why, after nearly two decades of boycotts, aid cutoffs, trade bans and diplomatic condemnation, are Myanmar’s generals apparently more in charge than ever before? Are we really looking at Myanmar — a country of some 55 million people — in the right way?

Though interest and concern over Myanmar has mushroomed in recent years, few really understand its history. There is, for example, the myth that Burma emerged, at its independence from Britain in 1948, a rich and promising country only to descend into poverty and violence under the present military regime.

In fact, Burma in 1948 was already at war with itself, a bloody civil war that became one of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world. For more than four decades the Burmese Army battled communist insurgents as well as an array of ethnic rebels and drug warlord militias.

In the course of this civil war, the army learned from the United States, Britain, Australia, Israel and other countries, becoming ever more professional, growing in size and eventually, in 1962, overthrowing the civilian government, in part to prosecute the war without interference from politicians and party politics. Once numbering only 2,000, the Burmese Army is today, at more than 400,000 soldiers, among the biggest and most experienced in the world.

For many on the outside, the story of Myanmar’s last 20 years has been one of a pro-democracy movement held down by repression. But the generals see it as a civil war finally coming to an end with the collapse of the communist insurgency in 1989 and the cease-fire agreements, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, between the army and 17 of its remaining battlefield opponents. For the generals, the near conclusion of the war is the very beginning of a long state-building exercise (on their terms), rather than a time to hand over power to the politicians they distrust.

We incorrectly see Myanmar as a “democracy transition” problem, sort of a Velvet Revolution gone wrong. But it actually represents a post-conflict challenge, more like Afghanistan or the war-torn societies of sub-Saharan Africa — and therefore incredibly complex.

And what of sanctions? In 1962, the military’s chief, Gen. Ne Win, and his Revolutionary Council sealed off the country, banning almost all external trade and investment, kicking out foreign aid programs, nationalizing businesses, expelling ethnic Indian communities and shutting the door to all tourism. The result was disaster for an already impoverished economy.

And then, in the early 1990’s, a new generation of army officers, while shunning meaningful democratic change, wanted an end to the country’s international isolation and allowed market-oriented economic reforms, hoping to attract tourism and foreign investment for the first time in decades.

But this was a hesitant move. Some believed the market-oriented reforms were going too far, that the country was opening up too fast. In this context, Western sanctions and boycotts have strengthened the hand of those who oppose even these tentative measures, rather than acting as pressure for more basic political change.

Myanmar is also a country emerging only cautiously from more than 30 years of self-imposed isolation, with a tough military machine and a society brutalized from generations of war. The cease-fires could still unravel, state structures (other than the armed forces) are nearly nonexistent and millions of poor people, long denied access to foreign aid, might soon face more dire conditions. Only the army will do well with more international isolation.

This is all not to say that Myanmar shouldn’t be a democracy. Far from it. Only liberal democracy can bring long-term stability to a country as ethnically and culturally diverse as Myanmar. The question is how to go from here to there, leave behind the rhetoric and look for practical measures based on a better understanding of the country’s past. As the Security Council takes up Myanmar for the very first time, it would be good to be mindful of Burmese history.