06 November 2010

7/11 in Burma: the shelves are bare

Comment on the Burmese elections by Garry Woodard

The Burmese people, despite four massacres in 48 years of harsh, inept military rule, retain their sense of humor. They refer to Sunday’s  general election, the first in 20 years and the second in 50, as the “generals’ election”, for the result is preordained and will entrench military control.

One would like you to be able to share the optimists’ prognostications[1]  that good will come out of the elections  but history suggests that they are just another replay in a long-running traditional shadow-play,  in which there is an intruder who may or may not be permitted a brief appearance after the curtain comes down.

I was Australian ambassador in Burma in 1974 when the military, having drawn up a new constitution, first civilianised themselves in order to rule through the façade of a Cabinet, a People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw), and a rash of subsidiary bodies, just as now. As a US historian, David Steinberg, has written, the ‘mufti was a camouflage for continued military rule’.

It survived recurring workers and students revolts, a plot by young officers in which dictator Ne Win chose to implicate his loyal army chief, Tin Oo,  Ne Win himself finishing third in his own party poll, and other mirages of change.

Some army officers turned civilian ministers desired rational economic policies (and, like Tin Oo, over the last 20 years have been democratic leader Aung San Suu Ky’s devoted and courageous associates). But Ne Win’s credo, as he put it to me, that ‘all the Burman wants is enough rice in his belly and two longyi lengths a year’, prevailed, so health and education are starved. His successors are meaner men, obscenely rich, and made more secure by a $6 billion-dollar treasure chest from oil and gas.

‘Continued military rule’ is the Burmese junta’s aim, and it has been cunning in achieving it, abroad and at home. When it had to have an election as a safety valve in 1990, it had a contingency plan to negate the result. The election would be only for an assembly to draft a new constitution. When this was leaked to the Western press in May 1989, and Aung San Suu Kyi sought public discussion, she was quickly locked up and made incommunicado. Suu Kyi has been so most of the last 20 years, while an unrepresentative body discussed a constitution consolidating military control. Watching democracies could only wring their hands.

Now ASEAN countries can only do likewise. The junta, deaf to their appeals, does things its way. It has its constitution which is being endorsed by an election, and that is that. A Filipino comments that the constitution and elections are a studied affront, because their deficiencies are the mirror image, writ large, of the democratic shortcomings of all ASEAN countries.

Is there no point of pressure? As early as 1992 (and confirmed many times including by section 443 of the constitution) Burma’s leaders’ fear of international retribution was noted by Philippines Foreign Minister Raul Manglapus. Since then there have been giant bounds in international law, UN endorsement of States’ responsibility to protect and an International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes, but action against Burma’s leaders looks no nearer.

However, they do have a case to answer. UN officials (led by the recommendations of  UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana), with firsthand knowledge of Burma’s transgressions of human rights and rejection of 19 General Assembly resolutions, have felt strongly enough to back a commission of enquiry into whether crimes have been committed. That would seem fair enough. Australia’s ‘Doc’ Evatt always insisted that there should be an enquiry into the facts before UN action was considered.

What is holding things back? The main block is China. As the US magazine Foreign Policy has observed, China’s strong and unambiguous message to UN members and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is up for re-election next year, has resembled the America of old. This may reflect China’s sense of changing power relations as much as the relative importance it gives to remaining the predominant influence on Burma.

American diplomacy has so far been a failure, despite the opportunities presented by a rogue state developing a provocative relationship with another, North Korea. The Obama administration leaked to The Washington Post that it would push for a UN commission of enquiry into Burma instead of quietly laying the groundwork by establishing a core group of supporters, which might have included Indonesia and Japan, who could argue that the UN should be given a chance and that this seemed to be the only option left to edge junta towards national reconciliation and dialogue. It is now being called a three-year project.

Aung San Suu Kyi, not coincidentally, is due for release next week. If offered (for the junta fears Lazarus rising) it would be in character for her to refuse unless all political prisoners are released. Nelson Mandela adopted that course, successfully. However, antipathy to South Africa’s apartheid fell into a unique category of internationalpressure.

Garry Woodard is a former ambassador to Burma and China

[1]AIIA policy commentary, Democracy and Discontent: The 2010 Elections in Myanmar


[1]AIIA policy commentary, Democracy and Discontent: The 2010 Elections in Myanmar

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