Engaging Myanmar

First, the ASEAN gave its unanimous nod to Myanmar’s request to chair the Association in 2014. Then, American President Barack Obama announced that his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, will make an unprecedented visit to Myanmar sometime next month. And now, Japanese Foreign Minister Kochiro Gemba is announcing that he will do the same. This after Japan has decided to resume aid to the erstwhile pariah state.

We are clearly seeing an attempt by these Western and Asian powers to engage Myanmar, perhaps in order to boost President Thein Sein and his civilian-military hybrid of a government. And my guess is that the reasons may not be limited to the issues of human rights and Burmese democratization.

It’s still difficult to tell if President Sein’s reforms are genuine or merely another ploy to gain some concessions. The Myanmar junta, after all, had played the reform card in the 1990s and 2000s, only to follow them up with reversals and bloody crackdowns. But there is a clear difference between then and now: The ruling military clique no longer has the monopoly on policy-making. The officers are now discussing policy with civilian leaders, many of whom are former political prisoners themselves. Indeed, the reforms there have been quite significant: media and Internet restrictions have been removed, some civil rights have been restored, previously banned political parties have been legalized and hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been allowed to re-enter politics, and is now being consulted by the government. And she seems to be impressed with the sincerity of President Sein, whom I suspect is a real reformer in the mold of FW de Klerk or Mikhail Gorbachev. Therefore, the cautious optimism of the United States and its allies is probably well-founded.

There are those who see the glass half-empty, of course. But since the transition we are witnessing in Myanmar is a delicate one, the pace of reforms must not be too overwhelming, lest the hard-liners feel threatened enough to launch a coup against President Sein and bring Burma back to scratch. This early, there already are reports of disgruntlement among these hard-liners; though apparently, the higher echelon of the military, led by Senior General Than Shwe, still supports the President. My guess, however, is that such support is contingent on the results of President Sein’s reforms. In other words, President Sein can solidify his domestic standing only by ensuring that his reforms pay off. The restoration of Japanese aid, the chance given by the ASEAN, and the calibrated engagement being offered by the United States are certainly very helpful in this regard.

But beyond the issue of democratic transition in Burma, I think there is also a geopolitical angle at play in this renewed engagement between Myanmar on one hand and the United States and its regional partners on the other.

Some have speculated that one of the reasons why the moderates among the ruling military clique prevailed in pursuing last year’s reforms is China. The People’s Republic, whose support for the regime in the midst of the economic isolation brought about by Western sanctions had made it the most important foreign player in Burmese politics, has allegedly been infringing on Myanmar’s internal affairs. There seems to be a creeping economic domination now by Beijing, plus China has been buying much of the country’s city centers while the northern provinces are seeing an influx of Chinese immigration; all of which are subtly provoking anti-Chinese sentiments among the locals. Reportedly, these have become a cause of concern for the ruling generals as well.

Last September, President Sein stunned many observers by unilaterally cancelling a $3.6 billion dam project sponsored by China. The said project would have created a dam as big as Singapore, which would produce 6,000MW of electricity that the Chinese themselves would buy. It was supposed to be the single biggest project of China in Myanmar, and its cancellation provoked unprecedented outrage from Beijing. Apparently, the Chinese government was not even informed of the decision before the President made it public, and the justification given by Sein is quite telling: He said that the project should be cancelled because it’s against the will of the people. There had been protests, supported by Suu Kyi herself, against the project prior to the cancellation.

While it’s too early to say if the cancellation really is an indication that Myanmar is falling out of Beijing’s orbit, it certainly is a demonstration of the Burmese president’s willingness to defy China. And I suspect that this message is not lost on Washington, Tokyo and other Asian capitals.

Due to China’s recent assertiveness, there has been an on-going series of diplomatic re-alignments in Asia. Tokyo, for example, has been forging unprecedented military partnerships with Hanoi, Manila and other regional players. Realizing last year that Asia is the region to be, Washington on the other hand is reaching out to Hanoi and others in the ASEAN; renewing its alliance with Bangkok, Seoul, Manila and Tokyo; and cementing its presence in the region by placing troops in Australia. In light of these developments, both the United States and Japan are probably eyeing Myanmar as another geo-political front for their respective diplomatic offensives. Myanmar, on the other hand, is probably bent on making the most out of it.

Update, Dec. 3: Former Japanese National Security Adviser and Defense Minister Yuriko Koike has an op-ed entitled Myanmar Has Its Nelson Mandela on New Straits Times expressing the same views.

It’s the Lady’s fault

Two days ago on The Diplomat, resident Southeast Asia analyst and leftist Filipino congressman Mong Palatino wrote about how the recent changes in Myanmar– the promulgation of a new constitution, the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the election of a new parliament– were nothing but a charade. “Burma’s junta leaders delivered what could probably be the political masterstroke of 2010 in the Southeast Asia region: Obscure the continuing military dictatorship in the country by releasing from detention a global democracy icon and conducting nationwide polls,” he said.

Indeed, it is obvious that the ruling generals are the biggest winners of this political kabuki. One, they were able keep their hold on power by having their own dummies elected to the new parliament and by constitutionalizing the status of the military as a major political player. Two, by releasing Suu Kyi and by promulgating a new, dummy Republic– the country was given a new Constitution, a new flag and a new official name– the Junta was able to get some, if only a few, amount of political capital. On the other hand, the opponents of the regime, both local and international, have lost vital ammunition.

But what Palatino failed to emphasize, and what many critics of the regime in Nyawpyitaw don’t seem to understand, is that this political victory of the Junta is, to a very large extent, partly a product of Suu Kyi and her NLD’s shortsightedness. They shouldn’t have boycotted the 2010 elections.

In 1984, a year after the assassination of her husband, Philippine democracy icon Cory Aquino decided to join the parliamentary election that everyone knew would be rigged by the Marcos machinery. “I was warned by the lawyers of the opposition that I ran the grave risk of legitimizing the foregone results of elections that were clearly going to be fraudulent,” shesaid. “But I was not fighting for lawyers but for the people in whose intelligence, I had implicit faith. By the exercise of democracy even in a dictatorship, they would be prepared for democracy when it came.” This should have been Suu Kyi’s principle as well when the Junta called for elections last November.

Proponents of Burmese democracy must understand that not everything should be in black and white. Their ends would be better achieved if they learn to operate out of pragmatic considerations. As Nyunt Shwe, a former member of the NLD who opposed the election boycott, wrote seven months ago: “Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have suffered much abuse and confinement. But just having the courage to bear and confront the oppression cannot define the leadership. Politics is never static.”

Of course, it would be best if the Junta would selflessly give up their position and establish a functioning democracy right away. But we should be realistic here; no military regime has ever given up power and instituted outright democratization out of pure altruism. The only exception was the National Salvation Junta of Portugal, but that junta was composed of idealistic young officers, not corrupt generals, and it came to power through the popular Carnation Revolution. In the case of Myanmar, its generals will institute democratization only if they can ensure that they would have room to save their faces. Or their asses and their assets, for that matter.

This doesn’t mean, however, that whatever openings any military regime allows would not help the cause of democracy. Far from it. If a military regime decides to replace itself with a parliamentary dictatorship with democratic facade, it usually means that that regime is ready allow liberalizations that are at first limited but could eventually help usher in a real, albeit long, transition to democracy.

Take the case of Chile for example. When Augusto Pinochet promulgated a constitution in 1980, many pointed out that it was, like the new Myanmar constitution, undemocratic. But it did provide for a framework that allowed the anti-Pinochet opposition to consolidate itself politically. When Pinochet finally called for a referendum on his regime in 1987, the opposition won and he had to step down. Today, Chile is a functioning democracy, something that would not have happened had the anti-Pinochet opposition decide to stick to civil resistance instead of adopting a dual-track policy of civil opposition on one hand and political engagement with the Pinochet regime on the other.

Joining the elections last November could have been win-win for the NLD. True, Suu Kyi wasn’t allowed to run; but she could have appointed deputies that could have ran on her behalf. Should the Junta rig the vote, the NLD can still show that it has at least the goodwill to offer the Junta, which would earn it more points from a propaganda point of view. And even if the party loses an election seen as illegitimate, it can still hold some seats in parliament and from there challenge the ruling establishment through legal political means. This would have ensured that the NLD would be in a better position to be a player in Burmese politics, both through civil resistance if it still sees it fit and through the framework of party politics.

This would have ensured that even though the generals would still call the shots, they would not be the only player in the new government set-up. The NLD would have a voice, however small, within the process.

The reality is that, as our Chile example proves, democratization doesn’t always happen the way the Western media wants it to happen: through a velvet revolution. Though these kinds of revolutions are always desirable, they can be elusive. For them to come about, several variables must be present. These variables include the powder keg and the spark. The powder keg are those that can be indirect causes of a velvet revolution while the spark would be the direct cause- that one defining moment that would cause spontaneous outrage among the people strong enough for them to overcome their fear of the regime. In the Philippines, for instance, the abuses of the Marcos regime were the powder keg while the assassination of Ninoy Aquino was the spark that led to the Edsa People Power Revolution of 1986. In Myanmar, the Junta doesn’t seem to be stupid enough to have Suu Kyi assassinated.

As Nyunt Shwe said: “The mutual trust now lacking between the military regime and civil politicians can only be developed by engagement. This is the only option we have now.”

The Junta in Myanmar has sick priorities.

There are a lot of a lot of angles to look at when analyzing the effects of the recent cyclone in Burma that killed over 100,000 people and destroyed millions of dollars in properties.

One implication that would most certainly affect the Philippines is another surge in global rice prices. It is reported that the damages on agricultural land in the affected areas are so dire that Myanmar officials are already stopping its rice exports. In fact, the Nyawpyitaw junta is expected to actually start importing rice to feed the people.

Continue reading “The Junta in Myanmar has sick priorities.”

Why Myanmar (and everyone else) is ignoring Manila.

Among the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines is Myanmar’s pain in the ass.

In Singapore last week, President Arroyo slapped the junta’s face when she called on the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to hasten democratization in Burma. If the junta will not do so, Arroyo warned that the Philippine Congress will likely reject the landmark ASEAN Charter, a scenario that made ASEAN leaders and diplomats shiver.

Very brave indeed. But unfortunately for the Philippines and for the people of Burma, Arroyo’s call fell on deaf ears.

Continue reading “Why Myanmar (and everyone else) is ignoring Manila.”