OPINION/ANALYSIS; Toward A Democratic Change in Burma
By Siri Mon Chan November 26, 2008
Burma is a multi-ethnic country. There are many ethnic nationalities such as Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Arakanese, Shan and Burmese reside in Burma. Southern Part of Burma was occupied by the British in 1824, and the whole Burma was colonized by the British between 1885 to 1948. Burma gained independence in 1948, and until 1962, it was under the political framework of liberal democratic parliamentary system. General Ne Win took power in March 1962, and until 1988 General Ne Win under the political system of “Burmese Way to Socialism” led Burma. In 1988, People Power movements (known as 8888, 8 August, 1988) has successfully dismantled the one party rule of Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).
At the time, it seemed that the February 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines was about to be repeated in Burma. People in Burma believed that the international community, especially the United Nations and western governments, would somehow intervene on their behalf, since the military-socialist regime had collapsed and the people had clearly expressed their strong desire for a change. Unfortunately before a transition to democratic system was successfully completed, Burmese military led by General Saw Maung staged a coup on 18 September, 1988, killing thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators.
Since 1988, Burma’s neighbours and, other significant powers did not respond constructively to Burma’s political crisis. Despite the bloodbath, Burma’s neighbours and the international community did not act in a manner Burmese public expected. While western world and India condemned the massacre and froze or cut back on economic relations, neighbouring countries particularly China, Thailand, and Singapore, recognized the military regime, SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). Many Burmese believe, and still believe that if the international community, including Burma’s neighbours and the UN system, withheld recognition, the coup would have collapsed.
In a bid to ease the tension in the country, the military government promised to hold a multi-party election on 27 May 1990, and in that general election, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Su Kyi won a landslide victory (392 of 485- parliamentary seats). However, the military government still refused to hand over power to the democratically elected government. Instead , SLORC issued its Declaration No. 1/90 on 27 July, 1990. The steps set out in Declaration No. 1/90 followed the refusal of the army since 1988 to concede power to civilian under an interim constitution. Rather, the military government would hold a National Convention to draft a constitution. The timing of SLORC Declaration No. 1/90 was apparently intended to pre-empt the results of a meeting of NLD parliamentary members held in Rangoon on 28 and 29 July.
Responses from Other Asian Nations
In 1988, India was highly critical of the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). But since Rangoon has played a very clever and successful game with the two regional rivals, China and India, SLORC was successful in manipulating New Delhi’s fear of a major Chinese military presence in Burma and obtaining Indian cooperation on a number of issues.
In fact, since 1988 China was on of the a few countries that has exercised the greatest economic and strategic influence in Burma. Steady Chinese economic support to the SLORC, and then SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) gives the junta the confidence to crush the opposition, knowing that it can thumb its nose at foreign criticism and sanctions.
The absence of criticism of Burmese military regime’s actions by neighbouring Southeast Asian governments and China has been underscored by cross border collaboration and assistance from Thailand and China. Expanding trade with these countries have been essential not only for economic growth but also for military government status.
Japan’s policy of ‘quiet dialogue’ is essentially constructive engagement, but sensitively tuned to the reactions of Tokyo’s allies in the west. It is, in fact, the middle-of-the road brand of constructive engagement. Unlike western countries, Japan has insisted that its lines of communication remain open to military regime and that a Japanese economic presence – in the form of very limited foreign aid and private investment – is needed to prevent Burma’s isolation.
India’s response to Burma has been complex. In the wake of 1988 political crisis and the SLORC’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, India was the only Asian country to express, through official channels, criticism of SLORC and sympathy for the democracy movement. The state-owned All-India Radio (AIR) broadcast strong criticism of the new regime in Burma, and Indian government welcomed Burma Student refugees with far greater hospitality than did Thailand.
By the mid-1990s,, however, New Delhi initiated a more conciliatory policy toward its eastern neighbours. This was because, like Southeast Asian countries and Japan, New Delhi also feared Beijing’s growing influence over Burma and hence implement its ‘Look East Policy’.
Responses From the US
On July 29 2003,President Bush signed into law the “Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act” a much stronger set of economic sanctions than the non-retroactive ban on American investments passed by President Bill Clinton in 1997. The 2003 sanctions comprise four main components;
(1) an extension of visa ban on officials of the SPDC (the State Peace and Development Council) and the USDA( the Union Solidarity and Development Association),
(2) a freeze on the US assets of Burmese officials,
(3) ban on financial transactions between American parties and “entities of Rangoon Regime”,
(4) an embargo on all imports from Burma to the US.
Because most major economic enterprises, including banks, are owned by or closely connected to the SPDC, the measures were designed to hit hard at the military regime’s economic foundation in order to persuade it to release Aung San Suu Kyi and make genuine progress towards democracy.
The purpose of US sanctions is two folds – (1) As a Symbolic Expression ( to express disapproval of the regime’s objectionable behaviour; giving moral support to the democratic opposition), and (2) As Behaviour Modification (to force the regime, through negative reinforcement, to change that behaviour).
As a symbolic gesture, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act was effective insofar as it helped focus international attention on Burma. But, the second dimension, behaviour modification, was not as effective as intended.
It appeared that sanctions cannot work as ‘behaviour modification’ unless they are universally enforced. On the other hand, the Asian commitment to ‘constructive engagement’ since 1988 has also no positive impact on Burma either.
The United Nations Response
The United Nations system also did not work in favor of Burma’s change to democracy. Russia and China always vetoes resolution on Burma. On 10 January, 2007, Russia and China vetoes a draft UNSC resolution that would have urged Burma to ease repression and release political pressures. 15- member Council, France, Italy, Belgium, Slovakia, Ghana and Peru joined the United kingdom and the United States who put forward the resolution. But South Africa Joined Russia and China in voting ‘No’. Three other elected members, Indonesia, Qatar and Congo, abstained. A resolution that would set out key actions Burma rulers must take to reduce the threat to peace and security in the region and provide a better life for their people. The draft resolution also called on the regime to cease military attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions. It also underscore the urgent need for Burma to allow international aid organizations to operate without restrictions.
Without effective and constructive response there is no sign of military government making a move to a democratic change. The military regime went ahead with its referendum amidst the UN and international community’s calls to abandon after the devastating cyclone. The military regime claims that 92.4 percent of voters approved a military back constitution held at a referendum on 10 May 2008. The new constitution is widely regarded as undemocratic and unconstitutional as the 25-precent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military and the president of the country must have military experiences. Important ministries such as Defence, Internal Affairs and Border Affairs must go to the military.
In conclusion, it is apparent that both sanctions and ‘constructive engagement’ policy are not a constructive response to the Burma’s political crisis since 1988. For any sort of policy to be effective, Burma’s neighbours and other significant powers need to work together. Perhaps with the United Nations in a coordinating role, to develop a unified policy that will reduce the military regime to play one country off another like playing between India and China with its fear game. Sanctions also cannot work unless they are universally applied. On the other hand, the ASEAN’s commitment to ‘constructive engagement’ since 1988 has also no positive impact on Burma either.
(This paper was presented at a seminar on Asia-Pacific Security at the Australian Defence Force Academy)
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