Sunday January 2 2011

Useful chinks in the Burmese armour

Philip Bowring

One does not need to go to Burma to know that it ranks second only to North Korea as Asia's most misgoverned country. Its blend of military oppression, paranoia, corruption and incompetence has turned what was once one of the most prosperous parts of Asia into one of its most dejected.

It has been natural for outsiders to shun it, following the appeal of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi for boycotts, travel bans and economic sanctions. Even those like Singapore, which idiotically supported its entry to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997, have had second thoughts, with Lee Kuan Yew describing dealing with its leaders as 'like talking to dead people'.

Once Asia's leading rice exporter, malnutrition is now widespread and credit cards do not work even in the best hotels. The street exchange rate is 180 times the official one, a gap which provides vast potential for profiteering by insiders who also gorge on the smuggling of drugs, gems and timber. Rangoon provides stunning contrasts between the pillared mansions of the generals' families and their proxies sprouting in the leafier suburbs, and the decay of overcrowded, impoverished downtown, a decay accelerated by the move of the capital to Naypyidaw, built by Senior General Than Shwe as a monument to himself.

But, having just been to this benighted country for the first time since the 1970s, thanks to the chink in the junta's visa armour opened up by the recent, largely rigged, elections, it is clear that sanctions are making things worse for most Burmese.

Suu Kyi is doubtless a brave and principled woman who has endured house arrest for most of the time since her party won the 1990 election, only to have it annulled by the military. She would almost certainly win a free and fair election today.

But support for her as a symbol of opposition to the generals does not mean support for her tactics - her refusal to allow the National League for Democracy to take part in the elections, and continued support of sanctions. There is a widespread belief among critics of the regime that her stubbornness has made Than Shwe more intransigent than ever, and that sanctions and her links to Burmese exiles reinforce the generals' anti-Western sentiments.

If her position was surely bringing forward the day of its collapse under the weight of popular uprising, that might be the right path. But the military has been ruthless enough in the past in bloodily suppressing mass demonstrations. Today, it is bolstered by the prospect of fast-rising revenues from new gas fields, and power and pipeline deals with China, as well as the desire of India to compete with China for co-operation.

All this suggests that the only viable way forward is for the opposition, and Western governments, to try to engage with at least some of the less intransigent generals, to take advantage of the fact that some are to take off their uniforms and become civilian ministers, to use the tiny space offered to opposition members in the new assemblies created by the election, and to prepare for the day when Than Shwe, 77, is no longer.

Much patience will be needed but chances to teach some basic economics and civics may be emerging. They would be helped by access to Western markets and investment, and to World Bank and Asian Development Bank funds in return for more rational economic and social policies. As in Vietnam, economic reform might have to precede political liberalisation. But almost anything is better than today. Engagement may also make it possible to harness the privatisation of state assets to crony capitalists to achieve a more market-based system, and ensure that the generals' sons see their future as comfortably off businessmen rather than a new generation of military.

(NB: the use here of 'Burma' rather than 'Myanmar' is not a political statement. For the same reason, when writing in English, we refer to 'China', not 'Zhongguo'.)





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