Fait accompli of the Tatmadaw Values

By Kanbawza Win, 04 March 2011, Friday

All revolutions start with enthusiasm but usually end with tears. Will the Burmese revolution which started with a mighty force in 1988, fizzle out in 2011? The tears still could have been avoided, if the people firmly stand by the values which they have inherited from their ancestors especially from the founding fathers of modern Burma led by Bogyoke Aung San. If the Arab people can rise against their tyrants why can’t we? The people of Burma should ask themselves, not what Daw Aung Suu Kyi can do for them but what they can do for the Genuine Federal Union of Burma.

If history were to repeat itself the replica of the 1974 is now being reacted when the Socialist Constitution led by the defunct Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was initiated and bulldozed its way through the people and the country but soon shows its worth when just a few months later, the workers demonstrated and was put down with great severely. Now it is also predictable that it is a matter of time that the people will rise again as the gap between the elites and the ordinary people are so immense and the unfairness is so widespread in the country. Besides the class of 2011are the new generation of Burmese who have know little political freedom in their young lives and are no longer willing to wait for it.[1]

It can be recollected that the Tatmadaw under the patronage of, Gen Ne Win, had successfully turned Burma, one of the most promising countries and the rice bowl of Asia into one of the poorest and the rice hole of Asia, so much so that in 1987it has to declared a Least Developed Nation (LDC) by the UN.[2] General Than Shwe, the successor of Ne Win tried to remedy it by introducing the market economy similar to what Deng Xiaoping has done in China. But unlike the Chinese leadership, the Tatmadaw leaders did not harbour a single ounce of love to the country and its people but is solely bent on retaining power, enriching their families and business associates.

Up to this day an out-dated and complex exchange rate fiddle means that the country's oil and gas income is downplayed in official figures, with the real revenue siphoned off into military spending or personal bank accounts. Even in Vietnam the government is capable of convincing Western investors to put their money into the country and has been commended for economic reforms and legal amendments. In contrast, economic policy has been dismissed as opaque and incompetent even at the best of times marking Burma out as an economic twilight zone, attractive only to those who want to take oil, gas, gems, timber and other resources., out of the country. Even if Western sanctions were reduced or dropped, it remains to be seen whether Burma’s rulers would break with a half century of disastrous economic policies in response. [3]


The NLD’s document concluded that sanctions have not affected economic conditions in Burma “to any notable degree. but rather The regime’s poor economic policies and mismanagement are the main causes of Burma’s economic crisis. Land confiscation and lack of freedom in production and marketing - not sanctions - have negatively affected Burma’s agricultural sector, which employs the majority of Burma’s population. Lack of accountability,

and corruption has impeded productive investments. National reconciliation based on “an all inclusive political process” should be “central” to any consideration of changes in sanctions policies and the release of all political prisoners is a “critical requirement” for the removal of sanctions.[4]

A chorus of vociferous calls for the end to sanctions has been reverberating very recently in the international arena. Any Burmese nationalist can sense the seductive nature of the anti-sanctions narrative, designed to convey a mixture of moral and strategic concerns in the same breath. These include the troubling feudal personality traits of the ruling senior and junior generals, the deeply structural nature of political and ethnic conflicts, the lack of any real—as opposed to anticipated—potential for change through the emerging move towards “civilianized” military rule post-election, the complete absence of any viable efforts on the part of the regime to seek lasting peace in the country, the non-existence of policy space for both existing and emerging political processes and institutions, and last but not least, the utter lack of technocratic competence and genuine concerns for public welfare among decision makers. [5]

Opportunists and apologists have argued that the post-election Burma carries seeds of evolutionary change with it. These same advocates have also held up the military’s unmistakably regressive Constitution as “something better than outright dictatorship” without any written formal guidelines, even when there is absolutely no change in the balance of institutional power in the post-election set up. Burma’s “Constitutional Tatmadaw Rule” betrays both the latter and spirit of constitutionalism. For it legalizes, legitimizes, enshrines, ring-fences and delimits the de facto military rule—providing a sharp contrast to the essence of constitutionalism, which is to curb the arbitrary power of any ruling institution or class.

The Tatmadaw’s ideological and institutional orientation is inconceivable for any reform potential arising from this very institution of power. It also structurally prevents trade or investment reaching beyond the hands of the soldier's uniforms and their cronies. Much has been made of the fact that the Tatmadaw is creating the trappings of a functioning democracy, namely political parties, a parliamentary system with different houses and nominal division of power. Realistically speaking, however, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where any serious reform initiatives or policies can be tabled, much less debated within the military’s parliament, which is bound to be the Tatmadaw’s rubber-stamp. These are obstacles to the democratization of political and economic spheres.

It is lamentable that the self style foreign and Burmese experts have chosen to overlook the type of anti-intellectual, anti-democratic professional practices and political culture in which the regime’s members of parliament both the men in uniform and “civilianized” soldiers are in. These men have spent decades learning the art of climbing the military and bureaucratic ladders solely through their unquestioning loyalty and utter obedience to their superior officers, executing orders, right or wrong examples being killing the monks, raping the ethnic women, using child soldiers and preventing the international aid reaching the storm victims. Therefore, the chances of the rubber-stamp parliament and its legislative processes influencing regime’s MP-elects to think and act in a democratic manner that befit parliamentarians are absolutely non-existent.

The issue of leadership transition in the hopes that the junior generals, in their late 50s and 60s, will be more open-minded, reform-oriented and forward-thinking is non existence. Individual generals do have their differences in ideas, approaches, and interests but when it comes to liberalizing politics and redistributing wealth, Burmese military officers by and large have acted as a corporate entity, that is, a soldiering class with class views and interests. It is ironical that the anti-sanctions advocates commonly place responsibility on Western sanctions—specifically, the denial of development aid and low level of humanitarian assistance—for the sorry state of human conditions in the military-ruled Burma. How can the generals purchased from Russia a second squadron of state-of-the-art MiG-29 fighter-jets at a cost of nearly US $600 million is just one example.

The advocates of ending sanctions point out contemporary “developmental states” such as China and Vietnam as development models for Burma to emulate, de-linking freedoms from economic development. But it must be noted that the autocracies in Beijing and Hanoi do make serious efforts to improve the material lot of the peoples under their respective rules, even when they deprive the latter of any meaningful voice in the country’s political and policy matters. But no such sentiment has been detected among the Tatmadaw’s leadership. It is not a policy priority for the Tatmadaw when authenticated proof of it is that less than 2 percent of the country’s national budget is allocated to the combined fields of public health and education speaks volume.

“In terms of fiscal policy, the government is likely to continue to focus on spending heavily on the military, and it will do little in the way of implementing policies to support households and businesses.” [6] The Tatmadaw remain the insurmountable obstacle to the trickle-down economic logic. Anti-sanctions advocates which includes China, India and ASEAN whose Asian values pales miserably if compared to the West, have not concerted any pressure on the regime to put the public welfare policy and instead prevented them from playing the kind of strategically impactful role which was carried out apartheid in South Africa. The efforts at democratization across Eastern Europe succeeded partly because the external geopolitical and ideological environment was conducive to internal struggles for democratization across the region. [7] But in Burma is that no such external environment exists.

To the contrary, Burma’s economically predatory neighbours treat the country as a prostitute, where they can gratify their satisfaction for cheap human and natural resources and as a strategic asset. Such is the core of Asian values. They find it against their interests for the military regime to be replaced with a democratic government responsive to citizens’ livelihood needs. It was, only a dictatorship with absolute disregard for public well-being would have signed a multi-billion dollar deal such as the Dawei Development Project, which allows a Thai-Italian conglomerate to set up, among other things, socially and ecologically harmful refineries which will emit massive pollutants into the sky above Burma’s southern coast line e.g. Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said that that dirty industries are moving to Burma: “Some industries are not suitable to be located in Thailand. This is why they decided to set up in Dawei [in Tavoy].” [8] Singapore discourage smoking and in the duty free shop no one can buy a package of cigarettes into the country but only when he is going out, has set up a big cigarette factory in Burma. Hence, the people of Burma are not simply up against their country's Tatmadaw but also at the mercy of unscrupulous foreign interests. The ugly face of anti sanctions.

Ending the sanctions now will not prove to be an effective move towards political and economic development for the people; much debate has taken place in Washington, Brussels, Canberra and elsewhere on the issue of economic sanctions on Burma which tends to polarize opinion and groundswell of opposition to sanctions. The opposition to sanctions coalesces around a number of issues, one of which is the implicit idea that somehow sanctions are responsible for Burma's poverty. But a careful research reveals that this disastrous turnaround has nothing to do with the sanctions imposed by the West. It does, however, have everything to do with the chronic economic mismanagement by the Tatmadaw regimes that have ruled Burma since 1962. For six decades Burma's military apparatus has controlled and plundered the country's economy and natural resources, while it has simultaneously dismantled, blocked and undermined basic market institutions. Most of Burma's leading corporations are owned by the military, and the country is the second-most corrupt in the world.[9] In other words Tatmadaw has created an environment in which genuine transformative economic growth - of the sort that has transformed its neighbors and peers - is not possible.

Burmese Tatmadaw Government is a simple-minded looter, destroying what it can neither create nor understand. Burma attracts little in the way of foreign investment, and what does enter is strongly concentrated in the gas and oil sectors, and other extractive industries. Burma has recently emerged as a significant regional exporter of natural gas, but so far this windfall has done little good for the country. Indeed, it has fuelled something of a ''resources curse'' of the sadly familiar pattern - financially entrenching Burma's regime (which keeps the gas revenues offshore for its own use) and generating an array of ''national prestige'' projects. These include Naypyidaw - ''abode of kings'' the purchase of a nuclear reactor from Russia and, perhaps most worryingly of all, the recent purchases of arms and unknown capacities from North Korea.

The arguments against sanctions on Burma are routinely based on the idea that the encouragement of business will support an alternative centre of power beyond the regime, and the emergence thus of a ''business class'' as a force demanding change. But an alternative base of power via business clearly depends upon who controls this business - and in Burma this is none other than the state itself. Significant export earners such as gas, petroleum, precious stones and metals, teak and seafood products are all controlled by the state. Simply, the military state's careful control over the investment of private capital in these sectors precludes their emergence as challengers to the political status quo.

The financial sanctions level against Burma by the US, EU, Canada, Australia (which limits access to our financial systems by Burma's military regime, and named individuals connected to it) are extraordinarily well-targeted. The average person in Burma has no access to a bank account, much less a need or desire to engage the international financial system. This is not true for the senior members of the military or the rent-seeking elite connected to them. As such, the denial of access to Western financial systems to this group sends precisely the right signal, to precisely the right people. However one might agree or disagree over their original imposition, the economic sanctions now in place constitute potent ''money in the bank'' that can be spent in response to genuine reform in Burma in the period ahead.

Lifting economic sanctions now would not only embolden Burma's present reform-shy regime, but also greatly deleverage the ability of the West to influence future events. Changing Burma's circumstances will primarily be a function of events internal to the country, and at the hands of domestic constituencies that recognize the incentives for change. In the meantime, the rest of the world can best promote these incentives, and best allow their realization, by promising to reward the eventual emergence of the policies and institutions that underlie our own liberty and prosperity. [10]

It is very crystal clear that Sanctions means something is very wrong without which no one will take sanctions on the country, whether it is effective or not. Sanctions are symbolic and political, aimed at the junta and its cronies. It is important to remind the regime and kick the ball back to the generals' court. The point is the regime must improve its human rights records and release all political prisoners and create a conducive political environment where everyone feels that Burma is heading in the right direction. [11]

Human Rights Violations

Long before Western sanctions were imposed on Burma, if the Tatmadaw led by Ne Win had decided to reform the economy and integrate it into the global economy, he would not have had to face a nationwide uprising in 1988 and could have remained in power as a benevolent dictator like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore. Now, one can ask why did the West imposed sanctions in the first place. The answer, obviously, is its record of human rights violations —rampant human rights abuses under military rule—has been largely ignored, and must be addressed if sanctions are to be lifted. The impact of sanctions on the Burmese economy has been greatly overstated. Clearly, these sanctions are political tools aimed at censuring the regime’s poor human rights record, and not at hobbling Burma's economy. In the past decade we have seen is the generals and their cronies getting richer, thanks to the eagerness of Burma’s neighbours to extract its natural resources and invest in infrastructure with little or no benefit for Burmese people. Burma remains one of the poorest nations in the world. The regime spends the lion's share of its budget on the military, while setting aside only tiny amounts for education and health care. Lifting sanction should be considered only when the human rights situation in Burma improves. The US, the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all imposed sanctions on Burma to pressure the ruling regime to end human rights violations and move toward a genuine democratic transition. However, despite general elections held late last year and the election of a civilian president by the country's newly formed Parliament last week, few believe that the changes represent a real departure from the military-ruled past.

Critics of sanctions should be asking what the regime itself h as done to give Western countries a reason to shift their policy. Suu Kyi has been freed, but that still leaves more than 2,000 other political prisoners languishing in Burma's gulag. If the regime had any interest in getting the West to drop its sanctions, it would, at the very least, unconditionally release all of these detainees. Sanctions-bashers occasionally pay lip service to the plight of Burma's prisoners of conscience, but their real concern is clearly that they are losing investment opportunities to China and the junta's other greedy regional “partners”.

While sanctions critics often insist that an influx of foreign capital would raise Burma's standard of living, the evidence suggests otherwise. The massive flow of cash coming into the country from around Asia has done nothing to alleviate the desperate poverty of ordinary Burmese, and there's no reason to believe that Western cash would have a more beneficial impact. China, Thailand, India, Singapore and South Korea have all heavily invested in Burma's primary industries, and new opportunities are opening up in other sectors, including manufacturing. How such investment will improve lives in a country that was once one of the most developed in the region was never mentioned, Tatmadaw don't seem too concerned about most citizens' lack of access to basic health care and education. As long as this remains the case, there is no reason to believe that lifting sanctions will serve any purpose other than to enrich Western corporations and, of course, the Tatmadaw. In contradistinction to war, sanctions are widely portrayed as necessary, almost a healthy medicine to bring about change in the opponent’s policies.[12]

“Targeted sanctions serve as a warning that acts contrary to basic norms of justice and human rights cannot be committed with impunity even by authoritarian governments”. [13] It points out that financial sanctions have denied junta members and their associate’s access to the US financial system, and helped prevent the laundering of black money and the siphoning off of revenues from the sale of gas and other resources.

American Involvement

Although American power and influence in the world have declined, the world still looks to U.S. for direction. President Obama personally and the United States as a country have much to gain by moving out in front and siding with the public demand for dignity and democracy as it had done in the Arab world. This would help rebuild America's leadership and remove a lingering structural weakness in its alliances that comes from being associated with unpopular and repressive regimes. Most important, doing so would open the way to peaceful progress in the region.[14]

Given the recent developments in Burma, it is time that the Obama administration appointed a Special Representative and Policy Coordinator to the military-ruled country to ensure that US sanctions are targeted against the junta and meet their objectives. [15] The US is at risk of losing legitimacy for failing to establish a formal inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity in Burma. The regime continues to regard elections as an institution to be cynically manipulated rather than embraced, it continues to perpetrate violations of international law with impunity, and that if the UN is to be relevant to the world today, and it cannot remain idle in the face of such behaviour. The ongoing crisis in Burma puts the credibility of the UN and international humanitarian law at stake as it had has persistently ignored the General Assembly, and has continued to perpetrate violations of international humanitarian law with impunity. In addition to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, the introduction of a universal arms embargo on the regime in Burma is long overdue. Let the anti sanctions crow with their might but justice, truth and democracy should prevailed.

[1] Time Magazine 28-02-2011 p 16
[2] See the UN Records
[3] Rougheen; Simon Irrawaddy 21-12-2010 “ A Vietnam Syndrome for Burma?”
[4] ALTSEAN Burma Bulletin Feb 2011
[5] See Dr Zarni’s writings
[6] The Economic Intelligence Unit’s January 2011
[7] Read the writings of Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University,
[8] The International Herald Tribune “An Industrial Project That Could Change Myanmar,” 26-11- 2010
[9] Please refer to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index
[10] Vicary; Alison & Turnell; Sean in Macquarie University journal Burma Economic Watch
[11] Ibid
[12] Alison Vicary; Alison & Turnell;Sean in National Times 6-10-2009 Sanctions Have a Role to Play
[13] See the NLD statement
[14] George Soros Chairman of the Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Foundations,
[15] Suzanne Dimaggio[15], Asia Society’s Vice President for Global Policy Programs. Meanwhile,

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