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The military digs in for the long haul

Carrots and sticks have failed to persuade the government to introduce democracy. That's unlikely to change soon. The military has grown used to its power and privileges, and it fears retribution for years of abuses if it hands over power to civilians.

By Bertil Lintner/CHIANG MAI

FOR WELL OVER A DECADE, the world has been calling on Burma's military dictatorship to hand over power to the civilians who won the country's last general election in 1990. For years, the generals have responded with promises of democratic progress and then done nothing despite protests at home, pleas from their neighbours, condemnation by the international community and sanctions from the United States and the European Union.


  • The military fears losing its many privileges
  • The military fears a total loss of political power
  • The military fears retribution for rights abuses
  • However, the military is emboldened by a divided international approach

Neither carrots nor sticks have worked and the military seems more firmly entrenched in power today than at any time since it first seized power in 1962. Not even the crumbling economy seems to threaten its grip on power.

Many in the international community, especially the United States and its European allies, continue to be baffled by the generals. In late July the United States imposed sanctions--including a complete ban on Burmese imports--that the generals could have avoided simply by releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from more than four months of detention and initiating a dialogue with her National League for Democracy (NLD). But, instead, they decided to dig in.

Neighbours in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations are embarrassed by fellow-member Burma's cavalier behaviour as they try to boost ties with the West. They also worry that Asean's image will be tainted if there has been no progress by the time Burma takes over chairmanship of the regional grouping in 2005.

What's behind the intransigence of the Rangoon junta in the face of such pressure? It's clearly largely a matter of self-preservation, but the generals must also be emboldened by the lack of a united international approach to Burma.

"The regime still feels very insecure and vulnerable to a range of external and internal threats," says a Western former diplomat who has served in Burma. "This, together with pure self-interest and an apparent conviction that they alone can run the country, seems to persuade them that they simply cannot afford to let go of power."

The military has become used to power and privilege. Its members give orders and expect them to be obeyed. Enemies must be defeated, while retreat would be tactical only. Joseph Silverstein, a Burma expert at Rutgers University in the U.S., has described it as a "turtle mentality"--whenever they are under attack from the international community, they withdraw into their shells and wait for the danger to pass before sticking their heads out to see if it's safe.

Changing of the Guard

Was it a promotion, a demotion or just more smoke and mirrors? More than three weeks after Gen. Khin Nyunt was appointed Burma's prime minister on August 27, analysts are still trying to figure out the significance of the move. Proponents of the promotion theory say that Khin Nyunt is more pragmatic than his fellow officers and so Burma is more likely to move forward with him in charge of day-to-day affairs. They point to his August 30 "road map" to democracy as evidence of his more enlightened approach.

Those who believe he was demoted argue that the premiership is a largely ceremonial post and that Khin Nyunt therefore has been sidelined. But the most likely explanation for the change, according to diplomats, is that it was a simple rotation of duties. They also add that Burma's ruling officers may have acted in the belief that Khin Nyunt is regarded as more acceptable to the outside world than the country's top leader--Gen. Than Shwe.

When Gen. Maung Aye, vice-chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, visited Beijing on August 22, Chinese President Hu Jintao said he believed the Burmese government "will make the situation in the country develop in a positive and constructive direction." Analysts say this could be seen as an appeal to the regime to make itself more presentable to the outside world. Days later Khin Nyunt was made premier. But it seems that the change had been planned for weeks. When former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited Burma in April, Than Shwe even referred to Khin Nyunt as "my prime minister."

Well-informed political observers in Rangoon, meanwhile, reject speculation about rifts within the military leadership as wishful thinking: "There is definitely a plurality of views, but when it comes down to it, they follow the leader, even if they grumble quietly with trusted colleagues. After all, it's an army," says one.

Whether he has been promoted or not, Burma's new premier will likely face his first big test at the October 7-8 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bali. In August, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda urged Burma to release detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi before the meeting. That's unlikely to happen, so Khin Nyunt will be forced to defend his government's stand before Asean.

Moreover, after 40 years in power, the Burmese military has also created a state within the state for its 400,000 servicemen and their dependents--altogether an estimated 2 million people. There are special schools and hospitals for army personnel and their families, who live in subsidized housing and can buy goods which are not available in ordinary stores. An army pass assures the holder of a seat in a crowded train or an overbooked flight, and a policeman would never dare to stop a serviceman for violating traffic rules.

Democracy would deprive the ruling elite of these privileges and it would also promise retribution. "They think that if they don't hang together, they'll hang separately," says a political analyst who worked in Burma in the 1990s.

They have reason to be fearful after overseeing decades of persecution and human-rights abuses against the Burmese people. The Burmese military is accused by rights groups of a litany of crimes ranging from murder, torture and theft to rape and drug trafficking.

The government denies all these charges, but the fear of retribution is so strong that senior NLD official Kyi Maung was arrested when he told a regional magazine after the 1990 general election that "here in Burma we do not need any Nuremberg-style tribunal." The very mention of the town where Germany's Nazi leaders were put on trial after World War II inspired fear among the generals at a time when they were about to quash the movement toward democracy.

The military also seems to have been emboldened by the divided international approach toward Burma. The U.S. and its European allies have taken a tough line toward the junta ever since the NLD was prevented from taking power after winning the 1990 election by a landslide. Their position has toughened since Suu Kyi was once more placed under arrest in May. The government claims she is under protective custody after a clash between her supporters and a pro-government mob in northern Burma. Western diplomats say she and her supporters were the target of an unprovoked attack that the government did nothing to prevent.

Conversely, China says Suu Kyi's detention is a domestic matter for the Burmese to sort out. Beijing, keen to open up a trade route to the Indian Ocean through Burma, has emphasized economic and military cooperation. And Burma's other neighbours have also tried to avoid confrontation, arguing that isolating the military government would not lead to any concessions. Asean's other nine members have pursued a policy of "constructive engagement" in a vain bid to break the deadlock.

This has encouraged Burma's defiance, analysts believe, and led the military government to believe that it can survive without the West's dollars if necessary. In August, Gen. Maung Aye, vice-chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, travelled to Beijing to ask China to help Burma out. The government believes that increased border trade with China and Thailand will help make up the loss caused by the U.S. sanctions. "But this is hardly realistic," says the Western former diplomat. "Burma stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income from garment exports to the United States. Cross-border trade with Burma's neighbours can never be a significant source of income." Burma's exports to the U.S. in 2002--mostly garments--were worth $356 million, according to official figures.

The generals, probably trying to keep the door open to the West, keep insisting that they are committed to democracy, but on their own terms and at their own pace. After a major cabinet reshuffle in late August, Burma's new prime minister, intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt, announced a new seven-point "road map to democracy."

While the announcement was welcomed by Thailand, which had earlier put forward its own road map for Burma, many analysts dismiss Khin Nyunt's proposals as a rehash of earlier promises by the generals and note that he has given no timetable for implementation.

Moreover, the first step, according to Khin Nyunt, would not be the release of Suu Kyi and dialogue with the opposition. It would be the reconvening of a discredited "national convention" that began drafting a new constitution in 1993, but which was eventually boycotted by the opposition in 1995. Burma's government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, dismissed it in a press release on August 31 as "nothing more than a political ploy" to legitimize military rule. Khin Nyunt's road map may therefore be a nonstarter.

A more realistic proposal was put forward during a meeting in Thailand of ethnic minority groups in early September. It called for convening a congress for national unity, gathering parties that won seats in the 1990 election, members of the military and representatives of ethnic minorities. After two years they would form a government of national unity with a political role for the military.

Thailand-based Western diplomats welcomed this "Chiang Mai declaration" as a reasonable solution to Burma's perennial problems. But the junta is unlikely to be interested in such a compromise, and hopes of change from within look remote.

"I see little prospect of a significant split in the Tatmadaw [Burmese military]," says the Western former diplomat. "Despite all the tension, the things that hold them together are still greater than the things that divide them."

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, September 25, 2003

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