The Day After: Burma
A Gentler Authoritarianism?
The disarray in post-Saddam Iraq offers a sharp reminder that ridding a country of a despotic regime is a lot easier than figuring out who or what comes after. In that spirit, FOREIGN POLICY speculates on the Day After in several oppressed nations. From Fidel Castro's Cuba to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, what groups are likely to come out on top when the Big Man goes down? Which are most likely to embrace democracy and pursue economic reform? What role will each nation's diaspora have in rebuilding and reengineering its society? Sadly, almost all of our contributors note that any sudden regime change will first yield only chaos and greater hardship. But by identifying the forces most likely to shape these countries' futures, our authors also open the possibility of transcending the tragedies of the past.
The disarray in post-Saddam Iraq offers a sharp reminder that ridding a country of a despotic regime is a lot easier than figuring out who or what comes after. In that spirit, FOREIGN POLICY speculates on the Day After in several oppressed nations. From Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, what groups are likely to come out on top when the Big Man goes down? Which are most likely to embrace democracy and pursue economic reform? What role will each nation’s diaspora have in rebuilding and reengineering its society? Sadly, almost all of our contributors note that any sudden regime change will first yield only chaos and greater hardship. But by identifying the forces most likely to shape these countries’ futures, our authors also open the possibility of transcending the tragedies of the past.
For the last decade, Burma’s military junta has been locked in a grim pas de deux with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic and plucky leader of the country’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Brief periods of greater openness and freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi have alternated with repression and house arrest; the fortunes of both sides have fluctuated with the state of Burma’s economy and the attention of Burma’s neighbors and the world community. The inability of either side to gain a decisive advantage points not just to some form of power-sharing in the future but to the huge political, economic, and social changes facing a nation whose standard of living has deteriorated since a takeover by military strongman U Ne Win in 1962.
As tyrannical regimes go, Burma’s lacks the lurid despotism and military menace of, say, Kim Jong Il’s autarkic hell in North Korea. But the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC) has achieved some brutal distinctions. In 2000, Burma became the only nation to be sanctioned by the International Labour Organization for the use of forced labor. And by providing safe haven to drug traffickers, the spdc/slorc has turned Burma into a significant producer of opium and methamphetamines.
One of the world’s longest-lasting dictatorships, the regime has made itself very difficult to uproot. Since 1988, when the SLORC took power in a coup, the junta has permeated Burmese society by occupying all major governmental positions, creating a wide-ranging intelligence network, eliminating anti-regime forces, and manipulating the educational system. Students who opposed the regime in 1988 have fled to border areas or sought asylum in Western countries. Since then, university campuses have been relocated to the remote countryside, where they are more often shut down than open, with courses shortened to push students out as quickly as possible. Professionals, technocrats, and intellectuals have left Burma in search of better economic opportunities in countries such as Singapore and Thailand. Burmese farmers, who constitute about 70 percent of the population, are less likely to take up arms against the regime because of fear and the daily struggle for survival. Burma’s business class atrophied during more than two decades of socialism: Even following the introduction of more market-oriented policies in the 1990s, Burma’s most vibrant entrepreneurs are either drug dealers or merchants and investors with military patronage.
The regime has also co-opted or exhausted two other potentially powerful resistance groups: the ethnic minority groups representing about 30 to 40 percent of the population and the country’s 300,000 Buddhist monks, many of whom have led political movements since the struggle against British colonialism. One by one, ethnic groups such as the United Wa State Party, the Shan State Army, and the Kachin Independence Organization that have fought the central government since independence from Britain in 1948 have signed cease-fire agreements. Divided and weary, those groups left are in no position to take on the well-funded Burmese military, whose 500,000-strong military eats up at least 40 percent of the national budget. Politically active Buddhist monks have faced the same fate as student activists: torture, murder, and harassment.
What most worries the regime is outside pressure for human rights and democracy. Led by the United States, Western nations tightened sanctions following the junta’s assault and incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in May 2003. Current U.S. sanctions ban imports from Burma, freeze the military government’s U.S. assets, deny visas to Burmese officials, and seek to block new international assistance. Though criticized as ineffective and injurious to ordinary citizens, these restrictions have had a powerful symbolic impact. If Burma’s neighbors China and India and its fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would also apply commercial pressure — which they have so far refused to do — the generals might open a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and establish a power-sharing scheme.
The second force capable of toppling the regime is the military itself. The current military government is seen as divided between the soft-liners (General Khin Nyunt, the former head of military intelligence who recently became prime minister), who want to compromise with NLD forces and the international community, and the hard-liners (led by Senior General Than Shwe), who reject any reconciliation. However, whether these soft-liners actually exist is unclear. After all, as head of military intelligence, Nyunt oversaw the torture and disappearance of Burmese political activists. But so far, no real rift has materialized, and top military authorities have maintained a united front.
Even if the regime should fall, the military will remain a powerful force. Indeed, one group likely to play a crucial future role is the offspring of military officials who are now pursuing education in the United States, Germany, Australia, and Japan, and who enjoy educational privileges within Burma. Even as the military has closed universities and colleges, military academies and military-engineering and medical schools remain open and offer access to up-to-date technology and facilities. The harsh authoritarian practices of the military regime may well morph into soft authoritarianism under the leadership of the civilian-clothed and Western-educated scions of the country’s military rulers. And in the short term, at least, economic benefits from any loosening of sanctions or further liberalization will flow to the oligarchs now backed by the military.
Minority ethnic groups, exiled opposition leaders, and NLD members in Burma will press for greater freedom and political accommodation. And regardless of the country’s internal struggles, Burma’s neighbors will continue to advance their interests there aggressively. In particular, China’s willingness to ignore the junta’s depredations has enabled Chinese companies to capitalize on opportunities forsaken by their Western counterparts — an advantage amplified by the huge number of Chinese who live in Burma, including 200,000 of Mandalay’s one million residents.
But the military’s next move remains unpredictable — most Burma-watchers were stunned by the junta’s recent persecution of relatives of Gen. Ne Win, the dictator who ruled Burma for 25 years. The longer the military stays in power and is able to reengineer the country, however, the less likely that even the most charismatic leader will be able to achieve real influence in setting Burma’s new course.
General Than Shwe, 70
|Years in Power:||
|Experience with Democracy:||
|GDP per capita:*||
|Asylum Applications: **||
|Population Under Poverty Line :||
2.1 percent of GDP
*GDP per capita estimates in purchasing power parity
**Asylum applications submitted in 37 countries, 1980-2001
Sources: Amnesty International; Central Intelligence Agency; Migration Policy Institute; United Nations Development Programme; World Bank; The CIA World Factbook; U.N. Human Development Indicators 2003; World Development Indicators 2003
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