Myanmar, the place we used to call Burma, has come back into the spotlight Western governments always try and keep it away from. Much is going on here, and too, many contradictions … but why?
There is a well-known management technique called “kicking it into the long grass”. This involves committing yourself to doing something one day, but putting that action so low down the list of priorities that you never actually get round to doing it. This is often used when dealing with gender equality issues: governments commit themselves to improving domestic violence support, making it easier for women to enter professions etcetera, but often do little about these things in practice because they are only “women’s issues”, and therefore considered lower priorities than issues thought to affect the whole population.
The same principle is often used in foreign affairs. North Korea was “kicked into the long grass” for a long time by Western governments which knew perfectly well what sort of regime it had and what threat it posed, but that wasn’t all that important. Threatening Russia was a greater priority, and North Korea’s growing nuclear capacity was part of that threat, so what NK might do to everyone else wasn’t so important, as the residents of Guam and Japan are now discovering.
But in North Korea the West had a position. At least if its actions brought it out of the long grass there was a basis for developing a policy with which to resist it. Now we are witnessing what happens when you kick a country into the long grass because you are incapable of taking a position on it, and just hope it will go away for long enough to disguise your own embarrassment.
Myanmar, the place we used to call Burma, has come back into the spotlight Western governments always try and keep it away from. It has done so for the worst possible reason, from their point of view. The leading figure in the Myanmar government is Aung San Suu Kyi, the well-known human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. So following Western logic, there should no longer be any human rights problems in that country.
Yet Myanmar is still openly persecuting its Rohingya population, who form both an ethnic and relgious minority, as they are Muslims in a predominantly Buddhist state. According to Myanmar, the Rohingya are not natives but emigrated there from what is now Bangladesh, and as such they are denied citizenship and other rights. Yet they have lived in their ancestral homeland in Rakhine state for generations, and are not accepted as citizens of Bangladesh either. You can just see Aung San Suu Kyi telling the Nobel Prize Committee, “human rights are for human beings, I didn’t say anything about the Rohingya”.
This has always been the West’s problem with Myanmar. It has never known whether to approve or disapprove of it. Whenever the country does something good, this is coupled with something other countries cannot accept. When it does a bad thing, it counters any criticism by being on the right side of another argument. This is why it was kicked into the long grass: the West could never justify supporting or condemning it, so it was left largely to its own devices until the West solved that problem.
The trouble is, that problem hasn’t gone away. It was never going to, as the West failed to provide the moral leadership it is very fond of providing by invading and destroying other countries in exchange for their oil. The Rohingya are suffering because the West has never known what to do about Myanmar, and abdicated the responsibility for working it out- a fact successive Myanmar governments have exploited to the full, just as the West would do in the same circumstances.
The more things change the more they stay the same
Myanmar is there because this former British colony was granted a separate administration, separating it from British India, in 1937. Ten years later, with India having been split in two, it obviously had an even greater claim to independence than either Pakistan or the rest of India without Pakistan. However the country contains over 160 distinct ethnic groups, each of whom could also make the same claim, the usual domino effect which grants of independence designed suit the previous colonial power create.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, from whom she gained the profile which made her an international figure, negotiated the Panglong Agreement with these minority ethnic groups in 1947. In this they accepted the creation of a unified Burmese State, within the boundaries it has today. This did not prevent the British, having lost the battle in India, trying to split the opposition as usual by promising separate states to other groups, or at least that is what they say now, if anyone is listening.
The 1947 Constitution gave the new Union of Burma a federal structure. The West could not decide whether this was a good thing or not. When it led to seemingly eternal civil war, the West sometimes supported Burma and sometimes the “freedom fighters,” the ones who did not consider themselves Burmese, and claimed they were simply demanding their constitutional rights.
When the deposed Kuomintang took over the northern part of the country following Mao’s revolution in China the US continued to support their presence there, hoping this might lead to them retaking China. At the same time it supported the Burmese government against the Karen National Union and other insurgent groups who were natives of the country, had a right to be there and based their claims on the Burmese Constitution, which in some cases granted them secession within ten years if they wanted it.
In frustration at the consequences, the Burmese government began refusing international aid, and thus put itself beyond international protection. The long years of military rule, now universally condemned, began when the democratic central government proved powerless to defend the state against its own citizens, as those who could have helped it didn’t know whether they should or not.
As Burma behaved increasingly independently, having a military government made it a pariah state. This independence had been a major factor in U Thant being elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1961, just before the military takeover: what non-aligned countries couldn’t achieve by force, they might achieve by international diplomacy. This again put the West in a quandary: it couldn’t object to diplomacy, but didn’t want it standing in its way. Still it couldn’t decide what to do, still it kicked Burma into the long grass, to suffer alone, until it could.
Then the military government made things worse by doing sensible things. Though voraciously corrupt and abusive, it did do some things the West had to admit were positive. When warlord Khun Sa revived calls for the Shan States’ secession, and tried to force the central government to grant them by becoming one of the world’s leading heroin producers, the military junta refused to back down, and was supported by the international community. Eventually it let Khun Sa keep his vast wealth as long as he engaged in legitimate business, not drugs or politics, a move which had great value for the West but was resented as a bad precedent. Then it refused to extradite him, which again is what the West didn’t want.
Nothing has changed since democracy has returned. The military kleptocracy has just found it too difficult to run the country and passed the buck to civilians, whilst retaining its wealth and influence. The West hoped, as it did in the Balkans, that if the one person it unequivocally supported, Aung San Suu Kyi, took over that would make everything alright. Now it is being forced to confront its own incompetence and duplicity, and is doing so with great embarrassment, knowing that every step it takes in either direction only makes this incompetence more obvious.
Adding up to a line of zeros
The Rohingya are Muslims. They have also been fighting their own civil war against the local ethnic Burmese and the central government, whether or not the government started it. There are several reasons why this conflict exists, but Western diplomats now insist that it is religious in nature, and is about whether this minority should be able to practice its faith.
So the logical next step should be to declare the Rohingya “Muslim terrorists”and openly support the Myanmar government against them. This isn’t happening, but it was the same West which gave Aung San Suu Kyi her Nobel Peace Prize and erected her as the saviour of her country. If she is wrong in relation to the Rohingya, what are the “Western values” she is supposed to be introducing to Myanmar worth? We aren’t hearing answers, because the West wants Myanmar back in the long grass it is now growing especially for this purpose.
It would be credible to say that the violations and forcible displacements of the Rohingya population are all still the fault of the military, not the Nobel Prize winner. It was the military which demanded strong central government, and took over the country to achieve it. But if Aung San Suu Kyi is really a hostage of the military, what has been achieved? Does this mean that the same West which didn’t know what position to take on the Myanmar military government still doesn’t, fifty years after it first gained power?
The military governments, whether direct or through dummy political parties, pursued what they called the Burmese Path to Socialism. This was analogous to what the US sent so many troops to Vietnam to stop, but failed to, as throughout South East Asia. Khun Sa gave the West many opportunities to destroy that government by offering his heroin to the US and Australia in exchange for infrastructure, medical aid and political support. These offers were rejected because no one wanted to pay people to stop being criminals. But who controls the drug smuggling routes now, and partners with armed criminals to do it?
Since Ronald Reagan the US has pushed for free markets, deregulation and greater enterprise as they keys to democracy and freedom. Not only the drug lords but many ordinary Myanmar citizens probably agreed with this policy, as they found all kinds of ways of circumventing the command and control economy introduced by the socialist military.
But as that government refused to legalise a number of economic operations which are perfectly legal in the West, this created a completely deregulated black market, in which producer rather than consumer was king. This was not what opposing socialism was supposed to do, so it wasn’t supported. Then the military government took over the black market itself, making it part of the official economy, thus creating the situation the West wanted whilst remaining a pariah. Now democracy has been allowed to return providing the military control the economy. Does the West want this or not? Surely it should have worked all these things out by now?
Backhanded and front loaded
Aung San Suu Kyi is refusing the UN entry to the areas affected by the latest violence. At the same time, India wants to establish greater contact with Myanmar to pursue its own goals. In order to develop its own northeastern region it needs access to the sea, and Myanmar can provide that. In return, India is both deporting Rohingya on its territory and treating the Myanmar government’s actions as part of a counter-terrorism offensive, even though Hindus are also affected.
The West will not openly oppose India. But the fly in the ointment here is China. Beijing is supporting Yangon’s attempts to keep the UN out of the conflict zones. In a diplomatic conflict between the UN and China, will the West be prepared to allow China to win?
It is therefore likely that Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Yangon of 4th September was an attempt to try and bolster the Western position in Myanmar without actually working out what that is. If China does win, and the UN observers aren’t allowed in, what then? Myanmar is already turning away aid ships to try and starve the Rohingya out, so if the UN observers aren’t allowed in either China will have defied the international community through Myanmar, and got away with it. But if a Nobel Peace Prize winner is the one doing this Western values and positionings are seen to have failed, so cannot be used to restore that order.
India has once again been handed a means of having its cake and eating it. Myanmar has always done that because no one wanted to draw attention to the fact. Now it is openly flaunting how it got to this position. At present, the only Western response has been to run away and hide in a corner.
Mark Jordan, the long serving international affairs reporter, has worked for a number of different news organisations. He has been trying to rouse interest in Myanmar since before the military government changed its name, but has continually lamented that organisations which call him a “senior reporter” will not let him do this.
As he has pointed out, Myanmar is hardly un-newsworthy, as it is full of war, corruption, drugs and machinations by the greater powers around it. But the more you report on it, the more you expose the fact that the world’s self-appointed moral policemen have no idea what they think about it, when everyone is supposed to believe that their international affairs positions are the only ones which decent, right thinking people can have.
That exposure is what Western governments are concerned about now, not what happens to the Rohingya – and this itself simply magnifies the hole into which we are all being led by hypocrisy no one would ever vote for.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.