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Getting Nowhere? Paths toward the Restoration of Democracy in Burma

September 17, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

What We Know

After forty years of military rule, Burma remains one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. Despite the overwhelming victory by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in multi-party elections in 1990, the junta continues to monopolize rule in Burma.

The premeditated attacks and imprisonment of the NLD members and its supporters, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on May 30, 2003, by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) demonstrated the government’s unwillingness to cede power and casts doubt on the hope for a negotiated solution to the political crisis.

These events sparked broad international condemnation and have ignited strong response from Japan, the ASEAN member states, the United States, and the European Union, who have all criticized the tactics of the Burmese government, called for Suu Kyi’s release, and a return to democracy. On July 28, 2003, President Bush signed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which institutes sanctions against Burma while freezing the assets and denying visas to regime leaders, among other actions.

The May provocations demonstrate three things: 1.) Senior General Than Shwe and his hardliners have total control in Burma; 2.) the regime will use any means necessary to hold on to power; and 3.) the SPDC is fully aware that if the Burmese people were given an opportunity, they would support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The May 30th events and recent reports support point to stepped up efforts by the regime to marginalize or even eliminate the NLD. Tellingly, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, on August 30th commented that the “road map” for democracy in Burma would not include the participation of the NLD. From May 2002 to May 2003 there was a marginal expansion of political space inside Burma that had not existed for the previous twelve years—these activities have all stopped.

Additionally, while it is obvious that the socio-economic situation in the country is deteriorating, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt has publicly announced that he expects a GDP growth rate of 11.1% for 2002-2003. Others, however, estimate growth will be around three or four percent. If the economy is as strong as Khin Nyunt describes it, then U.S. sanctions do not have any impact on the regime’s economy.

Briefly addressed were the issues of HIV/AIDS, the humanitarian crisis, and ethnic tensions. With 687,000 cases in Burma, HIV/AIDS prevalence is the highest in Southeast Asia. Significant climate changes have affected agricultural productivity and lead to high levels of starvation. On the borders, and in the cities (partly do to the impact of sanctions), ethnic tensions are a problem.

What We Don’t Know

Two burning questions on the minds of Burma watchers are how unified is the regime and are the sanctions doing more harm than good.

With Suu Kyi in detention and NLD offices essentially closed, the regime appears to be firmly in control and amazingly united. There have been some reshuffling of positions, but the hardliners remain firmly in control and the other voices, where they existed before, have been silenced. With Khin Nyunt, formally head of military intelligence and now the newly-appointed Prime Minister at the helm, the hope for a moderate regime persists, though somewhat dimly.

Contrastingly, others insist that the SPDC is not as united as it appears on the surface, and recommend differentiating between the “soft-hardliners” and the “hard-hardliners.” Soft-hardliners are more open to discussion and dialogue—particularly with the NLD. They are also more open to promoting economic reforms. Khin Nyunt is a soft-hardliner, nonetheless, he will cling to power for as long as possible. Of the thirteen members of SPDC, seven are hard-hardliners.

In this environment it is next to impossible to be optimistic about change in Burma; however, the fact that two witnesses of the May 30th massacre will soon testify before the U.S. Congress signals that the underground democracy movement is alive and has the potential to thrive again.

Participants were divided on the effectiveness of sanctions in Burma. Those in favor of sanctions point to its success in affecting events within Burma. For example, soon after the signing of the Burma Democracy and Freedom Act, the regime reshuffled—the regime felt the need to reorganize and present itself differently to the international community. Whether or not this is directly tied to the sanctions is yet to be determined. Sanctions advocates also insist that sanctions are largely supported by the Burmese, especially the democratic movement. They cite the NLD’s position that sanctions empower the democracy movement inside the country providing them with real power.

Those against sanctions express concern over the impact of sanctions on Burmese society and question whether such measures can ever fundamentally change the nature of SPDC. According to this contingent, sanctions shrink the middle class, disempower working women, and weaken civil society. Sanctions affect the economy in fundamental ways—they are intentionally geared toward changing the financial structure of the sanctioned economy (particularly in terms of investment). On the whole, sanctions have an impact primarily on urbanites. Due to the linkages between the urban and the rural economy, however, they are actually much broader in scope. As a result, sanctions have direct linkages to the size and robustness of the middle class, especially in terms of access to capital.

What Are the Next Steps

Without pressure from the United States and other members of the international community, it is difficult to see how a restoration of democracy in Burma will unfold. The regime’s “roadmap” proposal does not represent a genuine commitment to democracy. Such a commitment can only begin with the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and open dialogue with the NLD and other pro-democracy groups.

Tandem to this pressure, the international community should support efforts for institution building, (e.g. labor, student, youth, and women’s groups). Also, educational exchanges and institution building ought to be considered as well. In this way, gains can be made in fostering the cultural values of democracy while the formal structures continue to evolve.

One participant urged that the international community should turn military soft-hardliners into moderates. Here, it was also argued, that sanctions strengthen the hard-hardliners and to a certain degree make the regime more unified.

The point of consensus between the contingents is that sanctions are an important tool and they do play a role in democracy promotion in Burma, but only when they are done in tandem with other efforts.

The United Nations effort should be upgraded and expanded to address humanitarian issues. The government in Yangon is not equipped, nor willing to address a pervasive humanitarian crisis. Sustainable democracy requires both a healthy economy and society.

In general, the participants agreed that there is much more that Asian countries could do to assist Burma. Thailand should ensure that the Burmese democratic movement, which has many offices on their border, is able to operate there, non-violently, peacefully, and within the framework that the Thais have allowed for the last fifteen years. Asian actors have to put continuous pressure on the regime, in particular Malaysia and Singapore, who have had close relations with both sides in the government.

The United States has been a leader on Burma policy and is watched closely by key Asian actors. The United States should work with its EU allies to strengthen the EU Burma policy—this might include import sanctions, import bans, and other types of punitive measures. The United States should work with Asian partners, particularly Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to get them to continue to speak out publicly on Burma. The United States can work through the United Nations to reengage the United Nations at a more senior level, and in a manner that increases pressure on Burma.

Finally, outlets for media still exists in Burma and United States and other states could support radio, print media, and human rights reporting. Based on the reach of newsletters (mostly produced in border countries, with a print run of 10,000 copies, and then distributed underground inside Burma), the other accessible media could also reach significant audiences. In the near future the Internet –which did not exist in Burma a year ago—could open up as another venue.

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