Vol. 32 No. 16 · 19 August 2010

Playing the World for Fools

Joshua Kurlantzick writes about the upcoming election in Burma

2444 words

The Rangoon headquarters of the National League for Democracy, Burma’s main opposition group and the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, isn’t very impressive. In front of the simple squat structure, a fading red sign tells visitors – and military intelligence, always lurking – where they are. Inside, men in their seventies and eighties, dressed in the traditional longyi sarong, sit on plastic chairs around chipped tables, sorting wads of the nearly worthless currency to give to colleagues in jail. Younger supporters flip through glossy magazines full of photos of celebrities.

In the autumn Burma will have its first national election in two decades, but the NLD will not be participating. It won decisively in the last elections, held in 1990, but wasn’t allowed to take office. Burma’s ruling junta is promoting the election as a step towards what it calls ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’: the military’s anointed parties are likely to dominate, and the army has barred Suu Kyi herself from taking part because of her conviction last year for breaking the terms of her house arrest. When the election was announced, her party faced a difficult choice: should it take this opportunity to show that it remains a powerful political force? Or should it make a stand against elections already rigged by the junta? When I travelled to the Thai-Burmese border in February to talk to Burmese analysts, I found a sharp divide. Many frustrated younger exiles wanted a chance to vote; other, older exiles thought the opposition should boycott the election. The NLD itself was split internally on the matter; then, in late March, it announced that it would boycott the poll. The United States announced that it understood and respected the decision, and blamed the junta for forcing Suu Kyi’s hand. ‘Sadly, the Burmese regime has squandered the opportunity for national reconciliation,’ Gordon Brown said.

In central Burma unrest seems to be building. Although Burma is swarming with informers, the junta has often seemed incapable of anticipating trouble. It appeared to have little warning of 2007’s Saffron Revolution, in which tens of thousands of monks descended on Rangoon to protest; and before the 1990 election it foolishly assumed that the pro-regime National Unity Party would sweep the poll. (The National Unity Party took ten seats, compared to the NLD’s 392.) This time round, safeguards have been put in place – election laws have been passed that favour the regime’s approved parties, Suu Kyi has been barred, 25 per cent of seats in parliament have been set aside for military representatives – but the junta would do well not to be too confident.

For the last two decades, the Western powers have responded to the junta’s repression with sanctions, visa bans and other punitive measures. The obvious moral clarity of Suu Kyi’s struggle, and the absence of significant American business interests in the country, have allowed Washington to take a more forceful stand on human rights in Burma than in the case of China or Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the international community’s attention, Burma receives less than one-tenth the aid, per capita, of neighbouring Laos, another brutal dictatorship. And the Burmese junta, unlike the military regimes that used to rule Thailand and Taiwan, has been singularly incompetent at managing the country’s development: once considered among the brightest prospects in Asia, Burma has a per capita GDP of around $400, compared to around $4000 in Thailand. Electricity now works for a few hours a day at most in Rangoon, and at night the city hums with diesel-powered generators. Smaller banknotes are worth so little that merchants offer tiny packets of shampoo or instant coffee as change instead. Many residents of Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities can’t afford to maintain their houses, and sleep on pavements, in alleys, or by the railway tracks. In the Irrawaddy Delta of southern Burma, devastated two years ago by Cyclone Nargis, millions of people still live without food or drinkable water; many are slowly starving to death.

The Burmese army, which in the early days of its rule enjoyed popular respect for providing a degree of stability, is now almost universally reviled. The junta’s human rights abuses are well known: a Harvard Law School study documents, among other crimes against humanity, the ‘systematic’ and ‘widespread’ use of forced labour, torture, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers. By building a parallel social welfare system for themselves, with separate schools and hospitals, the armed forces have ensured that they are isolated from the rest of the population. In 2005, the junta even moved the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a purpose-built city of broad, empty boulevards in the middle of the country – now the only place in central Burma with reliable electricity. Nearly every Burmese I know – apart from the wealthiest businessmen and the most committed activists – relies on relatives in the military for medicine, rice and cooking oil.

Foreign sanctions failed to change the junta’s behaviour – in the crackdown that followed the Saffron Revolution, Suu Kyi’s house arrest was extended – and the international community has now shifted course. After an internal policy review, the Obama administration has decided to engage with the junta. The assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, met senior representatives of the junta in May, and last autumn Obama himself took part in a regional summit at which Burmese leaders were present. ‘We are saying to the junta that we are open to dealing with them, no matter what’s happened in the past,’ an official said. The EU and Australia have both pledged to increase aid to Burma. Few American officials admit as much, but this new policy reflects a desire to prevent China from expanding its influence in mainland South-East Asia – especially since Burma has some of the richest deposits of oil and gas in the region. With the US absent, and unburdened by human rights concerns, China has over the past five years come to dominate aid, trade and investment, particularly in northern Burma. In the next two years, it will begin importing some 12 billion cubic metres of Burmese gas annually through a new pipeline; US sanctions still bar American oil companies from making new investments. When I visited Mandalay, I found that Chinese migrants from neighbouring Yunnan province totally dominated the central business district: the electronics markets, the flashy new shopping malls and even many of the smaller vegetable and fruit stalls – cheap Chinese produce undercuts that grown in Burma.

But the West, and even Burma’s near neighbours, too often dismiss the regime of Than Shwe, a xenophobic 77-year-old with little education, as stupid, superstitious or even crazy. (In a widely circulated video of his daughter’s wedding, he resembles Jabba the Hutt as one person after another approaches his family, lavishing gifts on them and marvelling at the diamonds hanging round his daughter’s neck.) In fact, the regime has played the outside world for fools. In the mid-1990s the junta, starved for investment after the 1990 election, appeared open to political reform and more engagement with the international community; it let Suu Kyi leave her home and joined the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Foreign companies jumped in, building hotels in Rangoon and fighting over access to oil and gas deposits. But as the economy stabilised, the junta cracked down, putting Suu Kyi under house arrest again and nationalising many foreign investments. In the early 2000s, the junta pulled the same trick. It allowed Suu Kyi to tour the country, welcomed UN officials and promised a new ‘roadmap to democracy’; diplomats I met in Rangoon at the time said it was the most optimistic moment in decades, and Western aid organisations geared up to provide new assistance. The regime then used its détente with the West as leverage to gain concessions from China. With Suu Kyi drawing ever larger crowds, regime thugs attacked her on a country road, killing at least 70 people, and then put her back under house arrest.

The junta now appears to realise that it must end direct military rule and wield power from behind the scenes. According to Sean Turnell, a Burma expert, the country appears to be following the trajectory of Indonesia, where the military played a dual role under the Suharto dictatorship, dominating security and politics. But when Suharto fell in 1998, and Indonesia rapidly moved to democracy, civilian politicians stripped the armed forces of their political role and their vast web of businesses. ‘They’ve learned from the Indonesian example, and they are not going to let that happen to them,’ Turnell says. What they seem to be doing instead is taking power away from the larger military apparatus and concentrating it among a small group of officers and their families. The junta has embarked on what seem to be radical economic reforms, privatising many state assets, including a large stake in the national airline and the ports, a strategy designed to ensure that these assets fall into the hands of businessmen close to the top junta leaders: the result will be a class of oligarchs similar to Russia’s. The outside world meanwhile seems to be banking on engagement leading to reform; but if it doesn’t, the Obama administration has no back-up plan, or none that one can see. Chinese diplomats, worried that the junta is courting the US to reduce its dependence on Beijing, seem increasingly willing to give Burma whatever it wants: Wen Jiabao recently made a state visit even though Beijing has usually been wary of sending senior officials to Burma for fear of bad press internationally.

The junta’s decisions could provoke dangerous levels of dissent in the army. The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few senior officers, while the lower ranks are increasingly forced to live off the land, is apparently causing resentment among junior officers and enlisted men, who number nearly half a million. There have also been reports of protests by soldiers over low wages and food rations, which is unprecedented, while as the election approaches the leadership is forcing officers to step down and against their will go into politics. Intensely paranoid, Than Shwe has already had his main rival, the former military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, arrested; and he himself reportedly moves from house to house each night, never sleeping twice in the same place.

Most worrying is the disaster looming in northern and eastern Burma, where at least a dozen armed groups, representing different ethnic minorities, have waged war for decades against the regime, which is dominated by ethnic Burmans. In recent years, the regime had negotiated a series of ceasefires with the insurgents, which provided a measure of autonomy to the minorities and allowed for a fragile peace. But now the junta seems to have decided to reassert its control, and is pushing the ethnic armies to join a government-controlled border guard, which would essentially put them under direct rule of the regime. Most have refused, and in August last year the regime apparently decided to make an example of one of the smallest groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, comprised of ethnic Kokang. Soldiers marched into the Kokang region, killing as many as 40 people, and tens of thousands of refugees fled to neighbouring China, enraging Beijing: ‘We could not believe that they ignored our advice, and just went ahead with the offensive,’ a Chinese official told me.

The offensive did defeat the Kokang, but the other ethnic minority armies will not give in as easily; some of them have tens of thousands of heavily armed fighters, and have promised to unite against the military. The United Wa State Army is one of the largest and most heavily armed narcotrafficking organisations in the world. Any offensive that dragged in the Wa rebels, who have a reputation as fearsome fighters, could lead to civil war. The group has close ties to China: its leaders are ethnic Chinese and were trained in China. In recent months, they have begun to refer to their organisation as a ‘government’, not exactly a sign they are planning to meet the junta’s demands. As these ethnic groups gear up to resist a military offensive, they have boosted drug production (the UWSA dominates the market in methamphetamines as well as heroin) in order to get cash to buy more heavy weaponry. The displacement of the population in this area is contributing to the spread of Aids, exacerbated by the army’s widespread use of rape to terrorise women from minority groups. Burma, whose healthcare system is ranked by the UN as second worst in the world after Sierra Leone, is facing what is generally considered the most serious Aids epidemic in Asia.

Over the past five years the junta has demonstrated an interest in setting up a nuclear programme – a nuclear weapon, of course, would mean the junta didn’t need to fear foreign intervention – and any instability in the country creates the possibility that nuclear technology could be bought or stolen by outside groups. Though Burma and North Korea cut off diplomatic relations after Pyongyang allegedly masterminded an assassination attempt against South Korean leaders visiting Rangoon in 1983, their armies have now re-established ties. A comprehensive report released earlier this year by the Institute for Science and International Security revealed the construction of potential nuclear facilities and importing of dual-use technology, including magnometers and machine tools associated with nuclear programmes. Last year a ship from North Korea headed for Burma returned to Pyongyang after American vessels cut it off; a shadowy North Korean trading company with ties to Burma was also implicated in attempts to transfer nuclear weapons technology to Syria.

It is not impossible that, when the election comes, the junta will allow a relatively free vote, as it did in 1990. It has said votes will be counted at polling stations, making fraud more difficult, and representatives of each candidate will be able to monitor the count. The junta may have decided to allow such open counting because it wants to persuade as many opposition supporters as possible to vote: mass participation would make the NLD’s boycott look ineffective and out of touch. The junta’s strategy may be working – for now.

But raising Burmese citizens’ expectations about the election could be a mistake. Frustration among the Burmese is much greater now than it was in 1990. In 1990, though the military held power, the Berlin Wall had just fallen, the Tiananmen protests had shaken China, and many Burmese were optimistic about their country’s political future, even after the military refused to allow parliament to sit following the election; today, the mood is bleak.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010

In his article on Burma, Joshua Kurlantzick, like so many others, throws up his hands when faced with the country’s brutal regime (LRB, 19 August). He also makes several errors. Human development reports on the situation in the Irrawaddy Delta, including the recent, highly critical UN Development Programme report, do not substantiate his claim that many are starving there. He overstates the power of the few ethnic armies remaining: at most 60,000 troops dot the country, in contrast to the half-million in the SPDC’s army. He relays the old hope that the military will crack as a result of internal pressure, but then writes about the stabilising force of its patronage networks. Finally, Kurlantzick claims that the regime used ‘its détente with the West as leverage to gain concessions from China’. This détente never existed: Khin Nyunt was deposed because he believed that the West would end sanctions in exchange for Suu Kyi’s release; the West changed nothing, Khin Nyunt was removed.

Kurlantzick presents Burma’s political system as coming close to collapsing under its contradictions; he drills home the point by writing that ‘the junta would do well not to be too confident.’ Yet he simultaneously asserts that the regime is playing everyone for fools. Which is it? Perhaps neither. We can better understand Burmese politics by recognising that power in this society is bound up with its contradictions. The regime is both powerful and out of touch; it has established a sophisticated patronage scheme which is the only conduit for social mobility, but it has also been unwilling to deliver services to the people; it has crushed political opposition, but has been incapable of indoctrinating the population with its propaganda. There are significant cleavages between the despotic state and grassroots society, and those have allowed civil society groups to emerge and deliver social services. It is possible that activists might be able to use the upcoming election to politicise the pacified civil society, for instance by pinning the absence of services on failures of governance. Turning the prosaic struggle to survive in Burma into an active political matter could spur on its population to demand accountability for the health, education and welfare failures that the military has perpetuated. This might lead to a gradual amelioration, with the state responding to the people’s demands in order to maintain stability.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman
Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Joshua Kurlantzick writes: Elliott Prasse-Freeman seems to be out of touch with developments in Burma. Not only are some of the ethnic minority armies still powerful, but the junta has recently upped the stakes, issuing them with an ultimatum – not for the first time – to join its border guard. The most powerful ethnic army, the United Wa State Army, has refused – also not for the first time – and remains one of the most powerful non-state armed groups in South-East Asia. Groups like the UWSA are often better trained than the Burmese military, and are fighting for what they consider to be their land – a powerful motivator.

Prasse-Freeman doesn’t seem to understand my use of the term ‘détente’. I didn’t mean to suggest that Burma and the West had engaged in some kind of high-level 1970s style diplomacy, but to note that there had been a period of slightly decreased tension, for which Khin Nyunt was indeed punished. Numerous Chinese officials have expressed the fear that closer relations between the West and Burma would lessen China’s influence, and the Burmese regime clearly uses that leverage against Beijing. To suggest that Burma’s relations with the West do not concern China is absurd.

I don’t deny that it is possible for small-scale change to come out of the election. But it’s just as likely that the poll will lead to greater desperation and atomised violence, as has already been seen throughout 2010.

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences