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Myanmar: Search For New Strategy

(Based on the writer’s observations during a visit to Malaysia and Thailand)

The National Convention of Myanmar, set up by its military junta for drawing up guidelines for a new Constitution for the country, is to hold its last session from July 18, 2007. The National Convention is viewed by the pro-democracy elements as a charade by the Junta to give the impression of moving forward on the road to democracy while continuing to maintain the absolute supremacy of the Armed Forces in the governance of the country.

2. The Myanmarese Army continues to view itself as the only credible upholder of national interests and national security and is not prepared to have its responsibility in these matters diluted—-either by transfering them to an elected political leadership or at least by sharing them with it, while maintaining the military’s decisive say in the matter. It does envisage eventually associating political leaders, elected under a system to be laid down by it, with the governance of the country, but under the watchful eyes of the military. Democracy in Myanmarese colours—-with the olive green predominating—is its objective.

3.Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic political leader who continues to be under house arrest with no way of communicating with her domestic followers and international supporters, does not figure in the scheme of things as envisaged by the Junta.It is prepared to accommodate her National League for Democracy (NLD), but not Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The Myanmarese Armed Forces, which have a very strong streak of anti-Americanism, look upon her as propped up by the West and particularly by the US. They see her as Washington’s Trojan Horse.

4. The efforts undertaken by the ASEAN countries and the United Nations—- separately as well as in tandem— to make the Junta more sensitive to international opinion and to associate her with the search for a democratic dispensation in the country have reached a dead-end. The Junta is adamant in its opposition to any future political role for her. It is equally adamant that the nature of the democracy that Myanmar should have and the pace of the progress on the road to democracy would be determined by Myanmar and not by outside forces.

5. The economic sanctions imposed by the Western countries and the political isolation of Myanmar in the global arena outside Asia have failed to make the Junta see reason either. The Junta is prepared to make Myanmar and its people face the consequences of the sanctions and isolation rather than succumb to the Western pressure.

6. The Junta’s ability to resist international pressure has been strengthened by the continued flow of economic and military assistance from the countries of the region as well as from China, India and Russia. China has been the most important beneficiary of the Western boycott of Myanmar. Its economic and military presence in Myanmar, already considerable, continues to increase further. While India’s too has been increasing, it is no match to China’ s.Moreover, the fact that China has resisted US pressure to vote for international sanctions against Myanmar in the UN Security Council, has added to its influence with the Junta.While India has been assisting Myanmar in various fields, it has refrained from articulating any views on the US attempts to have Myanmar isolated.

7.In the light of the dead-end confronting them, the ASEAN as well as the Western countries have started an examination of possible alternate strategies. There is a frank recognition in the ASEAN countries that they have reached the end of their influence and that there is nothing further they might be able to do. They would now like both China and India to use their clout to persuade the Junta to hasten the progress on the road to democracy. Neither China nor India seem to be inclined to take up this role. They look upon the search for a new Constitution in Myanmar as an internal matter of the country in which they would not like to meddle.

8. There has been a debate in Western diplomatic circles too on this matter. Some diplomats have started questioning the wisdom of the policy of putting all the eggs in the Aung San Suu Kyi basket.There is a realisation that the Western boycott of the Junta is only driving it more hardline in addition to indirectly helping China increase its influence and try to corner a major share of Myanmar’s oil and gas resources. The US oil companies are worried over their inability to counter the Chinese presence in this sector.

9. There is a creeping recognition that democracy in Myanmar is not for tomorrow, that the Western pressure on the Junta has started proving counter-productive and that the immediate objective of the West should have been the economic opening-up of Myanmar and a new political dispensation based on a comfortable relationship between the military and the traditional political forces of the country.

10. Some Western diplomats are also saying that instead of seeing China as a hindrance to Western objectives, the West should view China as a country, which could play a benign role in persuading the Junta to be responsive to international opinion. They refer to the US seeking the Chinese assistance for persuading North Korea—- through the mechanism of the six-party talks— to give up its military nuclear capability and say that the West should explore the possibility of making a similar use of China to break the deadlock relating to Myanmar.

11.It is interesting to note that while India figures as a possible role player— on equal terms with China— in ASEAN discussions on a possible new strategy, it does not in the Western discussions. There seems to be a reluctance in Western circles to consider associating India with any new strategy, lest it evoke negative vibrations in Beijing.

12. In the light of these developments, the time has come for Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues too to examine whether they too should look for a new strategy. It is important for her to break out of the Junta-created image of her being an American prop-up. After the military refused to recognise the results of the 1988 elections, which she and her party won overwhelmingly, she has refused to leave Myanmar and lead the life of a political exile. Instead, she chose to suffer long years of imprisonment and house arrest by the Junta in the hope that the shocked international community would force the junta to restore democracy. This has not happened.

13. By choosing to stay under detention in Myanmar, she has denied herself an opportunity of leading internationally the movement against the Junta and influencing the debate on the future of Myanmar. Would it be advisable for her to emulate the examples of Pakistani political leaders such as Altaf Hussain, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who have been trying to influence domestic and international opinion from political exile instead of staying on in Pakistan and giving the Army an opportunity to neutralise them and silence their voice? This question needs to be seriously examined by her and her advisers. (26-6-07)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Addtional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.)

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