Last updated: October 10, 2007 3:32 pm

Can Burma take the democracy road?

Drew Thompson Burma Q&A

Burma’s brutal crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests sparked worldwide condemnation and fuelled calls from some for wider economic sanctions. But others argue although engagement may prolong the military junta’s rule, it is the best way to help the people of Burma and to create change.

Crucial for whichever approach to work is China, which exercises strong political, economic and military influence over Burma. Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Center in Washington DC, argues that the handling of the Burma crisis highlights a competition between China and India for regional power and resources, while western influences are weakening.

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Should the world engage or isolate Burma? What role should Burma’s big neighbours and the west play? Mr Thompson answers your questions.

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I read your recent articles on Burma with keen interest. One of my concerns over Burma is long-term - what fills the power vacuum if the efforts to overthrow the current government succeed? Anarchy or at least sustained chaos is a real threat. The country would require hand-holding for at least 10-20 years before the political infrastructure is established and the people understand the meaning of a democratic social contract. You touched on the need of such sustained international attention. Would you have any specific suggestions?
Thiri Thant Mon, London

At this point, it appears unlikely that the military government in Burma will be overthrown by domestic protesters or political opposition in the near future. The army and police responded to the peaceful protests forcefully, killing an undetermined number of demonstrators, detaining thousands of monks and protestors and eventually restoring order to the major cities.

In the aftermath of the protests, the UN sent a special envoy, the former Nigerian Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Gambari to Burma to meet with both the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Subsequently, the junta has appointed a general to act as liaison with Ms Suu Kyi, creating hope that a dialogue might be possible. The Burmese generals have been under pressure from the UN, as well as China, to begin the process of “national reconciliation” and start a dialogue between the NLD and the generals.

One can argue that the basic “democratic social contract” is understood by the people of Burma who elected the NLD to a majority of parliament seats in a 1990 election, the results of which were not recognised by the military.

The first step towards improving the situation in Burma must be the unconditional release of Aun San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the start of a sustained and substantive dialogue between her and the junta. The international community can play a positive role by supporting this dialogue and encouraging reconciliation and the gradual transition to a civilian government.

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India and China are both exercising political, economic and military influence over Burma for their interest. China is the father of Burma’s military junta but India is supplying arms, military equipments and setting up radar station, navy base and air force base in Arakan state of Burma. It is very shameful for the world’s largest democratic country. How do you think about Indian government’s role in Burma? Do you think these neighbouring countries should support the western democratic countries’ action on Burma?
Soe Win, Sweden

Any international response to the political crisis in Burma that does not include India and China is not likely to succeed. Both China and India have significant economic, as well as strategic interests which the US, EU and ASEAN countries will have to recognise if a multilateral solution is to be found. China and India have several key concerns about Burma which supersedes interests about what form of government is in power. Burma sits squarely between China and India and shares borders with both. Both countries want to ensure that they have influence in the region, and that Burma specifically, and South East Asia generally, does not fall under the influence of a hostile power. China is most concerned that unrest in Burma is contained and does not migrate north and foster unrest within China. Secondly, China seeks entrée to Burmese markets for Chinese machinery and consumer products and access to raw materials, such as timber. Access to the Burmese market is an important factor in China’s “develop the West” program which seeks to develop the economies of western provinces, such as Yunnan, which have generally lagged behind eastern ones.

Both China and India are apprehensive about their own energy security and dependence on imported oil and natural gas. Both countries eye Burma’s off-shore natural gas deposits and are reluctant to alienate the junta for fear the other country would benefit at their expense. Chinese and Indian support for the junta should not be misconstrued as ideological support for military dictatorships. Both countries want good relations with a business-friendly and politically stable neighbour, regardless of whether it is a military or civilian-led government.

Despite being the world’s largest democracy, India has pursued a pragmatic strategy and been reluctant to export “democracy” or pressure Burma over human rights issues. While there has been little pressure placed on India by the US, Indian officials have faced difficult questions when travelling in Asia, including Asia’s other major democracy, Indonesia.

India and China can play a role working in concert with other nations to promote a long-term resolution to the political crisis. The process of “national reconciliation” and the “road to democracy” will undoubtedly be long and tortuous. It would be naive to believe that the opposition National League for Democracy and generals can sit down and work out a grand compromise in a reasonable period of time. Neither side recognises the legitimacy of the other, and there is little common ground between the two that has been identified thus far. The international community can play a role by influencing the pace, process and tenor of the talks. For example, the UN special envoy can follow up on his “shuttle diplomacy” efforts by ensuring that Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta’s newly appointed liaison actually meet. A further step could be the formation of a multilateral dialogue mechanism that entices the NLD and the generals to the table at regular intervals. Such a mechanism could include the UN envoy, joined by an ASEAN as well as Indian, Chinese and Japanese envoys. The US should consider appointing an envoy and participating in this process as well. If this council of envoys set a regular schedule of meetings and helped moderate the discussion, progress towards reconciliation might be possible.

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How has the Chinese government and Chinese citizens viewed the unrest in Burma? What do they think the Chinese government should do?
FT.com

The Chinese government has viewed the situation in Burma with great concern, not only because of their economic interests, but also because of the potential ramifications of political and social unrest spilling across the border into China. While China has been quick to point out that the situation in Burma does not pose an international security threat, the situation does have political parallels in China. Next week, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party will meet for their party congress, a major political meeting held every five years to determine the retirement and promotion of the senior-most cadres. Ensuring domestic stability during this period is the number one concern of the government, which has been reflected in tightened controls on the media and increased surveillance and “supervision” of dissidents. This crackdown on dissidents and suppression of negative news during the party congress period occurred during the previous congress in 2002, which resulted in the disastrous cover-up and subsequent breakout of the SARS epidemic.

There has been limited and carefully managed coverage of the events in Burma in the Chinese government-controlled press. Much of the coverage has reflected the Burmese government’s official view of the events, as well as China’s official response, such as State Counselor Tang Jiaxuan’s meeting with the Burmese foreign minister in September, in which the Chinese government pressured the Burmese to act with restraint in dealing with the uprising. Interestingly, the Chinese press have quoted senior officials including the premier mentioning the need to address “democracy,” including encouraging the Burmese to “push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country”.

The Chinese government is particularly concerned about its own religious groups, including Buddhist monks, and also Christian and Muslim groups playing an unproductive role in politics. Burma’s 1988 uprising was led by students, a group that China has effectively de-politicised following the 1989 unrest in China. That said, globalisation and the IT revolution have brought images and reporting of the Burma uprising to China through the internet. Chinese bloggers have commented on the events and some have drawn parallels between authoritarian governments in Burma and China and highlighted the need to speed up political reforms. At the Communist Party meetings being held next week in Beijing, political democratisation is on the agenda, though the pace of reforms might not meet the expectations of many bloggers.

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I think there should be two approaches by the west: support the people in Burma by buying their produce and street protests by anti-war and humanitarian groups. What do you think of this approach?
Constance Blackwell, London

Enlarging international trade with Burma could potentially contribute to the reduction of poverty in the country, which is a significant cause of widespread discontent. One could expect a more open economy and steady economic growth to lead to the development and expansion of a middle class in Burma, which theoretically support political liberalisation. However, there are significant concerns that engaging in commerce with Burma at this point only supports the regime because of its control of the economy. Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a complete boycott, including calling on tourists not to visit the country. Isolating and supporting business interests that are not associated with the junta is very difficult, particularly at scale. The challenge is even greater because much of Burma’s trade is resource based, and extractives industries are controlled by the government. Doing business with Burma poses a dilemma so long as the government maintains control of key sectors of the economy.

International protests have taken place in Asia, Europe and the US in response to the August and September uprising. Unfortunately, while these protests do raise awareness abroad, they have done little to affect the political or economic situation within Burma. International non-governmental organisations can consider expanding their role in addressing the crisis in Burma, both by influencing the foreign policies of key countries and also by contributing to social and economic development within Burma. There are opportunities to improve the living conditions of Burmese people and help corporations investing and doing business in Burma operate in a socially responsible fashion. There are examples of companies supporting impoverished communities, such as contributing to education and healthcare infrastructure. There are also internationally-funded aid efforts that support agriculture, public health, nutrition, sanitation and other relief work. While civil society in Burma is underdeveloped, international NGOs can partner with companies and seek to support local organisations and communities to address the social and economic problems, which would then contribute to overall development.

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While China has rightfully been the target of international outrage because of their complicity in the brutal crackdown on Burmese protests, the US has been given a free pass by the western media which has chosen to highlight the rhetorical condemnations of the Burmese junta while ignoring the fact that US sanctions actually grandfathered in existing operations, notably those of Unocal, which are now owned by Chevron. How can we engage a serious debate on isolating or engaging this brutal regime when the fact that one of its major lifelines can be traced back to the US is still being obscured?
Matthew Smith, Seattle

As you correctly point out, US companies invested in Burma prior to the 1997 sanctions are not required to divest their investments. Economic sanctions have little hope of success if they are not consistently applied by major economies against the target regime. In the example of Burma, forcing Chevron to sell its investments in Burma would achieve little in terms of changing the junta’s behaviour and most likely only harm Chevron’s shareholders. Complete divestiture would also not materially enhance US moral standing globally nor increase US influence with the junta.

Without an international consensus to financially and politically isolate Burma, an engagement strategy seems to be the best way the US can protect its own interests, promote democracy in the region, and also respect the interests of regional friends and allies. While engaging the brutal military dictatorship in Burma might be distasteful, sanctions have been ineffective in fostering either regime change or political liberalisation. In the interim, the US should continue to support the UN special envoy, and encourage China, India, Japan and ASEAN to pressure the parties in Burma to continue dialogue.

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My question really is: what’s next? What do you think should be the next step of the international community as a whole?
Jacinta

The dialogue what has been tentatively initiated between Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD with the junta presents a potential opportunity for the international community. While the political differences between the NLD and the junta are still significant, establishing and sustaining a dialogue is the first step. However, in order to achieve meaningful outcome, namely the transition to a pluralistic civilian government, ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Shan must also be brought into a dialogue process, which will undoubtedly complicate matters.

Expanding and sustaining a multi-party dialogue and any political transition will require substantial international support and commitment. Once a rudimentary consensus is reached which includes a role for the military and civilian authorities, financial and technical support will be needed to rebuild the economy, establish a functioning legal system and ease the transition to rules-based system. The junta has recently completed a national convention to establish a new constitution which the US State Department referred to as a “sham” and will likely have to be revised to make it acceptable to various parties. In addition to the US, EU, ASEAN, Japan, China and India, the UN, World Bank and Asian Development Bank could also play a meaningful role in supporting a reconciliation and transition process to a future civilian government.

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Look at China’s track record of supporting human rights. And in light of that, can China be counted on for intervention led by humanitarian, rather than politico-economic, motivations?
Milo, New York

China’s approach to “human rights” is not consistent with western nations. Their approach to international relations places great emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. China’s long-standing approach to foreign policy has remained consistent since the 1950s despite significant changes in international systems, such as the pace and impact of globalisation, growth in global trade and the information revolution. In the case of Burma, it is unlikely China will directly or overtly intervene in the political process based on concerns over “human rights” abuses. However, China has encouraged the ruling generals to open a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and engage in a reconciliation process.

The Chinese government is not inherently against international humanitarian efforts. China has mounted humanitarian responses to natural disasters in other countries, such as the 2005 tsunami disaster. China is also a contributor of peacekeeping troops and civilian police to several United Nations missions around the world, though critics have pointed out that China has contributed peacekeeping troops to missions in countries that recognise Taiwan in an effort to sway those governments into recognising “one China.”

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Economical sanctions have been implemented over Burma for several years, but there are no visible signs that the Burmese military junta was weakened by those trade restrictions. What would be your suggestion for a more effective approach by the west to Burma?
Alexandre Ferraz, Sao Paulo, Brazil

The US has implemented sanctions against Burma since 1997, and they have had little visible effect in weakening the junta. Conversely, other nations have attempted to engage Burma politically in an effort to promote political change. Burma was admitted to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, in a strategy known as “constructive engagement”, though that strategy has not achieved the objective of promoting a more moderate and pluralistic political system in Burma.

The US and EU can play a more positive role in Burma by reconsidering their current policies that isolate the junta. The lifting of previously applied sanctions can be a significant carrot offered in recognition of measurable political achievements. The US and EU can also have greater influence in the political process in Burma by appointing high-level envoys that can engage the junta as well as NLD leadership, encouraging dialogue and compromise between the two parties. Additionally, western countries can work with ASEAN countries, as well as China, Japan and India to establish a mechanism (like the six party talks that address the North Korean nuclear issue) to coordinate strategies and help create an international “united front” that recognises the various international interests in Burma, such as Indian and Chinese investments and need for energy security.

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Do you think that the export of colonised democracy (when newly established governmental regime is dependent on the foreign military or financial support) or even economic sanctions against any country is an optimal solution of problem? Can such a solution bring benefits to the people of any nation with undemocratic government? Please give us some real life examples.
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine

Burma achieved independence in 1948 and is currently not militarily or financially dependent on any other nation. Some analysts have argued that Burma is a “satellite” of China, but there is no evidence to support this assertion. Undoubtedly, the relationship is asymmetrical, but it is an exaggeration to claim that Burma is a dependency of either India or China. Others have pointed to military cooperation between China and Burma as an example of a security relationship, including claims that China has leased naval bases and radar installations on Burmese territory. Recently, however, international academics have claimed that some assessments of Chinese military cooperation with Burma were faulty. The Indian military reportedly denied the existence of one project, a radar installation leased to China on Burma’s Cocos Island, strategically located in the Indian Ocean close to India’s Andaman Islands. A lack of transparency leads to extensive speculation about the depth of the China-Burma military relationship, and while other reports of intelligence sharing and weapons sales might be accurate, the relationship should probably be viewed as a card that China can play in its attempts to increase its leverage and ensure its interests. Underlying its strategic independence, Burma has maintained solid military to military relations with India, purchasing equipment and hardware from the Indian government.

Economically, Burma is not dependent on any one country either. Their largest trading partner is Thailand, with China a close second. India, Singapore, Thailand all have significant trading relationships with Burma, which reduces its reliance on any one partner. Addressing the situation in Burma therefore is not the “responsibility” of one country, nor does any one country have the capacity to affect change in the country. A concerted multinational effort involving major developed nations and regional partners to engage Burma is the best possible strategy to bring about a political solution.

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Background

Drew Thompson is the Director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington, DC. He was Assistant Director to the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He was the founder of a Washington, DC company that manufactured snack food and pet food in China. Below are some of his recent articles on Burma.

The world must respond to Burma
Washington’s Weakening Influence: Sino-Indian Competition over Burma

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