In the end, the Lady will surely win
In the end, the Lady will surely win
W. Scott Thompson
International icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi
THERE are two questions to be asked about the dreary news from dreary Myanmar. One is whether this group of generals will bend under pressure. The other is whether the international icon, Nobel Peace Prize winner and indisputable winner of the only valid elections in a generation is tough enough to take it.
My friend Jose Almonte, Asean strategist par excellence and the former national security adviser in Manila, visited the junta several times and tried to find a window of opportunity for reform and eventual democratisation there. “No, these aren’t like generals anywhere else,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere and they’re not going to give in.”
Alas, he was proved right. They all look ridiculous, out of step with the rest of the world (except maybe to their North Korean friends). But as long as China wants their resources and their air and land space for passage to the sea, and as long as India refuses to push them to reform, why should they care?
They have presided over the step-by-step creation of a failed state, a basket case. It used to be on the make; now it’s down at the bottom of the barrel and they’re still digging. It’s in a category with Somalia and Congo, the poorest in the world.
What that means for the ordinary citizen is the loss of what most of the region takes as a right — job creation, education, medical access and lots of other amenities. The junta has blockaded themselves in a new secure capital and don’t read the International Herald Tribune, let alone the Economist.
They don’t care about international sanctions, which mainly help the poor get poorer, and they don’t care how stupid they look. Receipts from their natural resources pour right into their coffers and keep them living in high style.
I have a friend named Zarni, an American PhD who created the Free Burma Coalition and advanced the cause of democratisation in his home country for over a decade. Last year he gave up, realising international pressure was going nowhere. He now fosters a dialogue that at least might lighten the load on his countrymen and women. He estimates that the total cost of the junta’s policies has roughly equalled those of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodia — a few million, if at a slower rate of death.
But where is the Western leverage to force a transition, however gradual, to democracy? Unlike South Africa, where there was a substantial minority that wanted good relations with the outside world, in Myanmar there’s only the military — enshrined in a constitutionally superior position in the new constitution passed at the time of last year’s typhoon — and the increasingly poor peasantry.
The military is taught that soldiers are the only ones standing up for an independent Myanmar, the only force working against ethnic minority warfare and consequent national disintegration. And they are rewarded accordingly; they are the national elite living above the rest of their fellow citizens.
So what’s the solution? Nothing since the 1988 repression has worked. The military is as strongly ensconced as ever. But it is useful to consider where “engagement”, as now proposed by many activists, has worked. In Timor Leste, most of the leadership agrees that had engagement not been attempted, their country would have never won its independence; Indonesia could have just maintained its hard line.
“Engagement” hasn’t overturned the North Korean leadership, but it’s brought some relief to millions of starved peasants and opens a window at least a little bit for exchanges with the outside world; even a few exchanges of long-divided family members.
But is this enough? Zarni now makes a critical distinction between constructive and “strategic” engagement. It’s not “dialogue” with the regime; that’s a waste of time. What is needed is “strategic engagement with civil society and potentially reformist elements within the state bureaucracy and even within the military’s command structure”.
“It is this type of strategic and targeted engagement that will lead to the gradual emergence of alternative centres of power — economic, societal, intellectual, and eventually political — which will change the political regime and the state it runs.”
The idea is to see that humanitarian assistance is “put at the disposal of local communities and their allied international organisations”, and let them chip away at the controlling power of the military regime, “patiently, strategically and under the radar”.
“For aid in this context potentially serves as a counter to the callous generals’ attempt to keep people malnourished, impoverished and downtrodden. The regime doesn’t need a healthy and vibrant people, only their acquiescence, but long-term freedom struggle needs the people to remain healthy in spirit and body.”
It’s interesting to note that the Obama administration seems to be considering a shift in policy; it is ironic that about the only place in the world where the Bush administration was in sync with the rest of the world was on Myanmar, in maintaining sanctions. But, as usual, the Bush administration was wrong. The policy achieved nothing. UN and Asean emissaries came and went, achieving nothing. Usually they weren’t even allowed to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi .
Why hasn’t she been more successful? Isn’t she the perfect parallel to Nelson Mandela? Well, he had someone — eventually — to talk to: the South African president with whom he came to share a Nobel. “The Lady”, as she is somewhat derisively referred to in diplomatic circles, is sometimes not considered to have what it takes to lead her fractured country.
International pressure perhaps ensures that an “accident” doesn’t befall her, but not much more. But what’s the alternative? Icons are not warriors, but her patience and dignity in the face of overwhelming force, and now a farcical trial, will surely win in the end.
Idiot regimes just don’t last forever.
The writer was emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University