BANGKOK – Myanmar is winning more foreign friends while international criticism of the current and previous government’s abysmal human rights records has all but ceased. Old adversaries in the United States and European Union have scrapped – or are planning to scrap – economic sanctions against the regime, and big-time multinational companies are preparing to lunge into what many seems to believe is Asia’s last investment frontier.
A nearly unanimous Western world has heaped praise on President Thein Sein’s supposed moves towards “democratic reform” and “national reconciliation”. But what has actually changed and what’s behind the hype?
In near unison, the international community condemned the Myanmar regime for its brutal repression of Buddhist monk-led pro-democracy protests in 2007, its initial callous response to the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008 – when a widely condemned sham referendum on a new constitution was held in the killer storm’s wake – and a blatantly rigged general election swept by military-backed candidates in November 2010.
One theory goes that the administration is locked in a power struggle between military “hardliners” and “reformers”, and that the latter, at least for now, have the upper hand. Several Western countries have apparently taken the policy decision that every effort should therefore be made to support the “reformers” and recent reform signals to ensure that Myanmar doesn’t return to its old repressive ways.
The EU and US have expressed public views to that effect. On January 31, EU president Herman Van Rompuy said in a statement after a summit in Brussels: “I welcome the important changes taking place in Burma/Myanmar and encourage its government to maintain its determination to continue on the path of reform.” The US State Department said the day before that it was “encouraged ” by Myanmar’s recent reforms, “including its decision to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run in upcoming elections”.
Others, however, suspect that the signs emerging from Myanmar’s leadership reflects a well-orchestrated “good cop, bad-cop” routine to neutralize domestic opposition and win new foreign allies, especially among former critics in the West. Either way, Thein Sein’s regime has so far skillfully played its cards in a way that few, probably even among themselves, could have foreseen. “Those in power are military men, not representatives of a democratic government. This is how they work,” says a Myanmar national who has followed political developments for decades.
Well laid plans
In order to understand Myanmar’s policy shift – and why the West has been so supportive – it is instructive to look back to the early 2000s. Then condemned and pressured by the international community, the ruling military junta announced in August 2003 a seven-step “Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy.” That plan called for the drafting of a new constitution, general elections, and convention of a new parliament which would “elect state leaders” charged with building “a modern, developed and democratic nation”.
The “roadmap” was made public, but at the same time a confidential “master plan” which outlined ways and means to deal with both the international community, especially the US, and domestic opposition was also drawn up. The authors of that plan are not known but an internal military document written by Lt. Col Aung Kyaw Hla, who is identified as a researcher at the country’s prestigious Defense Services Academy, was completed and circulated in 2004.
The Burmese-language document, received and reviewed by this writer, outlines the thinking and strategy behind the master plan. It is, however, unclear whether “Aung Kyaw Hla” is a particular person, or a codename used by a military think-tank. Anecdotal evidence suggests the latter.
Entitled “A Study of Myanmar-US Relations”, the main thesis of the 346-page dossier is that Myanmar’s recent reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created a “national emergency” which threatens the country’s independence.
According to the dossier, Myanmar must normalize relations with the West after implementing the roadmap and electing a government so that the regime can deal with the outside world on more acceptable terms. Evidently the internal thinking was that normalization with the West would not be possible as long as Myanmar was ruled by military juntas.
Aung Kyaw Hla goes on to argue in the master plan that although human rights are a concern in the West, the US would be willing to modify its policy to suit “strategic interests”. Although the author does not specify those interests, it is clear from the thesis that he is thinking of common ground with the US vis-a-vis China. The author cites Vietnam and Indonesia under former dictator Suharto as examples of US foreign policy flexibility in weighing strategic interests against democratization.
If bilateral relations with the US were improved, the master plan suggests, Myanmar would also get access to badly needed funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions. The country would then emerge from “regionalism”, where it currently depends on the goodwill and trade of its immediate neighbors, including China, and enter a new era of “globalization”.
The master plan is acutely aware of the problems that must be addressed before Myanmar can lessen its reliance on China and become a trusted partner with the West. The main issue at the time of writing was the detention of pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi, who Aung Kyaw Hla wrote was a key “focal point”: “Whenever she is under detention pressure increases, but when she is not, there is less pressure.” While the report implies Suu Kyi’s release would improve ties with the West, the plan’s ultimate aim – which it spells out clearly – is to “crush” the opposition.
At the same time, the dossier identifies individuals, mostly Western academics, known for their opposition to the West’s sanctions policy, and somewhat curiously suggests that “friendly” Indian diplomats could be helpful in providing background information about influential US congressmen.
The dossier concludes that the regime cannot compete with the media and non-governmental organizations run by Myanmar exiles, but if US politicians and lawmakers were invited to visit the country they could help to sway international opinion in the regime’s favor. Over the years, many Americans have visited Myanmar and often left less critical of the regime than they were previously. In the end, it seems that Myanmar has successfully managed to engage the US rather than vice versa.
Aung Kaw Hla’s internal thesis is the first clear sign of dissatisfaction with the regime’s close ties with China, which, in part, were forged because the West downgraded its relations with Myanmar after massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 and other gross human-rights violations. More signs of a worsening relationship could be discerned in internal reports that began to circulate within the military in 2010.
China, until then praised as a dependable ally, was beginning to be viewed increasingly as the root of Myanmar’s many ills, from the rape of the country’s forests to rampant drug trafficking. China’s close ties with the United Wa State Army, Myanmar’s main drug-trafficking militia, has not go unnoticed by the authorities in Naypyidaw. Then, in September 2011, came Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the China-backed US$3.6 billion joint-venture Myitsone dam project in the far north of the country.
Seen from a US perspective, encouraging Myanmar to move away from China became a priority when Naypyidaw showed that it was willing to engage with the US. Washington was also eager to undermine Myanmar’s disturbing military ties with North Korea. Not surprisingly, North Korea was high on the agenda when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar last December.
The last of several recorded attempts to ship weaponry from North Korea to Myanmar took place in May and June 2011, several months after the supposedly “reformist” Thein Sein became president and after government officials had claimed that there was no military cooperation with North Korea.
On May 26, the USS McCampbell caught up with M/V Light, a Myanmar-bound North Korean cargo vessel suspected of carrying missile parts and possibly other military equipment. The US destroyer approached the ship and asked to board but the North Koreans refused. The first encounter took place in the sea south of Shanghai and a few days later closer to Singapore. The M/V Light eventually stopped and turned back to its home port in North Korea – all the way tracked by US surveillance planes and satellites.
After that incident – and incentives from the US such as easing restrictions on Naypyidaw’s access to multilateral lending institutions – there has been no known attempt by North Korea to ship weapons to Myanmar. And the US is no doubt taking full advantage of Myanmar’s drift away from China. “What the US is trying to do is to send every signal of support to the forces pushing for liberalization in Burma,” said Robert Fitts, a former US diplomat in the region now attached to Thailand’s Chulalongkorn university.
The US will soon send a new ambassador to Myanmar, representing an upgrade of diplomatic relations. On February 7, the New York Times quoted US officials as saying that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), David Petraeus, may visit Myanmar later this year. The CIA is not exactly known for being a leading proponent and promoter of liberal values in the developing world; the agency has other priorities such as Myanmar’s strategic importance to the US.
But therein lies a danger, which Aung Kyaw Hla outlined in his thesis of more than seven years ago. If Myanmar does manage to improve bilateral relations with the US, China could counteract in a way that threatens Myanmar’s integrity and independence. A balanced approach is therefore needed, Aung Kyaw Hla argued, but it was not set out in the master plan how that balance may be achieved.
There are other reasons to doubt that Myanmar’s new policies will work over the long term. While the international community appears to fall for the latest incarnation of the regime’s well-worn good cop, bad cop routine, local and exiled mainstream opposition groups are less likely to be so gullible.
One of the supposed “good cops” in Myanmar’s current nominally civilian leadership is former Maj Gen Aung Min, currently the railway minister, who has been tasked with shuttling back and forth between Myanmar and Thailand to meet with influential exiled dissidents. Some of those who have recently met him are deeply suspicious of his motives and the less conciliatory signals sent from the regime’s “bad cops”.
They note that Aung Min once served under Tin U, Myanmar’s powerful intelligence chief until he was ousted in 1983, ostensibly for corrupt practices but more likely because he had built up a state within a state that threatened the leadership of former junta leader Gen Ne Win.
Writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1983, British journalist Rodney Tasker characterized Tin U and his intelligence colleagues as “men of the world compared with other more short-sighted, dogmatic figures in the Burmese [Myanmar] leadership. They were allowed to travel abroad, talk freely to foreigners and generally look behind the rigid confines of the current regime.”
But they were also known to be ruthless and extremely skilled at manipulating their enemies and adversaries. Tin U himself was trained by the CIA on the US-held Pacific island of Saipan in 1957. Aung Min somehow survived the 1983 purge and moved to join Myanmar’s Infantry Battalion 21 in 1992. He was with the 66th Light Infantry Division in 2000, was elevated to Southern Commander of the Myanmar Army in 2001, and became railway minister in 2003 under the previous military junta led by Gen Than Shwe.
In today’s context, solving the long-burning ethnic issue will be key to realizing the master plan’s ultimate vision of keeping the military in power. One of the supposed “bad cops” in the current power configuration is Aung Thaung, another peace negotiator, who met ethnic Kachin rebel leaders in Ruili in southwestern China earlier this year. A former heavy industry minister, he is believed by many to have been one of the architects behind a 2003 mob attack on Suu Kyi and her colleagues in Depayin that left scores of her supporters dead and wounded. “The good cop” Aung Min did not attend the talks in Ruili but some analysts suggest may later step in to “rescue” the talks with a softer approach.
Whether Myanmar’s many rebellious ethnic minorities will accept these well-known personalities and well-worn negotiating tactics remains to be seen. The fact that the government has consistently refused to even consider a federal structure does not bode well for reaching lasting agreements with armed groups. The 2008 constitution lays down the fundamentals for a centralized state structure where the military is a main, if not dominant, player.
Thus the recent euphoria over recent “reforms” in Myanmar may therefore be short-lived. Unless the present constitution is scrapped or widely amended, which is extremely unlikely due to the military’s de facto veto power in parliament, Myanmar’s ethnic issue will likely remain unsolved. And if the country becomes an arena of competition between the US and China, there will certainly be more trouble ahead – as Aung Kyaw Hla warned in his master plan now being put into practice.