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The Burmese Junta

Myanmar: Can the Generals Resist Change? by K Yhome;





The Burmese Junta

Vithal Rajan

he book in review authored by K Yhome, associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, is a welcome addition to any Indian library, enabling us to have a clear and concise understanding of the militarypolitical changes taking place in our e astern neighbour, for so long an unresearched entity for our policymakers. As the book points out, within its slim 170 pages, Indians seem to have woken up late to what is happening just beyond our b orders, and predictably only in response to rapidly growing Chinese influence in that country. Despite latent sinophobia there, China ditching any support for the Burmese Communist Party has become the main external support for the Burmese military regime.

The evolution of the Tatmadaw, as B urma’s armed forces are called, is tersely sketched out in three periods: from 1948 to 1962, when the widely respected prime minister U Nu gave the country a much needed period of internal stability after independence; the second period of autarchic military rule under the suspicious general Ne Win, from 1962 to 1988, when he converted the Defence Services Institute into an instrument for owning and controlling most business activity in the state with the purpose of enabling the army “to earn revenue for its sustenance”; and the present period when the military leaders have not only arrested most of the late Ne Win’s family, but consolidated their grip on the country through the socalled State Law and Order Restoration

Myanmar: Can the Generals Resist Change?

by K Yhome; Rupa & Co, Delhi, 2008; pp X + 170, Rs 395.

Council. The struggle for power within the high ranks of the army continues to this date, the senior-most general Than Shwe succeeding so far, but only just, in ousting competitors and clinging to power. As a pretended attempt at democracy, and a break with the Ne Win past, the present military called parliamentary elections in 1990, which were decisively won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s hastily assembled National League for Democracy. The military’s r esponse has been to keep her under house arrest, though she had undertaken little political activity till then, and had been nominated to lead civil opposition to m ilitary rule only on the strength of her father’s nationalist reputation against c olonial rule. Indian readers would be f orcibly reminded of the similarity of p olitico-military developments in Burma with those in Pakistan.

Novel Policy

However, the Burmese military have innovated a novel policy towards militant ethnic minorities, not yet grasped by their powerful neighbours. Though a Burmese king was supposed to have unified the country in the 11th century, he and his successors had no more than nominal suzerainty over the two dozen or so tribal m inorities who controlled almost half of the territory. The British, following their usual disintegrative policy of divide and rule, f avoured tribals for employment in the Burmese army, while the independent governments r ecruited almost only B urmans.

Disaffection has led to the destabilising presence of around 35 armed ethnic

groups at constant war with the government, which has tragically given credence to the right of the military to remain in power, retarding all democratic development. In the abortive 1990 elections, the ethnic minorities fielded 22 parties to r epresent their interests. The junta in r ecent years has been able to work out a cunning ceasefire formula with most of the large militant groups, by which they retain their arms and control over their territories, and freedom to conduct economic activities, in return for nominal a cceptance of the junta’s rule. Yhome interestingly notes that in some cases “the government forces joined their former e nemies in businesses including narcotic production, and trafficking, much to the personal financial gain of military commanders and ceasefire organisations”.

The recent monk-led crisis of August 2007 spiralled into view when the junta rashly – and most probably on the advice of the American-controlled IMF – increased fuel prices by 500 per cent by slashing subsidies. The civic riots that followed, suppressed ruthlessly by military action, has enabled the west, alarmed at Chinese influence, to castigate the regime for its human rights record, and consequently threaten economic sanctions. For good measure the west has also coupled China and India as two supporters of the non-democratic regime.

Junta in Crisis

The Burmese junta is now indeed caught between the devil of western politicoeconomic pressure and the deep blue sea

september 20, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

of being unable to survive without external investments and aid. While putting their trust in their army, increasing military personnel strength from 3,61,000 in 1996 to over 5,50,000 ten years later, the junta reversed Ne Win’s closed door p olicy, which had driven the country into e xtreme poverty and impoverished fourfifths of the population who depended on its collapsing agriculture. Though the soldiers were a privileged class, they came from peasant families, and could possibly mutiny if there was no appreciable economic improvement in the country. To d evelop the country’s vast natural r esources the junta had to open its doors to foreign direct investment. This reached a cumulative total close to $ 14 billion for approved flows by 2005.

But all is not well. Though half the country is supposed to be forested, illegal felling is fast denuding the land. Around

1.5 million cubic feet of timber valued at $ 350 million is said to have been exported to China alone in 2005. The country has a potential of 37,000 MW of hydropower, but no more than 5 per cent of this is u nder production today. Burma has 14 known oil and gas basins, which were first exploited by the British Burmah Oil Company as far back as 1887. The World Energy Council estimates that the country has a recoverable potential of 6.8 million tonnes of crude oil and natural gas, but production was no more than 0.4 million tonnes in 1999. B urma has 16 major coal deposits but only two are under commercial p roduction.

Strategic Chinese Interests

China is a major trading partner, but its interests are also strategic. It wishes to build an oil pipeline from the Burmese coast to Yunnan province to protect its west Asian oil supplies from any potential threat from the American Seventh Fleet in the South China seas. Similarly, India is working to open up once again the old second world war Stillwell Road from Assam through remote north-western Burma to southern China. Indians hope to “alleviate their security challenges

in this volatile border region, but also


greatly curb smuggling, gun-running and drug trafficking”.

For decades, the west had seen Ne Win’s policy as a way of containing Chinese communism north of Burmese borders. But in the post-cold war scenario it would like to contain Chinese commercial e xpansion by controlling the investment flows needed if the country’s natural resources are to be developed. The bewildered junta hopes to hold on to power within this competitive international t angle by reluctantly accommodating f oreign interests at discretion. None

e xcept the Burmese people may be genuinely interested in their human rights, though the west may find some political leverage by loudly regretting Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued house arrest from time to time. The rhetorical question in the title of the book might be best a nswered by the generals that they will not resist change as long as it is to their own advantage.


Economic & Political Weekly EPW september 20, 2008

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