Myanmar: The Brawl in Burma


David I Steinberg

In what can only be described as a vicious incident on 30 May involving a military inspired and likely instigated attack by opponents of Aung San Suu Kyi on her National League for Democracy (NLD) entourage as they were touring in central Burma, the military government has set back whatever modest progress may have been made toward reconciliation with the NLD. And even further it has damaged its international relations and reputation at considerable economic and political cost to the military State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The NLD motor vehicle entourage was set upon by members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a military organized and dominated mass mobilization organization. Deaths numbered from four (the official figure) to 70 (the opposition figure), but whatever the number, the military must bear responsibility for the tragedy. The opposition claimed that Aung San Suu Kyi was personally attacked and injured, but this was later denied by the government. UN Special Ambassador Tun Sri Razali Ismail, the first foreigner to see her after this incident, reported that she was well.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now under detention in some unspecified place, and the whole tenuous and halting effort at dialogue, that was built up over two years and was moving toward some kind of amelioration of the political quagmire in which the country had been stuck, has collapsed. Internally, the situation is now much worse than it has been in several years.

Externally, there has been similar deterioration. Except from China, which has issued no public statement, there has been virtual universal condemnation of the situation. In an unprecedented move, key ASEAN members have criticized Myanmar. Japan has cut off its developmental assistance projects. Australia has suspended its human rights training program, the European Union has further banned travel, and the US has extended its ban on US travel by high military officials and their families to include senior USDA members. It is planning to freeze Burmese assets and remittances, and to increase sanctions on Burma (amounting to some US$456 million in imports in 2001). Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky and the Republican Party whip) has been a leading advocate of this approach, even proposing that the Burmese ambassador be withdrawn (there is no US ambassador in Yangon – the embassy is led by a chargé ï ãffaires), which would be a serious blow to rational contact between the two states.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that compromise, always exceedingly difficult, seems even more unlikely. Although no solution seems probable in the near future, additional sanctions and repeated cries by the US to honour the results of the May 1990 elections, which were won by the NLD, are unlikely to be effective. Some in the Bush administration, although appalled by events and sceptical of sanctions, recognize that Burma is low on the Asian policy priorities of the administration, and thus no effort will be made to oppose the Congressional initiatives even if they believe that these actions will have no efficacious outcome.

The quagmire deepens and the tragedy continues. Burmese reliance on China becomes even more important (and any influence that the US might have with China will be used on the North Korean problem, not Burmese issues). On 6 October 2003, Burma was scheduled to take over the chair of ASEAN, an event that would cause profound embarrassment to that group if Aung San Suu Kyi had not been released. Pressures to free her are likely to increase.

The belief among the military that Burma can once again ignore the world, as it did in the past, is now fantasy because of demographic changes, economic mismanagement, technological advances in communications, and globalization. At some point, those influential members of the Burmese administration must recognize that their present policies represent a dead end that will result in the military’s inability both to maintain its stature in Burmese society, and achieve its goal of national unity. The people continue to suffer.

WATCHPOINT: Will the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that is the ASEAN trademark be any more successful in persuading the Burmese regime to accede to international pressure?


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