Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why the International Crisis Group’s Burma analyses and calls for ending sanctions cannot be taken seriously

When the European Union policy makers meet to review the EU Common Policy on Burma, they would be wise to treat the International Crisis Group's (ICG) latest report on Burma titled 'Myanmar's Post-election Landscape' with a huge grain of salt and disregard its call, in effect, for the unconditional embrace of the country's military dictatorship by lifting sanctions, normalizing aid relations and promoting trade and investment.

The problems I have found most deeply troubling with the ICG report is its failure to grasp the nature, process and record of economic development, to understand the history of political transformations of neo-totalitarian regimes the world over, and to look beyond the state and administrative structures of the emerging military apartheid.

What is most astounding for the ICG, which apparently places so much emphasis on the vital role of aid, trade and investment, is that its report shows no indication that it either understands the indispensible role political institutions play in fostering economic development, nor does it acknowledge the checkered record of development and humanitarian aid.

In his "Understanding the Process of Economic Change" (Princeton, 2005, p.57), Douglass C. North, winner of Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1993, repeated development profession's undisputed wisdom, to which the ICG report seems oblivious: "It is the polity that defines and enforces the formal economic rules of the game and therefore is the primary source of economic performance."

While devoting the first nine pages out of the 15-page document to political and administrative structures, before and after the farcical elections, the ICG's report has failed to accurately describe or analyze the fundamental and unmistakable features of the Burmese polity which has been the military's creation. It is worth repeating here what even the street vendors in Burma know - the polity in Burma is categorically kleptocratic, feudal, neo-totalitarian, corrupt to its core, unpredictable, extra-juridical, incompetent and predatory. Yet the ICG report has left readers with no clue as to what specific ways more trade, more investment, and dramatic increase in development and humanitarian aid are going to transform Burma.

There are other serious problems with the ICGs report, for instance, its extremely selective pick of sources and "evidence". Suffice it to say that it largely cites only sources whose opinions agree with the ICG's long-standing stance on Burma: normalize relations with the country's regime.

The report manages to deliberately omit or downplay the fundamental issues, for instance, the prospect of new rounds of civil wars since the first wave of ceasefires in the early 1990s; the deepening popular hatred towards the military and its despotic leadership; the pervasive sense of ethnic grievances, or the absence of any sign on the part of senior or junior generals to seek peaceful resolutions to the country's long-standing issues and address the urgent need for fundamental reforms.

Equally important is how the ICG makes the tenuous or non-existent link between western sanctions and reconciliation in Burma. Anyone who is remotely familiar with the regime's institutionalized stance on domestic conflicts and the need for peaceful resolution would be flabbergasted to see that the ICG considers western sanctions (which in part rests on the NLD's endorsement) as a key factor which "undermines the chances of reconciliation within Myanmar" (p.13).

In fact, almost a decade before the first wave of western sanctions were enacted in Brussels and Washington in 1997, successive military regimes had simply disregarded the calls for reconciliation and dialogue by Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party, as well as ethnic communities and organizations across Burma as the best and peaceful way to resolve Burma's long-standing domestic conflicts.

Worse still, the ICG disregards its own advocacy for "giving greater priority to peaceful resolution of the ethnic issue" (p.1) when it opts to highlight the minorities' "gains" within the new local administrative structures and plays up the inconsequential creation of "Self-Administered Areas" for politically and militarily insignificant ethnic groups, while choosing to omit the rising military tensions between the regime and sizeable political and armed organizations.

If the non-military controlled political arena is becoming restive, what of the new institutional structures, the virtues of which the Crisis Group has extolled as more progressive than the old One-General rule of Than Shwe? Well, it is morphing into something even scarier: from One-Man show to the One-Race-One-Faith class rule managed by ex-generals (with a sprinkle of a few irrelevant technocrats and cronies in their midst).

Without exception every member of the new cabinet identifies himself ethnically "Bama" and "Buddhist" faith-wise. This One-Race-One-Faith make-up is an ominous trend when seen against the backdrop of an extremely ethnically diverse society, which includes major ethnic groups with legitimate historical claims as ethnic co-equals in the land, and a long history of armed resistance. The ICG's decision to not inform its readership about this nefarious character of the new government is deeply troubling.
Regrettably, the ICG report shows no serious empirical understanding of the regime's power base, namely the military, and is informed largely by faulty assumptions about the military's "ruling class", its collective psyche, and the direction it is heading. That the era of the aging despot Than Shwe is coming to an end is a no brainer. But to the ears of the Burmese public, the argument that once a strong man is gone, things will surely if slowly change for the better rings hollow. Millions of Burmese who are old enough to remember General Ne Win's one-party dictatorship have heard it before.

Furthermore, the feudal and militarist psyche is not confined to the nearly-dead despots, nor will it fade with the permanent departure of the Seniors from the crime scene. This psyche is a direct result of carefully inculcated class ethos among the officer corps, from the youngest cadets to the rising stars in their 50s.

Meanwhile, the ICG trumpets the nominal inclusion of 2 technocrats and 2 regime cronies in the newly formed 30-member cabinet as a sign of significant progress. But Burma's past history has proven that in a despotic military rule, technocrats and experts serve the despot at his pleasure, not the other way around.

The ICG fails to tease out what matters to the Burmese public and what they consider consequential from the mirage of changes which the military has made. This intellectual incompetence to read the pulse of the nation is one of the cardinal failings of the ICG's reporting on Burma. It impairs the ICG's own understanding of the post-election landscape, and formulation of its advocacy work. Any serious country analysis must surely include popular sentiments, not just information about the country's socio-economic conditions and the new structures of the old military rule.By Maung Zarni research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics. The Nation, Bangkok

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