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Myanmar: America’s Next Rogue State

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 14, 2005

    There are embryonic signs that Washington is all set to turn the heat on Myanmar next. The UN Security Council finally agreed unanimously on December 2 to a US request for a “one-off briefing” by the Secretary-General on “the deteriorating situation” in Myanmar. The US request followed the Tatmadow’s extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest and a UN Committee resolution condemning Myanmar’s human rights abuse.

    Washington raised Myanmar’s growing threat to international peace and security, citing problems caused by illicit narcotics, human rights abuses, internal repression – destroying villages, targeting minorities, and forcing people to flee the country. The US also cited the junta seeking nuclear capabilities.

    At the recent APEC meeting in Busan, President Bush pledged to help restore democracy in Myanmar, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the junta as “one of the worst regimes in the world.” In July 2003, Bush had signed the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act that banned imports from Myanmar.

    What came on the heels of the recent US assertion was a 124-page report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) revealing shocking details of the junta’s ‘brutal and systematic’ abuse of political prisoners (1,100 prisoners are still under detention). President Bush’s recent 50-minute meeting with a Shan human rights campaigner, Charm Tong, indicates the gravity with which the United States views the situation in that country. The junta’s move to a new capital, Pyinmana, triggered by its fear of a possible US attack – reinforced by the invasion of Iraq – has led to the displacement of thousands of people.

    The campaign to introduce the Myanmar issue into the agenda of the UNSC has been underway for some time. A report by Nobel laureates Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu – Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma – has had considerable impact on the world body. Their success in blocking Myanmar from taking over the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2006 seems to have also encouraged the West to push for change. The UN remains critical of Suu Kyi’s detention. But China, Russia and other Council members reject the notion that Myanmar’s situation poses a threat to international peace and security. Despite the ouster of Beijing favourite Khin Nuynt, China supports the junta, with Wen Jiabao asserting in July that China will not change its Myanmar policy “no matter how the international situation fluctuates.”

    The Bush administration’s ringing of the alarm bell about Myanmar acquiring WMD capabilities is significant. Yangon acquiring ballistic missiles and its announcement on developing a nuclear facility with Russian Minatom’s assistance since 2002 have raised many eyebrows. The project, stalled earlier due to financial reasons, seems to have been revived now. Minatom is to construct a 10 mega-watt pool-type reactor in Kyaukse near Mandalay. But an IAEA team, which visited Myanmar in 2001, expressed doubts about the country’s preparedness to maintain safety standards. There were reports suggesting that North Korea may take over the project from Russia. Moreover, Pakistani nuclear experts too have been visiting Myanmar since 2001, including a recent delegation led by Zaifullah to Pyinmana. These developments, along with the junta’s plans to acquire an additional squadron of Russian MIG-25s, have led to growing suspicions about Myanmar becoming the next problem state for America.

    The junta’s reconvening on December 5 of the National Convention (NC) to draft a new constitution as part of its 7-step Roadmap to form a “genuine and disciplined democratic system” lacks a specific time frame or itinerary; and is also vague on important details of the “transition process”. The chart (a better word than map) shows the junta effectively controlling all the procedures and processes of “democratization”. The Tatmadow wants to exercise complete control over both the road and the map. Its new law No. 5/96 severely restricts open debate, which could be enforced against those opposing the new format. The opposition remains equally steadfast on restricting the Tatmadow’s future role in politics. The ceasefire with insurgents appears fragile; more so with those still outside the legal fold and therefore seek greater protection for their rights. These factors, along with the power struggle within the junta which became intense after Khin Nyunt’s departure, could derail the NC process. The NC’s lack of credibility is another issue, as Western powers threw their weight behind the opposition. But the junta considers the recovening of the NC as a delicate juncture in the democratisation process and as such, the release of SUU KYI and Tin Oo could disrupt the process. Their release is therefore unlikely to come about until the main principles of the Constitution are ready and the way is clear for a referendum. SUU KYI’s popularity undoubtedly remains intact but some of the pro-democracy groups and ranks within NLD are not happy with her leadership style.

    The blocking of Yangon’s chairmanship has exposed ASEAN’s own credibility, and so far, neither the ASEAN engagement strategy nor the punitive sanction policy used by USA and EU has produced any positive results. A section in the US thinks that sanctions would not work against Myanmar because it is a pre-industrial state and can limp along on its own, even if placed under sanctions. There is merit in this argument because the limits and effectiveness of sanctions have been explored, both theoretically and empirically.

    Tatmadow cannot be wished away easily. But the junta’s rationalization that it exercises power to protect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity appears to be both an exaggeration and an illusion. Given the failure of the West and ASEAN to break the impasse, there is an increasing need for the UN along with China, India and Thailand to start a trilateral process under the “1+3 framework” to map out an Action Plan as a starting point for an agreed, workable (not theoretical or dogmatic) approach to breaking the vicious cycle of exaggerated expectations and ground realities. After securing the confidence of all concerned parties, the group could work out phased procedures and mechanisms to assist the reconciliation process. The group should guarantee Myanmar’s security interests. A coordinated EU, US, Japan and ASEAN approaches by way of economic measures in support of the 1+3 is necessary. Once the Action Plan is accepted, the West could lift sanctions. Meanwhile, the UN should consider mollifying Tatmadow by engaging its professional military in international peace keeping and peace building missions.

    India being Myanmar’s neighbour cannot ignore China’s changing Myanmar policy. Beijing could be making conciliatory gestures towards the opposition leader without antagonizing the junta in the belief that without the NLD’s participation the process could be long and difficult. India has quietly supported the democratic process in many neighbouring countries, including Myanmar. If we are not careful, the democratic agenda supported by India for many, many years could be usurped by China. India's interest also lies in preventing the US fomenting crisis in our strategic neighbourhood.