Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Myanmar: A fascist Disneyland


Beginning in 1993, on pragmatic considerations of trade and security interests and to contain the influence of China in Myanmar, India has reversed its policy of support to the movement for restoration of democracy in the country and established close ties with the junta. The Indian Army has been playing a prominent role in advancing the process. There is no question that if Than Shwe’s latest gambling succeeds, Myanmar will be in for greater repression and the prospects of restoration of democracy will further recede. Appointment of General Soe Win, who had masterminded the Depayin massacre, as the new Prime Minister, is the clearest indication in that direction. A troika of hawks – Than Shwe, Soe Win and Vice Senior Genera Maung Swe – has come to the top, but may not have a smooth ride.

A fascist Disneyland

Following the popular uprising in 1998 demanding democracy, the military junta in Myanmar (Burma), under international pressure, held general elections in 1990. But, though the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory, the military regime has refused to hand over power till today to the elected representatives of the people. It has used every stratagem and every deceit at its command to remain in power. The National Convention called by it to draft the country’s future Constitution was a futile exercise that was finally abandoned by the junta in 1996 on the question of the army’s role in the future government.

In the last few years, the junta has consolidated its position and gained a measure of respectability, regionally and internationally. It has successfully negotiated cease-fire with some of the major insurgent ethnic nationalities and restored a fragile peace at the peripheries of Myanmar. The Asean policy of constructive engagement has gained the country membership of the regional grouping.

Taking advantage of the limited opening up of the country’s economy, corporate bodies from the USA, Japan, Korea and EU countries have made significant investments in Myanmar, most notably in the energy sector. Thailand’s policy of “flexible engagement” has paid rich dividends to the kingdom in terms of enhanced trade.

Beginning in 1993, on pragmatic considerations of trade and security interests and to contain the influence of China in Myanmar, India has reversed its policy of support to the movement for restoration of democracy in the country and established close ties with the junta. The Indian Army has been playing a prominent role in advancing the process.

These developments have substantially reduced the pressure on the junta to make concessions to the pro-democracy movement and improve its human rights records. Last year, when Aung San Suu Kyi tried to mobilise people inside Myanmar, the army masterminded the Depayin massacre and detained Suu Kyi and hundreds of other NLD activists. International outcry against the action had forced the regime to appoint Gen. Khin Nyunt, the powerful director of the Defence Service Intelligence as the Prime Minister. Khin Nyunt announced a seven-point road map for negotiated political settlement and in May this year, reconvened the national convention, but on the insistence of Gen. Than Shwe, the hardliner junta chief, excluded the NLD from the process. But in July when the demand for transparent tripartite negotiations involving the NLD, State Peace and Solidarity Council – as the junta calls itself – and the ethnic nationalities became vociferous, the regime abruptly adjourned the convention indefinitely.

Against this backdrop, the junta chief Gen. Than Shwe – whose state visit to India commenced on Monday – staged a palace coup against his own Prime Minister and the military intelligence establishment. On 18 October, the SPDC chairman dismissed Khin Nyunt and put him under house arrest. As a part of the cleansing operation, several other ministers and senior officers in the defence intelligence hierarchy were also fired and detained. These include home minister Tin Hlaing, social welfare minister Major Gen. (Retd.) Sein Htwar, deputy chief of Defence Services Intelligence and 12 other senior officers of DDSI. Sein Lwin, Khin Nyunt’s businessman son, and his business partner Ma Win have also been detained.

The ostensible justification for the crackdown are allegations of corruption, but there is no doubt that it was a politically motivated action, reflecting a deep power struggle and fissures in the ruling junta’s senior ranks. Khin Nyunt, though no democratic angel himself, is said to have taken a relatively soft line towards the pro-democracy movement in general and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, who is red herring in Than Shwe’s scheme of things. His strong and wide-ranging influence within the armed forces and the Myanmarese society at large made him a potential threat to SPDC and its chief.

There is no question that if Than Shwe’s latest gambling succeeds, Myanmar will be in for greater repression and the prospects of restoration of democracy will further recede. Appointment of General Soe Win, who had masterminded the Depayin massacre, as the new Prime Minister, is the clearest indication in that direction. A troika of hawks – Than Shwe, Soe Win and Vice Senior Genera Maung Swe – has come to the top, but may not have a smooth ride.

Than Shwe’s action has brought out in the open the power struggle between the intelligence and the army that was brewing for some time and may result in a widening of the cracks appearing in the military regime. And questions about the junta’s legitimacy may help in breaking the studied quiescence of regional and international players over Myanmar.

Should this come to pass, it will inevitably place Indian policymakers in the South Block in quandary about the rationale of going the whole hog in courting the junta in the past decade to the total neglect of the pro-democratic forces in Myanmar, even to the point of being hostile to the Myanmarese people’s aspirations for freedom and human rights. The UPA government did not exactly cover itself with glory when it refused visa to parliamentarians of Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines to attend the recently held highly successful Second International Convention for the Restoration of Democracy (15-17 October) in New Delhi. One of the explanations given for this act of hostility was the timing of the Convention, which was considered too close to the projected state visit of the SPDC chief!

It is time the government reviewed its current “Burma policy”, one that has yielded none of its much-touted potential dividends. In bi-lateral trade, we have an adverse balance of payment. We have made no dent in the growing Chinese influence in Myanmar. The Myanmarese armed forces are either unable or unwilling to stop our North-east insurgents from using their territories across the border as safe havens and to prevent the inflow of arms and drugs into India.

Our past experience in joint counter-insurgency operations raises serious doubts about the bonafides of the junta’s intention. In 1995, in joint operation Golden Bird, the armies of the two countries encircled a mixed group of Indian insurgents carrying arms cross-country. Thirty-eight rebels were killed, more than 100 pieces of arms were seized and Ulfa foreign secretary Sasha Chaudhury was arrested, but, after 12 days the Myanmarese cooled off and mysteriously allowed the remaining 100 rebels to escape with considerable weaponry.

In November 2000, the Myanmarese army captured 192 Meiti guerrillas of Manipur including RK Meghen and Jiban Singh, UNLF and PLA chiefs respectively, but did not turn them over to the Indian authorities. After holding them for three months, the two were released in February 2001 when they paid the Western Command of the Myanmarese army a bribe of Rs 3 crore. Gen. Soe Win, Than Shwe’s new Prime Minister, was the chief of that command.

In contrast, our chaps, in an act of sheer treachery in Operation Leech, called activists of India-friendly National United Party of Arakan to the Andamans and, at the instance of the Myanmarese junta, killed six of them and imprisoned 38 others who are still in jail.

The above audit is a sad commentary on what we have achieved by befriending the treacherous military regime in Myanmar. The latest developments in Yangon should have spurred New Delhi into calling off Than Shwe’s visit. That would have partly redeemed New Delhi’s disastrously erroneous policy vis-a-vis that country. But our inept foreign policy mandarins were determined to unroll the red carpet for the dictator, thereby giving him an undeserved aura of respectability, and encouraging the junta to further tighten the screw on the hapless people of Myanmar.

The author is former Additional Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing


Statesman 26/10/2004